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We don’t “save ourselves” and salvation isn’t “self-improvement”

SAMOTNY MĘŻCZYZNA
Alexander Mils/Unsplash | CC0
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New Vatican document looks at how modern culture echoes 2 ancient heresies

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a letter today to bishops around the world, titled Placuit Deo. This document, on the subject of Christian salvation, condemns individualism and subjectivism, which misunderstand the salvific action of Christ.

According to Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, prefect of the Congregation since July 2017, this letter to the bishops is firmly in line with Dominus Iesus, published in 2000 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

The future Benedict XVI, the prefect of the same Congregation at the time, wanted to reaffirm “the uniqueness and universality” of salvation in Jesus Christ and in the Catholic Church. He also wanted to help contemporary men and women discover “the beauty of Christian salvation.”

Archbishop Ladaria explained that this document was produced to answer the requests of several theologians; it is therefore an initiative “neither of the pope nor of the Congregation.”

Along these lines, the letter Placuit Deo — “It pleased God” — wishes to deepen the teaching on salvation in Christ, because this truth faces the risk of being “defaced” in two different ways.

The first mentioned in the letter is neo-Pelagianism, which holds that man can save himself, by his own strength.

The other, neo-Gnosticism, “puts forward a model of salvation that is merely interior,” a subjective form of salvation, and claims to free man from his body and the material world. Conversely, faith proclaims that the cosmos, created by God, is good.

These two tendencies the document goes on, in “general common features” resemble two heresies of antiquity. They are also, it is stressed, “perennial dangers for misunderstanding Biblical faith.”

A new form of Pelagianism is spreading in our days, one 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 way of thinking, 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.[5] On the other hand, a new form of Gnosticism puts forward a model of salvation that is merely interior, closed off in its own subjectivism.[6] 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.” [7] 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.[8]Clearly, the comparison with the Pelagian and Gnostic heresies intends only to recall general common features, without entering into judgments on the exact nature of the ancient errors. There is a great difference between modern, secularized society and the social context of early Christianity, in which these two heresies were born.[9] However, insofar as Gnosticism and Pelagianism represent perennial dangers for misunderstanding Biblical faith, it is possible to find similarities between the ancient heresies and the modern tendencies just described.

Salvation consists of “union with Christ”

In fact, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith strongly reaffirms, “Salvation consists in our union with Christ, who, by his Incarnation, his life, death and Resurrection, has brought about a new kind of relationship with the Father and among human persons.”

Thus, faith in Christ is not a “claim to self-realization.” Evangelization, the document insists, can not therefore be limited to presenting salvation as “an answer to any particular contemporary desire.” While “every person… searches for happiness,” this “universal aspiration is not necessarily expressed or declared.” Sometimes it is “hidden” behind earthly hopes – health, inner peace, economic well-being… ”

The letter, on the contrary, describes the movement of salvation as first “descending” — from God to men — through Jesus who is “illuminator and revealer, the redeemer and liberator, the One who divinizes and justifies the human person.” And then “ascending” — “the human person turning towards God” – through Jesus, the “High Priest,” who offers the Father perfect worship, who “sacrifices Himself, expiates sins, and remains forever alive to intercede on our behalf.”

Individualism is nonsense

Only Christ, says the document, manages to create an “incredible synergy” between divine action and human action.

The salvation offered by Christ, concludes the document, is received through the Church, which exercises “salvific mediation,” by incorporating us into a communion of people, which participates in “the communion of the Trinity.” For this reason, the reception of the sacraments is indispensable to salvation, in order to receive “grace” and “live faithful to the flesh of Christ.”

Finally, these sacraments invite us “to recognize the gifts of the Creator,” and understand that true salvation also concerns the “sanctification of the body.” The human body, created by God and in which Christ became flesh, is not “a limitation on the absolute freedom” of man, as Gnosticism posits.

It also requires Christians to care for all suffering humanity, “through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.”

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Read the full document here.

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