Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism were condemned at the Second Council of Orange in AD 529, and today Roman Catholicism continues to affirm this condemnation. There is a problem, however, as was noted in the Reformation and ever since. Although Rome officially denies that it embraces Pelagian and semi-Pelagian theology, there are aspects of its theology that suggest its denial of semi-Pelagianism is merely formal, that in practice Roman Catholic theology lapses back into a kind of semi-Pelagianism.
The matter is complex because Roman Catholicism is a complex system, particularly in its teaching on grace and human freedom; thus, it can be difficult to sort out what Rome is actually saying. For example, classic Reformed theology posits a rather simple distinction with respect to God’s grace. There is common grace, which is God’s non-saving benevolence to all creation, and saving grace, which is God’s special, effectual saving grace given only to the elect. Roman Catholic theology, however, speaks of many more kinds of grace—sanctifying grace, habitual grace, operative grace, sacramental grace, prevenient grace, and others—some of which can appear irresistible depending on the theologian one is reading.
Perhaps the best way to consider Rome’s ambiguity is to examine some of its official documents. For instance, the seventh canon of the sixth session of the Council of Trent condemns anyone who says “that all works done before justification, in whatever manner they may be done, are truly sins, or merit the hatred of God; that the more earnestly one strives to dispose himself for grace, the more grievously he sins.” Since in Roman Catholicism justification comes by the grace received in baptism, this canon suggests that human beings are able to do what is truly good even before justifying grace is given. This would contradict today’s passage, which says that no one does what is truly pleasing to God until He intervenes to save (Rom. 3:10–11). On the other hand, the first canon of the same session of Trent condemns anyone who believes he can be justified by works done without grace.
Apologists for Rome have suggested ways to fit all these things to-gether. Nevertheless, such statements, plus Rome’s condemnation of the more strongly Augustinian theology of the seventeenth-century Jansenists, make it hard to see how Rome has not embraced at least a lesser form of semi-Pelagianism. In Roman Catholic theology, peo-ple are not as fallen as the Bible says we are.