13 November 2016

Pelagianism and Prayer for the Departed

May the Souls of the Departed, especially of those who died in the wars between 1914 and the present day, by the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ and the prayers of his Immaculate Mother, rest in peace.

Some time ago we took buses to Shipton-under-Wychwood (don't we have entrancing place-names in England?) and did a walk in the valley of the Evenlode (and beautiful river names?). In Shipton church is a palimpsest brass (the search engine should enable you to find my account of the palimpsest brass at Waterperry).

The 'front' bears an inscription about a woman who died in 1548. Interestingly, it bears no hint of expectation that it might be appropriate to pray for the repose of her soul. This calls for explanation: out in the Oxfordshire backwoods in 1549 the people rose in rebellion against the Prayer Book. So you don't expect to find there evidence of a Protestantism which by then had made little progress beyond some very small areas in the East of England. But the inscription cheerfully assured us that her virtues and her virtuous deeds had undoubtedly brought her straight to heaven.

You don't need to remind me that this assumption is not quite what poor dear Brother Luther thought he meant when he was plugging Justification By Faith Alone. But it is in line with the tens of thousands of funerary inscriptions dating from the ensuing Protestant centuries, postulating certain and immediate sainthood for every deceased person on account of their unbelievably virtuous lives (there is that old story about a little girl who read the gravestones in a churchyard and asked "Mummy, where are all the bad people buried?"). I wonder if anyone has ever written an interpretative account of how the academic doctrinaire Protestantism of Luther and Calvin led with such immediate and apparently automatic ease to its precise and polar opposite, a practical popular Pelagianism.

I do have a theory about this. It is that it was precisely the much-derided 'chantry' system, with its financial link between clergy remuneration and masses for the welfare of the souls of the Faithful Departed, which de facto reminded common unacademic medievals that we are all sinners who depend upon God's gracious mercy for our salvation. De facto, take that away and common unacademic folk, needing to fill a conceptual vacuum, will replace it in their own minds with the assumption that since the recently departed Mary Smith doesn't need masses said for her soul - the government has just declared this and has sequestrated all the assets of all the chantries - ergo if we love Ms Smith we need to be convinced that her good deeds outweigh any sins. It becomes psychologically important to shy away in our minds from the disturbing consequence that, if this is not so, then she is, er, in Hell. Moreover, if there is no Purgatory, then she is already in Heaven ... or Hell. So ... this is my tentative hypothetical proposal ... the paradoxical emphasis in popular Protestantism upon salvation by works (which is ultimately to feed into a facile Universalism which assumes that everybody except probably for Adolf Hitler and Myra Hindley will end up Saved), emerged from a mass crisis of popular rethinking about soteriology and the Departed in 1548.

On the back of the brass, in the reused original dating from 1492, we have a potent reminder of the complex and deeprooted system which was destroyed by the suppression of the chantries. It is an account of bequests to the Guild of our Lady in Aylesbury for Masses and Dirges. Presumably it came on to the market in the despoliations which followed the suppression of the chantries (statute of December 1547). It reminded me of the manuscript* description of endowments made by Sir John Percival, Lord Mayor of London in the reign of the first Tudor, which hung by his tomb in the London City church of S Mary Woolnoth; presumably such public declarations were at least partly intended to ensure the compliance of future generations in fulfilling the dispositions.



*Recently rediscovered at the back of a cupboard in S Mary Woolnoth; the interested can find an account in a piece I published in 2007 in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association (they might also reread Duffy Stripping pp 515ff.). Sir John's document survived because, amid all the provisions for masses for his soul, which will have become obsolete in 1548, there were a few other provisions for benefactions which did not thus become obsolete. A later hand has marked these surviving provisions with an arrow in the margin.

9 comments:

Lepanto said...

I attended a Mass yesterday called 'A Celebration of Life' which was for those parishioners who had died during the previous 12 months. The priest assured us that they were all 'with the Father' and that we were there to 'celebrate' their lives. I could have wept and did sigh frequently throughout the homily.

I read the blog of a man whose aunt had died. Auntie had been something of a problem in the family causing various disputes between family members and was a notorious gossip. This man was her closest relative and knew that she needed prayer. At her funeral he asked the priest to pray for her soul in the Mass and to ask the mourners to do so. The priest opened his address by saying 'Now that our dear sister is in heaven.....' I wonder what price that priest will have to pay.

Melinda said...

Such a lovely walk!

Highland Cathedral said...

The Hapsburgs knew that we are all sinful:
https://catholicismpure.wordpress.com/2011/07/24/whos-there-a-poor-sinner-habsburger-funeral-ritual/
Pity we can't all have something similar (though less grand).

John Collinson said...

I think it's that Protestants don't expect anyone to be holy, or at least, holiness is not their requirement for entrance into heaven. In fact, didn't Luther and Calvin deny that it was even possible for men to be holy? As long as you had a fiduciary faith that Christ had paid the debt of your sins, you were saved - no matter how many sins you committed, no matter how wicked you were. Also, didn't the Protestant deny Purgatory and prayers for the dead? If so, that alone would explain the lack of invitations to pray for the dead.

I wouldn't call this Pelagianism. Protestants denied the possibility of good works and free will, which is the very opposite of Pelagianism. There is this presumption, that as long as you believe hard enough that Christ has saved you, then you can be sure that you are saved. I don't think that this can be called Pelagianism though, because it's not based on a presumption in one's own good works, but in a presumption that one's "faith" is sufficient to justify oneself.

I've come across Protestants who are offended by the very word "saint", insofar as it applies that there are certain holy individuals, and that not all Christian believers are saints. For them, being a saint just means belonging to the Christian community and having the confidence that your sins have been forgiven by Christ; it does not mean having a particular degree of holiness.

What Lepanto refers to, however, does sound like a kind of Pelagianism. It's the post-Conciliar humanist optimism which imagines that all human beings are good-willed and holy, and that heaven is our end by default, and not something that we must labour for perseveringly. It's the idea that ordinary humanity goes to heaven, and only the extraordinarily evil go to hell; whereas it seems to me that the teaching of the Church from the gospel, to the epistles, and all the way up until the most recent ecumenical council, has been that ordinary humanity goes to hell, and only the extraordinarily good go to heaven. I don't see how you can deny this latter opinion, when Christ admonishes to enter the narrow way because, "many are called, and few are chosen", and when St. Paul tells us to work out our salvation in "fear and trembling", and labour after it like an athlete for his crown. The consensus today seems to be that heaven is a retirement that every decent, law-abiding citizen has the right to; rather than a supernatural state that no man could possibly ever merit of himself. Christ tells us to hate the world and love Him, but today we are told that we must love the world and just about put up with Christ.

Liam Ronan said...

Dear Father,

I believe I had read of a certain 'Mother Shipton' once. I wonder if she saw this turn of events.

I cannot understand why the Catholic Faithful do not pray for the Souls in Purgatory every day.

"Take thy bill and sit down quickly, and write fifty." Luke 16:6 et. seq.

There is a salutory lesson in this passage, I believe, intended for we unjust stewards who inevitably will be called to account, and our present ability to relieve Our Master's debtors through Masses, prayer, and indulgences offered for the Poor Souls.

Do it, I say.

"And the lord commended the unjust steward, forasmuch as he had done wisely..."

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Dirge - from Dirige Domine, in conspectu tuo, viam meam.

Is it an office said for the departed, like the Moelieben in Eastern Rite?

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Dear Mrv Collinson

If you look at what I wrote, you will see that I was drawing attention to the fact that the woman concerned was described as having gone to heaven because of her virtues and good deeds. As I struggled to make clear, I am very well aware that this is the diametrical opposite of Protestantism. My interest was in the question of how this pelagian approach happened so soon in a culture in which the authorities were promoting the idea that Works cannot Justify.

With the best will in the wold, I don't see how I could have made this any clearer than I did.

William Weedon said...

Lutherans (of the genuine variety, mind you), most certainly DO expect holiness to begin in this life and to grow, but to reach completion only through death and resurrection. Here's what Martin Luther wrote in a document that Lutherans hold to be part of their confessions:

40] And in Christians this repentance continues until death, because, through the entire life it contends with sin remaining in the flesh, as Paul, Rom. 7:14-25, [shows] testifies that he wars with the law in his members, etc.; and that, not by his own powers, but by the gift of the Holy Ghost that follows the remission of sins. This gift daily cleanses and sweeps out the remaining sins, and works so as to render man truly pure and holy.

Or from another of those Confessions, our Larger Catechism:

These two parts, to be sunk under the water and drawn out again, signify the power and operation of Baptism, which is nothing else than putting to death the old Adam, and after that the resurrection of the new man, both of which must take place in us all our lives, so that a truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, once begun and ever to be continued. For this must be practised without ceasing, that we ever keep purging away whatever is of the old Adam, and that that which belongs to the new man come forth. 66] But what is the old man? It is that which is born in us from Adam, angry, hateful, envious, unchaste, stingy, lazy, haughty, yea, unbelieving, infected with all vices, and having by nature nothing good in it. 67] Now, when we are come into the kingdom of Christ, these things must daily decrease, that the longer we live we become more gentle, more patient, more meek, and ever withdraw more and more from unbelief, avarice, hatred, envy, haughtiness.

Of course, it is also common place to hear that Lutherans do not pray for the dead. Our Confessions actually assert that such prayer is neither forbidden nor is it useless. The usual content of Lutheran funerals, though, is to acknowledge that great as the sin of this sinner lying dead before us was, much greater still is the mercy of God that lovingly embraced them in Baptism, fed them in the Eucharist, absolved them in confession, and that His promise to share with them His forgiveness and eternal life is what sustained them in their pilgrimage and brought them to Himself, provided of course that they died in the faith. FWIW.

Jacobi said...

like the story about the little girl. I have made it clear to my better half, (who comes from Clitherow country in East Lancashire, the eh, most difficult), that she can say what she wants about me, not that she needs any encouragement.

Incidently Father, we Scots have musical names up here too, Kirkconnellea, Merryhatton, and river names, Clyde, Dee, and Tyne.