26 January 2022, The Tablet

Pope Francis criticises 'modern' Pelagianism

Pelagius was a fifth-century British theologian who taught that man can strive for salvation by his own efforts.

Pope Francis criticises 'modern' Pelagianism

Francis was critical of rigidity that he described as “idolatry” and a “modern Pelagianism”.
CNS photo/Paul Haring

Pope Francis called rigidity a modern heresy at a Mass in Rome last Sunday, as he instituted eight men and women into the ministry of catechist for the first time, and eight others into the ministry of lector. His homily was critical of opponents of doctrinal development, as he asserted that God “has not come to deliver a set of rules or to officiate at some religious ceremony” and condemned “religiosity reduced to external worship”. 

Francis called this rigidity “idolatry” and a “modern Pelagianism” in remarks which will be seen as criticisms of Anglophone opponents of Traditionis Custodes, the apostolic letter curtailing the celebration of the Tridentine Rite. Pelagius was a fifth-century British theologian who taught that man can strive for salvation by his own efforts, such as an ascetic lifestyle, without divine grace.

Although both men and women already serve as lectors and catechists in most countries, this is the first time that the Pope has formally installed candidates as lectors since opening the ministry to women in January last year. Catechists were recognised as an institutional ministry of the Church in Antiquum ministerium, a motu proprio in May, and this was the first time that the ministry was officially conferred on candidates. The Pope stressed the active role of Scripture and the need to be “active, creative Christians, prophetic Christians”.

Catechists – those who give catechesis, teaching the principles of the faith – have always had a role in the Church, and are particularly important in regions where there is a shortage of priests. The Amazon Synod recognised the role of lay men and women “who conduct services and direct prayers” and “assume a leading role here that is difficult to attain in other areas of Church life”. 

The new Rite of the Institution of Catechists saw three women from Spain, Brazil, and Ghana, and of five men from Italy, Peru, Brazil, and Poland installed into the ministry at St Peter’s. Six women from Ghana, Pakistan, South Korea, and Italy, and three Italian men, were installed as lectors, a ministry hitherto reserved to men as it was considered preparatory for the priesthood. The reform brings the rite into line with common practice across the Church.

The occasion was significant in recognising a vocation to leadership for those in these roles, as Francis commended them to follow the example “of those men and women who helped Paul and the other apostles to spread the Gospel”. His homily dwelt on the practical application of Scripture, denying that “finding God means becoming more rigid, with more rules, right things, clear things…this is an idol, it is not God”. He also condemned “angelic spirituality” which puts worshippers “in orbit” outside of everyday life.

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