The Myth of Neo-Pelagianism

One of my favorite discussions is on the topic of modern liturgy and the supposed rise of the heresy of pelagianism. Supposedly, Vatican II liturgical reforms have gone astray. We’ve arrived to the point where the emphasis on the laity has induced a certain extreme horizontality to the Mass. We are in danger, the theory goes, from too much emphasis on ourselves instead of God. Cardinal Arinze and many others have harped on this in recent years. I think it’s bunk. Let me explain why.

First, let’s clarify what is meant by pelagianism. It was a philosophy developed by a monastic, supposedly, who taught that human beings, through asceticism, good works, and personal discipline, could achieve salvation. Jesus is significant, not so much for his sacrifice, but for his role as a moral teacher. St Augustine, St Jerome and others vehemently strove against it in their day.

The charge of heresy is a serious one. Lots of St Bloggers like to label people who think differently as “heretics.” It’s become a euphemism for “something I don’t like.” It’s sort of like using profanity. After a while it loses shock value. Taking a percentage of believers, say 96%, and labelling them as heretics, therefore non-Catholics, strikes me as a convenient way of doing theological business. “I can’t find a reasoned and charitable way to continue this discussion, so I’m just going to label you a heretic and declare myself a winner.”

I think the use of heresy as a general application to a trend is possibly more dangerous. While I do believe there is heresy out there and there are heretics among us, an overuse of the term permits heretics and heresy to hide more conveniently. Cluttering up the ideological landscape with accusations does more to thwart the cause of truth than help it.

So when people complain about singing “I am the Bread of Life,” I have to chalk it up to a matter of personal taste. “Voice of God” songs have been with us long before Vatican II. The development of more Scripture-based songs after the council also saw many of God’s Biblical words put into the mouths of soloists, choirs, and even the pew people. Do we trust Biblical literacy to inform our people we’re singing quotes or paraphrases from Scripture? Or are we going to be literalists about it?

Pelagius was known for his asceticism. My understanding of history suggests he thought personal responsibility for good works was grounded in a life with hard or harsh impositions. I don’t think you can call people pelagians or label their trends by picking and choosing among the movement’s traits. I can applaud many things in the post-conciliar Church. But I wouldn’t say that asceticism is a mainstream hallmark.

I will say that parish music repertoire can be unbalanced. I’ve looked the whole of the repertoire in each of my last two parishes. We examine carefully the balance of songs and psalms. We make sure that our people are presented with a mix of healthy and appropriate texts. They sing “Take and eat; take and drink…” to remind themselves of Jesus’ words. But they also sing their songs directly to God, “You satisfy the hungry heart …” and “O God, I seek you; my soul thirsts for you …” and even talk about God in the second person, “I will bless the Lord at all times …” or even “Glory to God in the highest …”

I believe some music directors have not watched the big picture of repertoire carefully enough. But I have a very hard time with accusations carelessly flung out at composers, even the ones whose work I dislike. Perhaps there are some composers who have gotten stuck in a particular voice or narrow expression. Perhaps parish music people get stuck in a rut, or go back to the same well all the time. I don’t think that’s a flaw of heresy, but one of imagination, if not motivation.

So let’s dispense with calling Tom Conry and others pelagianistic for putting the words, “We are called, we are chosen” into our mouths. Isn’t enough that he asks us “In what can we stand justified, in whom can we believe?” and then give us the answer to sing? I don’t think the song has the legs to take us deep into the 21st century, so let it die with dignity rather than sully the situation by making groundless accusations we can’t prove.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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21 Responses to The Myth of Neo-Pelagianism

  1. KiwiNomad06 says:

    “I am the bread of Life” was a ‘biggie” when I was at high school. Interestingly, though I have been long gone from Catholic practice, it is a song I still remember. And as I try to work out whether I could actually return to the Mass or not, this is one of the songs I keep thinking about. I wish I could embrace the idea that Jesus is the Bread of Life, and return. Maybe one day.

  2. Anne says:

    I have to admit that I never herard of Pelagius. I’m still not sure I understand the heresy and how it can be applied to our liturgical music.
    Regarding neo-Pelagianism…We are called, all of us, before we go searching. Before we embrace our faith, we are being called. The events of our lives, good and bad, over time, cause us to recognize and answer God’s call. A crisis can make us turn to God. The birth of a child can be a turning point in the faith life of someone. I don’t believe that purposely imposing hardships brings us any closer to God than living out our lives with hope. Maybe that’s the key…remaining hopeful. Pelagius was wrong back in his day and is still wrong.

  3. Liam says:

    For a primer on Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagism, standard doctrinal topics along with Gnosticism, Docetism, Donatism and Arianism, read:

    Calling CAtholics Semi-Pelagians was standard Protestant rhetoric for centuries (and still is in some quarters).

  4. Liam says:

    Which makes me wonder how much of the revival of this rhetoric comes from converts from Evangelicalism.

  5. RP Burke says:

    So when people complain about singing “I am the Bread of Life,” I have to chalk it up to a matter of personal taste.

    Not so, and once again you fall back upon the all-purpose dismissal of criticism, “Personal taste.”

    “I Am the Bread of Life” is an incoherent jumble of text from two different sources, has a musical range of an octave and a fourth — and so is pitched either too high or too low for everyone in the assembled congregation — and also has a text underlay for the verses so messy that there’s a change on every verse.

    So some people “like” it. That’s their “personal taste.” My judgment of the song’s flaws should hold greater weight.

  6. Anne says:

    IAtheBofL is not one of my favorites and it’s true that from a musical standpoint it’s far from perfect… but you know what? The people in my parish seem not to care about that because it’s one that they sing with enthusiam.

  7. Liam says:

    I Am A Loaf of Bread, You Can Squeeze Me To Test My Freshness (that’s how one of my old choirs called it, as we sang it regularly) is popular because of liminal associations with people of a certain age who’ve had loved ones buried to it, as it were (my grandmother, at St Augustine’s Cathedral in Bridgeport CT in 1981, e.g., and many others). But it’s flawed in many musical respects and would not be something I would cultivate further outside the funeral and memorial votives. I’d let it fade in a dignified way. Sr Toolan was gifted in other ways, and some of her best stuff is hardly sung (I had a pastor who was close to her and exposed us to some of her better psalm settings, which were interesting).

  8. The point being that the text, not the music determines pelagianism, or the lack of it. Musically, it’s not my favorite; not by a long shot. I agree with Liam that Toolan has composed better pieces. But as far as a text to sing, it’s not heresy, not even with a whiff of it.

  9. Liam says:


  10. Tony says:

    …slowly I turned… step by step…

    I think you were missing me, Todd. Maybe I’m being as narcissistic as these sorts of hymns that you’re discussing to thing that I’m that important in your universe. :)

    To a properly catechized Catholic, “I Am the Bread of Life” is pretty innocuous. They know that they are singing God’s part. But what about those badly catechized Catholic who truly belive that they are the bread of life? As one of these people told me: “We are all the Eucharist”.

    I looked up a photo of the good sister Toolan, and as I had suspected, no habit. But I digress…

    What about this little gem? A favorite of the “folkies”:

    Let us bring the gifts that differ
    And, in splendid, varied ways,
    Sing a new Church into being,
    One in faith and love and praise

    This liturgical abortion makes me want to burn the whole hymnal that contains it.

    Sure… I’m going to “sing a new church into being”. The “old one” isn’t good enough. I, through the power of my voice alone, will sing a new church. One rich in kumbaya, bongos and nylon strings. Yeesh!

    Does your congregation sing that, and if so, why?

  11. Gavin says:

    Todd, I’ve never run into that one. I personally like IATBOL, and the text is all from scripture as far as I know. I don’t like the whole argument against “vox dei” hymns that the congregation will think they’re God. I never misunderstood IATBOL, I always understood it was God speaking to us, even if it comes out of our own mouths. Not to mention all the vox dei propers. However, I suppose if your congregation is composed of people who think they are the bread of life, maybe that isn’t the best hymn to use. Something to be said for discriminatory thinking.

  12. Todd says:

    Actually, Tony, the text for “Sing a New Church” is most often set to NETTLETON, a dutch organ tune. “Kumbaya” is a spiritual, not a white folk song, anyway. And nylon strings are used for classical guitars, harps, and many instruments. The musical mixing you propose is interesting, but you can’t even say it’s all non-classical music.

  13. Tony says:

    No, Todd. I really wasn’t talking about the musical style. I was ranting… But I guess you knew that.

    But seriously. What do you think of the lyrics of “Sing a New Church”? Do you use it? And if so, why?

    I think that particular song is the poster child for the particularly Spirit of Vatican II™ ideological shift from “how great Thou art” to “how great we art”.

    We had a meeting this weekend, regarding possible consolidation of our parish. Someone brought up an interesting quote: “the closer we get to God, the closer we get to each other”. I think many churches (and the “faith community” which used to reside in our parish is included) have it a$$ backward. They think the closer they get to each other, the closer they get to God, eschewing spending time with Him in adoration or personal prayer, to involve themselves in “social justice” issues.

    Soclal justice stuff offers much more self esteem “feedback” than prayer. It doesn’t make us feel good to realize we are sinners and are in need of God’s forgiveness. It’s much better to have an “I’m OK, you’re OK” attitude.

    • Oh, why did they leave out, “How Great Thou Art”? I deliberately didn’t use the word “replace”, what could ever equal that wonderful hymn? Forget about guitars, harps, nylon strings, or even an organ. There’s just no way to mess it up, it’s magnificent a cappella;

      Then, follow it up with; “In Christ Alone”;

      And the singing is over. How could anyone add anything to these two superb songs/hymns? They’re traditional and contemporary all at once, as is all timeless music.

      Hope that I didn’t butt in too badly (uninvited) to your very interesting chat. It’s just when Tony mentioned “How Great Thou Art”, I couldn’t help but look it up on Youtube, comparing all the different renditions. There maybe a better version (there are dozens), but after trying 6 or 7, I thought that this one captured the purity within the song.

      In Jesus’ blessed name …..Dave

  14. Tony,

    If you weren’t talking about musical style, then I don’t see the connection with particular song titles and non-classical instruments. “Kumbaya” is a “alteration” of the phrase “Come By Here.” It’s a very simple song both musically and text. Other than simplicity, I don’t see its text to be a particular problem, do you?

    “Sing a New Church?” No, I don’t use it. I did use it for a parish I served that was going through a renovation. The words have a context, and if the parish is unsuited for it, I don’t have a problem not using it. I have more of a problem demonizing either text or author, as I’ve seen in some conservative circles. That’s uncalled for.

    You erred in capitalizing “church” in the text, by the way. In the same sense that a new experience might make a “new man” out of me, I don’t think that’s in any way insulting of God or my mother. The case made against “Sing a New Church” is too shrill at times for me to take it seriously.

    Your most recent comment touches on the need often expressed in our culture for intimacy. Sometimes that intimacy is as simple as friends talking. That would be in contrast to an individual sitting in front ot the tv set, perhaps.

    So if people are looking to churches (small-c) to develop intimacy and in doing so, find that personal intimacy is a way to God, I don’t have a problem with that. I would probably express my interpersonal needs differently. I would express my view of church and Church somewhat differently. But I can coexist with the explicitly affective side in a parish, no problem.

    And lastly, Matthew 25:31ff would seem to be contra-indicative of not finding God in an apostolate of charity or justice. Like everything, it requires personal maturity and spirituality as well as a community balance. Any type of Catholic can be out of whack in priorities.

    I suppose I don’t have a lot of respect for the arguments suggesting that conservative or orthodox Catholics somehow have all the answers or better answers. Or are somehow better Catholics. They don’t and they aren’t. I think we need more Catholics who are serious, discerning, charitable, and can get out of the narcissism of ideology. This is probably worth a detail post–in a few days.

  15. Tony says:

    So if people are looking to churches (small-c) to develop intimacy and in doing so, find that personal intimacy is a way to God, I don’t have a problem with that. I would probably express my interpersonal needs differently. I would express my view of church and Church somewhat differently. But I can coexist with the explicitly affective side in a parish, no problem.

    My pastor put it nicely once. In many Protestant churches, you’ll see an announcement. “Worship at 9:30am, fellowship to follow at 11:00am”

    Many Catholics confuse worship with fellowship. Heck, I can see as loving your neighbor as a good thing to do, but it should follow as an offshoot of your relationship with Jesus, not visa versa as in trying to find Jesus through our relationships with each other.

    Maybe we ought to start separating these things. Keep the Holy Mass defined strictly, worship together as a Catholic world community exactly the same way as everyone else and the Saints and Angels in Heaven, and sing our Haugen and Haas ditties together at a separate time, maybe over coffee and doughnuts in the church hall.

    But we Americans are busy. Heck, we don’t even have time to wait for a single priest to distribute communion, how would I expect them to spend extra quality time outside of Mass with their Catholic bretheren (and sisteren for the easily offended PC folks).

  16. “Many Catholics confuse worship with fellowship.”

    More frequently they confuse it with individual time with God. But let me ask, Tony: Is your parish ask you say “most” churches are? If so, why do you stay?

  17. Mary R Lauer says:

    The definition of Pelagianism is quite different from what is being said here. According to Wikipedia: Pelagianism is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special Divine aid. This is an atheistic point of view, not a Catholic one.

    • Todd says:

      Thanks for commenting, Mary. This is an old post, and its context is the conservative harping on modern song and hymn texts, and the frequent use of the pejorative “heresy” when addressing things disliked that other people produced, planned, sang, or even promoted.

      As a general thing, pelagian is used to describe the belief that people can manage their own salvation. At root, if one disbelieves original sin, I suppose one can attempt to practice nothing but virtue. I’m a skeptic.

      I’m even more of a skeptic that “Sing A New Church” represents some brand of pelagianism because it rather emphasizes the faith community, and doesn’t praise God in “standard” ways. I’ve seen quite a lot of criticism there, too. I also find it non-pelagian.

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