Summary and Explanation of Placuit Deo, the Vatican's new letter to bishops about salvation

Today the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF, formerly the Holy Office of the Inquisition) released a letter sent to Catholic bishops about salvation called Placuit Deo. It's only fifteen paragraphs and not as controversial as some past documents. Essentially, it gives a doctrinal account of some of Francis's past remarks about the nature of salvation. This post contains my commentary on the letter. I summarize, explain, and interpret.

I: Introduction (with my criticisms of the translation)
Like all Vatican texts, Placuit Deo, which means "it pleased God," takes its name from the first two words of the Latin text. In fact, the opening sentences are just quotations from Dei verbum 2, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council (1965). Awkwardly, the Vatican's continued reliance upon the Daughters of St. Paul English translation of the documents of Vatican II (1967) means that placuit Deo is here rendered with the anemic but accurate "God chose." Indeed, placuit is a typical way of expressing a decision in Latin, as in "It pleased me to drink coffee while writing this": Placuit mihi cafeam bibere, dum hoc scribo. When voting at Vatican II, the response placet meant "yes" and non placet "no." For those looking for a better translation of the texts of Vatican II, get a copy of the edition of either Norman Tanner, S.J., or Austin Flannery, O.P. The latter, which uses gender-inclusive language, translates the first sentence thus:
It pleased God (placuit Deo), in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will, which was that people can draw near to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the divine nature.
Now compare that to the Daughters of St. Paul translation that the Vatican still uses:
In His goodness and wisdom God chose (placuit Deo) to reveal himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature.
Another defect of the Vatican's continued use of the old translation is that it uses sexist language, mistranslating the Latin homines as "men." The English translation of Placuit Deo, like that of all papal encyclicals going back at least to St. John Paul II, correctly translates homines as "men and women." The result of this linguistic mishmash is that we get awkward paragraphs like 15. First, quoting the old translation of Gaudium et spes 22, we read that God's grace works in "all men of good will" (not just Christians–a very important point!), and two sentences later we read of "the salvation of men and women." Women can be saved, but grace is operative only in men's hearts?

The translation of Placuit Deo continues the Vatican's obstinate tradition of translating the universal use of homo as "man" instead of "humanity." The translation nevertheless attempts to smooth this out somewhat, so we get things like this (5):
Man perceives himself, directly or indirectly, as a mystery: "Who am I? I exist, and yet do not have the principle of my existence within myself." Every person, in his or her own way, searches for happiness and attempts to obtain it by making recourse to the resources one has available.
While admitting the difficulty inherent in the English language, I would suggest the following:
Humanity perceives itself, directly or indirectly, as a mystery: "Who am I? I exist, and yet do not have the principle of my existence within myself." Every person, in their own way, searches for happiness and attempts to obtain it by making recourse to the resources they have available.
(If any pedants are reading this and can't abide the inclusive use of the pronoun they, you may now leave.)

II: Cultural Changes
Section two reminds us that the writings, sermons, and speeches of the pope constitute his "ordinary magisterium" (3), which all Catholics are obligated to heed (see my previous post). Given the widespread climate of conservative dissent from Pope Francis, this is deliberate. The CDF wants to remind bishops that the pope's words are still authoritative for the Church.

The heart of this letter is the condemnation of two spiritual errors that the pope believes afflict many people today. These he calls "neo-Pelagian individualism" and "neo-Gnostic disregard of the body" (4). The names of the errors are drawn from ancient heresies, which the letter acknowledges are not identical to the modern problems. Nevertheless, "it is possible to find similarities between the ancient heresies and the modern tendencies" (3). They are "perennial dangers," born from inherently human problems, regardless of the historical-cultural differences. The new A Pope Francis Lexicon (edited by Cindy Wooden of CNS and Joshua McElwee of NCR, 2018) surely covers these terms as well, so this letter is good timing for that book!

As a historical theologian, I can tell you a little about the ancient heresies, which the letter does not do. Gnosticism arose circa 100. The term is so broad that some scholars have questioned how useful it even is. Nevertheless, if you will allow me to oversimplify, Gnosticism was a broad and loosely-defined Christian movement that came into direct competition with we have come to call "orthodox Christianity." It had its own set of scriptural texts (e.g., Pistis Sophia) that were excluded from the New Testament, although Gnostics also drew inspiration from the Gospel of John. Gnostics believed that each of us is, at heart, a spark of divinity which has become trapped in a body of flesh and blood. These bodies are, at worst, evil, and, at best, a mistake, resulting from the divine Sophia (Wisdom) trying to create something on her own. Gnostic myths differ on the details. The God that created the physical world, as described in the Hebrew Bible, is not the highest God. Thus the Gnostics rejected the Bible of the Jews, which orthodox Christians considered to be the Old Testament. Jesus Christ came to reveal a higher God, who can save us from these bodies, which always lead us toward sin. Jesus brings us the knowledge, gnosis being the Greek word for knowledge, that can save us from our bodies. The Gnostic longs to escape the world of matter to attain a higher spiritual plane. In Gnosticism, unlike orthodox Judaism and Christianity, there is no resurrection of the body. One thinks of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) saying, "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter." The movie The Matrix (1999) also features Gnostic themes. For a more accurate and detailed understanding of Gnosticism, consult David Brakke, The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity (2012). Beware of older sources about Gnosticism that are based only on what the Church Fathers wrote against it rather than on the surviving Gnostic texts themselves, some of which you can read at The Gnostic Society Library. Such texts read very differently from our Bible and can be quite confusing.

Pelagianism is named after the monk Pelagius, who lived circa 400. St. Augustine engaged in sustained and heated polemics against Pelagius and his followers, who were eventually condemned by various synods as heretics. Basically, Pelagius was a rigorous ascetic who believed that it was incumbent upon every individual to attain salvation through moral effort. Whereas Augustine argued that salvation comes by grace alone (sola gratia), Pelagius believed it was more of a co-operation between human exertion and God's grace. Pelagius strongly emphasized free will and the fact that God's commandments are possible; after all, God would not command something impossible! Augustine agreed that the commandments are possible, but only by God's grace. Left to our own devices, using our own human exertions, the commandments are impossible. Thus, he strongly emphasized human inadequacy and sin. Because of the difficulty of this problem (grace versus free will), Augustine was eventually pushed into an extreme viewpoint, expressed in his later writings, that so emphasizes God's grace and free election that it seems to eliminate free will. No doubt, it was precisely this that people like Pelagius feared, as it would seem to render moot the Christian, and particularly the monastic, striving for obedience to God. In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther and John Calvin revived the views of the later Augustine, setting off the Reformation controversy over faith and works (sola fide). Protestants accused Catholics of Pelagianism or "works-righteousness," while Catholics accused Protestants of denying free will and offering cheap grace. A recent book of essays about Pelagius called Pelagius: Inquiries and Reappraisals (edited by Robert Evans, 2010) looks promising. Avoid any website that says that Pelagius taught "works-righteousness."

So how has Pope Francis updated these terms for the present day? This letter defines neo-Pelagianism as the belief that the individual is "radically autonomous" and "presumes to save oneself, without recognizing that, at the deepest level of being, he or she derives from God and from others" (3). The result of such individualism is a dependence upon one's own efforts "or purely human structures, which are incapable of welcoming the newness of the Spirit of God." In past remarks about neo-Pelagians, Pope Francis has clearly targeted some traditionalist Catholics, who he says put too much emphasis upon their own moral uprightness and traditional methods of piety and devotion. They are unable, in the pope's words, to accept the "God of surprises." He has also referred to the neo-Pelagians as "doctors of the law." Consider, for example, what he said in a sermon, as summarized in the Vatican newspaper:
"They were closed within their system, they had organized the law very well”. It was “a masterpiece. All of the Jews knew what one could and could not do, where one could go. It was all organized”. But Jesus caught them unprepared, by doing “curious things”, such as “going with the sinners”, and “eating with the publicans”. And the doctors of the law did not like this, they found it “dangerous”, putting at risk “the doctrine which they, the theologians, had been making for centuries”.
In other words, the Holy Spirit is still active in the Church, bringing about renewal; therefore, it is not necessary to maintain every traditional aspect of Catholicism, as if just carrying out our traditional devotions will automatically save us. The corollary to this attitude is a rigorous exclusion of "sinners." Those who do not adhere to the traditional system are automatically excluded from salvation, unless they begin to follow the rules and practice the prescribed rites and devotions. Such an attitude contradicts that of Christ, who himself was criticized by the pious for eating and drinking with sinners (Matt 11:19).

If the neo-Pelagians are those on the right who replace God's grace with moral uprightness and traditions, the neo-Gnostics may include those on the left who have left orthodox Christianity as well as the "New Agers." According to this letter, the neo-Gnostics would reduce Christianity to something purely spiritual, seeking to "liberate the human person from the body and from the material universe" (3). The letter quotes Francis's first encyclical (mostly written by Benedict XVI): neo-Gnostics desire a more sophisticated faith than that of the masses, wishing to become "intellectually capable of rising above the flesh of Jesus towards the mysteries of the unknown divinity" (Lumen fidei 47). Clarification of who these neo-Gnostics are comes later in the letter, when it says that by seeking only an "interior salvation," they do not "live in communion with one's brothers and sisters" (14). Here I think of people who say they are "spiritual but not religious." Some people make spirituality into something completely internal and therefore removed from bodily things, such as the sacraments and church buildings. Some of these people have been harmed by their fellow believers or leaders. In fleeing the hurts caused by the institution of the Church in search of an interior spirituality, they become separated from the body of Christ and the bodily sacraments (water, oil, bread, and wine).

III: Salvation
This section states that everyone seeks some kind of salvation, but that ultimately it is about more than physical health, economic well-being, internal and external peace (5), or power and influence (6). It is about God. The most famous quotation of St. Augustine is invoked: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in You" (Confessions 1,1). Against the neo-Gnostics, the text says that salvation is an integral reality, including both body and soul. It does not mean fleeing or hating this world, which, after all, is good (7, citing Gen 1:31). Rather, salvation brings us into a threefold harmony: with God, with other human beings, and with creation. This latter point has environmental implications that the letter does not get into, but one can always consult the pope's encyclical on the subject, Laudato si'. This section should be read by everyone who thinks that Christianity is only about "the salvation of souls" and not about human bodies. Every Christian who thinks the Church should "stay out of politics" (whether that be abortion, immigration, war, the environment, etc.) is also a neo-Gnostic. "In fact, it is the whole person, body and soul, that was created by the love of God, in his image and likeness, and is called to live in communion with him" (7).

IV: Christ the Savior
In every age God has sought to save human beings through a covenant-relationship with him. This is fulfilled in Christ, the only savior of humanity. The salvation Christ brings has two dimensions: the "elevating (or ascending) dimension" is that we are made to share in God's own nature (referring to 2 Peter 1:4); the "descending" perspective is that God comes down to redeem us from sin. In other words, we can speak of the positive (becoming one with God) and the negative (sin, from which we are redeemed) (9). This is not mentioned explicitly in the letter, but I suspect the point of this is to emphasize that Christianity is not just about being saved from sin and hell. Western Christianity, in both its Catholic and Protestant forms, has focused much on this. In contrast, Eastern Christianity has focused more on divinization (theosis in Greek): becoming one with God (indeed, becoming God!). Against both the neo-Pelagians and the neo-Gnostics, the letter stresses that salvation is communal, not "individualist"; we are saved, not alone by ourselves, but with the bodies of our brothers and sisters (11).

V: The Church as Sacrament of Salvation
Salvation is mediated through the Church, that is, through the whole community of believers (12). It is the "universal sacrament of salvation" (Lumen gentium 48). "Sacrament" means a sign and instrument: by the fact that it is one body united across the whole planet, the Church both symbolizes the salvation of the whole human race (sign) and also helps bring it about (instrument). This point is offered particularly against the individualism of the neo-Pelagians, who to some extent cut themselves off from what they consider to be a sinfully-corrupt community (particularly under Francis's leadership)! I can't help but think of the desperate traditionalist Catholics I've encountered on the internet, who judge everyone else to be deficient and lost. They often sound lonely to me because they have little to no communion with their fellow Catholics. Salvation is gained through baptism and the Eucharist, but also through "the flesh of Jesus, especially in our poorest and most suffering brothers and sisters" (12). We will be judged by how we have treated the weakest (13, referring to Matt 25:31-46, the parable of the sheep and the goats). By interiorizing salvation, the neo-Gnostics also forget the significance of the body (14).

VI: Conclusion
Because it is the community of salvation, the Church is called to evangelize the world (15). For Pope Francis, this does not mean proselytism, but takes place in the context of "a sincere and constructive dialogue with believers of other religions" (15). As I already mentioned, the letter alludes to the possibility of salvation for everyone, not just Christians. Pope Francis has rejected proselytism as a means of evangelization, even calling it "solemn nonsense" (in this interview). Instead of trying to convert people as such, the Church should grow through the natural attractiveness of Jesus Christ (see this article). As is customary in all Vatican texts, the letter ends by invoking the Virgin Mary, as "Mother of the Savior and first among the saved" (15).

The text is dated to the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter (February 22), which emphasizes that it reflects the official teaching of the pope.


Sten_Mk_2 said…
Isn't "Placuit" perfect tense, not past tense? Shouldn't the translation be: "It has pleased G_d"?
Dr. R said…
There is no difference in form in Latin between the preterite and the (present) perfect!

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