Do you need extra cash? Are you a conservative Catholic who is offended whenever a Pope or Council has the gall to teach an idea contrary to your own understanding? Would you like to ridicule Pope Francis while earning money through free market capitalism? Then consider following the sinful and scandalous example of Roman Catholic priest John Zuhlsdorf over at “Fr. Z’s Blog”.
His post of 16 December 2013 promotes a new set of products offered by his Café Press online store. Each product, whether a button or sticker or magnet or mug, contains the following assertion:
I am a Self-Absorbed Promethean Neopelagian and proud of it.
If you’ve read the recent Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, you might recognize the phrase: “self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism”. It is used to criticize a certain type of error found among some conservative Catholics. Fr. Z. is using those words of criticism as a way to rebuke the Pope and to ridicule his Apostolic Exhortation. How dare he, Pope Francis, presume to correct or disagree with conservative Catholics! Doesn’t he know that the conservative Catholic subculture is infallible? Who does he think he is, the Pope?
Worse still, Fr. Z. is encouraging his readers to join him in ridiculing the Pope by purchasing products emblazoned with those words of rebuke. His Café Press store has 21 listings for these products, from which Fr. Z. (as I understand the workings of Café Press) makes a profit.
Fr. John Zuhlsdorf is sinning by disrespecting the Pope, and by arrogantly assuming that whenever the Pope expresses an idea contrary to Fr. Z.’s own understanding, the Pope must be wrong. I’ve seen this attitude expressed by Fr. Z. again and again in his posts. (And I’ve seen the same attitude expressed by his readers in the comments.) But this sinfulness reached a new height when Fr. Z. decided to profit by the public ridicule of the Pope’s words, and to commit the sin of scandal by encouraging others to do the same.
Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. the person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.
“Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized. It prompted our Lord to utter this curse: ‘Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.’ Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep’s clothing.” (CCC 2284-2285)
Yes, there are Pharisees in the Church today, who place exterior ritual above love of neighbor, who see themselves as the ultimate in religious authority, and who do not accept correction, neither from the Messiah, nor from His Vicar. They have contempt for all who disagree with them, even Popes and Councils.
Eventually, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf and his ultra-conservative readers are going to have to decide if they are still willing to be formal members of a Church whose visible head on earth is the liberal but orthodox Pope Francis. I fear that many conservative Catholics self-identify as conservatives so strongly that they will choose conservatism over Catholicism. They will depart from the Church formally, because they are convinced that conservatism is an infallible point of view. They accept correction from no one. They have dogmatized the point of view and the common opinions of the conservative Catholic subculture.
This error is already very apparent in the way that they respond to Pope Francis. Whenever the Pope offers any criticism of the conservative Catholic subculture and its pseudo-dogmatic tenets, conservatives react badly. They do not accept correction. They do not consider that they might be the ones who are in error.
Sometimes they claim not to understand what the Pope is saying. The Pope can’t possibly be disagreeing with conservative ideas, can he? They seek ways to re-interpret or even re-translate his words. They claim that without a Latin version of the text, they can’t be sure what it means.
I disagree with their attitude toward Pope Francis and toward Evangelii Gaudium. The holy Pontiff is describing and criticizing real problems in the Church. And it is not so hard to understand what he means.
“Spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church, consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being…..” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 93)
This type of spiritual worldliness is all too common. I see it in online discussions among Catholics. They argue over a question of faith or morals, and they treat anyone who disagrees with contempt. They ridicule a fellow Catholic who expresses an opinion contrary to their own. And they use all manner of rhetorical techniques to try to win an argument, with no apparent regard for the will of God or the compassion of the Gospel. They are seeking their own glory, not the glory of the Lord.
“This worldliness can be fuelled in two deeply interrelated ways. One is the attraction of gnosticism, a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a 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. (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 94)
The first version of this worldliness, hiding under a mask of holiness, is found among some liberals. They treat the Faith as an interesting set of ideas, which can never reach to absolute or objective truth. This might be termed a type of neo-Gnosticism, since in Gnosticism truths are seen as subjective and are realized by intuitiveness, not by reason. The modern version of this error is described by Pope Francis, and it fits the errors often seen among liberal Catholics. Each person’s opinion is paramount, and the Church is not viewed as having any authoritative or binding teachings.
So Pope Francis first criticizes an error found among liberal Catholics. Conservative commentators have not objected to this criticism, nor do they feign ignorance as to what it might mean. But then the holy Pontiff goes on to criticize a certain error found among many conservative Catholics.
The other is the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others.” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 94)
I will explain the term “promethean neopelagianism” in a moment. But I notice that the Pope himself explains what it means; it refers to those “who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others”. Yes, this is a common sinful attitude among conservative or traditionalist Catholics. And the basis for this self-exaltation is that they “observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past.”
Fr. Z. is offended by this passage because it refers to him and to many of his readers. They “observe certain details” of liturgical form, and they treat every rule pertaining to liturgical form as an unchangeable dogma — unless it is a post-Vatican II rule or point of liturgical form, in which case they deride and reject it. They are intransigent in adhering to a particular Catholic style from the past; they reject the authority of the Church to make any changes to liturgical form, unless they agree.
So the phrase is not hopelessly obscure. It is explained in the very words that follow the phrase.
Is it not an error for followers of Jesus Christ to trust in their own powers, their own understanding, their own ideas, and reject all correction and teaching from others, even from the Pope? Is it not an error for worshippers of God, who humbled himself to become a man, to speak and act as if they were superior to others? And I cannot help but notice that, when this superiority is based on observing and exalting certain rules — and expressing contempt and derision for all who disagree — it is much like the errors of the Pharisees, whom Jesus rebuked sharply and repeatedly.
So this correction of conservatives — of those who behave this way — by Pope Francis is fitting and just. The Pope has the task of guiding and correcting the flock of Jesus Christ. Pope Francis is exercising his right and his duty as holy Roman Pontiff when he corrects these errors. And I notice that he shows no favoritism, correcting liberal errors as well as conservative errors.
Now for the phrase “promethean neopelagianism”.
Prometheus was said to have created man out of clay, and brought him to life with a spark; he is said to have stolen fire from the gods. Pelagius denied original sin and taught a distorted version of free will, independent of grace. So “self-absorbed promethean neo-pelagianism” refers to those Catholics who, in a sense, have stolen the fire of the Catholic Faith, claiming that their explanation of the Faith is the only correct one. It is as if they created man and gave him life, for they speak and act as if they decide what is and is not true on matters of faith and morals. Their version of religion is like that of Pelagius in that they speak as if they were not subject to error in their own understanding, as if they do not have original sin, and as if their free will were not dependent on grace for its true freedom.
On the right, some Catholics are fittingly criticized in this way. They have created their own version of Catholicism and the Mass. They speak as if there were infallible on every question of doctrine and discipline, and as if they have never been touched by original sin or concupiscence, so as to be subject to error in their fallen human minds. These traditionalists do not see the Pope and the Magisterium as their teachers. Instead, they judge every teaching of the Pope, Vatican II, and the body of Bishops dispersed through the world, to say whether it is true or false. They never admit that their own understanding could be wrong, even when their ideas are contradicted by Second Vatican Council, by every Pope from the time of the Council to the present day, and by the body of Bishops dispersed through the world since the Council.
They “ultimately trust only in their own powers” of understanding doctrine and of making judgments on matters of discipline. They “feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past,” such as the Latin Mass and the traditionalist approach to Catholicism. They offer a “supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline”, as if they understand Catholicism better than the Pope and the body of Bishops. But this only “leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism”, which presents the ultra-conservative Catholic as if he were better than all other Catholics, better than all other believers, better than all other human persons. This elitism reaches an absurd height in those conservative Catholics who think that they alone are saved, as if no Jew or Muslim or other believer, no Orthodox or Protestant Christian, could be saved without converting to their conservative Catholic point of view.
Now Fr. Z. claims that he does not know what the phrase “self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism” means. But I find that difficult to believe. He is currently working on obtaining a Ph.D. in theology. He knows what Pelagianism is. The term self-absorbed is a readily understandable term. And to understand “promethean” in this context does not take much research or thinking. In addition, Pope Francis explains the meaning of this phrase in the words that follow its use. So the problem is not that the phrase is “impenetrably vague”, as Fr. Z. claims.
What is happening here is that some Catholics self-identify as conservatives, not as Christians or Catholics. They see themselves as preserving the true Faith, while all other Catholics have gone astray. But they have mistaken faithfulness to a conservative point of view for the true Faith. They are truly very devout conservatives. But they are also among those persons criticized by Jesus in the Gospels for the errors of Pharisaism.
They treat the conservative Catholic subculture as if it were the sole source of religious and moral truth, and as if it were the sole authoritative interpreter of Tradition and Scripture. And they have the arrogance to treat the Pope and the Second Vatican Council and the body of Bishops as subject to their own judgment and correction. Pope Francis offers correction to many of the errors found among Catholic Christians today, liberals and conservatives. But no one seems to be accepting that correction.
Truly, the great apostasy is near.