Readings vs. Pelagianism and Scrupulosity

User's Guide to Sunday, May 3

Sunday, May 3, is the Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year B).


Mass Readings

Acts 9:26-31; Psalm 22:26-28, 30-32; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8


Our Take

“There is a God, and you’re not him.” The advice of the fictional University of Notre Dame priest in Rudy is well taken.

There are several ways that we confuse our efforts with God’s. This Sunday’s readings provide an antidote to two major errors that plague committed Catholics.

Pelagianism. The original heresy of Pelagius believed man to be pure and unaffected by the Fall — and therefore saw our task in the spiritual life to simply do good to win heaven.

This is, in fact, a commonly believed heresy in our day — though we no longer associate it with the fourth-century British moralist Pelagius very often.

We think our good deeds are ours and that they win heaven.

But Jesus refutes that idea when he says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.”

He explains: “Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me.” It is a beautiful metaphor. Our goodness is ours, but its origin is from Jesus Christ himself.

God is not a Santa Claus who is writing down who’s naughty or nice with the ultimate prize, heaven, in his sleigh. He is the principle, origin and end of our good works.

Our job in the spiritual life isn’t to impress God with how holy we can be — it is to allow ourselves to be pruned by him such that his grace can flourish in us.

Scrupulosity. The tendency to scrupulosity is similar to Pelagianism, in that it puts an enormous moral burden on the individual Christian. Scrupulous people imagine that they are sinning more often than they actually are. They become obsessed with the fear that they have displeased God.

However, since God calls us to be perfect, and a real moral transformation is vital to Christianity, many saints have suffered — and then recovered — from scrupulosity.

Before she became a nun, St. Thérèse suffered through scrupulosity, fearing that even her thoughts might damn her. It was horrific, she said: “One would have to pass through this martyrdom to understand it well, and for me, to express what I experienced for a year and a half would be impossible.”

Today’s second reading is a great reminder against scrupulosity.

“Now this is how we shall know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts before him in whatever our hearts condemn, for God is greater than our hearts and knows everything,” John says.

If our hearts condemn us, we should look into the issue our hearts raise. If there is no real issue, then we can tell our hearts, “You’re wrong; God says so in the Ten Commandments.”

Ultimately, all of this Sunday’s readings address both of these issues:

Those who think they are good on their own power, like Pelagius, can remind themselves of St. John’s words: “Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us.”

Those who are obsessed with scruples about their behavior can take comfort in Jesus’ words: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want, and it will be done for you.”

And we can all learn from the early Christians, who were afraid of St. Paul at first. They remembered him as a persecutor; they need to learn about the new man Paul was in Christ: “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”


Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas,

where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.