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On Thursday, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a letter to the Catholic bishops of the world, titled Placuit Deo. The document addresses “Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation.” It considers the themes of the Congregation’s 2000 document, Dominus Iesus, through the lens of Francis’s critiques of Neo-Pelagianism and Neo-Gnosticism. But Placuit Deo has other implications, especially for ecumenism under Francis and for the role of the Congregation in Francis’s pontificate. 

I learned of Placuit Deo’s release with some trepidation. It marks the first major document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since Francis sacked Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller, applying the previously unknown principle that Curial officials should not expect to receive more than one term in office. This sacking followed a period of tension, reported by Marco Tosatti and Edward Pentin, among others, between Francis and Müller. What, I wondered, would the Congregation’s first major post-Müller document look like? 

It looks like a lot of previous documents from the Congregation. At the press conference, Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, the current prefect of the Congregation, noted that Placuit Deo had arisen from studies of the Congregation’s 2000 document, Dominus Iesus. It is fair to say that that document has been, in the seventeen years since its release, controversial. In particular, Dominus Iesus was seen as a retreat from the ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council. But anyone who thought that the Congregation would reconsider Dominus Iesus under Francis will have been disapppointed with the new letter. Indeed, as Fr. Aquinas Guilbeau noted on Twitter, Placuit Deo reads like a summary of Dominus Iesus. Austen Ivereigh, Francis’s biographer and staunch supporter, implied in a tweet that Placuit Deo advances the formula Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus

Time will tell whether Placuit Deo has any effect on the warm relations Francis has enjoyed with Protestants. Archbishop Ladaria’s letter is very clear that the Church and its seven sacraments are necessary for salvation. Francis’s public acts have endorsed a broad ecumenism reminiscent of some of St. John Paul’s exuberant displays. Francis has been close to several Protestant ministers over the course of his pontificate, even appointing a Presbyterian minister, Marcelo Figueroa, as editor of the Argentine edition of L’Osservatore Romano. He commemorated the Protestant Reformation with Swedish Lutherans in Lund. He did not quite close the door on intercommunion for Protestant spouses of Catholics in a Q&A with Roman Lutherans. 

It is possible that Francis’s reputation for ecumenism will smooth the rough edges of Placuit Deo. Consider Francis’s consistent outreach to the Society of St. Pius X. Francis has engaged in very public dialogue with the Society’s chief, Bishop Bernard Fellay. He has followed up this dialogue with concrete steps on his own initiative, such as giving Society priests faculties to hear confessions and witness marriage, despite their unusual canonical status. One suspects that the opponents of the Society would not have received these developments so tamely if Benedict XVI had implemented them. It is possible that Francis’s personality will spare Placuit Deo some of the controversy that attended Dominus Iesus

Placuit Deo also tells us something about Francis’s fraught relationship with Cardinal Müller. Back in 2015, Cardinal Müller suggested that the Holy Office’s role in Francis’s pontificate was to provide it with theological structure. In an interview with La Croix, Müller observed that, whereas Benedict XVI was a theologian by training, other popes, such as St. John XXIII and Francis, have not been. Progressives reacted with alarm to Müller’s statements. Andrea Tornielli, widely seen as one of Francis’s preferred journalists, suggested that Müller’s frequent public statements were tied to this vision of the Congregation. Grant Gallicho, writing at Commonweal, implied that Müller was discounting other modes of theology, and that he was subtly usurping the pope’s role as theological architect of his pontificate. 

But after Placuit Deo, is it possible to reject Cardinal Müller’s vision of the Congregation under a pope like Francis? The letter takes two of Francis’s preoccupations—Neo-Pelagianism and Neo-Gnosticism—and expands them in terms consistent with previous theological documents from the Congregation. Archbishop Ladaria, therefore, has provided Francis’s pontificate with a theological structure consistent with the prior teachings of the Church. How he has done that is interesting, too. 

One noteworthy aspect of Placuit Deo is the extent to which Archbishop Ladaria has interpreted Francis’s preoccupation with Neo-Pelagianism. Francis has often criticized Neo-Pelagians—his term for rigid rule-followers, a category that for him seems to comprise almost exclusively pious, orthodox Catholics. Placuit Deo, by contrast, condemns a radical autonomy that earns salvation through its own efforts or through purely human structures. Edward Pentin notes that when Ladaria was asked why Francis’s concept of Neo-Pelagianism did not find its way into the document, the prefect said there was “no particular reason.” In other words, Placuit Deo discounts Francis’s polemical concept of Neo-Pelagianism and substitutes something closer to the actual meaning of the term. 

Placuit Deo seems to acknowledge that Francis’s terminology—the lens through which Ladaria must approach Dominus Iesus—is imprecise. Ladaria recognizes that “insofar as Gnosticism and Pelagianism represent perennial dangers for misunderstanding Biblical faith, it is possible to find similarities between the ancient heresies and the modern tendencies.” But he cautions that “the comparison with the Pelagian and Gnostic heresies intends only to recall general common features, without entering into judgments on the exact nature of the ancient errors.” This seems like a genteel way of saying that Francis’s Neo-Pelagianism and Neo-Gnosticism are not actually much like Pelagianism and Gnosticism, except perhaps in the broadest terms. 

I wonder whether Placuit Deo would have had such a warm reception if the previous prefect had signed it. Certainly the document is in keeping with his vision for the Congregation during Francis’s pontificate. But Ladaria’s reinterpretion of Neo-Pelagianism and implicit critique of the pope’s terminology would no doubt have been met with criticism from the usual quarters if Cardinal Müller had attempted them.

P.J. Smith writes from southern Indiana.

Photo by Vitold Muratov via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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