Father Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap., is a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, an accomplished professor of theology, and a prolific author. His most recent book is Jesus Becoming Jesus: A Theological Interpretation of the Synoptic Gospels.
CNA Editor-in-Chief JD Flynn interviewed Father Weinandy about “Gnosticism Today,” an essay published earlier this month at The Catholic Thing:
Your essay, "Gnosticism Today," says that the attitude commonly described as neo-Gnosticism has "little to do with its ancient antecedent." What is Gnosticism? What is the origin of the Gnostic heresy?
As I said in my essay, gnosticism is basically the notion that one is saved by “knowledge” (gnosis). While, especially during the second and third centuries, there were many different forms, sects or schools of Gnosticism, all were concerned with addressing the problem of evil in the world and the eternal destiny of humankind. For the Gnostics the source of evil was the material world, often thought to be created by an evil deity.
The reason the Gnostics thought that matter was evil can be found, to some extent, in Platonism. Plato did not believe in an evil creator god. However, Plato did believe that truth is unchangeable — what is true is always true. Unlike what is true, matter is always changing — a tree grows and then dies, the human body is healthy and then gets sick. Moreover, human beings are slaves to bodily passions and desires — filled with greed, lust, anger, despair, etc. Because matter always changes, it cannot be the source of what is true, which never changes. The Gnostics, and other sects similar to them, concluded that matter is evil.
From a philosophical point of view, for Plato, one needs to intellectually escape the world of matter and rise up through one’s intellect to the unchanging world of ideas — the perfect unchanging idea of a tree, or dog or human being. In later Platonic thought these perfect ideas were considered divine ideas. (By way of an aside, while Plato and the later Platonic schools where correct in thinking that truth does not change, they were obviously wrong in thinking that the cause of evil- what is not true- is due to matter. Aristotle, Plato’s student, recognized that one comes to know the truth through coming to know the material world.)
Within Gnosticism, this Platonic tradition merged with other pagan thought, eastern mystery religions, astrology as well as Jewish and Christian ideas. Gnosticism in the end was very synchronistic — pulling together different philosophic and religious ideas.
The overriding claim of the various Gnostic sects was that they provided the knowledge by which one is able to extricate oneself from the evil world of matter (the body) and ascend into the eternal spiritual world of divine truth. There were also various Gnostic redeemers — those first enlightened so as to know the truth, thus empowering them to pass this gnosis, knowledge, on to others. Within various forms of Christian Gnosticism, Jesus was often seen as one of the many Gnostic redeemers.
Today Gnosticism is found in the New Age movement. Here, as in ancient Gnosticism, one becomes “enlightened” so as to be elevated to the spiritual cosmic realm and so leave the confines of this material, evil world.
Why are some contemporary Catholics characterized as "neo-Gnostics?" What attitudes are conflated with Gnosticism?
This is a very complex question. St. Irenaeus (c. 130-200 AD) wrote five large volumes, “Adversus Omnes Haereses” (“Against All of the Heresies”), attempting to answer this kind of question. Irenaeus knew that at first sight one might ask: Is not Christianity gnostic? Do not Christians “know” truths that others do not know, and did not Jesus reveal this knowledge to Christians? Was not Jesus a Gnostic redeemer? Here we must makes some very important distinctions — distinctions that Irenaeus made.
Jews and Christians believe that all that God created is good precisely because he is the perfectly good and only God. There are not “bad” gods who create evil matter. Thus, matter is good and the body is good. Evil does not find its source in matter but in the free misuse of what is good. For example, sexuality is good, but it can be freely used in an evil manner — adultery, fornication, pornography, homosexual acts, etc. Food is good, but we can freely become gluttons.
What is needed for salvation is not simply knowledge, but more important, the means to overcome moral evil and the empowerment to live freely holy lives. Christians believe that God ultimately achieved our salvation by sending into the word his Son who became incarnate by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary. Now Jesus did teach us many things (like the Beatitudes), however, his most importantly he performed saving acts — his passion, death, resurrection and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Through his loving sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus freed us from the evil of sin and death. By rising gloriously from the dead, he made possible our own resurrection into eternal life. By sending forth the Holy Spirit, Jesus made it possible for us to become holy children of the Father and so empowered to live holy lives.
Of the utmost importance is our union with the risen Jesus as our Savior and Lord. We can only participate in the salvation that Jesus offers when we are united to him. We are united to him first through faith and baptism. This communion with the risen Lord Jesus is furthered through our prayer and the other sacraments — especially in the Eucharist.
Within Gnosticism, the Gnostic Redeemer does not do anything other than give knowledge and once he has given us knowledge, his importance ceases. (All world religions are Gnostic, except Judaism and Christianity. Mohammed simply informs people what they are to do if they are to please God. Buddha, similarly, tells us what we should do in order to live properly. Once they have done so, their contemporary importance ceases because we now “know” what we are obliged to do.)
The problem facing humankind is not ignorance, but sin. Within Christianity, Jesus’ saving presence is everlastingly necessary for we must always be united to him, even in heaven, as members of his body, if we are to reap the saving benefits of his salvific work. Unlike all forms of Gnosticism, we must have a personal relationship with Jesus through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit so as to be in communion with God the Father.
Christians, in faith, hold all of the above to be true — this is why we recite the Creed every Sunday during Mass. What we know are the saving mysteries of our faith — the Trinity, the Incarnation, the sacraments, Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist. Moreover, we believe that we can lovingly obey God’s commandments (the Ten Commandments) because we now life in Christ Jesus our Savior and Lord. Christians are Christians precisely because they believe in Christ — the eternal Spirit-filled incarnate Son of the Father.
Sadly, and even troubling, some people today, even in high places within the Church, accuse some Catholics of Gnosticism because these so-called Gnostic Catholics believe they “know” the truth and look down upon their fellow Catholic brethren who seemingly do not keep God’s commandments. But such an accusation is slanderous. Some Catholic may be arrogant in their faith and prideful about their presumed holiness, but this is not Gnosticism — this is the sin of judgmentalism, self-conceit and egotism.
So-called Catholic Gnostics today do not hold and teach anything other than what Jesus has revealed and the Church authoritatively teaches. On the whole they are simply ordinary faithful Catholic bishops, priests and, most of all, laity. To call the faithful Catholic laity Gnostics is an egregious falsehood. It is an insult to their Catholic integrity.
Your essay claims that those who accuse others of neo-Gnosticism often propose a kind of moral relativism, in which the conscience supersedes Catholic doctrine. How does that viewpoint relate to Gnosticism?
Many of the controverted issues within the Church today revolve around questions of sexual morality — adultery, fornication, contraception, abortion, homosexual acts, etc.
While the Church has always condemned such actions as sinful because they are contrary to what it means to be truly human and so actions that God himself has condemned, some within the Church today claim that, given particular circumstances, such acts may no longer be sinful for some people in certain situations- they may even be good actions.
Those who disagree with such arguments are often called Gnostics because they think they have all of the right answers. They know the truth. Again, this is a false accusation, for such accused people only hold what the Church has always taught. If such people are Gnostic, then the entire Catholic Church has been Gnostic from the time of the apostles.
Actually, those who claim that their now “enlightened” conscience allows them to supersede God’s previous revelation and the Church’s constant teaching are the real Gnostics, for they now claim to have knowledge that most of the Catholic faithful do not possess. In a way, such “enlightened” Catholics have fallen into the moral relativism of the secular world, where everyone is permitted to do what they feel is personally right for them. There is no such thing as unchanging “truth.” But this is to deny God, who is the ultimate source of all truth.