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Ramiro Pellitero Iglesias, Professor of Theology, University of Navarra, Spain School

God First

Mon, 07 May 2018 10:49:00 +0000 Posted in Church and New Evangelization

Among us we usually say "God willing" and also "thank God". A way of speaking that shows our Christian roots. In other places like Mexico and Central American countries we say: I will do this or that "God first"; or I achieved this "God first". This gave me food for thought as I was reviewing the second chapter of Francis' exhortation Gaudete et exsultate on holiness.

There the Pope points out "two subtle enemies of holiness", relying on his previous preaching and on the letter Placuit Deo, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (22-II-2018): current Gnosticism and Pelagianism. They are - Francis affirms - two forms of anthropocentrism, disguised as Catholic truth.

It is not a new topic in Francis' pontificate. It also reflects the teachings of his predecessor. Already in some spiritual exercises that Joseph Ratzinger preached in 1986 (and later published as a book with the degree scroll "Looking to Christ") he referred to Pelagianism in a double modality: "bourgeois Pelagianism" of those who pretend not to need God, and "Pelagianism of the pious" who cultivate a false prayer lacking in humility and who would be, the latter, represented by the Pharisees of the Gospel. Three years later, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the letter Orationis formas, in which it warned of the risk of confusing Christian prayer with some methods of transcendental meditation, and alluded to the Gnostics of the first centuries.

In June 2013, Andrea Tornielli picked up on two concerns that Francis expressed in a dialogue with Latin American religious: Pelagianism associated with a "hyper-activism" that counts little on God; and Gnosticism, especially in its pantheistic form, particularly present in some trends such as New Age) of those who would like to replace prayer with a spiritual bath in the cosmos.

However, it is striking that both the Placuit Deo and the exhortation of Pope Francis insist, as subtle "enemies of holiness," on these two ancient errors: Gnosticism and Pelagianism. One might think, moreover, that they affect few Christians today. Especially when compared to the great challenges that rationalism has left us: materialism and practical atheism or secularism, individualism and relativism, and even nihilism, all of which are characteristic and dominant in our Western culture.

First, the ideologies I have just mentioned are so widespread today that they are hardly specific to Christians: in the proper sense, it would have to be said that a materialist, an individualist or relativist, and even more so a nihilist, is not, by definition, a Christian, or at least does not think and live as a Christian; he often does not recognize himself as a Christian. However, this is not the case with many Christians affected by the current forms of Gnosticism and Pelagianism.

First of all, it would be appropriate to underline once again the Pope's expression, anthropocentric immanentism, which, one might think, serves to indicate what is common to all these errors, both those that have arisen in recent centuries and those that go back to ancient times. Man becomes closed and centered on himself, denying himself any authentic openness to God and to others.

But with the two "subtle enemies" that Francis points out there is also something specific. In the first place, they are "deceptive proposals" because in them anthropocentric immanentism is presented "disguised as Catholic truth" (GE 35). Specifically, insofar as, according to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, they "deform the confession of faith in Christ, the one and universal Savior" (Letter Placuit Deo, n. 4). In this sense they affect Catholics more specifically.

Secondly, these two errors do not lead people to oppose the Christian faith and life; rather, these Christians are often unaware of their problem, remain within the Church and act within it with good intentions.  

In relation to this, it is interesting what Massimo Borghesi (author of a book on the thought of Francis) says in an interview in Páginas Digital, about these errors in relation to the internal worldliness or "spiritual worldliness". With this expression De Lubac referred to what is practically presented as the antithesis of worldliness that seeks above all power, having and pleasure, at the level of the subject and the sensible. The internal worldliness or spiritual worldliness reacts with detachment or rejection of the former; but continues, like the former, to seek as the only goal , in the words of Borghesi, "man and his perfection, instead of the glory of the Lord". For this reason "the worldliness of the spirit is a radically anthropocentric attitude".

At summary: in this perspective, today's Gnosticism and Pelagianism could be considered as current expressions of spiritual worldliness, and could be explained as reactions against that other worldliness of the so-called modern world.

As if that were not enough, this Italian philosopher understands that both Gnosticism and Pelagianism, by denying - or at least neglecting - the priority of grace, behave as "mental vestments that impede the missionary dimension of the Church" and favor clericalism.

In the case of Gnosticism, it is an intellectualist deformation of Christianity, which places salvation in an elevated knowledge to which few would reach. It is an elitist option, at its root, of salvation. Already in Evangelii Gaudium, current Gnosticism is characterized as a closure of the subject in the "immanence of his own reason or feelings" (EG, 94).

This, which may seem harsh and distant to ordinary mortals, can nevertheless be hinted at if the philosophical or theological quest is confused with an attempt at perfectionist explanation, to the point of arriving at a "cold, hard logic that seeks to dominate everything" (GS 39).

In this sense, Borghesi points out, Gnosticism is a close relative of idealism, which has had its versions in all times: reality is confused with a mental outline , and one ends up choosing the latter. For Borghesi, this is what the followers of traditionalism, who judge everything that comes from the Second Vatican Council to be decadent, participate in, while they find it difficult to ask for forgiveness.

On the other hand, it is also interesting to note how, at purpose of Gnosticism, the Pope writes that Christian doctrine "is not a closed system, devoid of dynamics capable of generating questioning, doubts and doubts" (GE 44).

Indeed, when we say in theology that there is a "systematics" of Christian thought, we are not referring to a closed system, but to an organic articulation of everything that lives. The Christian faith belongs to the Christian life and is, like it, something necessarily ordered, but not in the sense of a hermetic and impassable wall, but on the contrary: a body open, as is every living system, to dialogue and interaction with the environment: a dialogue and interaction that not only "support" each other but are necessary precisely in order to live.

Quoting St. John Chrysostom, a recent document of the International Theological Commission on Synodality refers no longer to the doctrinal truths of Christianity, but to the Church itself as a choir, a harmonious reality where everything is sustained (system), because all those who compose it, through their reciprocal and ordered relationships, converge in love and in the same sentiment.

This is the origin of the "systematics" of Christian thought, which has a dynamic that is ready to question and to allow itself to be questioned by reality, and above all by people.

In fact, Francis points out, "the questions of our people, their anxieties, their fights, their dreams, their struggles, their concerns, have a hermeneutical value that we cannot ignore if we want to take seriously the principle of incarnation. Their questions help us to question ourselves, their questioning questions us" (GE 44). And this indeed depends on the principle of incarnation.

As for Pelagianism, it is that interpretation of holiness that sees salvation in one's own efforts and not in grace. But holiness, as Benedict XVI liked to say, is a "letting oneself be done" by God. Francis has put it in equivalent words: "allowing the Lord to write our history", through docility to the Holy Spirit.

Neo-Pelagianism manifests itself as a Christianity obsessed with norms and precepts, which has lost the "captivating simplicity" (GE 58) of its beginnings, and therefore its flavor and evangelizing capacity. A Christianity that does not liberate, but rather enslaves, oppresses and suffocates. This is why it is necessary to recognize it in order to eradicate it, and thus help the Christian to live with the freedom of spirit of the children of God and make it possible for the light of Christ to reach everyone.

Borghesi is right in saying that grace cannot be taken for granted. Christians cannot transmit "the idea that everything is possible with the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, omnipotent, to which grace is added". In the end, he concludes, "the lack of a sincere, painful and prayerful recognition of our limits is what prevents grace from acting better in us, since it leaves it no room to provoke that possible good that is integrated in a sincere and real path of growth".

As St. Paul teaches and as the Council of Orange (6th century) declared, grace always comes first. In the expression of Francis, "God puts man first", takes the initiative and assumes - except for sin - all that is human: with his dignity and strength, but also with his fragility and weakness. Moreover, he identifies himself with the weak, as Jesus preaches in the Beatitudes and in the parable of the Last Judgment (cf. Mt 25).

That is why the "God First" of our Latin American brothers and sisters is a profound truth.