The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has sent a letter to some 5,000 Catholic bishops that reaffirms the traditional teaching of the Christian faith in the face of new versions of ancient heresies—Pelagianism and Gnosticism. These heresies claim one can attain salvation by one’s own efforts and strengths or through an inward personal union with God that ignores the community of believers in Jesus, that is, the church.*
“Both neo-Pelagian individualism and the neo-Gnostic disregard of the body deface the confession of faith in Christ, the one, universal Savior,” according to the 4,000-word letter, which was released by the Vatican in Italian, French, English, German, Spanish and Portuguese.
The letter bears the title “Placuit Deo” (“it pleased God”) and deals with “Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation.” It was signed by the prefect and secretary of the congregation that Pope Francis appointed last year, Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, a Spanish Jesuit, and the Italian diocesan priest Giacomo Morandi. They presented the letter at a Vatican press conference on March 1. The pope approved the letter before publication.
Explaining the genesis of the letter, Archbishop Ladaria recalled that after the publication in 2000 of the declaration “Dominus Iesus,” several theologians asked the C.D.F. “to deepen some aspects already enunciated in that declaration” and “suggested a new document about Christian salvation.” Though he did not say so, the historical record shows that “Dominus Iesus” caused much controversy not only within the Catholic Church but also within the other Christian churches and to some degree with the followers of other religions. It was accompanied shortly after by a C.D.F. notification on a key work of the pioneering Belgian theologian, Jacques Dupuis, S.J., Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism.
Today’s letter reflects a somewhat different style and spirit than Benedict XVI’s “Dominus Iesus.”
Today’s letter reflects a somewhat different style and spirit. Whereas “Dominus Iesus” largely focused on the relationship between the Catholic church and non-Christian faiths and the degree to which elements of salvation were present in those faiths, this new document turns the focus more inwardly: on specifically Christian tendencies toward heretical notions of the elements of salvation. As such, it has a somewhat different emphasis from “Dominus Iesus.”
The new document’s stated aim is “to demonstrate certain aspects of Christian salvation that can be difficult to understand today because of recent cultural changes, in light of the greater tradition of the faith and with particular reference to the teachings of Pope Francis.”
It notes that “the contemporary world perceives not without difficulty the confession of the Christian faith, which proclaims Jesus as the only Savior of the whole human person and of all humanity.”
On one hand, it says, “individualism centered on the autonomous subject tends to see the human person as a being whose sole fulfilment depends only on his or her own strength,” and “in this vision, the figure of Christ appears as a model that inspires generous actions with his words and his gestures.”
On the other hand, the letter states that “a merely interior vision of salvation is becoming common, a vision which, marked by a strong personal conviction or feeling of being united to God, does not take into account the need to accept, heal and renew our relationships with others and with the created world.” In this perspective, the letter says, “it becomes difficult to understand the meaning of the Incarnation of the Word, by which He was made a member of the human family, assuming our flesh and our history, for us and for our salvation.”
It recalls that Pope Francis “in his ordinary magisterium” has often referred to the two tendencies “that resemble certain aspects of two ancient heresies, Pelagianism and Gnosticism.” Indeed, Francis has frequently spoken about this in his homilies in an accessible way.
The letter asserts that “a new form of Pelagianism is spreading in our days, one in which the individual, understood to be radically autonomous, presumes to save oneself, without recognizing that, at the deepest level of being, he or she depends from God and from others.” According to this way of thinking, “salvation depends on the strength of the individual or on purely human structures, which are incapable of welcoming the newness of the Spirit of God.”
The document highlights the fact that “a new form of Gnosticism puts forward a model of salvation that is merely interior, closed off in its own subjectivism.” It states:
In this model, salvation consists of improving oneself, of being intellectually capable of rising above the flesh of Jesus towards the mysteries of the unknown divinity. It presumes to liberate the human person from the body and from the material universe, in which traces of the provident hand of the Creator are no longer found, but only a reality deprived of meaning, foreign to the fundamental identity of the person, and easily manipulated by the interests of man.
Both the archbishop in his presentation and the letter acknowledge that “there is a great difference between modern, secularized society and the social context of early Christianity, in which these two heresies were born.” At the same time, “insofar as Gnosticism and Pelagianism represent perennial dangers for misunderstanding Biblical faith, it is possible to find similarities between the ancient heresies and the modern tendencies just described.”
The letter raises two fundamental questions: “How would Christ be able to mediate the Covenant of the entire human family, if human persons were isolated individuals, who fulfil themselves by their own efforts, as proposed by neo-Pelagianism?” and “how could it be possible for the salvation mediated by the Incarnation of Jesus, his life, death and Resurrection in his true body, to come to us, if the only thing that mattered were liberating the inner reality of the human person from the limits of the body and the material, as described by the neo-Gnostic vision?”
Faced with these two trends, the letter reaffirms that “salvation consists in our union with Christ, who, by his Incarnation, death and Resurrection has brought about a new kind of relationship with the Father and among human persons, and has introduced us into these relationships, thanks to the gift of the Spirit, so that we are able to unite ourselves to the Father as sons in the Son, and become one body in the ‘firstborn among many brothers.’”
The letter goes on to elaborate on this by addressing “the human desire for salvation.” Drawing on the teachings of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, the Second Vatican Council, Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, among others, the letter emphasizes:
The total salvation of the person does not consist of the things that the human person can obtain by himself, such as possessions, material well-being, knowledge or abilities, power or influence on others, good reputation or self-satisfaction. No created thing can totally satisfy us, because God has destined us for communion with Him; our hearts will be restless until they rest in Him. The ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine.
It reaffirms the fundamental tenet of Christianity that “the good news of salvation has a name and a face: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior,” and, quoting Benedict XVI, says, “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
The letter makes clear that Jesus as Savior “did not limit himself to showing us the way to encounter God, a path we can walk on our own by being obedient to his words and by imitating his example.” Rather he “opens for us the door of freedom, and becomes, himself, the way.” and “this path is not merely an interior journey at the margins of our relationships with others and with the created world.”
In the final section, the letter reaffirms that “the place where we receive the salvation brought by Jesus is the Church, the community of those who have been incorporated into this new kind of relationship begun by Christ.” It describes the church as a visible community in which “we touch the flesh of Jesus, especially in our poorest and most suffering brothers and sisters.”
The letter says “the individualistic and the merely interior visions of salvation contradict the sacramental economy through which God wants to save the human person” and emphasizes that “the participation in the new kind of relationships begun by Jesus occurs in the Church by means of the sacraments, of which Baptism is the door, and the Eucharist is the source and the summit.”
The letter concludes by stating that “the knowledge of the fullness of life into which Christ the Savior introduces us propels Christians onward in the mission of announcing to all the joy and light of the Gospel.... In this work, Christians must also be prepared to establish a sincere and constructive dialogue with believers of other religions, confident that God can lead ‘all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way’ towards salvation in Christ.”
* A footnote in the letter gives a longer description of these heresies:
According to the Pelagian heresy, developed during the fifth century around Pelagius, the man, in order to fulfill the commandments of God and to be saved, needs grace only as an external help to his freedom (like light, for example, power), not like a radical healing and regeneration of the freedom, without prior merit, until he can do good and reach the eternal life.
More complex is the gnostic movement, sprung up in the first and second centuries, which has many different forms among themselves. In general, the gnostics believed that the salvation is obtained through an esoteric knowledge or gnosis. Such gnosis reveals to the gnostic his true essence, i.e., a spark of the divine Spirit that lives inside him, which has to be liberated from the body, external to his true humanity. Only in this manner, the gnostic returns to his original being in God from whom he has turned away due to a primordial fall.