Written by Christopher A. Ferrara
In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis famously, or rather infamously, accused tradition-minded Catholics of exhibiting the “self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past.”
The thoughtful reader will notice, however, that what lurks behind this unprecedented insult of observant Catholics by a Pope is the accuser’s own neo-Pelagianism. The essence of the heresy of Pelagius is an emphasis on the primacy of human effort in salvation, with divine grace providing mere assistance to what man is capable of accomplishing on his own, as if his nature were not wounded by Original Sin. It is implicitly Pelagian to reduce what the Church has passed down through the centuries in her teaching and worship to merely “certain rules” and “a particular Catholic style from the past,” as if the ensemble of ecclesiastical and apostolic traditions, a work of the Holy Ghost, were merely the collective result of human effort whose elements could be discarded willy-nilly in favor of a new human effort and a new “Catholic style.”
Irony of ironies, it is precisely this implicitly Pelagian mentality, which asserts that human effort by way of continual “reforms” can improve what the Church has handed down, that has led to the worst crisis of faith and discipline the Church has ever endured.
A perfect case in point is the hapless Bishop David Zubik of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, who ponders what to do, what to do, as the Faith in his diocese continues the precipitous decline that began with the neo-Pelagian “great renewal” following Vatican II, when virtually every aspect of the Church’s life underwent disastrous reforms engineered by human commissions and committees from the Vatican on down. Most disastrous of all was the New Mass, the Novus Ordo, which, as Cardinal Ratzinger once put it, was imposed upon the Church from “a bureaucratic ivory tower”—a purely human effort to tamper with a sacred liturgical tradition organically developed over the centuries under the influence of the Holy Ghost.
Now Bishop Zubik has to confront the results of this ruinous neo-Pelagian effort to remake the Church by human will. As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review notes as background for its interview of Zubik: “The number of active Catholics within the Pittsburgh diocese has declined rapidly in recent decades, from 914,000 in 1980 to 632,000 in 2015, diocesan figures show. Since 2000, weekly Mass attendance has dropped by 40 percent — for almost 100,000 fewer regular churchgoers; K-8 Catholic school enrollment fell by 50 percent; and the number of active priests plummeted from 338 to 225. By 2025, if trends hold, the diocese projects that just 112 active priests will remain.”
The Faith is literally dying on Zubik’s watch, just as it is throughout Novus Ordo church, producing what John Paul II called “silent apostasy.” But does Zubik recognize the urgent necessity of restoring traditional worship and catechesis—that “Catholic style from the past” Francis finds so contemptible? Not at all. Absolutely not.
What, then, is Zubik’s solution to the crisis? It is precisely a neo-Pelagian one, calling for yet more human effort to repair what human effort at “reform” has already destroyed. Thus he declares in all seriousness: “The No. 1 priority has to be, ‘We need to make our worship better.’” Got that? We need to make our worship “better.” We need to fix it—like a plumber fixes a broken toilet.
Zubik also proposes that “we need to do the best job that we can to get not only more ordained leaders, but we really have to open up lots of doors for the lay leaders of the church.” More neo-Pelagianism: we need more “ordained leaders”—Zubik won’t even call them priests—and more “lay leaders” to replace the disappearing priesthood. Yes, we need lots more leaders because leaders fix things. That’s the ticket!