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Me for First Things: The canonization of “St.” Pelagius, patron saint of “We’re all good people”

March 21, 2019

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From my latest for First Things:

Recent years have seen a campaign to turn the tables on traditional orthodoxy and make Pelagius into a saint, or at least a respectable Christian. He has attracted defenders because his theological archenemy, a chief figure in the Council of Carthage, was ­Augustine (354–430), bishop of Hippo in ­Numidia (today’s Algeria). Augustine is out of favor with liberal-minded moderns these days. He taught that infants are marked by Adam’s sin, and he speculated that original sin is transmitted by the act of procreation, thus ­marring the goodness of the reproductive act. Because of Adam’s fall, human sexuality has an unruly quality that cannot be tamed by reason or the will. Without God’s grace, man is a “slave of lust.”

Augustine is at odds with our prevailing climate of opinion, which regards obedience to the will of God as servility, the idea of eternal damnation as unspeakably cruel, and mankind as essentially a race of good people held back only by reactionary political attitudes and unjust social structures. Such views have turned Pelagius into a modern hero, a progressive before his time. As Michael Axworthy wrote in the New Statesman last December, those living in the “liberal, humanist culture of western Europe today . . . believe in free will, in the perfectibility of mankind, in the ability of people to make the right choices, do good, and to make things better.” We are, in a word, Pelagians.

Axworthy is not alone. Harvard literature professor Stephen ­Greenblatt has lauded Pelagius and his followers as “moral optimists,” denying that the descendants of Adam and Eve are condemned “inescapably to sinfulness.” Pelagians rightly ask a simple question, Greenblatt insists: “Why would a benevolent God permit something so monstrous?”Scholars trace Pelagius’s origins to the British Isles. This encourages contemporary liberal Christians to associate him with the supposedly easygoing “Celtic” Christianity at odds with the rigidly hierarchical Church of Rome. Peter Berresford Ellis’s Sister Fidelma mystery series and the 2004 film King Arthur present Pelagius as a laid-back holy man, not a moralistic killjoy representing institutional Christianity….

Read the whole thing here.

Posted by Charlotte Allen


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