On certain aspects of Christian salvation

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Is the Catholic Church rediscovering the beauty of the first proclamation of the Gospel and the commitment to it? This is the question that came to my mind when reading the Letter recently published by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (February 22, 2018).  “Placuit Deo”- “it pleased to God” (Eph 1:9) - is addressed to catholic bishops on Certain aspects of Christian salvation. In light of the greater tradition of the faith and with particular reference to the teachings of Pope Francis, the Letter intends to demonstrate certain aspects of Christian salvation that can be difficult to understand today because of recent cultural changes (n°1).

 

Two main challenges are identified as shaping the Christian faith today. The first is the confusion around the figure of Jesus Christ and his mission towards the humanity. The second is the growing modern individualistic mentality which considers the human person as a being whose sole fulfillment depends only on his or her own strength (n°2). This challenge echoes an ancient heresy spread by a certain Pelagius whose doctrine is known as “pelagianism”.

Connected to the above modern tendency of individualism is the understanding by which the salvation mediated by the Incarnation of Jesus, his life, death and Resurrection in his true body, comes to us, only to liberate the inner reality of the human person from the limits of the body and the material. Here, Christian salvation appears to be an inner individualistic and privatized experience or knowledge. In this way, this conception denies to Christian salvation any social feature. This modern tendency echoes another ancient heresy called Gnosticism[1].

Against these two modern trends and tendencies that deform the Christian understanding of the salvation brought to the whole world (Jn 4:42) by Jesus Christ through his incarnation, life, death and resurrection, the Letter reaffirms that salvation consists in our union with Christ, who, by his Incarnation, death and Resurrection has brought about a new kind of relationship with the Father and among human persons, and has introduced us into these relationships, thanks to the gift of the Spirit, so that we are able to unite ourselves to the Father as sons in the Son, and become one body in the “firstborn among many brothers” (Rom 8:29) (n°4).

What occurs in this statement is the clarification of the Christian proclamation. What do Christians say about Christ and what he has done for the whole humanity finds a clear answer in this Letter. For Christians, Jesus Christ is not a model that inspires generous actions with his words and his gestures (n°2). Rather, he is the only Savior of the whole human person and of all humanity (cf. Acts 4:12; Rom 3:23-24; 1 Tm 2:4-5; Tit 2:11-15). He transforms the human condition by incorporating us into a new existence, reconciling us with the Father and dwelling among us in the Spirit (2 Cor 5:19; Eph 2:18).  In this way, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the faith just referred to what was said in the declaration Dominus Iesus, On the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the church (2000).

Regarding the importance of the Church, the document says: “The place where we receive the salvation brought by Jesus is the Church, the community of those who have been incorporated into this new kind of relationship begun by Christ” (cf. Rom 8:9). Understanding this salvific mediation of the Church is an essential help in overcoming all reductionist tendencies. The salvation that God offers us is not achieved with our own individual efforts alone, as neo-Pelagianism would contend. Rather, salvation is found in the relationships that are born from the incarnate Son of God and that form the communion of the Church. Because the grace that Christ gives us is not a merely interior salvation, as the neo-Gnostic vision claims, and introduces us into concrete relationships that He himself has lived, the Church is a visible community” (n°12).

With the emphasis of this document on Jesus Christ as the only Savior of the world (Lk 2:11) and the importance of belonging to the Church through the sacraments of initiation, we are brought back to the core of the first proclamation of the Gospel. For all Christians and especially for all religious congregations, like ours— Xaverian missionaries— whose sole and exclusive purpose is to proclaim the Good News of the kingdom of God to those who do not know Jesus (Xaverian Constitutions, n°2), the affirmations of this Letter are there as a reminder of the truth and the purpose of our Charism. What do we have to offer to the world today if not to reaffirm that in believing in Jesus Christ we have found the secret to attaining human fulfillment; that through faith the door to eternal life has been opened to us ( Jn 3: 16; Ac 14: 17). And that the Church is given to us as a concrete community where the promise of life in abundance (Jn 10: 10) is experienced as a foretaste of that new earth and new heaven where God will be with us and will wipe every tear from our eyes, and where there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away (Ap 21: 8).

Placuit Deo does not address the challegences of interreligious dialogue and ecumenism. Its focus is to explain the specificity of Christian salvation as proclaimed and lived in the Catholic Church. Confessing, as catholic Christians do, that there is no salvation through anyone else except in Jesus Christ (Ac 4:12) does not contradict God’s will to save everyone (1 Tm 2:4). Attesting that the Church is the place where salvation is received does not intend to bring back the ancient quarrel raised by the saying “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus”- “Outside the Church there is no salvation”.

The second Vatican council has addressed the issue of the salvation of people who belong to other religions. Indeed, in Nostra Aetate, The relation of the Church to non-christian religions (n°2) and Lumen Gentium (n°16):  “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in other religions…People outside the Catholic Church are related to the people of God in various ways. Though they do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, they achieve eternal salvation. But the council added: provided they seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience”.

This teaching of Vatican II about the salvation of other believers outside the Catholic Church is still relevant. For Christians who confess Jesus Christ as sole savior and unique mediator (1Tm 2: 5) and the Church as sign and sacrament of salvation (Lumen Gentium (n°1), the challenge is how to remain, at the same time, faithful to being catholic Christians of profession of faith and to dialogue with people of other confessions, religions or beliefs. In fact, Placuit Deo calls catholic believers to be prepared to establish a sincere and constructive dialogue with believers of other religions, confident that God can lead “all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way (Gaudium et Spes, n°22) towards salvation in Christ (n°15).

Placuit Deo is an updated explanation of the Catholic faith. It addresses specific modern trends and tendencies that deform the meaning of Christian salvation, namely neo-Pelagianism and neo-Gnosticism. In the wide African context and specifically in our sierra Leonean context characterized by religious pluralism and the rise of new religious movements such as neo-Pentecostalism, the Letter, is an antidote against a superficial involvement in interreligious dialogue and the “spirituality of zapping”.

In fact, to express their respect and openness towards people of other religions, quite often, we hear people repeating here: “at the end we worship one God”. While this statement is not wrong, it needs further clarification. If not, it leads to a weak and superficial identity, damageable both for Catholics and people who belong to other religions. In accord with Placuit Deo, a sincere and deep catholic involvement in interreligious dialogue should not start by asserting that God is the same everywhere. Its starting point should be that in the Catholic Church, we worship a God who willed to reveal his face in Jesus Christ (Col 1: 15), by the power of the Holy Spirit. And again: Jesus Christ is confessed in the church as the way, the truth and the life (Jn 14: 6).

Against a “spirituality of zapping” — recording the zap of TV Channels looking for the most enjoyable— well spread in our context, it’s the tendency to move from one church to another or from the church to the mosque and vice versa, in search of a suitable spirituality, something convenient to one’s needs and feelings, Placuit Deo is a reminder that Christians long for salvation, a concrete community. This sense of belonging avoids conceiving Christian salvation as a supermarket product which one chooses only according to one’s purpose. In Christianity, salvation is at the same time for “I” and for “we”, otherwise, it is not. This is what the words of the creed: “for ‘us’ men he become man” mean.

 Placuit Deo brings us back to the basic grammar of the Gospel, the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God (Mk 1: 1) to every creature (Mk 16: 15) and all the nations (Mt 28: 19; Lk 24: 47). Thus, the Letter is a call to rediscover the beauty of the first proclamation of the Gospel and an invitation to foster the commitment to it.

[1] See the full explanation of the two heresies in the document, footnotes, n°9. in www.vatican.va/roman.../congregations/cfaith/doc_doc_index.htm.