March 17, 2018

The faith confronting Neo-Pelagianism and Neo-Gnosticism

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *
Credit: Pexels
Credit: Pexels

Two words are frequently found on the lips of Pope Francis in his addresses and homilies. One is the word “neo-Pelagian;” the other, “neo-Gnostic.” Both words have a long and complicated history. The first is much easier to explain.

Pelagianism designates a school of thought made prominent by the British monk Pelagius (360-418 A.D.). Living in Rome, he was a contemporary of St. Augustine. In response to the moral laxity of the day, Pelagius placed great emphasis on the innate goodness of the human person.

According to Pelagianism, Adam’s sin altered his own relationship with God. It did not affect his descendants. Human nature has not been corrupted by original sin. Thus, an individual is able to fulfill the commandments and choose the good without any special gift of grace.

Pope Francis detects traces of this type of thinking in those people today who act as if salvation depends on human strength or on merely human means. The Pope sees this error in those who would reduce the gospel to a social ideology, make spirituality simply a process of self-awareness or reduce the life of faith to a vestige of an outdated past. 

The Pope discerns Pelagianism in the tendency toward restorationism. He rules out any dealing with the Church’s problems by a recourse to “a restoration of outdated manners and forms which, even on the cultural level, are no longer meaningful.” (Pope Francis, “Address to the Leadership of the Episcopal Conferences of Latin America during the General Coordination Meeting,” Rio de Janeiro, July 28, 2013).

In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis warns against “the self-absorbed promethean neo-Pelagianism of those who ultimately 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.” He further laments that “a supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying” (Evangelii Gaudium, 94).

Gnosticism is more difficult to define than Pelagianism. It embraces many schools of thought. But, all of them hold in common the one tenet that the created, material world is evil. Only the spiritual is good. Redemption comes from being liberated from matter by elite forms of knowledge (gnosis).

The Pope has spoken of neo-Gnosticism as “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” (Evangelii Gaudium, 94). Pope Francis sees neo-Gnosticsim “in elite groups offering a higher spirituality, generally disembodied, which ends up in a preoccupation with certain pastoral "quaestiones disputatae” (“Address to the Leadership of the Episcopal Conferences of Latin America during the General Coordination Meeting”). 

On March 1, 2018, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent a letter entitled “Placuit Deo” to all the bishops of the Church. The letter is intended to clarify the very nature of salvation in light of our complex cultural context. In light of Pope Francis’ repeated references to the errors of “neo-Pelagianism” and “neo-Gnosticism,” the document positively explains Catholic teaching on salvation. The letter is brief and clear. Its teaching can well serve as a reminder to all Catholics of what our faith truly teaches.

As created by God, we are made for more than this world can offer. Each of us seeks those things that will make us happy. Health. Wealth. Inner peace. Freedom from suffering and, ultimately, death. Yet, when some live as radically autonomous individuals able to obtain their own happiness, they succumb to a new form of Pelagianism. Nonetheless, “the total salvation of the person does not consist of the things that the human person can obtain by himself, such as possessions, material well-being, knowledge or abilities, power or influence on others, good reputation or self-satisfaction” (Placuit Deo, 6 ).

Salvation does not come about from individual efforts but through Christ, who reveals himself in the Church. Christ is not simply an exemplar to follow. He is not merely a wise teacher. No! He is the Savior of all. “According to the Gospel, salvation for all people begins with welcoming Jesus: ‘Today salvation has come to this house’ (Lk 19:9). The good news of salvation has a name and a face: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” (Placuit Deo, 8).

Faith widens our horizon. It makes us see our relationship to God and to others. It helps us reject all claims of self-realization. We do not save ourselves. Salvation is a gift given by God in Christ. “Salvation consists in our union with Christ, who, by his Incarnation, Death and Resurrection, has brought about a new kind of relationship with the Father…” (Placuit Deo, 4). “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 1, Dec. 25, 2005).

In neo-Pelagianism, Jesus is only an exemplar who inspires us. But, he is more. He is the Son of God made man and we are made one with him through Baptism. The Placuit Deo insists on the importance of the Sacraments. They allow us to walk with Jesus. Those who do not receive the sacraments truly succumb to a Pelagian attitude. They reject the grace that is needed to heal us in the field hospital that is the Church.

Salvation does not come apart from Christ nor does it come apart from the created world, as all forms of Gnosticism hold. The world is good. God created all that is. Evil entered the world when man turned from God. Salvation in Christ touches our entire being, body and soul.

Gnosticism looks upon the body as a mere instrument of the mind. This leads to seeing the body as an object, something to be manipulated by man. It separates the body from the provident hand of God who orders all creation according to his wise disposition. This attitude of seeing the body as not essential to the person has poisoned our culture. It has led to the acceptance of abortion, euthanasia, free sex and same-sex marriages. In contrast, our faith teaches that spirit and body are unified.

Unlike any form of neo-Gnosticism, Catholicism firmly teaches that the body is important. Christ’s graces fills our souls and affects our bodies. Our bodies become the very temples of the Holy Spirit. Salvation is not merely an interior reality. By grace, we are incorporated into the Church, a visible community. This certainly goes against all those neo-Gnostics who distance themselves from the visible Church by claiming that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” “In the Church, we touch the flesh of Jesus, especially in our poorest and most suffering brothers and sisters… salvation consists in being incorporated into a communion of persons that participates in the communion of the Trinity” (Placuit Deo, 12).

In a time when confusion surrounds basic tenets of Catholicism, Placuit Deo, an insightful and balanced letter from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, sheds much light on the truths of the Faith. It reminds us that salvation is a gratuitous gift given by God in Christ. It recalls the centrality of Christ. By assuming our humanity and sacrificing himself for our sin, Jesus became the one mediator for all the sons and daughters of Adam. By his grace, he joins us to his Body, the Church, giving us a share in the divine life now and in eternity.

The letter further reaffirms the place of the Church in God’s plan for the salvation of the world. Christ himself established the Church as a communion of life, charity and truth. And, he uses it as the instrument for the redemption of all. These truths of our faith are the antidote to neo-Pelagian and neo-Gnostic tendencies of our day.

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.