ROME, March 1, 2018
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis refers to the “self-absorbed promethean neo-Pelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past.”
He added that “a supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying.”
Such people, he said in the apostolic exhortation, are not really “concerned about Jesus Christ or others.”
Many have taken the Pope’s comments on neo-Pelagianism to refer to those whom he has said “rigidly” adhere to doctrine and tradition, particularly in light of other similar comments he has made in the course of his pontificate.
In an address on Christian Humanism delivered in Florence’s famous cathedral, Pope Francis said that Pelagianism “prompts the Church not to be humble, selfless and blessed. And it does so with the appearance of being a good.”
“In facing ills or the problems of the Church,” the Pope added, “it is useless to look for solutions in conservatism and fundamentalism, in the restoration of practices and outdated forms that even culturally aren’t able to be meaningful.”
But is this what neo-Pelagianism really means, according to the Vatican?
In a letter released today, targeting neo-Pelagianism and neo-Gnosticism as two contemporary errors that can be obstacles to salvation, the Vatican’s doctrinal office made no connection between these erroneous “tendencies” and Catholics who adhere to the Church’s tradition.
It also doesn’t mention rigidity or anything about neo-Pelagianism meaning those who “observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past.”
Entitled “Placuit Deo” (In His Goodness), the Letter was signed by Archbishop Luis Ladaria, S.J., prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and approved by Pope Francis. Its aim is to “demonstrate certain aspects of Christian salvation that can be difficult to understand” in today’s culture.
The document focuses on Neo-Pelagianism and Neo-Gnosticism, which it says are two modern schools of thought that “resemble certain aspects of [the] two ancient heresies” of Pelagianism and Gnosticism. It notes that Pope Francis has often referred to these two “tendencies” in his addresses and homilies.
The letter refers to Neo-Pelagians as individuals who believe themselves to be “radically autonomous,” who presume to be able to save themselves and depend on their own strength. They are unable to recognize that they derive “from God and from others.” Such ways of thinking are “incapable of welcoming the newness of the Spirit of God,” it says.
Classical Pelagianism was the heresy of Pelagius, a British priest of the fifth century, who stated that humans are on their own, without need of grace, and could initiate their own salvation. St. Augustine of Hippo was one of the main opponents of Pelagianism, arguing that God’s unmerited grace is necessary for us to perform any good work that will help us get to heaven.
By contrast, Neo-Gnostics accept a model of salvation that is “merely interior, closed off in its own subjectivism.” The document adds that it consists in “improving oneself,” of being “intellectually capable of rising above the flesh of Jesus towards the mysteries of the unknown divinity.”
The Neo-Gnostic way of thinking “presumes to liberate the human person from the body and from the material universe,” and fails to see traces of God’s provident hand in creation. Neo-Gnostics experience a reality “deprived of meaning,” and foreign to the fundamental identity of the human person as a unity of body and soul. This idea of reality is therefore “easily manipulated by the interests of man.”
Classical Gnosticism is ancient pantheistic belief in “secret teachings” of Christ, namely, that he came in order to free us from the evils of matter so that we might live as purely spiritual beings.
Placuit Deo notes that while there is “a great difference” between modern, secularized society and “the social context of early Christianity, in which these two heresies were born,” there are “similarities” between the ancient histories and the modern tendencies to which Pope Francis refers, insofar as they represent “perennial dangers for misunderstanding Biblical faith.”
It adds that as both modern-day versions of these heresies prevent Christ from mediating salvation, it is important to “reaffirm that salvation consists in our union with Christ.”
Placuit Deo observes the natural human desire for salvation, but adds that it is often “secret and hidden”: it can coincide with “hope for physical health,” take the form of worrying about “economic well-being,” or manifest itself as a need for “interior peace” and peace with one’s neighbor. It can also manifest itself in “endurance” and “overcoming pain,” as well as the need to ward off “ignorance and error, fragility and weakness, sickness and death.”
By contrast, faith in Christ teaches that no created thing “can totally satisfy us because God has destined us for communion with Him.” The letter therefore explains that salvation does not consist in filling our hearts with “things that the human person can obtain by himself” such as wealth, knowledge or self-satisfaction. The ultimate vocation of man is divine. “Our hearts will be restless until they rest in Him.”
The Letter also stresses that “the origin of evil” is not found in the material world, and its “most damaging” form comes from man’s heart. Salvation, the Letter therefore reasserts, “begins with welcoming Jesus” who heals and redeems mankind from sin. Quoting Benedict XVI, the document states that being a Christian is about “the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
Christian salvation, it adds, “shows how baseless the individualist perspective is,” reminding that from an encounter with God, Christ “opens for us the door to freedom.” Salvation, it says, consists in “incorporating ourselves” into Christ’s life, “receiving his Spirit.”
The document explains understanding how the salvation “brought by Jesus” comes to us through His Church helps to overcome “reductionist tendencies.” The salvation that God offers man is not achieved with our own individual efforts alone, nor is it limited to the neo-Gnostic view of “merely interior salvation.” Such ways of thinking “contradict the sacramental economy through which God wants to save the human person” and bring him into communion with the Holy Trinity.
The Letter teaches that true salvation is not about “liberation from the body” but rather “includes its sanctification.” The sacraments allow Christians to have a “type of relationality” that calls “for the care of all suffering humanity through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.”
The Vatican document says that the fullness of life in Christ means Christians must 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.’” But it also retains the call to evangelize as it is in Christ’s hope “that we are saved.’”
“Total salvation of the body and of the soul is the final destiny to which God calls all of humanity,” the document concludes. “Founded in faith, sustained by hope, and working in charity, with the example of Mary, Mother of the Savior and first among the saved, we are certain that ‘our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.’”
Vatican Presser on “Placuit Deo”
Explaining the genesis of the document at a Vatican press conference this morning, Archbishop Ladaria said that following the promulgation of Dominus Iesus in 2000, “various theologians” asked the CDF to study several aspects covered in the document, and suggested “a new document on Christian salvation.”
The CDF Prefect said the initiative “was not the Pope’s” but came “from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and various theologians” who in one way or another asked us about the matter.
He said there was “no special reason” why the letter was published now, but that the Pope approved the letter after reviewing it at their Plenary session last month, and asked that it be published “as soon as possible”
Asked by the French news agency La Croix to provide concrete examples of neo-Pelagianism and neo-Gnosticism, the CDF prefect pointed to references to the two tendencies made by Pope Francis, said he would not “point fingers” and limited himself to pointing out the tendencies to “self-reliance and to isolation.”
Asked which is the more important, he said it is “easier” to point to examples of neo-Pelagianism, but you could “fill books” with ancient Gnosticism which is a “very complicated phenomenon.”
In light of the Pope’s repeated use of the term neo-Pelagianism to describe those who “rigidly” adhere to doctrine or Tradition, the National Catholic Register asked why the word or sentiment does not appear in the Letter. Archbishop Ladaria said he was not aware the word was not included, and added there was “no particular reason” why it was not.
Finally, a journalist from the Associated Press said she “marveled” that the document only used the word ‘Catholic’ once (in the title) and asked whether Placuit Deo marked a departure from the Church’s teaching regarding the “fullness of salvation” being only found in the Catholic Church.
The CDF Prefect said the Church has often repeated what Vatican II taught that “Christ’s Church subsists in the Catholic Church.” He also referred to the Council document Lumen Gentium which teaches that “many elements of salvation are found in Christian religious confessions” and that these elements “tend towards Catholic unity.”
Archbishop Ladaria said that denominations have “elements of sanctification” and “we recognize these gladly.” And he stressed that “the fact that we don’t enter directly into this [in Placuit Deo] doesn’t mean that the teaching has changed. It seems to me to have deepened.”