The Vatican’s doctrinal office is warning against overly individualistic views of salvation, saying they are contemporary expressions of ancient heresy.
In a letter to the world’s bishops, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explains that a “neo-pelagiansim” is developing whereby an individual “presumes to save oneself” and is “incapable of welcoming the newness of the spirit of God”.
Pope Francis has repeatedly warned against neo-pelagians in the Church who he says confuse “solidity and firmness with rigidity" and believe "salvation is the way I do things".
Pelegianism derives from Pelagius, a 4th and 5th century monk believed to be of British origin, who denied the transforming power of grace to overcome sin.
While the doctrinal office prefect, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, did not cite examples of neo-pelagianism, the implication is that the Pope has been referring to those who have accused him of breaking with Church doctrine by offering communion to the divorced and remarried.
In the earlier manifesto-document of his papacy, "Evangelii Gaudium", Francis talks about a “spiritual worldliness” in the Church which he describes as a “self-absorbed promethean neo-pelagianism”. This attitude, he explains, sees some believers “trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past.”
The congregation's letter, titled “Placuit Deo” and released to reporters at the Vatican on Thursday, describes neo-pelagianism as where "the individual, understood to be radically autonomous, presumes to save oneself, without recognising that, at the deepest level of being, he or she derives from God and from others."
The text also condemns a new form of Gnosticism that believes in a salvation that is purely an interior one and that ignores the reality of God’s incarnation in “the flesh” of Christ. “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, but only a reality deprived of meaning, foreign to the fundamental identity of the person, and easily manipulated by the interests of man,” the letter states.
The first and second century Gnostic heresy took on various forms, but held up the possibility of salvation through a special knowledge or “gnosis” which liberates a person from the body and returns them to their original being in God. Early Gnostics also denied the divinity of Christ.
The Pope has warned against contemporary day Gnostics as being members of elites with some seeing themselves on a higher, spiritual realm. In "Evangelii Gaudium" he points out that neo-gnosticism consists of “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 feelings.”
The new letter, approved by Francis on 16 February and signed by Archbishop Ladaria on 22 February, the Feast of the Chair of St Peter, underscores that salvation is mediated by Christ and the Church. But it does not develop hotly debated questions about salvation outside the Church. According to the Second Vatican Council, the fullness of salvation can only be found inside the Church, but it “does not reject what is true and holy” in other religions.
Archbishop Ladaria said the letter is in keeping with that teaching while also pointing out that Dominus Iesus, a controversial 2000 document forcefully asserting the Church as the means of salvation, still stands. But it is notable that the new letter does not use the language of Dominus Iesus which describes followers of other religions as in a “gravely deficient situation”.
Pic 1: Pope Francis during his weekly general audience at the Vatican. (Credit: Evandro Inetti via ZUMA Wire/PA) Pic 2: A 17th-century Calvinist print depicting Pelagius. The caption says: "Accurst Pelagius, with what false pretence Durst thou excuse Man's foul Concupiscence, Or cry down Sin Originall, or that The Love of GOD did Man predestinate." From Wiki