“The Deepest Truth About God”

“The deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines out for our sake on Christ who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation.”   ∼ Verbum Dei, #2, cited in Placuit Deo I, 1.

Several weeks ago, Clifford Staples called my attention to a recent document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, written by the Spanish Jesuit, Archbishop Luis Ladaria. I usually try to read these documents from the English language editions of L’Osservatore Romano. But they usually come about a month after the original document was published. Placuit Deo, now that I have had a chance to read it, is a document well worth our consideration.

Staples noted that something seemed quite different about this relatively short letter. It deals with, as the headlines in L’Osservatore say, “certain aspects of Christian salvation.” The first thing that strikes one on reading Placuit Deo is its clarity. Unlike too many things coming from Rome these days, little ambiguity is found in this discussion of how we are to understand the basic Christian offer of salvation to each human being, both what salvation means and how to attain it. One does not have to be a Christian or a philosopher to understand in general what is meant by the word “salvation.” Obviously, it means that someone is saved from something by someone in some way. Its subject matter is the final destiny of each existing human being throughout time.

Though it is quite true that the intellectual side of Christianity can be over-emphasized by vain and self-aggrandizing professors, the fact remains that intelligence is essential to the faith. Nothing could be more harmful to the faith than the undermining of the intellectual validity and solid grounding of the faith in reason. Individual academics and intellectuals may be quite foolish, as St. Paul intimates. But that is no argument for abandoning the effort to understand as much as we can what we are in the world.

Thus, if a faith has nothing to stand on but itself (sola fides), it will soon find itself subject to all sorts of odd and silly opinions about what it all means. Reality is a hard master. It is already there before we are. We do not read Augustine, Aquinas, Bonaventure, or Newman for nothing. We read them because faith seeks and needs understanding. In turn, understanding seeks faith because, if it is honest with itself, it knows that it does not comprehend everything by itself. If a crisis of faith exists among many Christians today, the causes are more likely to be found within the Church itself. Doubt has been fostered by an attitude that serious intellectual issues need not be faced or explained. Mind is said to be less important than action. Yet action without truth wanders off into “left-field” almost immediately on declaring its own independence from reason.

II.

Placuit Deo is an explanation of certain ideas that Pope Francis has been discussing in his own talks and magisterial documents, especially concerning Gnosticism and Pelagianism as problems also for our time. Pope Francis is often difficult for many to follow. He is not the clearest thinker that has ever sat on the Throne of Peter, as he himself would surely admit.

Ladaria understands that it is well to give a more direct discussion to some of the things the Holy Father is attempting to say, something more in the tradition of John Paul II and Benedict. So when Pope Francis does speak of things like Gnosticism and Pelagianism, it is helpful for many to see more clearly what he is driving at.

Roughly, Pelagianism means that we can save ourselves by ourselves. We do not need any divine assistance or grace. We are basically self-saving individualists. Gnosticism means that, despite the hopelessness of our present culture, our future will be determined by our own special knowledge. Yet these “insights” have no real relationship to the kind of beings we actually are. Salvation is “interior.” It need not have any relationship to what we know about human nature or divine revelation. Indeed, it exempts us even from our own body and its relationship to others.

Ladaria seeks to restate what Catholic tradition meant by “salvation.” The modern world evidently has a tough time figuring out just what this “salvation” is all about. Ladaria notes that a considerable difference exists between classical Gnosticism and Pelagianism and what we have today. But, as Francis notes, we have sufficient similarities to make the comparison since generation after generation have made the same mistakes throughout history.

Thus, we can ask two relevant questions about salvation: 1) “How would Christ be able to mediate the Covenant of the entire human family if human persons were isolated individuals who fulfill themselves with their own efforts…?” Christianity obviously maintains that the destiny that God has in mind for each existing person is not something that man can concoct and carry out by and for himself.

2) “How could it be possible for the salvation mediated by the Incarnation of Jesus, His life, death, and resurrection in His true body, to come to us, if the only thing that mattered were liberating the inner reality of the human person from the limits of the body and the material (world)…?” A spirit free of the body is rather an angel, not a human being. Jacques Maritain used to be rightly concerned with “angelism” in philosophy. In that view, man is a soul, not a person composed of body and soul.

III.

How does one approach this issue of salvation? We each know that we exist as a certain particular being that lives more or less four score years, if he is fortunate. “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.” Whether I like it or not, in everything I do or think, I seek my own true and final happiness. Often this search for happiness is hidden from us. We only become aware of it in times of crises when the very limits of our true self become visible to us.

The fact that man is a mystery does not mean that we can know nothing about him. It only means that we do not know everything about him. What we do know about ourselves is and should be real knowledge that is guaranteed by the principle of non-contradiction that prevents us from holding incompatible beliefs about ourselves. Ladaria adds: “Together with the struggle to attain the good comes the fight to ward off evil….” Our happiness consists in knowing and choosing what is in fact good. But in this world, knowing what is good is the other side of knowing what is evil. In our understanding, knowing what is evil is both a necessary and good thing in itself. It is not wrong to know what evil is. Knowing what evil is by faith, reason or experience allows us to avoid it, reject it. Its depths, no doubt, we never fully comprehend.

“Faith in Christ teaches, rejecting all claims of self-realization, that these [tendencies to the good] can be completely fulfilled only if God Himself makes it possible by drawing us towards Himself.” The origin of evil is not in the material world. Our mission in this life does not consist in “escaping” the body as if it were some sort of evil appendage to our being. Our reality and destiny are given to us. They are not constituent parts of our being. Our existence consists in the delightful discovery of the profound gifts we have been given through no merit of our own.

“The salvation that faith announces to us does not pertain only to our own inner reality but to our entire being.” This is why the resurrection of the body is so fundamental to our faith and is involved in its completion. The plan of salvation consists in the formation of a people among whom the divinity, in the Word, is made flesh. “The good news of salvation has a name and a face—Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

IV.

In the life of Jesus, we find both divine and human activities. He is sent because we cannot save ourselves. But we can, if we will, be saved. God’s love of each person is gratuitous. Still, it demands a free response. Love cannot be coerced, even by God. Both our glory and our doom are found in this truth. The incarnation of Christ brings into the world both a human and divine presence in one Person. Christ lived a fully human life in full communion with both his Father and with other human beings whom he knew. He was not an abstraction or an idea alone.

Christ established a Church in which to carry on his mission among us. “The grace that Christ gives us is not a merely interior salvation, as the neo-Gnostic vision claims, [it] introduces us into concrete relationships that He Himself has lived. The Church is a visible community.” Salvation is not an isolated event or a product of our own making. “Rather salvation consists in being incorporated into a community of persons that participates in the communion of the Trinity.”

Moreover, “self-salvation” bypasses the sacraments in which we are to participate. These sacraments are outward signs, not just ideas. We are judged by the actions that constitute the record of our lives. We live in a dispensation in which forgiveness of our sins is possible. “When they abandon their love for Christ by sinning, believers can be reintroduced into the kind of relationship begun by Christ in the sacrament of Penance….”

There is a Last Judgment at which everyone will be judged on “the authenticity of one’s love.” The Gnostic idea that salvation is a freedom from the body and from the many normal relations found among men is untenable. But since our salvation is bound up with existing persons, it can never be just something affecting only ourselves. This concreteness grounds our care for actual human persons who are weakest and suffering. With a fuller knowledge of what salvation is, we are directed outwards to others, to make known the basis of our belief in salvation.

“Total salvation of the body and of the soul is the final destiny to which God calls all of humanity.” Placuit Deo was written lest we forget just what we are, each of us. When God “calls” humanity, he expects a response from each of its members who enter and pass through the time of their lives.

(Photo credit: Daniel Ibanez / CNA)

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017) and The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018).

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