Heretical Tendencies, Part II: Neo-Gnosticism

Last week I introduced the letter of the Vatican’s “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (CDF) called “Placuit Deo”, which explained certain heretical tendencies that Pope Francis has spoken of as ‘neo-pelagianism’ and ‘ neo-gnosticism’. These heresies have distort the right understanding of salvation, leading to a denial of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the one Mediator between God and men, and the necessity of the Church as the instrument he uses to communicate his saving grace to us. Last week, I wrote about neo-pelagianism. This week I turn to neo-gnosticism.

The ancient heresy of Gnosticism, which was born in the 2nd century, had a variety of forms, but all of them denied the reality of the Incarnation because they held to a radical division between spirit and matter, and sought liberation from the material world by the way of secret ‘knowledge’. The word ‘gnostic’ comes from the Greek word ‘gnosis’ meaning ‘knowledge’.

So the CDF writes, “A new form of Gnosticism puts forward a model of salvation that is merely interior, closed off in its own subjectivism. In this model, salvation consists of improving oneself, of being ‘intellectually capable of rising above the flesh of Jesus towards they mysteries of the unknown divinity.’ It presumes 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 man.” (Placuit Deo 3)

If neo-pelagianism is the spirit of the modern world and of Christian conformity to that world, neo-gnosticism is the spirit of religiosity (or better ‘spirituality’) in response to a world that has been stripped of its meaning. This is ‘New Age’ spirituality. This is the world of ‘spiritual, but not religious’.

Since neo-gnostic ‘salvation’ comes from within and this interior ‘creativity’ is regarded as giving meaning to life in an otherwise meaningless world, neo-gnosticism manifests itself in a special way in transgressive sexuality, gender ideology, and transgenderism. Since the spirit of the modern world finds the body, male or female, to be meaningless, ‘cisgender’ life is seen as mere conformity to a meaningless world, while transgender reveals the power of the inner spirit.

When this neo-gnostic spirit enters the life of the Church it finds the world of doctrine and sacraments to be ‘rigid’ and lacking in ‘compassion’ and ‘empathy’, ‘judgmental’. Neo-gnosticism has no problem with ritual – indeed it loves ritual – but instead of receiving objective sacraments, established by Christ, handed on by tradition, as instruments of grace, it wants to fashion rituals as expressions of the interior creativity, of the inner divine.

Catholics who are led to overemphasize emotion and experience, divorced from the objectivity of Church teaching and sacraments, can readily be swept away by the currents of neo-gnosticism.

When we talk about neo-pelagianism and neo-gnosticism, we are not talking about clearly definable groups or systems of doctrine, but powerful cultural currents that take many forms.

The CDF responds to all this by speaking about “the way in which Jesus is Savior” by entering into the world he created, an embodied world in which human beings live within a complex network of relationships. Objectivity that recognizes and accepts the meaning given to us by God through creation and through Jesus’ work of salvation is the key to recognizing and resisting the currents both heretical tendencies.

Against neo-pelagiansim: “He did not limit himself to showing us the way to encounter God, a path we can walk on our own or by being obedient to his words and by imitating his example. Rather, Christ opens for us the door of freedom, and becomes, himself, the way: ‘I am the way’ (Jn 14:6).” (Placuit Deo 11)

And against neo-gnosticism: “This path is not merely an interior journey at the margins of our relationships with others and with the created world.” Note here that we relate to others through our bodies and we live as embodied beings in a world of bodies. “Rather, Jesus gave us a ‘new and living way that he inaugurated for through his flesh’ (Heb 10:20). Therefore, Christ is Savior in as much as he assumed the entirety of our humanity and lived a fully human life in communion with his Father and with others. Salvation, then, consists in incorporating ourselves into his life, receiving his Spirit. (cf. 1 Jn 4:13)” (Placuit Deo 11, emphasis added)

This is also where the Church enters: “The place where we receive salvation brought by Jesus is the Church, the community of those who have been incorporated into this new kind of relationship begun by Christ. … Salvation is found in the relationships that are born from the incarnate Son of God and that form the communion of the Church.” This is not a merely interior salvation “because the grace of Christ … introduces us into concrete relationships that He himself lived, the Church is a visible community … the salvific mediation of the Church, ‘the universal sacrament of salvation’, assures us that salvation does not consist in the self-realization of the isolated individual [neo-pelagianism], nor in an interior fusion of the individual with the divine [neo-gnosticism]. Rather, salvation consists in being incorporated into a communion of persons that participates in the communion of the Trinity.” (Placuit Deo 12)




Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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