The arrival of the new document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Placuit Deo, blessedly came and went without any sort of incident Thursday morning. Styled as a letter to bishops, the CDF document is pretty low down on the standard totem pole of magisterial documents. Its topic — neo-Pelagianism and neo-Gnosticism — more specifically Pope Francis’ use of the terms, could have been the stuff of kerfuffle. Thanks in large part to the deft handling and cool demeanor of the CDF’s new Prefect, Archbishop Luis Ladaria SJ, the thing went off without a hitch.
As the Catholic Herald noted, the document is essentially of the genre we call these days “explainers”: it explains what the Holy Father means when he uses the terms “neo-Pelagianism” and “neo-Gnosticism”, and more importantly, what he does not. The document itself is short and to the point. It says what it means to do and why it means to do it, does it, and tells the reader it is done. “The present Letter is intended, in light of the greater tradition of the faith and with particular reference to the teachings of Pope Francis, to demonstrate certain aspects of Christian salvation that can be difficult to understand today because of recent cultural changes,” the letter says — and it does what it says.
“Pope Francis,” the letter continues, “in his ordinary magisterium, often has made reference to the two tendencies described above, that resemble certain aspects of two ancient heresies, Pelagianism and Gnosticism.” It goes on to explain that Pope Francis hears a sort of rhyme with the ancient heresies in certain modes of thought and expression fairly common in contemporary culture and intellectual activity.
He is not the only one.
The document also draws on the Christocentric focus of an earlier CDF document, Dominus Iesus, and places the mission of evangelization firmly and squarely within the framework of a Church that exists for the purpose of bringing the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, the one mediator, to all men and every creature. “The knowledge of the fullness of life into which Christ the Savior introduces us propels Christians onward in the mission of announcing to all the joy and light of the Gospel,” the document’s conclusion reads. “In this work, Christians must also be prepared to establish a sincere and constructive dialogue with believers of other religions, confident that God can lead ‘all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way’ towards salvation in Christ.”
It is tough to argue with the substance of that, and pointless to quibble with any part of how it is couched. In sum, it is a solid document — more than merely solid, really — that does what it says and does not try to say or do anything else.
Why this document, though? Why a document about this subject, and why now?
Certainly, the quality of the document reflects Ladaria’s leadership: it is tight, even terse in its efficiency, relying on its subject matter to convey the sense of urgency without histrionics. The subject is one that has raised questions: Pope Francis is given to lexical idiosyncracy, a proclivity that has caused him trouble before. An explanation of what, exactly, he means by neo-Pelagianism and neo-Gnosticism was for this reason in order. The reason we got the document now is, in one sense, quite pedestrian: because the document was ready. That’s the nutshell version Ladaria gave in answer to a query from a journalist at the presser, and it is a loose paraphrase, only not quite a verbatim quote.
It is interesting, though, that the Prefect of the CDF should have been at such pains to make clear that the dicastery — until recently styled La suprema — invested with enormous power on paper though rather underused during the reign of Pope Francis — was just about its business: nothing more, and nothing less. The thing that makes this interesting is that it really does seem to be the case. A return to normal operations in the CDF could mean a reassertion of the Congregation’s power within the Vatican is in the offing. That could prove very interesting, indeed.