PLAUCIT DEO: RE-AFFIRMING THE MEANING OF CHRISTIAN SALVATION TODAY

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By: Fr. FAUSTO GOMEZ BERLANA, OP

By way of introduction. In a recent Letterto the Bishops of the Catholic Church, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith re-affirmed, in dialogue with modern culture, the meaning and implications of Christian salvation. The important letter is entitled Placuit Deo– it pleased God. It is sub-titledOn Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation. Dated February 22, 2018, it was approved by Pope Francis on February 16, and presented at the Vatican on March 2. The Letter is brief, profound and easy to read – and moving! 

Placuit Deo (PD) is divided in six sections. The six concrete sub-titlesare the following: Introduction (I), The Effect of Current Cultural Changes on the Meaning of Christian Salvation (II), The Human Desire for Salvation (III), Christ, Savior and Salvation (IV), Salvation in the Church, Body of Christ (V), and Communicating the Faith, in Expectation of the Savior (VI). Presenting the new Letter at the Vatican, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, SJ, stated that Placuit Deocontinues developing the Declaration Dominus Iesus(August 6, 2000) of the same Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, where we read: “The fundamental point of the document (Dominus Iesus) is the salvific universality of Christ.”

The different interconnected themes are distributed in fifteen numbers with 25 footnotes. The sources and referencesof the Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith speak to us of the traditional teaching of the Church on salvation in a new cultural context. The main theological sources and references are: the Sacred Scriptures and Christian Tradition, through the basic teachings of Vatican II on the matter of salvation, and relevant post-Vatican II documents from the magisteriumof the Church. The most quoted source by far is the Sacred Scriptures, followed by Pope Francis (12 times), and Vatican II (8 times). Other references cited are: St. Thomas Aquinas (3), St. Augustine (2), and one each from St. Irenaeus, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the International Theological Commission. 

What is the purpose of the Vatican Letter?Not to issue a new teaching, but to present the traditional and classical doctrine of the Church on salvation by Jesus Christ, and defend it against the two partly re-born heresies of old in different clothing, namely, Gnosticism and Pelagianism, which appear as “perennial dangers for misunderstanding Biblical faith” (PD, nos. 2 and 3).  Gnosticismdeveloped through first and second centuries while Pelagianismin the fifth century of Christianity. 

What is the new clothing of Gnosticism? Neo-Gnosticism promotes “a model of salvation that is merely interior,” subjective, and individualistic. Its core tenet is that one can attain salvation by his or her own efforts. Moreover, it includes the teaching which considers the flesh, our human body as an obstacle to personal salvation, which is possible –they say - when the person is liberated from the body and the material universe. For Neo-Gnosticism, then, there is no need of an external savior, neither of the body, nor of a relationship with other human beings. In fact, Neo-Gnosticism affirms that salvation is “freedom from the body and from the concrete relationships in which a person lives” (PD, 14). Reading Placuit Deo, one becomes aware of some spiritualties without God that propose similar personal interior empowerment without external help, and also of “New Age” spirituality.

What is new in the current presentation ofPelagianismPlacuit Deospeaks of “Neo-Pelagianism tendencies of today” (PD, 3). The new form ofPelagianismover-values our personal autonomy and possibilities. No need of God’s help; no need of the grace of the Spirit; no need of a savior. We can overcome our frailty and weakness by ourselves. The human person can be united to God by his or her powers (cf. PD, 2). Jesus is a good model for humanity, just that. This promethean individualistic and autonomous power of the human being permeates much of modern culture. In the 70‘s of the pervious century, the cry of not only the young was: “I got to be me.” In this new context, my attention is called by transhumanism,a futurist ideology and movement – a new utopia - focused on enhancing progressively the human being beyond the body, and with the help of sophisticated and advanced technologies. Its goal: humans becoming “transhuman,” “superhuman,” and even be able to attain on earth - some of the proponents affirm - “digital immortality.” 

There is the need of a Savior. The human being, every human being wants to be happy and desires salvation. This yearning for happiness, for salvation, is not a choice but part of human nature. Persons are pilgrims on the constant search for happiness and total salvation. Many human beings place their focus on health, wealth, power, pleasure, science and technology (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 2). However, sooner than later they generally realize that these – and other – pursued earthly objects of happiness do not give some but not much or continuing happiness. True love – not easy - may give some real happiness.  However, we realize sooner than later that by ourselves we cannot achieve happiness or salvation due to many things - errors, weakness, illness, selfishness, and – at the end – death. I remember the words of Albert Camus: “Men die and are not happy.” 

Indeed, to be happy human beings need outside help. To be able to fulfill – in part in this life and totally in the next - their natural longing for happiness, they need a Savior. And they start asking themselves fundamental questions of life: Who am I? Where I am going? What is the meaning of life? The Jews were aware of this unfulfilled yearning for happiness during their slavery in Egypt. God came to their rescue, and promised to them a savior, a Messiah, whom He sent in the Person of his Son Jesus Christ. As St. John writes in his Gospel: God so loved the world that He gave to humanity his Son - born of Mary. God the Father, through Jesus his Son, in the Spirit offers relative but real happiness in this life and total happiness – salvation - in the afterlife. Jesus’ life, death on the cross, and resurrection prove the truth of his teaching: He is the Way to happiness here and hereafter. Believing in Jesus Christ is encountering the person of Jesus, who is the Son of God and of Mary, the Way, the Truth and the Life. This salvation is the salvation of the whole person, who is body-soul(cf. PD, 2). Hence, the physical body is not a prison or evil or obstacle to real happiness, but essential and united part of the human person, who is body-soul, incarnate spirit, created by God, and destined to an eternal life with him. Jesus’ salvation is for all humanity.  

Jesus, the universal Savior, invites all - believers and unbelievers - to salvation: God wishes the salvation of all, and Jesus died for all, and the grace of the Spirit works in all hearts in “unseen ways” (Vatican II, GS, 22; cf. PD, 15).

The renewed meaning of salvation. Christian salvation - the Letter Placuit Deoaffirms - “consists in the union with Christ, who, by his Incarnation, death and resurrection has brought about a new kind of relationship with the Father and among human persons, and has introduced us into these relationships, thanks to the gift of the Spirit, so that we are able to unite ourselves to the Father as sons in the Son and become one body in the ‘firstborn among many brothers’” (Rom 8:9; PD, 4). Salvation begins with accepting Jesus and receiving his grace– the grace of the Spirit, which healsour wounded nature and elevatesit to the level of divinity. Truly, the possession of divine grace makes human persons participate in a limited way in the very nature of God (2 Pet 1:4). Grace makes us children of God, One and Triune. Salvation is communion with the Blessed Trinity (cf. PD, 13). 

This salvation of faith starts with God, descends to usthrough Jesus who became man, and ascends to Godwith the needed help of the death and resurrection of Jesus, Incarnate Son of God. Hence, man cannot save himself – as the Pelagians hold -, nor can he find salvation by interior fusion of the individual with the divine (PD, 12) – as the Gnostics affirm -, but through the primacy of God’s grace and Jesus’ redemption, who becoming one of us “united himself in some way with every man and woman” (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 22; cf. PD, 10). Salvation, then, “consists in incorporating ourselves into his [Jesus’] life, receiving his Spirit (cf. 1 Jn 4:13). Jesus, therefore, is both our Saviorand our Salvation

Salvation is received in the Church. Christian salvation is received by men and women as individual human beings and as members of the community of believers, the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, where, with the Lord as head, one becomes a member by his/her baptism and grows in grace and love through the worthy reception of the Sacraments, in particular the Eucharist and Penance. 

On the pilgrimage towards total salvation in heaven, the followers of Jesus practice deeds of love towards all neighbors, with especial emphasis on the needy and poor neighbors (cf. Mt 25:31-46). The Last Judgment will focus – our faith tells us – on the presence or absence of compassionate love of the needy neighbor through life. 

Accepting the salvation offered by Jesus Christ implies necessarilyannouncing the Good News of salvation, proclaiming Jesus Christ as the Savior, our brother, our friend. 

By way of conclusion. In concluding, we state that the Vatican Letter Placuit Deore-affirms powerfully that Jesus is the only Savior and Salvation. This salvation is “total,” that is of body and soul, and of the whole humanity. It is “the final destination” to which all men and women are called by God, because we are “citizens of heaven” (Phil 3:20-21). 

Lord, You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You(St. Augustine, Confessions, I, 1; cf. PD, 6).