“We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).  These words from the first letter of John beautifully and succinctly sum up the origin and end of the Christian life—which, in a word, is love.  “Being Christian,” said Benedict XVI, “is…the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1).  That “encounter” is our experience of God “first loving us.”  The “new horizon” that it opens up, the “decisive direction” that it gives to our lives, is love—our love of God and our neighbor because of His prior love of us.  To participate in that endless exchange of love is what it means to be a Christian.  It is the center from which all other aspects of the Christian life emanate.  I fear that a significant number of Catholic men miss this point and regard something other than love as the central point of being a follower of Christ.

What I did not include from Benedict’s quote above is what he says being Christian is not.  It is not, he says, “the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea” (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est).  To state that more generally, being Christian isn’t primarily about my will or my intellect and what do with them (i.e., make “ethical choices” and assent to “lofty ideas”).  Rather, it is first and foremost about my heart, my whole person in all its mystery, and what has been done to it by God.  Is it not the case, though, that so many of us fail to understand this?  If we’re honest with ourselves, I think we would have to admit that it is, that we ourselves are among those men who place something other than love at (or at least close to) the center of our “Christian” life…even if we don’t realize it.

This problem, it seems, is precisely what Pope Francis was warning the faithful against in his recently released Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate.  In it, the Holy Father laments the negative influence of the contemporary forms of two age-old heresies—Gnosticism and Pelagianism—on the faithful today.  He first discusses Gnosticism, which “presumes,” he says, “a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings” (36).   The Holy Father points out further that the gnostic approach “is strict and allegedly pure, and can appear to possess a certain harmony or order that encompasses everything” (38).  On the surface, it may seem all well and good, but it poses this great danger: “to reduce Jesus’ teachings to a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything” (39).

Of contemporary Pelagianism, the second heresy plaguing the Church in our day, the Holy Father would say that it is “not intelligence that…[takes] the place of mystery and grace, but our human will” (48). As a result, the “worship of the human will” entailed in this heresy leads to “a self-centered and elitist complacency, bereft of true love” (57).  Those are some tough words, but it’s Francis’s words which follow that should really hit home for those of us (among whom I count myself) who are deceived in some way by this heresy.  Here’s what Papá Francesco says the “self-centered and elitist complacency” of contemporary Pelagianism manifests itself in:

This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfillment.

Now, you may not be guilty of all of these Pelagian sins, or of all those of the Gnostics.  It’s possible, perhaps, that you’re essentially blameless in these areas.  Either way, what can it hurt to make, as they say in AA’s Twelve-step program, “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of yourself?  Not much, I would think, but your pride.  In fact, I humbly submit that such a searching inventory cannot only not hurt but is what we as Catholic men must do if we wish to be the Church in the way that Christ intended.

It is for this reason that the Holy Father’s words ring true for me in such a way that they encourage urgency, for the reason, that is, that we are failing truly to imitate Jesus in the way He desires. As I said earlier, if we really look deep, I think we will find we are placing something other than love at the center of our lives, even if only in slight ways.  Some of us, perhaps, are even striving to be “holy” and “blameless” before the Lord in intelligence or in will power, as Pope Francis warned against. Regardless of what it is, if there is anything you place above love, cast it at the feet of Jesus and exchange it for the gift of His love.  For, as Pope Francis reminded us at the very beginning of Gaudete et Exsultate, “the Lord has chosen each one of us ‘to be holy and blameless before him in love (Eph 1:4)’”…not in intelligence, or in will power, or in anything else.  But remember, if we love at all, it’s because He first loved us.  Miss that, and you’re still missing the point.

  • Phil Alcoceli

    The Catholic Church was founded by God Incarnate Himself, Jesus Christ. The Sacred Liturgy is where Jesus actualizes again each day in temporal time His Eternal Blood Sacrifice (not a “community meal”) for our Salvation and Redemption from sin until His Return in Glory. Is it saintly or is it prideful and pharisaical to be “punctilious” (def. showing great attention to detail and correct behavior) about these enormous Divine Gifts? (Read: “The Spirit of The Liturgy” by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger).

    Here Pope Francis says it is part of a modern Gnostic and/or Pelagianistic behavior to be “punctilious” about the Liturgy. Amazingly, both of these heresies, in the past or today, do not care at all about the Catholic Liturgy because they deny original sin, affirm human innate goodness and affirm personal revelation over Divine Revelation, making both the Church and the Liturgy absolutely unnecessary and useless. Indeed, it would be very typical of both Pelagianistics and Gnostics to accuse the Church of being “punctilious” about “total nonsense and empty rituals”, which are indeed humankind’s Greatest Gifts from God. It would also be Pelagianistic and Gnostic to equate and also demand for the fight for the lives of the unborn (a Great Gift from God) to be in the very same level with the help to the so called “immigrants” and “refugees” (a social problem), something taught for the first time ever in Church history in Gaudete and Exultate. No humility at all anywhere in there and nothing to rejoice about in that document. Now let’s follow our “punctilious” Lord Jesus (John 14:15) and his “punctilious” Mother Mary and those “punctilious” saints. Let’s be those “punctilious” Catholic Men!! The Devil don’t care. Real Catholics do!!

    • Sean Mitchell

      Mr. Alcoceli,

      I certainly get where you are coming from with this. Perhaps Pope Francis was try to communicate something different than I was. My purpose in quoting him here was to point out that sometimes we place “perfection” in Liturgical practice above love. We let our good desire for beautiful liturgies suck out charity dry when people who may be less educated, or even who simply see things differently, approach this subject with us. Maintaining liturgical purity, consistent with Church teaching, is very important, but we must be able to have discussions about it without automatically assuming our “opponents” have nothing good to say, or that we ourselves are the definitive authority on all things liturgical.

      Blessings,
      -Sean

      • Phil Alcoceli

        Mr. Mitchell, I do appreciate your reply. Still, I can’t fail to notice that you brushed over again over the fact that both Gnostic and Pelagianistic philosophies don’t ever care one bit about the Liturgy, yet Pope Francis says they do and he clearly declares that those who are “punctilious” about the Liturgy are therefore falling into these heresies. Why the totally preposterous statement and twisted, flawed logic? Indeed, why did you buy so easily on that? On top of it, you answer my alleged “assumptions” with some assumptions of your own when you declare: ” ..automatically assuming our “opponents” have nothing good to say, or that we ourselves are the definitive authority on all things liturgical”. Can you heal “bias” with bias? Really? Amazingly, I don’t think that way, as you are assuming. I seek to base my statements on reality only.

        For example, given this subject, are we really having a big crisis of obsessive-compulsive-liturgical-perfection-complex on the Church that is now above Christian love? Are we having Catholics measuring every candle and weighing every item, also with high speed cameras recording every word and move so that it’s all perfect? Where? In what planet? What we are having here Mr. Mitchell, it’s the manufactured-crisis-begets-manufactured-saints-with-absolute-authority political tactic that has worked so well to do the unthinkable, to enthrone heinous sins, abortion, homosexuality, etc. Why is Pope Francis using this ultra-lowly tactic again and again? Why? Another glaring example of it: “Sexual Revolution” activists are now acting as the ultra-holy-unquestionable-saints defending the poor and the victims of the horror they themselves created. Why do we buy on such monstrosities? Because we were created to grow to be saints and this is the easy way out, no growing needed, just easy, emotionally blind, self-proclaimed holiness. That’s why I believe Judas, the first true self-sanctified political/social activist, should be their patron pseudo-saint. We all must resist all this and be True Saints, Christ-like. Peace and Blessings in Truth to you and all you hold dear, – Phil.

      • Sean Mitchell

        Mr. Alcoceli,

        I won’t reply after this, as I see conversations on an online “forum” such as this to be basically unproductive…and exhausting. I also won’t be responding to everything you said, as it is simply a lot to respond to. A couple things though:

        1. Neither Pope Francis nor I said that Gnostics or Pelagians cared about the liturgy. The claim is that the adoption of pelagian attitudes and ways of thinking (not the entirety of pelagian thought) manifests itself in such behavior as being overly punctilious about one’s concern for the liturgy. That is a totally different statement, which you still might disagree with, but I wanted to clear that up.

        2. I suppose I did make assumptions about you. For that, I apologize.

        I hope this clarifies things.

        Peace and blessings,

        -Sean

      • Phil Alcoceli

        I do, again, appreciate your reply. Indeed, I don’t find our conversation “unproductive” at all, as you say, as it brought up the very direct parallel between the very successful anti-Christian strategies used both outside and inside the Church for the last 60 years. It’s not something brought about while grocery shopping. The whole highly objectionable tactic Pope Francis used is what I call “The Insertion Strategy”, basically where you produce a great Catholic work of writing, speech, video, etc. and insert a small, totally dissonant, false, misleading statement. As another example of that, a writer in this blog, Thomas Connelly, wrote a brilliant article, except that he put a very small thing, he wrote the term “social activist” right inside his sentence of high praise for “heroes of the faith” and right after that term. Small, subtle but obviously misleading. Drop by drop by drop. This is a VERY popular technique today and I refer that to the Pope not you. Indeed, how many drops of cyanide do you need to kill someone? How much un-truth you need to badly damage human souls intended for True Holiness?

        Ironically, you tried to clarify what the Pope said, he himself never did. What do we make of a Pope who needs to be constantly re-interpreted, re-articulated and re-clarified? Pope Confusion or Pope Intentional, why is he even there? Is confusion, inexperience, etc. even ever an excuse for a Pope to act lowly? It’s still highly devious to use the term “pelagian” when maybe only a very few of them will ever care about the Liturgy and because neither do we have a “Pelagian Crisis” in the Church. Manufactured Reality and Sanctity, again! About your very gracious apology, I do accept it. I am not your opponent in any way, form or manner and, even more, I speak from the perspective of someone who was into at least some the very darkness I talk about. Like, my favorite Apostle, St. Paul, I switched sides and chose The One Best. Do I see the beautiful and the good things, too? Yes!!! Jesus and all things on Earth coming directly from Him!! Only Him is True Heaven. No one else. Peace and Blessings in Truth to you and all you hold dear. Forever. -Phil

  • Gary Ney

    Interesting bit about the Twelve Steps and taking inventory. It is not necessarily an A.A. thing as it is Christian exercise, self-examination. And yes, it does do damage to our pride, and it is intended to damage our pride, for that is the paramount problem with the human condition.