By way of Augustine of Hippo, who fought against them, the doctrines of Pelagius enriched Catholic dogma, then in the process of formation, with two specifications that were important due to the power that they conferred upon the Church of Rome and the incessant quarrels that they maintained over the course of the centuries.
Augustine’s battles marked the beginning of the requirement to baptize children, who were held to be impure at birth, and the advent of the theory of predestination – later on judged to be heretical, but without triggering the impossible condemnation of one of the principal “fathers” of Catholicism – which he fabricated in order use it against his old enemy, Pelagius.
Pelagius (340?-429?), born in Britain or Ireland, no doubt retained traces of the Celtic freedom of spirit when he reached Rome around 400. A little before the fall and sacking of Rome by the Goths, who had converted to Arianism (410), Pelagius and his disciple Celestius left for Carthage, where his brilliant mind and rhetorical talents won him the friendship of Augustine of Hippo, the bishop of the city. But Augustine’s authoritarianism quickly ceased tolerating the uncertainties that Pelagius’ ideas propagated concerning the function of the Church, over which the master of Carthage intended to establish absolute hegemony. (Note that Augustine did not hesitate to retrieve from Ticonius, who was a partisan of a type of Donatism that he anathematized, the theory of a City of God that was superior to the terrestrial city and attributed with imperial power, which was precisely in decline in the Roman Empire.)
Pelagius took refuge in Palestine, in which another Catholic doctrinarian, Jerome – put on his guard by Augustine’s emissaries – persecuted him and charged his doctrine with Manichaeism, which was Catholicism’s religious rival, repressed everywhere with the greatest violence. (Note that Augustine himself was a renegade from Manichaeism. He had turned his vehemence against his former co-religionists by calling down upon them the rigors of the law. It was from him that came the bloody repression that struck the Manicheans and, later on, the Paulicians, the Bogomiles and the Cathars.)
Acquitted by the Synod of Jerusalem in 415, Pelagius and Celestius were excommunicated two years later by Pope Innocent I. At first, Zosimus, Innocent’s successor, showed some sympathy towards Pelagius, but he soon pulled himself together and definitively condemned him at the Council of Carthage in 418.
The stakes, it is true, set in motion powerful interests.
To better understand Pelagius’ teachings and Augustine’s attitude [towards them], it is fitting to situate them within the anti-Montanist reaction that was conducted with firmness by the “lax” politics of the ecclesiastic majorities in the West.
If the Church reconciled itself with Greco-Roman hedonism by exiling puritanical rigor to the monasteries; if it kept the sacrificial perfection of the Christ as a difficult-to-access ideal; then it also acquiesced (without too much difficulty) to the depraved morals of many priests and faithful people, provided that the Church’s authority and sacramental function were publicly privileged.
The Spirituals or “Messalians” weren’t the only ones to turn away from the duplicity of the Church and to use several hastily Christianized arguments to cover for their quite common decisions to obey sexual impulses and the pleasures of existence, but without preoccupying themselves with obedience or guilt.
Around 380, a certain Helvidius – apparently a disciple of Auxentius (an Arian Bishop of Milan and the predecessor of Ambrose) – drew down upon himself the thunderbolts of Jerome (344?-420) for having mocked the virginity of Mary and for maintaining that she had had other children because the canonical gospels mentioned the “brothers of the Lord.” With fervor, Jerome tried to show that these brothers were only Jesus’ cousins. But this was getting way too tangled up in the word “brother,” which – in the spirit of Essenism and Nazarenism – was identical to “witness,” which became martus in Greek and “martyr” in French [and English, too]. For Judeo-Christians, the brother or witness only meant the one who partook of the same sacrifice as that of the “Servant of the Lord” celebrated by the Book of Isaiah.
But Helvidius’ remarks were less concerned with promoting historical exegesis than with having done with the alleged superiority of virginity over the amorous relation. This was why he rejected Tertullian, Montanus and all of the Christianity of the New Prophecy.
A similar doctrine was found in the thinking of Jovinian, a disciple of Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. In Rome, where his audience was large, Jovinian was ironic about Mary’s virginity: he argued that such a birth made Jesus a fantastical being, the angelos-christos invoked by the [very] Gnostics and Manicheans who’d been condemned by the Church. To the hypocritical asceticism of the faithful, Jovinian opposed the healthy inclination to the pleasures of the table and love, and to the benefits of life, which were real favors accorded by divine goodness. For him, the purification of baptism was sufficient to wash away all sin and to protect oneself against the traps set by a demon who was eager to spoil and corrupt the gifts of God.
Condemned by Pope Siricius and the Council of Milan, which had been convened in 390 at the request of Ambrose, Jovinian was exiled by imperial proscription.
Among the fiercest of Jovinian’s adversaries were Jerome, a supporter of Marian virginity and the author of Against Jovinian; the no-less misogynist Augustine; and Pelagius.
What separated Pelagius from the puritanical Augustine? A certain concept of human dignity. Pelagius did not share the conception of a fundamental ignominy of mankind, which the Bishop of Carthage had brilliantly summarized in this finding: “Inter fesces et urinam nascimur” (“We are born between shit and piss”).
Pelagius’ austerity was related to that of Seneca and the atheistic moralists of the Nineteenth Century, nay, even the freethinkers who denounced the debauchery of the clergy. Pelagius estimated that mankind made use of a force of will that was sufficient to attain virtue and goodness. There was no need for divine aid or the mediation of the Church if one wished to follow the ethical rules that were prescribed everywhere. All virtues resided in germ-form in each individual; it was sufficient to bring these seeds to fruition if one wished to fight against the temptations of evil.
One could not trace out the roads of public morality any better than by avoiding the detour of the Church.
The Church [according to Pelagius], reduced to its smallest share, only intervened through the sacraments, which guaranteed the salvation of the soul when terrestrial life had accomplished its destiny according to the precepts of moral law.
Our freedom [according to Pelagius] was as total as that of Adam and Eve before they misused it and condemned themselves to downfall. By learning the privileges of moral will from infancy, men could obey God’s designs, and baptism (which was not given to children at the time) simply affixed the Church’s seal, as if it were a passport to eternal beatitude.
Many citizens of the Empire – among those who prized moral rigor or Stoic or Epicurean philosophy – practiced such principles without having the need to give them a Christian coloration. Even among the Catholics, Theophronius of Cappadocia maintained that the omniscience of God knew all that would happen, but did not positively know it as an accomplished fact, [thus] leaving to mankind the freedom to act beyond all determinations. In the spirit of Theophronius, it was a question of reconciling the absolute power of God and human freedom, which the Church, called upon to extricate itself from Augustinian predestination, would call “free will.”
And so, at the same time that Pelagius reminded his followers of the principles of secular morality, Augustine (foreseeing the decline of imperial unity and its stranglehold over the West) prepared for the advent of a pontifical authority that would cover the entire world with traps, the tangled links of which the City of God and the terrestrial city would ceaselessly tighten.
Augustine launched a machine of doctrinal war against Pelagius. To the freedom defended by his adversary, Augustine opposed a theory that, later on, Calvinism and Jansenism regurgitated: predestination.
The fate of mankind was traced out for all eternity by God, who, as absolute master, decided upon the salvation or the damnation of his creatures. A terrible doctrine, which, condemning human beings to fear and trembling, reduced their pride and abandoned them, gasping, to the consolations of a Church that recalled their indignity to them.
To break the Pelagians’ excessive confidence in mankind, Pope Honorius subjected them and the philosopher Julian of Eclanum to the penalties prescribed for heretics. Pelagius and Celestius died in exile, one believes, shortly thereafter.
Another effect of predestination highlighted an obvious fact that was even more embarrassing to the Church than freedom left in mankind’s own hands. If the fate of each being was determined according to the whims of God, what good was there in worrying about the protections of the Church, the priests and the sacraments? Thomas Aquinas’ laborious arguments were required to grant to the all-powerful divinity the freedom to choose salvation or damnation in the conscious and willful manner called “free will.”
Augustine never incurred the least reprobation; he had done too much for the grandeur and enrichment of the Church [to be censured]. But, in 475, the Council of Arles condemned as a heretic someone named Lucid, who supported the ideas that, the freedom of mankind having been annihilated by the fall into sin, each person’s destiny was controlled by a predestination required by God, and that, by virtue of this predestination, each person’s destiny irreparably led to damnation or eternal life.
The amplified functions of original sin and the impurity imputed to newborn infants gave to [the Church’s] dogma a response that aimed at annihilating the hopes that Pelagius placed in perfecting mankind. The Montanists, in their horror of nature and life (although such a revulsion had already animated Essenean zeal), were the first ones to recommend the baptism of infants, at a time when the custom was not widespread. Augustine held up to mankind, which was (according to Pelagius) capable of raising itself towards virtue, the opposite portrait: man was a sickly creature, imbecilic, prey to all the temptations of the flesh and quite unable to resist them. Why? Because the original stain of the sin of Adam had penetrated him from his birth. Only baptism washed him of the infamy that the Church could only tolerate when it welcomed the faithful into its sanctuary.
Once the baptism of children was established as a necessity, the newborn was devoted to the Catholic faith from the very first hours of its life. Children who weren’t baptized would die like animals; the others lived amidst errors and repudiated innocence. A profitable market in penitence and redemption – purchased by gifts, emoluments, alms, and submission – took root in the Augustinian doctrine of the intrinsic weakness of the body and the mind.
No one had the force of character great enough to successfully resist all temptation. One sinned by pride if one estimated oneself able to evade [all] the demoniac ruses of nature. And so man, that miserable and negligible being, succumbed to sin because Rome had authorized him to redeem himself, to regain his salvation, not through the person of Augustine, but in the heart-warming bosom of the Church. Later on, the skillful organization of responsibilities and free will established a calculus of salvation and damnation that opened up the purchasing of indulgences and absolutions at a price.
The credit of Augustine in the matter was merited, as long as one excused his doctrinal lapses into the black ride of predestination.
(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013.)