Pelagius (360-418) was a British monk of Celto-Roman origin. Fluent in Greek and Latin, and well-schooled in theology, he combined his great learning with the strict asceticism that for centuries characterised Celtic monasteries in the British Isles and on the Continent.
But it was perhaps this very asceticism that gave birth to the pride that led him astray. In about 380, he moved to Rome. When the Goths sacked the Eternal City in 410, he moved on to Carthage. Five years later, he was in Jerusalem.
During this peripatetic life, he came to several conclusions, one of which was that Original Sin did not really exist, and so the sacraments and the Church were not necessary for salvation – only one’s own good will and good works were. God’s grace was entirely confined to “external helps”. Belloc summed up these beliefs rather wittily in his Pelagian Drinking Song:
Pelagius lived at Kardanoel
And taught a doctrine there
How, whether you went to heaven or to hell
It was your own affair.
It had nothing to do with the Church, my boy,
But was your own affair.
No, he didn’t believe
In Adam and Eve
He put no faith therein!
His doubts began
With the Fall of Man
And he laughed at Original Sin.
These views led him into conflict with such important Church Fathers as Jerome, Augustine and Germanus of Auxerre, and his views were authoritatively condemned by Pope St Zosimus in 418. He was forced to leave Jerusalem, and ended his days in obscurity in Egypt. As is so often the case, however, the heresy he taught lived on after him, though those calling themselves such were suppressed within a century. Indeed, the idea of “conduct over creed” – “it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you are a nice person” – is well-nigh universal today. Pope Francis has repeatedly condemned Pelagianism – though what he means by the word is not always clear.