Mankind needs God’s grace

Father John A. Kiley

The Vatican, with the approval of Pope Francis, recently issued a document entitled “Placuit Deo” dealing with certain faulty trends in modern religious thought that are familiar to most believers today. “I am spiritual but not religious,” is an explanation offered by persons who claim some personal belief in God but rarely participate in any religious exercises. The sacraments, the Bible and parish life are superfluous to them. They can “go it alone” relying on their own inner personal strength.

The Vatican document sees in this self-sufficient attitude a reflection of the ancient heresy known as Pelagianism. Pelagius taught that mankind did not need the supernatural grace of God to be saved. Human resources alone were enough to guarantee eternal life. “A new form of Pelagianism is spreading in our days, one in which the individual, understood to be radically autonomous, presumes to save oneself, without recognizing that, at the deepest level of being, he or she derives from God and from others.” One hears frequently of this rampant individualism that permeates today’s religious world, political world and commercial world. By denying the need for a shared religious effort, many modern thinkers and movements isolate mankind, one from another.

The Vatican document then laments “a model of salvation that is merely interior, closed off in its own subjectivism.” Here salvation consists of improving one’s inner self, rising above human nature and the material world “towards the mysteries of the unknown divinity.” The provident hand of the Creator God known for centuries through revelation is no longer appreciated. Rather the occult, “a reality deprived of meaning, foreign to the fundamental identity of the person, and easily manipulated by the interests of man,” becomes the spiritual way of life. Again the Vatican sees in this tendency a reflection of Gnosticism, an ancient mode of thought that favored arcane insights, mystery cults, secret societies and obscure rituals. Salvation was thought to be the prerogative of the few who were “in the know” and denied to “the many” for whom Christ died.

The Vatican is concerned about neo-Pelagian individualism and neo-Gnostic disregard of the material universe because they disfigure the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, God and man, who is the one, universal Savior. The “spiritual but not religious” crowd denies the human and material link with the man Jesus Christ provided by his earthly Church. The “arcane insights” group denies the universality of salvation offered to all peoples by Jesus Christ and not merely revealed to a select few. In contrast to these observations, the first reading at Mass this Sunday from St. Peter clearly teaches, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” And this Sunday’s Gospel from St. John records Jesus saying, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Christianity was never meant to be mysterious. After all, the Gospel is indeed a revelation. It is Good News intended for “every creature.” The Vatican fathers acknowledge that the contemporary world perceives only with great difficulty the foundation of the Christian faith, which “proclaims Jesus as the only Savior of the whole human person and of all humanity.” To lose sight of Jesus, the God-man, is to lose sight of the twin gifts of spiritual enlightenment from heaven and human solidarity on earth here below.

The salvation won for mankind by Christ through his Cross and Resurrection is mediated to humanity through the Church. Christ, who saved the world through the offering of his human body, continues to save the world through the exercises of his very human Church. Both the individualistic and the merely interior visions of salvation contradict this sacramental economy, that is, the material and spiritual process through which God wants to save the whole human person and human race.

The sacramental work of the universal Church assures all mankind that salvation does not consist in the self-realization of the isolated individual, nor in an interior fusion of the individual with the divine. Rather, salvation consists in being incorporated into a communion of the Divine Persons with all other believing persons through Christ. Both the individualistic and the merely interior versions of salvation contradict this sacramental economy, this material/spiritual process, through which God wants to save all human persons, body and soul, through the Divinity and the humanity of the God-man, Jesus Christ.