Washington D.C., Mar 1, 2018 / 01:10 pm (CNA).- The first stirring sentences of the new CDF letter to bishops, Placuit Deo, reject the very notion of a “new paradigm” by which “the newness of the Holy Spirit” could somehow mean a departure from the fullness of revelation which has already been revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Yet quickly the document turns to a different kind of “newness,” a newness which resembles the ancient errors of Gnosticism and Pelagianism, about which Pope Francis has frequently warned.
In the Vatican press conference, the new CDF prefect, Archbishop Ladaria, reiterated that the new errors are not exactly like the old ones, but they are similar. So it bears recalling what the old errors were with a view to how the document discusses the challenge these new errors pose to our understanding of salvation itself.
Pelagianism, old and new
The original Pelagianism arose in Rome, defeated almost single-handedly by one giant of a bishop theologian: Saint Augustine.
Because Pelagius did not believe in original sin, he thought grace was something like our “natural capacities” to will and do the good. Pelagius taught that God wound us up with all the right equipment, and so long as we followed the model of Jesus’ moral example, we could will and do the good by ourselves. Salvation was finally up to our individual effort, and was in no way dependent on the assistance from God or others. Augustine rightly saw in this a pagan Stoicism masquerading as Christianity, and thus he aimed to convert by way of preaching that supernatural grace is not something innate, but something which must expand our capacities to a greater end, which must renew and refresh our interior will, and which, by the gift of faith and charity, can graciously assist our own effort to fulfill God’s commandments.
As Placuit Deo puts it, the new Pelagianism is an “individualism centered on the autonomous subject [which] tends to see the human person as a being whose sole fulfilment depends only on his or her own strength.” It is like the old Pelagianism in the sense that “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.” In the new Pelagianism, Jesus is only an ideal exemplar who may inspire us, but never one into whom we must be incorporated, or by whom our own “innate desires” must be transformed. The new Pelagian wants the Church to conform to her own “already graced” desires.
The new Pelagianism is, fundamentally, a rejection of the very medicinal grace that is needed in the field hospital of the world.
Gnosticism, old and new
Drawing upon a talk Pope Francis gave in 2015, the letter also warns us about a new Gnosticism, which is a different kind of individualism that attempts to rise above nature by a kind of spiritual self-help, a disembodied angel-ism that pretends that the wholly interiorized self is “intellectually capable of rising above the flesh of Jesus towards the mysteries of the unknown divinity.”
The old Gnostics believed in salvation by a new knowledge. They were incredibly diverse, but one thing they held in common was the view that matter was a dark shackle from which the spirit must be freed. The Gnostics are utterly pessimistic about our bodies, thinking them weak and incapable, powerless to will and do the good. The Gnostic vision is that Christ saves only by the “spiritual truths” he teaches, not by His Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection, since he only “appeared” in the form of flesh. As a result, the Gnostics who came after Christianity preferred to speak about the movement of the Holy Spirit less than the actual life and teachings of Jesus. They did not believe in gender, and saw procreative sex as gross, and as wrongly extending the deterioration of spirit into matter. Unsurprisingly, they did not believe in bodily resurrection.
Citing a 2013 address of Pope Francis, Placuit Deo says that the new Gnosticism “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, but only a reality deprived of meaning, foreign to the fundamental identity of the person, and easily manipulated by the interests of man.” Pope Francis’ repeated warnings about the “ideological colonization” of gender ideology is intrinsically united to his concern with the new Gnosticism.
Errors can Only Be Crushed by the Truth
At times the document seems almost to merge Pelagianism and Gnosticism into one. But this is only to highlight that both tendencies have the same effect: they put obstacles between people and the salvation that comes in, and through, Jesus Christ and His Church. “Both the individualistic [Pelagian] and the merely interior [Gnostic] visions of salvation contradict the sacramental economy through which God wants to save the human person.”
Placuit Deo thus repeatedly summarizes these two tendencies as errors about the nature of salvation: the Pelagian error of individualism is that we can save ourselves, and the Gnostic error is one which rejects the limits of human nature in order to embrace a merely interior, spiritualized redemption.
Against the Pelagian tendency which asserts the priority of the “self-absorbed promethean,” a conscience which refuses to be formed, Placuit Deo stresses that salvation must come from above.
To be saved, God must bring down to us his healing grace, and to ascend we must be assisted by the elevating grace that flows from the side of Christ. We do not have the principle of our purification within us — not in our nature, not in our desires, not in our intellect — and so we must be united to the Christ and His Church by which such redeeming graces save us. No Christian can “go his own way.”
Against the Gnostic tendency, God comes to us in the flesh, and not solely “in an interior manner.” It is only “by assuming flesh (cf. Rom 8:3; Heb 2:14; 1 Jn 4:2), and being born of a woman (cf. Gal 4:4),” that “the Son of God” could unite us to God.
It is only by assuming our nature that Christ could purify us so that we might partake of that happiness which cannot be lost.
Placuit Deo ends with the Christian hope that salvation comes not from trying to remake salvation in our own image, but in receiving the grace which heals, elevates, and transforms us so that we might have eternal life: “He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself” (Phil 3:20-21).”
We must not create a Redeemer “in the image of our own need,” but turn to the One who has been revealed to us by Scripture and Sacred Tradition. This is the truth that crushes the obstacles to understanding true redemption.
I, for one, am pleased that the Holy Father has approved and published what is, in fact, a beautiful letter that gives superb evangelical wisdom to brother bishops, and also to a watching world.
C.C. Pecknold is Associate Professor of Theology at The Catholic University of America. His viewpoint does not neccesarily reflect the editorial position of Catholic News Agency.