Pope Francis: The Threat of Gnosticism within the Church


Notre Dame, Indiana. I was intrigued a few weeks ago — sorry to be getting to this only now, when so much has already been written — to hear about and then read a pair documents coming from Rome: Pope Francis’ own apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), “on the call to holiness in today’s world,” and, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Placuit Deo (It Pleased God), “on certain aspects of Christian salvation.” Neither has much to say about religions, my special interest, but reports all mentioned the critique of Gnosticism (a path of higher knowledge, for the elite, that frees the soul from this world) and Pelagianism (a path of salvation traveled by what one achieves on one's own), both in the past linked to pagan religions, and in modern Church teachings, seen as "un-Christian" tendencies. But Placuit Deo sets the tone by indicating that these temptations have to do with modern weaknesses, not ancient heresies, weaknesses that thought to be pervasive in modern culture. Pope Francis deals with the dangers of Gnosticism and Pelagianism without alluding to the culture in general, or religions in general. He is interested in the spiritual health of the Church itself.

The issue of Gnosticism is particularly interesting, since we find two different interpretations at work. The CDF points to a general spiritual yearning ambivalent about the body, while the Pope has in mind a colder intellectual vice deep inside the Church. The CDF is concerned with a kind of spiritual narcissism, “a model of salvation that is merely interior, closed off in its own subjectivism. In this model, salvation consists in elevating oneself by knowledge beyond “the crude faith of the masses” and “the flesh of Jesus” towards “the mysteries of the unknown divinity.” (the 2013 encyclical, Lumen fidei, n. 47) This is a yearning for purity, to liberate the human person from the body and from the material universe, "in which traces of the provident hand of the Creator are no longer found, but only a reality deprived of meaning, foreign to the fundamental identity of the person, and easily manipulated by the interests of [the human person]." (n. 3) As is typical of CDF documents, no names are named. The document is rather simply warning Catholics to respect the whole person, in Christ, and resist the temptation to privatization and a world-fleeing spiritualization.

Interestingly, in Gaudete et Exsultate, Francis heads in another, quite different direction. His Gnostics are obsessed not with the spirit, but with doctrine: “Thanks be to God, throughout the history of the Church it has always been clear that a person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity. ‘Gnostics’ do not understand this, because they judge others based on their ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines.” Like spiritual Gnostics, these intellectual Gnostics too separate body and soul, but differently, because they have become "incapable of touching Christ’s suffering flesh in others, locked up as they are in an encyclopedia of abstractions." In the end, by disembodying the mystery, they prefer “a God without Christ, a Christ without the Church, a Church without her people.” (n. 37)

Francis sees this as a problem not "of the world," but among Catholics, both laity and “teachers of philosophy and theology in centers of formation…” At issue are intellectuals “who think that their explanations can make the entirety of the faith and the Gospel perfectly comprehensible. They absolutize their own theories and force others to submit to their way of thinking.” (n. 39) This theological bullying, intolerant of open inquiry, is nothing less than “an obsession with doctrine that undercuts the power of God.” By contrast with a “healthy and humble use of reason” that reflects on the Gospel, this Gnosticism reduces Jesus’ teaching to “a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything.” (n. 39) These Gnostics, powerful in the Church, have “an answer for every question,” and use religion “to promote their own psychological or intellectual theories.” (n. 41) In turn, they ignore people in trouble, judging God to be absent from the lives of people with messy, imperfect lives. They yearn for “a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance,” replacing the simplicity of the Gospel and “the trinitarian and incarnate God with a superior Unity, whereby “the rich diversity of our history” is blotted out, so that a static perfection can triumph. (n. 43) Francis is fierce here; Jesus was no harsher with the leaders of the Jewish people who opposed his teachings and works of compassion. In contrast, true Catholic wisdom recognizes that God is not to be caught in fine words, since he is “full of surprises.” God can meet us where he wishes. (n. 41) Indeed, he is “mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there.” (n. 42)

The cure for this Gnosticism is better theology, the realization that doctrine “is not a closed system, devoid of the dynamic capacity to pose questions, doubts, inquiries…" Rather, "the questions of our people, their suffering, their struggles, their dreams, their trials and their worries, all possess an interpretational value that we cannot ignore if we want to take the principle of the Incarnation seriously. Their wondering helps us to wonder, their questions question us.” (n. 44) Openness, not barring the doors, is the way to manifest the faith in a changing world.

Francis too names no names, but it seems to me (though I am no Vaticanologist) that this is a heresy of those with power in the Church, hierarchs who yearn for a perfect, doctrinally pure Church that accommodates nothing of the lives of actual Catholics, but merely expects sinners to "measure up." The Gnosticism of the seeker is a problem, but worse in Francis' judgment is the Gnosticism of the Catholic ruling class. He seems to be remembering the instruction of Jesus, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7.3)

In the rest of his exhortation, Francis goes on to teach positively about the wholeness and inclusion of Christian life. But the change starts here. Breaking the hold of hard Catholic Gnosticism is a step toward healing the softer Gnosticism of seekers in the wider world. If we can heal the community of the Church - under the leaderships of hierarchs more clearly servants and less harshly judges - perhaps the wider body of seekers will once again recognize in the Church a community of the kind they are deep down seeking.