Vatican Reaffirms Teaching on Salvation in Response to ‘Cultural Changes’

In a Letter to bishops, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith tackles two modern tendencies which it argues make the true salvation offered by the Catholic Church ‘difficult to understand.’

Archbishop Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, speaking at today's press conference at the Vatican, March 1, 2018.
Archbishop Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, speaking at today's press conference at the Vatican, March 1, 2018. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

In a document for bishops published on Thursday, the Vatican has drawn attention to cultural changes and new ways of thinking which can be obstacles to salvation.

Entitled Placuit Deo (It Has Pleased God), signed by Archbishop Luis Ladaria, S.J., prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and approved by Pope Francis, the Letter is intended to “demonstrate certain aspects of Christian salvation that can be difficult to understand” in today’s culture.

It centers on neo-Pelagianism and neo-Gnosticism, which the document asserts are two contemporary schools of thought, rooted in the past heresies of Pelagianism and Gnosticism, and which have often been mentioned in speeches and homilies of Pope Francis.

The Letter says neo-Pelagianism refers to individuals who believe themselves to be “radically autonomous,” who presume to be able to save themselves and their own strength, and 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,” the Letter states.

Neo-Gnosticism refers to a model of salvation that is “closed off in its own subjectivism,” the Letter says, adding that it consists of “improving oneself,” of being “intellectually capable” of reaching the mysteries of the unknown divinity without Christ. Such thinking “presumes to liberate the human person from the body and the material universe,” fails to see the “provident hand of God,” experiences a reality that is both “deprived of meaning” and foreign to a person’s “fundamental identity,” and is “easily manipulated by the interests of man,” the Letter asserts.  

Pelagianism, a heresy that denies original sin, and Gnosticism which saw Jesus as one of a group of divine beings in a celestial hierarchy, represent “perennial dangers for misunderstanding Biblical faith” the document goes on to say, but both have “similarities” with these two “modern tendencies.”

The document adds that, as both modern-day heresies prevent Christ from mediating salvation, it is important to “reaffirm that salvation consists in our union with Christ.”

The Letter observes the natural human desire for salvation, but adds that it is often secret and hidden: it can coincide with “hope for physical health,” greater “economic well-being,” or 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, Christ teaches that no created thing “can totally satisfy us” and salvation is not limited to answering “any particular contemporary desire.” Rather it relates to “our entire being” and that the whole person “is called to live in Communion” with God.

Salvation, Placuit Deo reasserts, “begins with welcoming Jesus” who heals and redeems mankind from sin, creating an “incredible synergy between divine and human action” that “shows how baseless the individualist perspective is.” Conformed to Christ, it is possible to fulfill “the good works that God has prepared in advance,” the Letter adds, quoting from Ephesians 2:10.

The document reminds bishops that Christ does not “limit himself” to showing us how to encounter God, but “opens for us the door to freedom.” Salvation, it says, “consists in incorporating ourselves into his life, receiving his Spirit.”

Understanding this, the Letter continues, is “essential” in helping to overcome all “reductionist tendencies” as it shows it is not due to individual efforts (neo-Pelagianism) nor limited to “merely interior salvation” (neo-Gnosticism). Such ways of thinking, it adds, “contradict” the grace and meaning of the sacraments through which believers “continually grow and are spiritually renewed, especially when the journey becomes more difficult.”

Christ’s salvation also opposes the Gnostic “negative view of the created order” understood as a “limitation on the absolute freedom of the human spirit.” Instead, 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 care of all the suffering of humanity “through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.”

The eight-page Vatican document says that the fullness of life in Christ means Christians must establish a “sincere and constructive dialogue” with other religious believers, “confident that God can lead all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way towards salvation in Christ.”

It also stresses that the Church nevertheless continues to evangelize and preach Christ’s return “since it is ‘in 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.’”

Press Conference

At a Vatican press conference Thursday morning, Archbishop Ladaria said the document came about because “various theologians” had asked the CDF to study certain aspects of Dominus Iesus, the Congregation’s 2000 declaration that elaborated on the dogma that the Catholic Church is the sole true Church of Christ.

He said there was “no special reason” why it was published now, but that the Pope encouraged them to publish it “as soon as possible.”

The Pope has referred to neo-Pelagianism in the context of those who “rigidly” adhere to doctrine or Tradition, but the word rigid doesn’t appear in the text of 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.

Asked to give concrete examples of neo-Pelagianism and neo-Gnosticism, the CDF prefect pointed to references to the two tendencies made by Pope Francis, but he did not wish to “point fingers,” just to “point out these 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 answer to a question about the issue of ecumenism and salvation outside the Church — a contentious point in Dominus Iesus which inferred the superiority of the Church in relation to Christian denominations — Archbishop Ladaria said “superiority is perhaps the wrong word."

He added that Vatican II taught that “Christ’s Church subsists in the Catholic Church,” and referred to the Council document Lumen Gentium which teaches that “many elements of salvation are found in Christian religious confessions” and “all tend towards Catholic unity.”

Archbishop Ladaria said that denominations have “elements of sanctification” and “we recognize these gladly.” He stressed that “the fact we don’t enter directly into this [in the Letter] doesn’t mean that the teaching has changed. It seems to me to have deepened.”

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