Pope Francis wants you to know about Neo-Gnosticism
Have you ever thought that you could convince someone to become Christian or Catholic?
Have you ever thought that if you could articulate the best argument for something that people would just have to believe you?
Have you ever thought that simply by telling someone a fact that you were adequately showing them the truth?
Have you ever thought that apologetics, having the right answers, was all that’s necessary to evangelize someone?
Have you ever looked at someone and judged them as having nothing to offer you?
Have you ever shared one of those snarky Holy Day of Obligation memes?
I have…and unfortunately still sometimes do. All of these things can betray an inner spiritual sickness, something Pope Francis has called “neo-Gnosticism.”
Pope Francis has spoken multiple times about the rise of two ancient heresies, Gnosticism and Pelagianism. I have written about the latter here, here, and here, but I wanted to take some time to reflect on the former. The Holy Father, in his 2018 exhortation on holiness Gaudete et Exsultate, says:
“Gnosticism presumes ‘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’” (GE 36).
In other words, Gnosticism anchors one’s salvation and holiness in knowledge. That acquiring knowledge is the same thing as growing in a relationship with Christ. However, this belief is opposed to the Gospel. Pope Francis says:
“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” (GE 37).
This perversion of the Gospel is both incredibly subtle and pervasive in the Catholic circles I’ve been a part of, specifically among those groups concerned with apologetics. As a college student I had an apologetic zeal that was obsessed with knowing the best arguments to defend my beliefs and I thought learning about Catholicism was the same thing as growing in my faith. Again, the Holy Father says:
“Gnostics think that their explanations can make the entirety of the faith and the Gospel perfectly comprehensible….A healthy and humble use of reason in order to reflect on the theological and moral teaching of the Gospel is one thing. It is another to reduce Jesus’ teaching to a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything….When somebody has an answer for every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right road” (GE 39, 41).
Without being aware of it, my passion to have all the answers took the awe and transcendence out of my faith. In distilling a personal relationship with Christ down to merely knowing about Christ I limited my experience of God. This kind of thinking ultimately “domesticates the mystery” and presumes to tame the untamable. However, as the pope says:
“God infinitely transcends us; he is full of surprises. We are not the ones to determine when and how we will encounter him; the exact times and places of that encounter are not up to us. Someone who wants everything to be clear and sure presumes to control God’s transcendence” (GE 41).
This kind of thinking also leads to judgment, that is, I wasted a lot of energy looking down on others. I had an “attraction for some people” who I deemed right and pure (GE 38) and ultimately dismissed everyone else. They were either enemies in a culture war or people who couldn’t possibly teach me anything about God. My presumed understanding of the “truth” authorized me to “exercise a strict supervision over others’ lives” (GE 43). This was simply another symptom of Gnosticism:
“God 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. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life. This is part of the mystery that a gnostic mentality cannot accept, since it is beyond its control” (GE 42).
All this is toxic to the faith and undermines evangelization. It transforms disciples into Pharisees. This neo-Gnosticism gives rise “to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyses 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” (GE 35).
If you want to grow in your relationship with God and share his love and mercy with others then I invite you to take this apostolic exhortation seriously. That is, let the pope act as your Holy Father and call you to greater repentance and faith. Read Gaudete et Exsultate as it was meant to be read, as an examination of conscience. As Pope Francis says, “I encourage everyone to reflect and discern before God whether [these heresies] may be present in their lives” (GE 62). Don’t let this invitation pass you by.
(A version of this article was originally published in 2018 at Where Peter Is.)