13 June 2013

We cannot do this on our own

10th Week OT (Th) 
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP 
St. Dominic Church, NOLA 

Our Holy Father caused a bit of a stir a few days ago when he reportedly told a group of visiting religious that some traditionalist Catholics tend toward the Pelagian heresy, while some progressive Catholics tend toward the heresy of Gnosticism. Just yesterday, we learned that we don't really know what he said, or even if he said anything at all. Regardless, just the report that the Holy Father may have mentioned these two heresies has been enough to reignite interest in both of these ancient yet enduring theological oddities. Very briefly, Gnosticism is the idea that we are saved by the acquisition of specific, secret knowledge—salvation by knowing. Pelagianism is the idea that, despite the Fall, we are still capable of choosing good over evil without God's help—salvation by works. When Jesus tells the disciples that their righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees, he's admitting that the Pharisee are righteous and that some part of being righteousness is about obeying the Law. However, to be a follower of Christ is to be surpassingly righteous, to excel in being something more than just a Law-abiding Christian. What is that Something More that we must master? And how do we begin to acquire it? 

The 5th century British monk, Pelagius, denied that Adam and Eve's disobedience tainted human nature with Original Sin. Beyond setting a bad example, the Fall had no real spiritual consequences, no lasting effect on whether or not we to be choose good or evil. Had Pelagius' views won the day instead of Augustine's, we would all be functional pagans with the Church's blessing. How so? Basically, ancient pagans believed that the gods directly interacted with mortals only rarely and usually by invitation only.* Sacrifices were performed not only to assuage divine anger but also to keep the gods from nosing around in one's business. Pelagius' views on the effects of the Fall leave Christians pretty much among their pagan neighbors as de facto pagans themselves: striving to be good while avoiding the notice of God, calling upon His help only when things become dire. Now, this particular idea—God only needs to make an appearance when I need Him—is indeed both ancient and new. How many of us are functional pagans when it comes to our daily interactions with the Divine? How many of us believe that righteousness is a state we ourselves work for by being Good Boys and Girls? 

Jesus wants the disciples (and us) to be Good Boys and Girls, but he wants our righteousness to surpass the merely Pelagian righteousness of the Law-abiding Pharisees. “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment. . .” Jesus seems to saying here that anger is spiritually equivalent to murder. No. He's saying that both anger and murder will see us liable to judgment. Under the Law, only murder gets you in trouble. Under the New Covenant, anger—the motive for murder—can hurt you as well. In other words, contra Pelagius, it's not just our deeds that cause us spiritual damage, or grant us benefit. How we think, feel, and choose our deeds goes into the equation as well. If this is true, then we must look to God's grace constantly. Not just when we think we need Him, but every moment of every day, we must persistent in calling upon the Lord for His divine assistance, asking to receive from Him every good gift He has to give us. We can nothing good without Him, so the only way for us to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees is to turn our heart and minds toward Him; repent our sins, and take in His mercy with thanksgiving. We are not functional pagans. We cannot do this on our own. 

*I realize that the relationship btw ancient pagans and their gods was far more complicated than this, but generally speaking, what I've said here is true.

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