A new letter issued by the Vatican’s doctrinal office has reaffirmed that Christian salvation can only come through Christ and the Church, and highlighted modern expressions of Pelagian and Gnostic thought which contradict this belief.
Signed by Archbishop Luis Ladaria SJ, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the Feb. 22 feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the letter is addressed to the world’s bishops.
It clarifies how the ancient heresies of Pelagianism and Gnosticism are diffused in modern culture, and urges Christians to evangelize while engaging with those from other religions in a spirit of genuine dialogue.
The four-and-a-half page letter consists of six points, including an introduction and conclusion, outlining the errors of Pelagianism and Gnosticism in light of Christian doctrine, and reaffirming Christ as the only means of salvation, which is offered through the sacraments.
Modern expressions of Pelagianism and Gnosticism
The letter pointed to the difficulty many have in accepting the teachings of Christianity in today’s society, noting that 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 view, Christ is seen as “a model that inspires generous actions with his words and his gestures,” but is not recognized as the one who transforms the human condition by incorporating mankind into a new, reconciled life with the Father.
On the other hand, the letter noted that “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.”
Pope Francis, the letter said, has often spoken of these two tendencies, identifying them with the ancient heresies of Pelagianism and Gnosticism.
Pelagianism gets its name from the monk Pelagius, who lived in the 400s and taught that the human will, as created by God, was enough to live a sinless life. Gnosticism, on the other hand, was a widely diffused belief in the 2nd century that the material world is the result of error on the part of God.
Since the beginning of his pontificate Francis has spoken out about the two heresies, and in 2015 during his pastoral visit to Florence, told participants in the Fifth Convention of the Italian Church that Pelagianism and Gnosticism are two of the greatest temptations that lead the Church away from humility and beatitude.
In the speech, he said Pelagianism “spurs the Church not to be humble, disinterested and blessed,” and does so “through the appearance of something good. Pelagianism leads us to trust in structures, in organizations, in planning that is perfect because it is abstract. Often it also leads us to assume a controlling, harsh and normative manner.”
Norms, he said, “give Pelagianism the security of feeling superior, of having a precise bearing,” while Gnosticism “leads to trusting in logical and clear reasoning, which nonetheless loses the tenderness of a brother’s flesh.”
The attraction of Gnosticism, he said, is “a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feeling.”
Likewise, in Cardinal Joseph Ratzingers’ 1986 spiritual exercises, the future Pope Benedict XVI also condemned the Pelagian trend in modern society, calling it a “vice” and saying those who accept Palegianism “do not want forgiveness and in general they do not want any real gift from God either. They just want to be in order.”
“They don’t want hope, they just want security,” he said, adding that “their aim is to gain the right to salvation through a strict practice of religious exercises, through prayers and action. What they lack is humility which is essential in order to love; the humility to receive gifts not just because we deserve it or because of how we act.”
In Thursday’s letter, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said a “new form” of Pelagianism is spreading in today’s culture 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.”
According to this thought, salvation “depends on the strength of the individual or on purely human structures, which are incapable of welcoming the newness of the Spirit of God,” the letter said.
However, a new form of Gnosticism is also widely diffused, promoting an understanding of salvation which is “merely interior, closed off in its own subjectivism.”
“In this model, salvation consists of improving oneself, of being intellectually capable of rising above the flesh of Jesus towards the mysteries of the unknown divinity,” the letter said. “It presumes to liberate the human person from the body and from the material universe” in which God is no longer found, “but only a reality deprived of meaning” and “easily manipulated by the interests of man.”
Comparing the two heresies is intended as a simple recognition of “general common features, without entering into judgments on the exact nature of the ancient error,” the letter said, emphasizing that there is a vast difference between modern, secularized society and the social context in which the heresies were born.
However, “both neo-Pelagian individualism and the neo-Gnostic disregard of the body deface the confession of faith in Christ, the one, universal Savior,” the letter said, and reaffirmed that “salvation consists in our union with Christ.”
Full story at Catholic News Agency.