ROME – For those who think that smacking down heresies is a thing of the past, think again, as a new Vatican letter to bishops around the world tackles doctrinal variations in the modern age, which nevertheless have their roots in the ancient past.
In the Holy See’s first major document on Christian salvation since the controversial text Dominus Iesus in 2000, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog agency – released a reflection Thursday on two of Pope Francis’s recurrent laments about contemporary religion: the rise of new forms of the ancient heresies Pelagianism and Gnosticism.
Eighteen years ago, Dominus Iesus stirred polemics for what critics saw as its air of superiority towards other religions, especially its assertion that non-Christians “objectively speaking … are in a gravely deficient situation” with regard to salvation.
Thursday’s brief, four-page letter, Placuit Deo, or “Pleasing to God,” largely steers clear of controversial territory and focuses instead on unpacking Francis’s thought on the perennial dangers of excessive self-reliance and withdrawal from the world.
“This document does not wish to directly enter in discussion on the issues regarding Dominus Dei,” said Italian Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during a press conference at the Vatican on Thursday, adding that the sole scope of the text is to address means and obstacles to salvation.
“Salvation cannot be simply reduced to a message, a procedure, a gnosis or an interior sentiment,” he stated, rather it’s in “the relationship with God and with brothers that man finds his full completion.”
The Jesuit added that since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) there has been the recognition and acknowledgement that “there are many elements of other Christian and ecclesial communities that lead toward salvation,” and for this reason, the Catholic Church is committed to ecumenism.
“Even though the document does not delve into this issue, it doesn’t mean that the teaching of the Church on this issue has changed. It remains the way it was, though analyzed in greater depth,” Ladaria said.
In essence, the purpose of the letter released Thursday is to take two frequent objections voiced by Francis to trajectories in contemporary religion, and to give them a theological foundation by situating them within classic Catholic teaching on salvation.
The document clearly reaffirms that teaching, which, it says, “proclaims Jesus as the only savior of the whole human person and of all humanity.”
The pope’s concerns referenced in the letter, which he’s voiced on multiple occasions, pivot on what he sees as a modern revival of Pelagianism, which held that the individual can achieve salvation on his or her own, through human effort; and Gnosticism, which treated salvation as an interior journey that distances the individual from the created world and human relationships.
As Francis sees it, Pelagianism overlooks the fragility of human beings and their ultimate dependence on God, while Gnosticism, among other flaws, provides an inadequate basis for Christian commitments such as care of creation and defense of the poor.
The document concedes there are important differences between how those trajectories played out in early Christianity and today, but says, “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.”
Theologically, the document asserts that the salvation offered in Christ rejects both Pelagianism and Gnosticism.
“Faith in Christ teaches, rejecting all claims of self-realization, that [human aspirations] can be fulfilled completely only if God himself makes it possible,” the document says.
Further, it says, “it is clear that the salvation Jesus brought in his person does not occur only in an interior manner.”
One place where all this becomes concrete, according to the document, is the Church. Both Pelagianism and Gnosticism, it suggests, tend to downplay the importance of the Church, suggesting that one can just as easily pursue salvation and a relationship with Christ outside it.
“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 says. “In her we touch the flesh of Jesus, especially in our poorest and most suffering brothers and sisters.”
This topic was directly addressed by Italian Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, secretary of the Congregation, during the press conference.
“The Church is not first and foremost a human institution. It’s inseparably united with Christ – as the body to the Head and the bride to the Groom,” he said. “It, as the new people that God calls to himself, is the place where all men from all time can find the Savior and Salvation.”
The document was adopted in a plenary session of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Jan. 24 and approved by Pope Francis on Feb. 16. The pontiff then ordered its publication.
“Different theologians asked the Congregation to explore the document on the topic of human salvation,” therefore the initiative did not come directly from the pope, Ladaria said.
“There is no special reason to publish this document now rather than later,” he added, noting that the process for the publication of the document had to go through several steps, including internal studies, opinion from consultants, approval by cardinal members of the congregation and finally the okay by the pope.
“Obviously a push for this document, not the initiative but the development, was the idea of the Holy father to fight these reductionist ideas, which he calls neo-Pelagianism and neo-Gnosticism,” the prefect continued.
“The Holy father encouraged us to publish it as soon as possible, and we did what we could to do that.”