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.
According to the letter’s introduction, the aim in writing it is to “demonstrate certain aspects of Christian salvation that can be difficult to understand today because of recent cultural changes,” incorporating Pope Francis’ reflections on the issue.
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.
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.”
By Elise Harris
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