As the Church celebrates Christ’s Kingship on Palm Sunday and prepares for his saving passion, crucifixion and resurrection, a new Vatican document reveals how two heresies seemingly from the Church’s ancient past are challenging the ability of the faithful to understand and especially to proclaim Jesus Christ as both King and Savior. Terms like “neo-Pelagianism” and “neo-Gnosticism” will probably at first go straight over the head of the average Catholic — let alone the average person — but the new manifestations of two old heresies have very real consequences for us today and are creating powerful headwinds to evangelization in contemporary culture.
The Church “proclaims Jesus as the only Savior of the whole human person and of all humanity,” reads Placuit Deo, a letter released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) Feb. 22. (See story here.)
But instead of stirring hope and a deeper religious engagement, this message of salvation through Christ is often met today with skepticism and resistance.
Naysayers contend that human beings can save themselves and should not rely on God, let alone deeply flawed religious institutions. They don’t need the Church or the sacraments, they say; they can go it alone, or they have secured a private backchannel to God, and that suffices. As the all-too-common refrain goes, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”
Catholic parents, catechists and pastors are painfully familiar with this kind of pushback. Indeed, Dominican Father Thomas Joseph White, the author of The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism and the director of the Thomistic Institute, which organizes lectures at secular college campuses, told the Register that he routinely fields similar questions from students.
One front of resistance, he said, is “secular liberalism, which seeks to benefit the human race primarily through political transformation without any reference to religion. The reality, however, is that God’s grace and mercy play an integral role in our healing and in our moral progress.”
Another recurring problem is the common belief “that our relation to God … occurs only spiritually through an individual’s hidden religious consciousness or their private relationship with God,” said Father White. “Paradoxically this isolates people religiously and tends to make their relationship with God less real and less profound.”
A professor of theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., Father White agrees with Placuit Deo’s trenchant critique of social trends that are hindering the work of evangelization. As the CDF’s letter explains, Pope Francis has spoken often about two current “tendencies” that resemble the ancient heresies of Pelagianism and Gnosticism, and the CDF wants the world’s bishops — to whom the letter is addressed specifically — to understand the dimensions of the problem.
The CDF readily acknowledges the immense differences between today’s “secularized society and the social context of early Christianity, in which these two heresies were born,” but both Gnosticism and Pelagianism represent perennial dangers.
“On one hand,” the CDF writes, “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. … 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.”
Both heresies were battled centuries ago by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, most notably St. Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century. The Pelagian heresy rejected the doctrine of original sin and argued that man could attain salvation without the need of grace.
In its modern form, Placuit Deo writes, neo-Pelagianism sees the individual as “radically autonomous” and transforms Christ into “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.”
One of the earliest of the heresies, Gnosticism discounted the central role of the body in the economy of salvation. Gnostics believed that the soul could be saved through an intuitive knowledge of the mysteries of the universe. Jesus was viewed as a heavenly messenger, and the salvific power of his bodily suffering, death and resurrection held no importance.
According to the CDF, modern Gnostics embrace a model of salvation that is merely interior, closed off in its own subjectivism.
If, as the CDF warns, “the only thing that mattered were liberating the inner reality of the human person from the limits of the body and the material,” many of the modern threats to the human person become inevitable, from abortion to the ideologies of transgenderism and transhumanism.
The new versions of the heresies, however, also have clear implications for a proper understanding of salvation.
“Both neo-Pelagian individualism and the neo-Gnostic disregard of the body deface the confession of faith in Christ, the one, universal Savior,” explains Placuit Deo.
“How would Christ be able to mediate the Covenant of the entire human family, if human persons were isolated individuals, who fulfill themselves by their own efforts, as proposed by neo-Pelagianism?”
The Father sent his only Son into the world to redeem our bodies, not to enslave them. Christ wept at the death of Lazarus and sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Holy Week is a time for all of us to examine ourselves and ask the difficult question: Am I a neo-Pelagian or neo-Gnostic? Or do I truly embrace the healing power of the Incarnation and the cross and hear properly the Palm Sunday epistle from Paul to the Philippians that says Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross”?
“Christ’s kingship is proclaimed on Palm Sunday, but it also inaugurates his suffering and death. Christ is King at the cross,” said Father White.
“In the Crucifixion, we are saved through the bodily suffering and death of Christ. The material body of the Lord is essential to our salvation. But this also means that our bodies can be saved, even in the midst of human suffering,” he concluded.
“The kingship of Christ on Palm Sunday and the Crucifixion teach us that only through a dependence on the grace of Christ can we find a path to salvation. The human race cannot save itself. Only God can save us.”