Gaudete et Exsultate and the Heresy of “Rules”

Anyone who has had occasion to use the 1962 Roman Missal might have found the following words, attributed to Pope St. Pius X, on a page inserted just before the Ordinary of the Mass:

“The Holy Mass is a prayer in itself, even the highest prayer that exists. It is the Sacrifice, dedicated by our Redeemer at the Cross, and repeated every day on the Altar. If you wish to hear Mass as it should be heard, you must follow with eye, heart and mouth all that happens at the Altar. Further, you must pray with the Priest the holy words said by him in the Name of Christ and which Christ says by him. You have to associate your heart with the holy feelings which are contained in these words and in this manner you ought to follow all that happens at the Altar. When acting in this way you have prayed Holy Mass.” [1]

Judging by these reverent words, that Pope must have harbored a “punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy.” [2] And yet, such punctilious concern for the liturgy is one of many behaviors normally thought of as orthodox which are now marked by the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate as warning signs of heresy.

Chapter Two presents multiple criticisms of an over-emphasis on doctrine and other “rules” which are prescribed by the faith. The message of Chapter Two is that the Church has a significant problem with Catholics who focus on doctrine to the detriment of charity, to such an extent that heresy is involved. This is somewhat surprising to me; after all, heresy is a serious charge. How has it come to be that the Church is now facing a resurgence of two ancient heresies? Why has this sudden affliction of Gnostics and Pelagians erupted spontaneously in the pontificate of Francis?

The brand of Gnosticism considered to be threatening the Church is aptly represented by the following quote, found right at the beginning of Chapter Two:

“Gnostics . . . judge others based on their ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines.” [3]

This view of Gnosticism is primarily focused around the concept of “special knowledge,” which ancient Gnostics claimed that only they possessed.

“Gnosticism . . . divided Christians into those who were spiritual and had the special knowledge of the interior ‘spark’ of the divine within each human being and those without this knowledge.” [4]

Gnosticism is deemed to have resurfaced in the form of certain people who believe that only they have the knowledge needed to understand the Gospel. The obvious question, then, is what is the basis for the assertion that there are Gnostics in the Church who claim special knowledge? A look at the statements describing Gnostics shows that those being labeled as such are people who think that they understand Catholic doctrine and the requirements of the faith:

“Gnostics think that their explanations can make the entirety of the faith and the Gospel perfectly comprehensible.” [5]

“When somebody has an answer for every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right road.” [6]

“Someone who wants everything to be clear and sure presumes to control God’s transcendence.” [7]

“It is not easy to grasp the truth that we have received from the Lord. And it is even more difficult to express it.” [8]

“Here I would note that in the Church there legitimately coexist different ways of interpreting many aspects of doctrine and Christian life.” [9]

This is really interesting, because if Gnosticism is indeed afoot, then it would be reasonable to expect that the claimed special knowledge would be something apart from or different than established doctrine. However, these statements listed above reflect an underlying implication that the Gospel and doctrine as it already is cannot be fully understood. The logical conclusion following from such an implication is that anyone who says they understand the Gospel must be claiming special knowledge which enables their understanding. A circular argument emerges: if you accept the teaching authority of the Church, and you therefore think that you understand enough about that teaching to be obedient to it, then you are guilty of invoking special knowledge; and since you are invoking special knowledge, you are a Gnostic, and you don’t accept the teaching of the Church. Acceptance of authoritative doctrine has somehow become a sign of error.

Reverend Richard Hogan makes the point that due to the wide variety of Gnostic doctrines that multiplied across the early Church world, “The story of Gnostic thought represents one of the strongest possible arguments for the necessity of an authoritative interpretation of revelation.” [10] Yet here we have an apostolic exhortation which labels as Gnostics those who accept authoritative doctrine. We have gone full circle – from Gnosticism reflecting the need for authoritative doctrine, to acceptance of authoritative doctrine being a symptom of Gnosticism.

I am personally not convinced that understanding the Gospel is as difficult as described by the exhortation. The teachings about what we are to believe and how we are to act are straightforward. As proclaimed by Pope St John Paul II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church “is a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illuminated by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, and the Church’s Magisterium. I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid instrument for ecclesial communion.” [11] What may be difficult to understand is the reasoning behind certain teachings. With Humane Vitae, for example, many Catholics have trouble understanding why preserving the connection between the unitive and procreative aspects of human sexuality is so critically important. Or, as noted in Veritatis Splendor, obedience to what God has taught us may be difficult:

“Keeping God’s law in particular situations can be difficult, extremely difficult, but it is never impossible. This is the constant teaching of the Church’s tradition . . . ” [12]

Finally, it may also be difficult to understand how a teaching may be true. For example, we cannot understand how in the Consecration at Mass ordinary bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, yet we accept that it is truth while remaining a mystery to us. In any case, none of these difficulties prevent us from understanding what it is that the Church is telling us to believe and how we are to act.

The discussion of Pelagianism in Gaudete et Exsultate focuses on its characteristic denial of the necessity for grace:

“When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that ‘not everyone can do everything.’ ” [13]

This passage makes the argument that when certain Catholics profess to accept the truth that grace is necessary, then they don’t really mean it, and are thereby actually denying that grace is necessary. But I do not see how this conclusion is justified. The reference to “not everyone can do everything” and the footnote at the end of the passage direct us to the Catechism’s comment on the imputability of guilt for sin and how it may vary according to circumstances. [14] But the fact that God’s merciful judgment can take our weakness into account when we fail does not mean that we should give up the fight to be good. As Pope St John Paul II wrote in Veritatis Splendor:

“The moral prescriptions which God imparted in the Old Covenant, and which attained their perfection in the New and Eternal Covenant in the very person of the Son of God made man, must be faithfully kept and continually put into practice in the various different cultures throughout the course of history.” [15]

Nor should His mercy lead us to believe that we can abandon our continued reliance on His grace. St Augustine, quoted by Pope St John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor, appreciated the complementarity between grace and doctrine:

“The law was given that grace might be sought; and grace was given, that the law might be fulfilled”. [16]

This theme, that there is a pervasive problem in the Church with those whose adherence to doctrine is inauthentic and a sign of rejection of God’s grace, is expressed multiple times in the exhortation, as the following statements indicate:

“Those who yield to this pelagian or semi-pelagian mindset, even though they speak warmly of God’s grace, “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”.” [17]

“Still, some Christians insist on taking another path, that of justification by their own efforts, the worship of the human will and their own abilities.” [18]

“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 . . . ” [19]

” . . . the life of the Church can become a museum piece or the possession of a select few. This can occur when some groups of Christians give excessive importance to certain rules, customs or ways of acting.” [20]

“Once we believe that everything depends on human effort as channelled by ecclesial rules and structures, we unconsciously complicate the Gospel and become enslaved to a blueprint that leaves few openings for the working of grace. ” [21]

Despite these repeated criticisms, Gaudete et Exsultate does not provide evidence to document such an extreme focus on doctrine within the Church. A look at the statistics shows that exactly the opposite is painfully and obviously true. Catholics are disregarding doctrine with abandon. Alan Anderson notes the embarassingly poor Mass attendance and practice of Confession in the United States. [22] A Gallup poll from 2012 showed that 82% of Catholics say that contraception is morally acceptable. [23] Another Gallup poll from 2017 reports that “a majority of U. S. Catholics have consistently supported same-sex marriage since 2011.” [24] I could go on documenting this tragic litany, on issues such as abortion, or belief in the Real Presence, for example, but the point is the facts show that rather than an over-emphasis on doctrine, there is actually massive dismissal of doctrine by Catholics.

The case that is made in Gaudete et Exsultate for the re-emergence of these heresies seems to me to be weak. Although the supposed behaviors are negatively characterized in detail, evidence is not provided to substantiate the actual existence of such behaviors on a significant scale. In February 2018 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the letter Placuit Deo, which also asserts the rekindled existence of certain aspects of Gnosticism and Pelagianism, but recognizes them only as “heretical tendencies.” This letter views the heretical Gnostic tendencies as “a merely interior vision of salvation,” and the heretical Pelagian tendencies as “individualism.” [25] As noted by Diane Montagna, the letter “made no connection between these erroneous tendencies and Catholics who adhere to the Church’s tradition.” [26] I would add that Placuit Deo does not associate these heretical tendencies with an over-emphasis on knowledge of or fidelity to doctrine, as does Gaudete et Exsultate. Nor does it indulge in the attribution of uncharitable behavior to those who may have such heretical tendencies. Disappointingly, Placuit Deo also fails to provide any evidence for widespread existence of these heretical tendencies.

The logic used to create the case for the two heresies is tenuous, turning confidence in and fidelity to the faith into faults. Simply put, the message that I hear from Chapter Two of Gaudete et Exsultate is:

The Gospel is too hard to understand – only Gnostics think they can understand it.

The Gospel is also too hard for anyone to follow – only Pelagians think that they can follow it.

Certainty in doctrine and practice is not beneficial, closes off necessary flexibility, and is characteristic of those who are judgmental of others.

This perspective of Catholic doctrine and practice fails to recognize that human beings need and prosper from a firm foundation of faith and morality on which to build and support their lives. Archbishop Chaput recently put it quite succinctly:

“Many who come to the faith today do so not in spite of the ‘hard’ Catholic teachings, but precisely because of them—and this, often in circumstances when they are not sure that they can even live up to those demands. They recognize in those teachings the voice of Jesus Christ and the confidence of the Church in the authority of moral truth.” [27]


1. The Roman Catholic Daily Missal, 1962. Angelus Press, 2004, 835.

2. Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate [Apostolic Exhortation on the Call to Holiness in Today’s World], Vatican Website, 19 March 2018, sec. 57.

3. Gaudete et Exsultate, sec. 37

4. Hogan, Richard M. Dissent from the Creed: Heresies Past and Present. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2001, 43.

5. Gaudete et Exsultate, sec. 39

6. Gaudete et Exsultate, sec. 41

7. Gaudete et Exsultate, sec. 41

8. Gaudete et Exsultate, sec. 43

9. Gaudete et Exsultate , sec. 43

10. Hogan, Dissent, 46.

11. John Paul II, Fidei Depositum [Apostolic Constitiution on the Publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church Following the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council], Vatican Website, 11 October 1992, sec. IV.

12. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor [Encyclical], Vatican Website, 6 August 1993, sec. 93.

13. Gaudete et Exsultate, sec. 49

14. United States Catholic Conference, Inc. – Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Catechism of the Catholic Church, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994, paragraph 1735.

15. Veritatis Splendor, sec. 25

16. Veritatis Splendor, sec. 23

17. Gaudete et Exsultate, sec. 49

18. Gaudete et Exsultate, sec. 57

19. Gaudete et Exsultate, sec. 57

20. Gaudete et Exsultate, sec. 58

21. Gaudete et Exsultate, sec. 59

22. Anderson, Alan L. “A Curious Absence in ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’,” TheCatholicThing. April 15, 2018.

23. Newport, Frank. “Americans, Including Catholics, Say Birth Control is Morally OK.” Gallup. May 22, 2012.

24. McCarthy, Justin. “U.S. Support for Gay Marriage Edges to New High.” Gallup. May 15, 2017.

25. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Placuit Deo [To The Bishops Of The Catholic Church On Certain Aspects Of Salvation], VaticanWebsite, 16 February 2018.                                                                         

26. Montagna, Diane. “Is new Vatican doc on neo-Pelagianism at odds with Pope’s preferred pejorative?” LifeSiteNews. March 1, 2018.

27. Chaput, Charles J. “The Splendor of Truth in 2017.” First Things. October, 2017.