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What does the Vatican’s new document ‘Placuit Deo’ mean for the Church?

Pope Francis arrives to St Peter's Basilica (Getty Images)

There was a good bit of hubbub ahead of the press conference at the Holy See’s Press Office this morning, to present the new document, Placuit Deo, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on certain aspects of Christian salvation. Specifically, the document dealt with “neo-Pelagianism” and “neo-Gnosticism”, which have made numerous appearances in the speeches and texts of Pope Francis.

Basically, the document is an “explainer”, and basically, it does a good job.

The document clarifies, for example, that when Pope Francis talks about neo-Pelagianism and neo-Gnosticism, he is articulating his perception of certain parallels between the two ancient heresies on the one hand, and certain trends and tendencies in contemporary culture and intellectual life, on the other. “Pope Francis,” the document says, “often has made reference to the two tendencies,” toward overconfidence in one’s own powers and belief in the possibility of salvation through inner illumination that denies the order of creation, which, “resemble certain aspects of two ancient heresies, Pelagianism and Gnosticism.”

With specific regard to Pelagianism, the similarity is found in that, “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.”

The contemporary tendency that rhymes with ancient Gnosticism, on the other hand, “puts forward a model of salvation that 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.’ 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.”

In his prepared remarks to journalists, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Luis Ladaria SJ, was careful to note that, even if there are significant similarities, which justify the use of the terms, “The difference between the current, secularised historical context and that of the first Christian centuries is great.” In short: The Pope is using a sort of theological short-hand. We ought not either read too much into it, or want more from it than he wants to get from it or give us with it.

Though the document has remote origins in the controversy over an earlier doctrinal letter from the CDF, Dominus Iesus, around which many of the questions from theologians that provided the impetus for Placuit Deo turned, “This document does not intend to respond, to enter directly into the [specifically ecclesiological] questions [which were anyway secondary to the main Christological focus of Dominus Iesus], which had repercussions in the ecumenical field,” Archbishop Ladaria said. “It intends to explain, in keeping with Dominus Iesus, Christ the Savior, to insist [even more] on what is Christian salvation.”

In essence a gloss of Francis, then, the CDF document does what all the best “explainers” of Pope Francis do: it says what Pope Francis “really meant” by paying close attention to the words he actually said, and placing them in the context of the Church’s tradition of reading both her sacred texts and the signs of the times, and the Church’s address of contemporary social and cultural issues in that light.

Basically, the long and the short of this letter is that theologians asked questions, the CDF studied the issue, and prepared a document, which was approved in plenary session and submitted to the Holy Father, who asked that it be published, “as soon as possible”. Less than two weeks later, CDF published and presented the document. If there is one thing noteworthy about the way the thing happened, it is that it happened quite normally. It was business as usual, it appears, in the best possible sense, and a welcome — however short-lived — respite from the drama.