Pelagius Lives

(See the From the Housetops editor’s introduction to this article.)

The February 1991 issue of the Catholic magazine 30 Days featured a very striking cover designed by Romano Sicillani. Michelangelo’s famous painting from the Sistine Chapel, the Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve, is going up in flames, and underneath the legend reads: “Exonerating Pelagius?” The cover story by Antonio Socci — entitled “Yesterday’s Heretic, Today’s Pastor?” — tells of a rash of recent best-selling Catholic books repudiating the doctrine of original sin, and urging the rehabilitation of the fifth-century heretic, Pelagius, who had denied its existence. The article, unfortunately, offers no real explanations why Pelagius and his rejection of original sin are making such an extraordinary comeback. I would like to offer a few speculations regarding the causes of this deplorable situation.

At the present time there is underway a vicious two-pronged attack on the teaching of the Church concerning original sin. One attack is coming from what has been variously called liberalism, latitudinarian­ism, indifferentism, etc., and the other (often by the same men), from evolutionism. Adherents of the latter deny the historical and biological reality of special creation, while those of the former may sometimes (weakly) affirm creation, but will always deny the effect of what happened in the fall. In other articles, I have sought to deal with the evolution question, but I presently wish to focus on the other issue, that concerning grace and original sin.

What is Pelagianism?

Orestes Brownson, who accused the Americanists of Pelgainian tendencies.

For the sake of not taking anything for granted, here is a summary of Pelagianism from what used to be a standard text in many Catholic seminaries, God the Author of Nature and the Supernatural by Msgr. Joseph Pohle, which was adapted and edited by Arthur Preuss, the whole series being called simply “Pohle-Preuss”:

“Pelagianism, which flourished in the fifth century, held that the state of our first parents in Paradise was not one of supernatural grace, but essen­tially and purely a natural state.

“In consequence of this fundamental fallacy the Pelagians denied the necessity and gratuity of actual grace, nay the very exis­tence of original sin. They admit­ted that Adam possessed sanctifying grace, with its claim to the beatific vision of God, and that he enjoyed freedom from concu­piscence, but insisted that man can merit Heaven and attain to absolute sinlessness by his own free volition, unaided and with­out transcending his natural faculties.”[1]

A friend and abettor of Pelagius was a monk (later ordained a priest) named Caelestius. While seeking ordination, he petitioned Bishop Aurelius of Milan. His efforts were thwarted by the deacon Paulinus of Milan, who submitted to the bishop six theses of Caelestius, garnered — or perhaps even taken word-for-word — from one of the heretic’s writings. These theses were enough to reveal Caelestius’ heterodoxy and force the good bishop to reject him. In reading these theses — brief as they are — we can get a quick glance of the whole Pelagian system (for the sake of clarity, the reader is cautioned that these six sentences are heretical):

  1. Even if Adam had not sinned, he would have died.

  2. Adam’s sin harmed only himself, not the human race.

  3. Children just born are in the same state as Adam before his fall.

  4. The whole human race neither dies through Adam’s sin or death, nor rises again through the resurrection of Christ.

  5. The Mosaic Law is as good a guide to heaven as the Gospel.

  6. Even before the advent of Christ there were men who were without sin.

Pelagius was a rationalist and, consequently, had to confront in his day the same perplexing question confron­ting ours: If all men had indeed inherited original sin, and therefore would suffer the loss of the Beatific Vision unless they embraced the One True Faith and were baptized, what of the vast numbers of men at the ends of the earth who had never heard of Christ? Would it not be unjust of God to send such men to hell? In the same issue of 30 Days there is reprinted in full a letter from St. Jerome, the principal adversary of Pelagius, to his friend Ctesiphontes, which was trans­lated into English for the first time by Giovanni Ricciardi. St. Jerome reacts with scorn to Pelagius’ attempt to preside over the Providence of God:

Fr. Hecker, the proto-Americanist.

“But you, who do you think you, a human being, are to answer back to God? Something that was made, can it say to its maker, why did you make me this shape? A potter surely has the right over his clay to make out of the same lump either a pot for special use or one for ordinary use (Romans 9:20-21). Accuse God of greater calumny by asking Him why He said, when Esau and Jacob were still in their mother’s womb: ‘I loved Jacob but I hated Esau. (Malachi 1:2,3)….’

“It is true that neither fertile Britain, nor the people of Scotland, nor any of the barbar­ian nations as far as the ocean knew anything about Moses and His prophets. Why was it necessary that He come at the end of those times when numerous multitudes of people had already perished? Writing to the Romans, the blessed Apostle cautiously airs this question but he cannot answer it and leaves it to God’s knowl­edge. So, you should also deign to accept that there may be no answer to what you ask. To God be the power and He does not need you as His advocate.”[2]

While St. Jerome (and St. Augustine) capably defended the Faith against Pelagius, it was up to the Church to condemn him definitively. This was done by Pope St. Innocent I (401-417) and by Pope St. Zosimus (417-18).

Saint Thomas

For a clear explanation of some of the articles of Faith denied by the Pelagians, new and old, we can turn to the Angelic Doctor. Just before He ascended into Heaven Our Lord told His disciples: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Mk. 16:16). St. Thomas, following Our Lord’s words in the Gospel of St. Mark, taught that explicit Faith in the Incarnation and the Blessed Trinity was necessary for salvation: “After grace had been revealed both the learned and simple folk are bound to explicit Faith in the mysteries of Christ, chiefly as regards those which are observed and proclaimed, such as articles which refer to the Incarnation” (Summa Theolo­gica, II-II, Q. 2, a. 7). And again: “Once grace had been revealed all were bound to explicit Faith in the mystery of the Trinity” (Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 2, a. 8).

St. Thomas also taught that Baptism was necessary for salvation:

“Whether All Are Bound to Receive Baptism?

“I answer that, men are bound to that without which they cannot obtain salvation. Now it is manifest that no one can obtain salvation, but through Christ; wherefore the Apostle says (Rom. 5:18): “As by the offense of one unto all men unto condemnation; so also by the justice of one, unto all men unto justification of life.” But for this end is Baptism conferred on a man, that being regenerated thereby, he may be incorporated in Christ, by becoming His member; where­fore it is written (Gal. 3:27): ‘As many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ.’ Consequently it is manifest that all are bound to be baptized in Christ and that without Baptism there is no salvation for men.”[3]

St. Thomas also treated of the problem of invincible ignorance raised by Pelagius, but not in the same rationalistic manner. In answer to the question “Whether Unbelief Is a Sin?” he responded:

“…If however, we take it by way of pure negation, as we find it in those who have heard nothing about the Faith, it bears the character, not of sin, but of punishment, because such like ignorance of Divine things is a result of the sin of our first par­ent. If such like unbelievers are damned it is on account of other sins, which cannot be taken away without Faith, but not on account of their sin of unbelief. Hence Our Lord said (Jn. 15:22): ‘If I had not come, and spoken to them, they would not have sin;’ which Augustine expounds (Tract. 89 in Joan.) as ‘referring to the sin where­by they believed not in Christ.’[4]

As regards Pelagius’ problem of people of good will who lived at the ends of the earth and who had never heard of Christ, St. Thomas taught that it pertained to Divine Providence to furnish all such with the means of salvation, provided there was no hindrance on their part:

“Is It Necessary to Believe Explicitly?

“Difficulties: It seems that it is not, for 1. We should not posit any proposition from which an untenable conclusion follows. But, if we claim that explicit Faith is necessary for salvation, an untenable conclusion fol­lows. For it is possible for someone to be brought up in the forest or among wolves, and such a one cannot have explicit knowledge of any matter of Faith. Thus, there will be a man who will inevitably be damned. But this is untenable. Hence, explicit belief in something does not seem necessary…

“Answer to Difficulty No.1:

“Granted that everyone is bound to believe something expli­citly, no untenable conclusion follows if someone is brought up in the forest or among wild beasts. For it pertains to Divine Providence to furnish everyone with what is nec­essary for salvation, provided that on his part there is no hindrance. Thus, if someone so brought up followed the direc­tion of natural reason in seek­ing good and avoiding evil, we must most certainly hold that God would either reveal to him through internal inspira­tion what had to be believed, or would send some preacher of the Faith to him as He sent Peter to Cornelius (Acts 10:20).[5]

New World: Old Heresy

However, at the time of the discovery of the New World, where apparently vast numbers of souls had lived and died without ever having heard of Christ or His Church, some theologians, notably the Fran­ciscan, Andreas De Vega, proposed that these souls, since they had lived in invincible ignorance of the true Faith, could have been saved without an explicit belief in Christ. But this opinion was not held by the majority of theologians of the day; for example, the great Jesuit theologian Francisco Suarez held fast to the teaching of St. Thomas: “Whoever has not set obstacles against it will receive the light or the call…, either externally by means of men …or by interior illumination.”[6]

The opinion of De Vega was also rejected by the Magis­terium, and in 1679 Pope Innocent XI condemned the following proposition which implied that one could be saved without supernatural Faith or revelation: “A Faith amply indicated from the testimony of creation, or from a similar motive, suffices for jus­tification.”[7] In 1703 the Holy Office under Pope Clement XI upheld the teaching of St. Thomas and insisted that even a dying Amerindian could not be baptized unless he made an explicit act of Faith in Christ and the Blessed Trinity:

“Question: Whether a missionary is bound before Baptism is conferred on an adult, to explain to him all the mysteries of our Faith, especially if he is at the point of death, because this might disturb his mind. Or, whether, it is sufficient if one at the point of death will promise that when he recovers from the illness, he will take care to be instructed, so that he may put into practice what has been commanded him.

“Response: A promise is not sufficient, but a missionary is bound to explain to an adult, even a dying one who is not entirely incapacitated, the mysteries of Faith which are necessary by a necessity of means, as are especially the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation” (Denz. 2380).

“Question: Whether it is possible for a crude and uneducated adult, as it might be with a barbarian, to be baptized, if there were given him only an understanding of God and some of His attributes, especially His justice in rewarding and punishing according to this remark of the Apostle: “He that cometh to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder.” (Heb. 11:6), from which it is inferred that a barbarian adult, in a certain case of urgent necessity, can be baptized although he does not believe explicitly in Jesus Christ.

“Response: A missionary should not baptize one who does not believe explicitly in the Lord Jesus Christ, but is bound to instruct him about all those matters which are necessary by a necessity of means, in accordance with the capacity of the one to be baptized” (Denz. 2381).


But Pelagianism did not die, and it was implicit in the liberal­ism and indifferentism of the nineteenth century. One vari­ation of this liberalism and indif­ferentism was called “American­ism.” Father Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, with the support of some members of the hierarchy, suggested that for the sake of the convert movement it would be more prudent to hold back on some of the “harder sayings” of the Faith, such as “Outside the Church there is no salvation,” until the neophyte was safely within the fold. This weakness soon developed into explicit Pelagianism.

To oppose Father Hecker, the Holy Ghost enlightened the mind of one Orestes Brownson, the great champion of the Catholic Faith in the nineteenth century, who had himself been tainted with Americanism for a brief time. He had been forced to suspend his own Brownson’s Review, and for a short time contributed articles to Father Hecker’s Catholic World, which was edited by a Father Hewit. Here is Brownson:

“The only trouble I have grows out of the fact that Father Hewit is not sound on the question of original sin, and does not believe that it is necessary to be in communion with the Church in order to be saved. He holds that Protes­tants maybe saved by invincible ignorance, and that original sin was no sin at all except the individual sin of Adam, and that our nature was not wounded at all by it. Father Hecker agrees with him on these points, and is in fact a semi-Pelagian without know­ing it.”[8]

Karl Rahner

Karl Rahner

But Father Hecker seems tame compared to some of the statements made after Vatican Council II. Here is Fr. Karl Rahner, S.J., the most influential peritus (expert) at the Council:

“It was declared at the Second Vatican Council that atheists too are not excluded from this possibility of salvation… The only necessary condition which is recognized here is the necessity of faithfulness and obedience to the individual’s own personal conscience. This optimism concerning salvation appears to me one of the most noteworthy results of the Second Vatican Council. For when we consider the officially received theology concerning these questions, which was more or less traditional right down to the Second Vatican Council, we can only wonder how few controversies arose during the Council with regard to these assertions of optimism concerning salvation, and wonder too at how little opposition the conservative wing of the Council brought to bear on this point, how all this took place without any setting of the stage or any great stir even though this doctrine marked a far more decisive phase in the development of the Church’s conscious awareness of her Faith than, for instance, the doctrine of collegiality in the Church, the relationship be­tween scripture and tradition, the acceptance of the new exegesis, etc.”[9]

I think even Pelagius would be a little embarrassed by these statements. The main passage on which liberals like Father Rahner base their claim that the Council taught its own version of Pelagian doctrine, is Lumen Gentium 2, 16:

“Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall Divine Providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is considered by the church to be a preparation for the Gospel and given by Him Who enlightens all men that they may at length have life. But very often deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and served the world rather than the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:21 and 25). Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair. Hence to procure the glory of God and the salvation of these, the Church, mindful of the Lord’s command ‘preach the Gospel to every creature’ (Mk. 16:15) takes zealous care to foster the missions.”[10]

But this teaching on invincible ignorance can be read as being no different from that of St. Thomas Aquinas which we have already examined. The Council says of persons of good will who labor in invincible ignorance: “whatever good or truth is found amongst them is considered by the Church to be a preparation for the Gospel and given by Him Who enlightens all men that they may have life.” It is to such people, the Council continues, that the Church extends her missionary efforts. “Hence to procure the glory of God and the salvation of these, the Church mindful of the Lord’s command reach the Gospel to every creature’ (Mk. 16:15) takes zealous care to foster the missions.”

St. Thomas had written: “Thus if someone so brought up followed the direction of natural reason in seeking good and avoiding evil, we must most certainly hold that God would either reveal to him through internal inspiration what had to be believed, or he would send some preacher of the Faith to him as He sent Peter to Cornelius” (Acts 10:20, Ibid.).

While the above-cited passage from Vatican II can be read in an orthodox light, the obvious lack of St. Thomas’ firmness and clarity, and the firmness and clarity of previous conciliar statements, allow liberals to read what they want to into it. This is one of those famous “time bombs” in the Vatican II texts. Given the fact that we have previous papal and magisterial texts clearly stating the necessity of Faith and membership in the Church for salvation, Vatican II must be either read in light of those earlier decrees, or — if it apparently contradicts previous teachings — disregarded wherever it opposes them.

Dethroning Our Lady

If Pelagianism is true, and there is no original sin, there is also no Redemption, no need for Jesus to have died on the Cross. And also, which I find particularly galling, there was no Immaculate Conception; no “O Mary con­ceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” The article in 30 Days names Father Karl Rahner as one of the main promoters of the rehabilitation of Pelagius. We have seen why — he was a promoter of liberalism, or better, universalism, and evolu­tionism. But it still comes as a shock that he would dare attack the Immaculate Conception:

“The dogma (of the Immaculate Conception) does not mean in any way that the birth of a being is accompanied by something contaminating, a stain, and that in order to avoid it Mary must have had a privilege. The Immaculate Con­ception therefore consists simply in the possession, from the beginning of her existence, of the life of divine grace, which was given to her. From the beginning of her existence Mary was enveloped in the redeeming and sanctifiing love of God. Such is, in all simplicity, the content of the doctrine that Pius IX solemnly defined as a truth of the Catholic Faith, in the year 1854.”[11]

An Evolving Heresy

Even in Pelagius’ lifetime, Pelagianism evolved. He could rephrase his heresy in different ways so as to fool people into accepting it as orthodox. He deceived a whole synod of oriental bishops by using the word “grace” to mean something other than what the bishops themselves considered it. After Pelagius, there were those who defended a less radical form of the heresy known as Semi-Pelagianism, something finally condemned at the Council of Orange II (AD 529), a regional council approved by Pope Boniface II. Through its various developments, what remains the same in Pelagianism is its assertion that man somehow has a natural claim on heaven. Only the utterly unobservant would deny that this “essential Pelagianism” is practically universal today.

The existence of original sin is one reality and the necessity of its remedies is another. To deny original sin would imply that the supernatural adoption we receive through Faith and Baptism are not necessary; after all, heaven is natural to us. But there are those who will claim belief in original sin and admit the necessity of grace to overcome it, but will, like Pelagius, redefine grace. Typically, they say or imply that, as “the Spirit blows where He will,” the mysterious winds of grace are supernaturally equipping people for salvation in every religion, without Faith, Baptism, or submission to the Church. Thus, Karl Rahner, cited above, did not need to assert the naked Pelagian doctrine that man does not need supernatural grace to be saved. For Rahner, God’s grace can make of the unbeliever an “anonymous Christian.” Thus, where Pelagius would let the unregenerate into Heaven through the front door, Rahner and other Modernists try to sneak them in the back door. It is not pure Pelagianism, but it destroys the supernatural edifice of the Catholic Faith just the same.

The always irascible but ever lovable St. Jerome, said of the Pelagians of his day:

“All their arguments must be dismantled, with the help of Christ. And it must be done through the testimony of the Scriptures, by which God speaks to the faithful every day. Through you, I ask that those who meet in your holy and illustrious house do not welcome as many as three or even one of those insignificant little men and thus give room to the dregs or — at the very least — the infamy of such grave heresies. Therefore, wherever virtue and holiness be praised, the shame of this diabolic presumption and obscene group of people will find no room. Those who help such men should know that they are welcoming a multitude of heretics who are the enemies of Christ and nourish His adversaries. For while they make vain statements claiming one thing, it has been proved that they have quite another thing in their hearts.”[12]

Wouldn’t you love to hear what St. Jerome would say of the Pelagians of our day?

This article was originally published in From the Housetops with a sidebar called “The Limbo of the Infants”




[1] Monsignor Joseph Pohle, God the Author of Nature and the Supernatural, translated from the German by Arthur Preuss, B. Herder, St. Louis, 1916, pp. 218-219.

[2] St. Jerome, Letter to Ctesiphontes, Migne, Patrologiae Latinae, 21, 1147-1161, translated from the Latin by Giovanni Ricciardi, 30 Days, February, 1991, English edition, San Francisco, pp. 50-51.

[3] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III Q. 68, a. 1.

[4] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II Q. 10, a. 3.

[5] St. Thomas Aquinas, The Disputed Questions on Truth, trans­lated by Fr. James V. Mc Glyrm, S.J., II Q. 14, 2.2, Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, 1952, pp.158, 262.

[6] Francisco Suarez, Summa Theologica, Il-Il, libri 1, ing. 3, tr. 2, sect. 1, c. 8, (n. 325); quoted in Fr. Ricardo Lombardi, S.J., The Salvation of the Unbeliever, translated by Dorothy M. White, The Newman Press, Westminster, MD, 1956, p.232.

[7] Denz. 2123, cf. Finnegan, Op. cit.

[8] Henry Brownson, Orestes A Brownson’s Latter Life (1855-1876), H. F. Brownson, Detroit, 1900, pp.565, 566.

[9] Fr. Karl Raliner, S.J., “Problem of the ‘Anonymous Chris­tian’,” Theological Investigations, Volume XVI, The Seabury Press, New York, 1976, pp.283, 284.

[10] Vatican Council II, edited by Fr. Austin Flannery, O.P., The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 1975, pp.367, 368.

[11] Fr. Karl Rahner, S.J., Maria Meditazione, p.50; quoted in: Joseph Cardinal Siri, Gethsemane, Reflections on the Contemporary Theological Movement, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1981, pp.87, 88.

[12] St. Jerome, Op. cit., p.51

* * *

Editor’s Introduction: This article was first published by Saint Benedict Center in November of 1991. As part of our Res Fidei series of monographs, it appeared in a longer form, bearing the title, “On Exonerating Pelagius.” It originally had two parts. The second, which was longer, and which dealt with the issue of evolution, has been removed in this present editing.

Unfortunately, this article is as timely now as it was when it was printed. Pelagianism, an essential part of ecumenism, is the heresy du jour. The principal effect of the Pelagian heresy is the rejection of the doctrine of original sin, accompanied by a tendency to exalt natural reason and to deny the necessity of grace for the attainment of salvation.

Original sin is the cause of our fallen nature, a condition imposed by God on all humanity as a consequence of the sin of Adam, who is the origin of the entire human race. How this sin and its consequences are communicated to men is a mystery that can never be penetrated by mere natural reason. Equally mysterious is the way original sin was countered by the sacrifice of the Cross, whereby Our Lord Jesus Christ, the second Adam, achieved our redemption with effects equally universal. True Catholics believe with childlike docility all the truths regarding the Fall and the Redemption as revealed in Holy Scripture. Where we cannot fully comprehend, we can still believe divine revelation and adore God who gave it to us.