Educators will draw inspiration from the CDF’s treatment of Gnosticism, since battles over education have been waged over definitions of the body.
Placuit Deo is a brilliant text. The Congregation of the Faith’s newest document, released just days ago, fruitfully aligns key themes from Pope Francis’ pontificate with St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Francis wants an outward-looking Church. But for the Gospel to flourish, Christians need to counter those cultural messages which make it difficult for God’s word to take root.
The purpose of this teaching Letter is clear enough. Placuit Deo (On Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation) aims to clarify aspects of salvation that, given “recent cultural changes,” can be “difficult” to understand. What changes are these? The document employs a helpful rhetorical strategy. Instead of descending into aggressive polemics, the text, rather, invites us to consider key trends within today’s secular culture in the light of two ancient heresies: Pelagianism and Gnosticism.
The text links today’s Neo-Pelagian tendencies with “individualism.” The old heresy re-entered the currency of our common speech about two hundred years ago through the thought of Immanuel Kant, chief architect of the Enlightenment. Of course, it is the Catholic Church that first bestowed dignity on individual men and women. Where pagan, eastern, and Asian religions tended to emphasize either the tribe or the state or a universal “consciousness,” it was Catholicism, and Catholicism alone, that championed to the gentiles that very peculiar Jewish notion that each one of us bears in his body God’s “image.” Lose Christian anthropology and the individual recedes from view. Twentieth-century totalitarian politics gives ample evidence to this fact.
Where Pelagius and Immanuel Kant went terribly wrong is by taking a single point of light and blocking from view the constellation within which it belongs. So also the turn from the individual to “autonomy.” It is true that each of us bears a unique, personal, unrepeatable relationship to the cosmos. It is false that individuals need neither neighbor nor savior to be happy.
So Christians need to preach against individualism; ‘tis true. It is from the CDF’s treatment of the other heresy, Gnosticism, which I suspect educators will draw particular inspiration. In recent years battles over education have been waged over definitions of the body. For instance: in the US, Title IX Regulations (which enforce “equity” among an expanding list of sexes), and in Canada, Gay-Straight-Alliance clubs (which enforce “normalization” of gay culture), have marked the chief theatres of conflict between government and families. In both cases, schools and colleges have come under attack because of the Jewish and Christian refusal to succumb to the old body-denying, Gnostic heresy. And this is why the Vatican’s unequivocal, articulate reaffirmation of the principles of the Theology of the Body is so welcome.
G.K. Chesterton once observed that the problem with moderns is not that they are bad, but that their goodness knows no form. We have become like an orchestra without a conductor or actors without a script. All our best sentiments crash and bang against each other in contradictory expressions. So it is with Gnosticism. This heresy aims at a brilliant good: spiritual insight. Who wouldn’t want it? Senses can deceive. Colds and callouses like disease and death can make what St. Francis of Assisi called “Brother Ass” feel like an unwelcome guest. As long as man tarries in this vale of tears, flesh and spirit will mingle in an uneasy alliance.
Where moderns are likely to go astray, the text warns, is when we misname our foe. It is not the body. “[A]ccording to Biblical faith,” the document wisely explains, “the origin of evil is not found in the material world” (para 7).
So what is the remedy? A return to the principles of the Theology of the Body. As St. John Paul II argued, as Benedict XVI encouraged, and as Francis here affirms, deny the body and you torpedo the faith. The Congregation quotes the Pope Emeritus to good effect: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person…” (para 8) And that person, our Lord Jesus, saves us through his flesh, that is, his body. This is precisely what the new Gnostics wish to deny: the physicality of faith. The flight from the body through addictive technology is one danger. The gender ideologue’s denial of the union of spirit with body is another.
The document invites us to grasp the logic of the new Gnostics. It is a flesh-denying logic, and would destroy the fabric of Christian faith, and the character of Christian schools, if embraced. Consider the new Gnostics’ premises:
- Spirit is superior to body.
- Spirit and body only accidentally relate.
- Therefore Spirit and body may not always harmonize.
It is against such subtle errors that the Vatican warns the faithful. Not that we needed a Vatican document to tell us as much. Remember Milton’s Satan from the first book of Paradise Lost:
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n
These lines come from his first sermon preached to fallen angels who would not act like creatures and so could not dwell in the presence of the Creator. When we refuse the gift of the body, and of the essential connection that joins it to spirit, we too refuse our status as creatures, in all our sexually-determined, mortally-bound, corporality.
In place of the new Gnosticism Placuit Deo calls us to recover the old orthodoxy. It asks us again to learn the grammar of the body. Salvation is never “merely interior” (para 14). The text proposes a reductio ad absurdum. If our bodies were merely shells of the spirit, ifthe flesh is not also central to man and man’s salvation – in other words, if the radical gender theorists were right – then Jesus’ bodily sacrifice would make no sense (para 4). But of course Jesus really did take on a body. And of course Jesus’ blood really does redeem. And so our bodies must really count too, and likewise the sacraments, those bodily fruits of Christ’s sacrifice (para 13).
The takeaway from this new document is as follows: parents, teachers, pastors: love thine enemy, but know his sickness. Only by reading the signs of the times, only by unmasking the body-denying ideologues, do we have a hope of inoculating our children against their flesh-denying philosophy. In the Letter’s words, only by reading the “language” of the body “inscribed” within the flesh of each of us can we hope to live “in fidelity to the kinds of relationships” that God has designed (para 14).
Pope Francis beckons us to look outward to a world sick with suffering; the Theology of the Body may remain one of the best ways to administer the medicine of mercy.