150. Pope Francis’ Re-Interpretation and Actualization Of Gnosticism and Pelagianism: A Plausible Suggestion?

June 1st, 2018

Pope Francis is hardly known for his interest in historical theology. Unlike his predecessor, Benedict XVI, Francis’ speeches and writings usually contain no reference to patristic, medieval or modern sources. The texts he consistently quotes are his own. His “down-to-earth” communication style is aimed at simplicity and immediacy, with little or no concession to theological erudition. There is one exception, though. Since his programmatic apostolic exhortation EvangeliiGaudium (The Joy of the Gospel, 2013), he has often referred to the dangers of “Gnosticism” and “Pelagianism” as present-day threats for the Church.

Here are the somewhat cryptic concerns of the Pope:

One is the attraction of gnosticism, a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings. The other is the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. These are manifestations of an anthropocentric immanentism. It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity.(n. 94)[1]

A Warning Against “Subjective” and “Traditionalist” Deviations
Gnosticism and Pelagianism were two ancient currents of religious and theological thought that the Church had to deal with in the first centuries of its life. Gnosticismis the belief that the material world is created by an emanation of the highest God, trapping the divine spark within the human body. This divine spark could be liberated by “gnosis”, i.e. a direct participation in the divine. Gnosticism was mainly countered by Church Fathers like Ireneus of Lyon (130-202 AD),who insisted on the goodness of creation, the reality of sin, and the embodied Son of God who saves us entirely by way of His death and resurrection.

Pelagianism is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that the will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special divine aid. It was mainly fought against by Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), who underlined the transmission of original sin to all mankind and the utter inability of sinful man to change his destiny without the intervention of divine grace.

What about Francis’ interpretation of Gnosticism and Pelagianism?

From the outset, it seems that the Pope is actually referring to movements and trends within Roman Catholicismthat he labels as Gnosticism and Pelagianism. He opposes these trends and warns Catholics about being trapped by them. For Francis, Neo-Gnosticism is a “subjective faith”: the implicit concern is that it lacks the sacramental, institutional, Marian, and hierarchical outlook of the Roman Catholic faith. Is he here warning against the danger of absorbing too many doses of the “evangelical” faith, which is often caricaturized as “subjective” because it focuses on personal faith and witness? Is he admitting that he is concerned with the spreading of “evangelical spirituality” around the world and trying to counter its success by derogatorily labeling it as the latest form of Gnosticism? Moreover, is he also referring to the danger of a cafeteria-Catholicism where people subjectively pick and choose what they want to believe and practice?

As far as Pelagianism is concerned, the Pope seems to address another critical front. Neo-Pelagians “trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past”. It is clear that he is pointing to traditionalist sectors of the Church of Rome, which dislike that his more casual style and pastoral “reforms” run contrary to well-established patterns. By warning against the latest forms of Gnosticism and Pelagianism, he is criticizing what he perceives as deviances on both the right front (the traditionalist) and the left front (the evangelical and the secular).

A Two-Edged Sword
Gnosticism and Pelagianism provided alternative accounts to biblical Christianity. That is why they have always been perceived as lethal, and that is the reason why the Pope refers to them in very negative and critical terms. However, Francis does not present a historically accurate or theologically comprehensive assessment of Gnosticism and Pelagianism.[2] He uses (and perhaps abuses) them to fight his own battles. He is more interested in warning against vague present-day forms of these trends – to the point of disregarding their established meaning – than talking as a Church historian about what happened in the past and gathering lessons for today’s Church.

This “creative” way of redefining historical heresies for the sake of present-day quarrels could also be used against Francis. From a “traditionalist” point of view, he too seems to endorse a “subjective” form of Catholicism whereby people are told to follow their consciences and to gather in the Church (the “field-hospital” that includes all) with no personal cost of repentance and faith. Is this not also a form of Gnosticism whereby you are expected to follow the “spark” that is in you? On the other hand, secular voices and evangelicals could take issue with Francis for maintaining an ecclesiastical and magisterial apparatus which is grounded on medieval canon law, a monarchical and absolutist political state (i.e. the Vatican), the Vatican bank, a complex combination of works and religious practices, etc. Is this not a form of Pelagianism, i.e. a work-based system which obscures the primacy of grace?

Playing with historical theology and re-engineering its vocabulary for present-day purposes is never a neutral business. The denounced abuse can be easily turned back on the denouncer. The task of defending God’s Church from threats and dangers needs clearer and more accurate tools.


[1]Other references to Gnosticism and Pelagianism can be found in his Encyclical Lumen Fidei(The Light of Faith, 2013) n. 67 and in his Address to Participants in the Fifth Convention of the Italian Church(2015).

[2]The lack of Francis’ historical and theological accuracy is perhaps one reason behind the recent document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Placuit Deo(22 February 2018), in which both modern versions of Gnosticism and Pelagianism are treated in more historically informed ways and seen as dangers in “certain aspects of Christian salvation”. It is interesting to note that the two applications by Pope Francis are not really followed through.

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149. Do Atheists Go to Heaven? Pope Francis Says Yes

May 1st, 2018

Recent weeks have seen Pope Francis attracting media attention for statements that sound controversial even among Roman Catholic circles. Recently he was quoted using ambiguous language – to say the least – regarding the existence of Hell for those who don’t believe. The Vatican Press office quickly responded to the controversy, saying that the Pope’s words on Hell should not “be considered as a faithful transcription of the Holy Father’s words.” In doing so, the Vatican made a journalistic point, but failed to clarify the Pope’s actual teaching on Hell.

More recently (April 15th, 2018) Pope Francis claimed that atheists get to Heaven, thus reinforcing the impression that his opinions on the afterlife are somewhat clumsy when compared to standard biblical views. Both statements, in fact, have to do with the eternal destiny of people, the former suggesting the prospect of annihilation (i.e. the waning away of the soul) and the latter implying a form of universalism (i.e. all will ultimately be saved regardless of their faith in Christ).

“Be sure, he is in Heaven with Him”
This public comment by the Pope was given in the context of a visit paid to a parish in the suburbs of Rome. While meeting kids and responding to their questions, a boy went to him in tears, telling the Pope the story of his recently deceased father and asking whether or not he is now in heaven. The boy made sure to inform the Pope that his father, though wanting his children to be baptized, was himself an atheist.

So what to say to this boy mourning his father and asking for information on his eternal destiny? Here is the answer given by Pope Francis:

“God has the heart of a father, your father was a good man, he is in heaven with Him, be sure. God has a father’s heart and, would God ever abandon a non-believing father who baptizes his children? God was certainly proud of your father, because it is easier to be a believer and have your children baptized than to be a non-believer and have your children baptized. Pray for your father, talk to your father. That is the answer.”

One needs to appreciate the emotional challenge of having to answer a boy in pain and tears. Talking about a dear one who has recently died is always difficult. Having said that, the first commitment of a Christian should always be to be true to the biblical gospel, and then to convey what the Bible says in pastorally appropriate and sensitive ways. This is exactly what the Pope failed to do, in more ways than one. He certainly showed sympathy, but was he faithful to the Word of God?

The Pope made several incorrect claims that need to be briefly mentioned. First, the connection he made between the father being a “good person” and him being with God. Is being a good person sufficient to be accepted by God? Does not the Bible say that no one is righteous before God (e.g. Romans 3:10-12) and that our only hope is because Jesus Christ was the only “good person,” through whom we can be accepted by God the Father (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5:21)?

Second, does having one’s own children baptized equate with trusting the Lord Jesus for our salvation? Is this not a version of salvation by works that is always opposed in the Bible (e.g Ephesians 2:8-9)?

Third, the assurance given to the boy was issued on the basis of whose authority? How can a person – even a Pope – be confident enough to say that an atheist is in heaven? Don’t Christians have to rely on the authority of the Word of God, which clearly teaches that those who don’t believe will be condemned (e.g. John 3:18)? Has the Pope the authority to change that, or is his authority superior to plain Biblical teaching?

And fourthly, how can the encouragement to pray for the father and to talk to him be squared with the clear biblical teaching that warns us not to talk to the dead (e.g. Deuteronomy 18:9) and to pray only to Jesus Christ, the only Mediator between God and men? Instead of leading the boy to Jesus Christ, why did the Pope point him to his dead father?

“We Are All Children of God”
In this answer the Pope gave voice to a whole theological vision that may sound compassionate and warm, but which is ultimately misleading and deviant because is not truthful to Scripture. Even more troubling, the answer did not occur in a vacuum. It was instead the climax of a previous comment in which the Pope said that we are all children of God. Here is how the Pope articulated this thought:

“We are all children of God, all, even the unbaptized ones, yes, even those who believe in other religions, or those who have idols. Those of the mafia are also children of God but prefer to behave like children of the devil. We are all children of God, God created and loves us all and placed in each of our hearts the consciousness of distinguishing good from evil. With baptism the Holy Spirit entered and strengthened your belonging to God. The “mafiosi” are also children of God, we must pray for they go back on their ways and recognize God.”

Here Pope Francis reiterates his attempts at redefining what it means to be a child of God. For him, children of God are all people: Christian believers, baptized people, unbelievers, atheists, people of other religions, idolaters, etc. He grounds this claim in creation and relates it to the human conscience. No mention is made of sin and separation from God. He refers to baptism as “strengthening” our belonging to God, intensifying it, making more relevant something that is already there before baptism takes place. The idea that all people are children of God means that all people will ultimately be saved, thus blurring the distinction between nature and grace, between being a created person and being a saved person. Evidently for the Pope this was the background for him assuring the boy that his atheist father is now in heaven.

There are serious distortions in this papal teaching. All Bible believers, even among Roman Catholic circles, should begin to biblically question the wayward theological system of Pope Francis.

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