The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has released a new document on the subject of salvation.
The CDF is the department at the Vatican charged with looking out for doctrinal errors, and it does not release documents very often.
1) Why was the document released?
On March 1, the prefect and secretary of the CDF—Archbishops Luis Ladaria and Giacomo Morandi—held a press conference in which they announced the new document.
Archbishop Ladaria explained that the document arose after some theologians asked the congregation to further examine themes discussed in its earlier document on salvation, Dominus Iesus (2000).
That document proved controversial because it explained the Church’s faith in Jesus Christ as the unique Savior of mankind, which some took as a slight to non-Christian religions.
The new document—Placuit Deo (Latin, “It has pleased God”)—reaffirms Christian teaching on Jesus as “the only Savior of the whole human person and of all humanity” (2), but it does not dwell on the issue.
Instead, it focuses on two problematic tendencies in modern society to which Pope Francis has called attention, comparing them to the ancient heresies of Pelagianism and Gnosticism.
2) What is Pelagianism?
Pelagianism was a heresy that minimized or denied the need for God’s grace in avoiding sin and achieving salvation. It is named after Pelagius, a monk from the British Isles who lived in the 300s and 400s. Pelagianism was fought by St. Augustine and others, and it was condemned at a variety of councils.
The new document, Placuit Deo, explains:
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, [or] power), not like a radical healing and regeneration of the freedom, without prior merit, until he can do good and reach the eternal life (fn. 9).
3) What is Gnosticism?
Gnosticism was a heresy that arose in the second and third century. It took many different forms.
Gnostics claimed to have special knowledge about the nature of the world and an alleged hierarchy of divine, celestial beings. They commonly saw the material world as evil, being produced by an inferior divine power who was identified with the God of the Old Testament.
Salvation, for Gnostics, consisted in liberation from the flesh by embracing the Gnostic message.
4) Is Gnosticism the belief that we are “saved through knowledge”?
No. This common claim is a mistake based on where the word comes from (gnosis, one of the Greek words for “knowledge”) and that ignores what Gnostics actually believed.
Religions generally see a connection between salvation and knowledge. They hold that people need to know what to do to be saved:
- In Christianity, people need to know and act on the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- In Buddhism, people need to recognize the Four Noble Truths and follow the Eightfold Path.
- In Islam, people need to know and submit to the will of God.
Each of these religions could be called “gnostic” if all you mean by that is that they think people need knowledge to be saved.
What makes Gnosticism distinct is not its belief that knowledge is important for salvation. It’s the specific content of the knowledge its adherents thought would let one achieve salvation. The CDF explains:
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 (fn. 9).
5) What are the tendencies in modern society that the CDF warns against in the new letter?
The first tendency is a kind of self-sufficient individualism that doesn’t properly appreciate the role of Jesus in salvation:
On one hand, individualism centered on the autonomous subject tends to see the human person as a being whose sole fulfillment depends only on his or her own strength.
In this vision, the figure of Christ appears as a model that inspires generous actions with his words and his gestures, rather than as he who transforms the human condition by incorporating us into a new existence, reconciling us with the Father and dwelling among us in the Spirit (n. 2).
The second tendency is a kind of isolationism that conceives of salvation as an exclusively personal thing that involves only the individual and God. This is sometimes called a “just me and Jesus” attitude, and it does not appreciate our obligations toward others and the world:
On the other hand, 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 (ibid.).
6) How has Pope Francis spoken of these tendencies?
The CDF explains:
Pope Francis, in his ordinary magisterium, often has made reference to the two tendencies described above, that resemble certain aspects of two ancient heresies, Pelagianism and Gnosticism.
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 derives from God and from others. . . .
On the other hand, a new form of Gnosticism puts forward a model of salvation that is merely interior, closed off in its own subjectivism. . . .
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 (n. 3).
7) In speaking of these tendencies as Pelagianism and Gnosticism, is the pope being literal?
No. The CDF explains:
Clearly, the comparison with the Pelagian and Gnostic heresies intends only to recall general common features, without entering into judgments on the exact nature of the ancient errors. . . .
However, 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 (n. 3).
8) What does the CDF see as the antidotes to these problems?
A complete discussion can be found by reading the document in full, but to put concisely:
- Contra individualism (“neo-Pelagianism”), we cannot rely simply on ourselves for salvation (e.g., by trying to be a morally good person). God’s grace in Jesus Christ is essential for salvation. The sacraments are means by which God gives us his grace.
- Contra isolationism (“neo-Gnosticism”), salvation is not a purely private and spiritual matter. We must take seriously our responsibilities toward other Christians, the Church, and all of creation.
9) Are there any particularly interesting points the document discusses?
One is a rejection of the common idea that our final destiny is to live as disembodied spirits with God in heaven. Although we may be disembodied before the final resurrection, the document reminds us that, “total salvation of the body and of the soul is the final destiny to which God calls all of humanity” (15).
Another point, which will be particularly interesting for Protestants, is the document’s acknowledgment that Mary is “first among the saved” (15), meaning that she also is a recipient of God’s grace (cf. CCC 508).
10) Did we have any idea this document was coming?
Yes. In his annual address to the CDF last January, Pope Francis mentioned it. He also mentioned that the CDF has been doing a study of Christian principles and economics and another study on euthanasia and the care of the terminally ill.
We may soon see documents on those subject also.