But Is It Really Gnosticism?

Father Robert Barron comes down on Caitlyn Jenner and a private meeting of bishops here. I’m a deep skeptic on the first topic. Fr Barron, quoting Jenner:

“Deep down, I always knew that I was a woman, but I felt trapped in the body of a man. Therefore, I have the right to change my body to bring it in line with my true identity.”

Notice how the mind or the will—the inner self—is casually identified as the “real me” whereas the body is presented as an antagonist which can and should be manipulated by the authentic self. The soul and the body are in a master/slave relationship, the former legitimately dominating and re-making the latter.

Is it gnosticism? I don’t see it. A paralyzed person struggles with a body that cannot function as it was designed. How does the person know? Perhaps the experience prior to illness or injury. Perhaps the constant reminders that other people walk, climb stairs, engage in athletic activities.

If a friend of mine in a wheelchair were to complain, I might suggest the real person I regard and respect need not “do” all of those things to be the valued and regarded friend. But not being in my friend’s state, would my utterances just seem like pious condescension? I might be inclined to agree with my friend if she or he were to suggest a conflict with inert limbs and organs.

A good friend of mine once battled a serious leg infection for a number of months. He returned to Mass one weekend looking healthy and happy from the knee up. I was a bit shocked to see a lower leg missing, but he reassured me he was on the path to healing. Gnostic? Hardly.

Caitlyn Jenner may be tragically misguided. In which case, she would be ill. Not a gnostic. And if her brain chemistry and interior sense is female, a male body would indeed present itself as something of a conflict. It’s not theological. It might be biology and genetics. And if she has been totally deceived in some way, it is psychological and social. But not theological.

On the private meeting of bishops, Fr Barron is cautious, but bothered:

But what particularly bothered me—in fact, it caused every single anti-gnostic sensor in me to vibrate—was the claim that the secret council was calling for a “theology of love” that would supplant the theology of the body proposed by John Paul II.

I don’t know how this interpretation reached Fr Barron’s desk, but I recall a portion of John Paul II’s Dives in Misericordiae (We’ll get to it Sunday) that reads:

(M)ercy is in a certain sense contrasted with God’s justice, and in many cases is shown to be not only more powerful than that justice but also more profound. Even the Old Testament teaches that, although justice is an authentic virtue in (people), and in God signifies transcendent perfection nevertheless love is “greater” than justice: greater in the sense that it is primary and fundamental. Love, so to speak, conditions justice and, in the final analysis, justice serves love. (DiM 4)

Love played an important role in John Paul II’s theology. Perhaps we have yet to hear the whole story on bishops’ meetings, or even love and mercy.

The Church has changed its tune often on serious sin. In the time of Irenaeus, one was often ejected from the community for murder, adultery, and apostasy. There was no forgiveness, no confession, only tossing the sinner to God for mercy. It was centuries before the institutional Church even recognized that serious sins might indeed be forgiven through a sacramental confession.

By Father Barron’s take, there are a lot of practices that look gnostic. Physical whipping, serious fasting, sleepless nights in vigil–lots of traditional stuff.

I used to find gnosticism in the traditional Latin Mass, but I learned it was better to stop looking. It’s more healthy to look to one’s own sins and heresies than others. It’s more healthy to seek goodness rather than attempt to read wrong into too many things.

I respected Robert Barron as a spiritual author long before he became a filmmaker and internet presence. But I think the tendency to comment on too many things is a danger. Sometimes, we are better served to note things in the news, and maybe say a prayer, keeping the conversation with the Master–someone who actually knows us, and knows the situation far better than we.

And maybe a group of bishops gathering in Rome is no more gnostic than a seminary governing committee or a Word on Fire staff meeting.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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18 Responses to But Is It Really Gnosticism?

  1. Jen says:

    The treatment of LGBT people in the Church is a big concern of mine. Historically they’ve been rejected by some in the RCC, and I think we all could do better. We acknowledge that some people are born with issues that need to be fixed with medicine or science. Human sexuality and gender is way more complex than simple binaries, although I’m not too hopeful that the RCC will seriously consider the issues in my lifetime. So it’s on us to model the kind of Church we’d like to see. With the high suicide and rates of violent crime against trans people, I think faith communities could be doing more, even if its just a quiet space where nobody harasses them for an hour a week.

  2. charlesincenca says:

    Todd, just a couple of perspectives I felt were left unexplored in your reflections:
    *I did read the whole Barron piece, I took away from it that he is addressing a sort of gestalt of Gnosticism in public discourse. I don’t get a sense that Jenner’s personal history or actions was serving as evidence or castigation. I also agree that physiological factors must be at play in these matters.
    *Barron’s take on the “Secret Synod” seems to have its nexus as to whether said bishops, prominent spokesmen such as Cdl. Kaspar, et al are, in point of fact, nudging the Church into subtle but profound shifts in doctrinal matters such as natural law. His focus upon nuancing the “Theology of the Body” into the “Theology of Love” as an objective in church teaching is a grave matter of concern, no matter what demographic polling may show otherwise.

    • Jim McCrea says:

      You can believe in facts or you can believe in doctrines: you must choose. There never was a doctrine strong enough to shift a single fact. When facts get lost, it’s because someone wanted to lose the fact. And where does it get lost? In some doctrine: some set of words. So the fundamental pastoral chore of the church is to remind people that facts are God’s language, while doctrine is our language. What is the saying, the Holy Spirit is known by its works?

      “Facts, as history teaches, carry greater weight than pure doctrine.” [Joseph Ratzinger, HIGHLIGHTS OF VATICAN II, Paulist Press/Deus Books, 1966, p. 17.]

    • Todd says:

      Let’s keep in mind the practice of admitting repentant sinners to the sacraments is not a matter of doctrine, but of administration. I think there’s a shade of hysteria about all this. Even characterizing a private meeting as a “secret synod” plays into a kind-of scare tactic that is unworthy of Fr Barron.

      And indeed, as our understanding of nature deepens, our interpretation of natural law adjusts.

      The basic questions: Is adultery wrong? Sure. Nobody is suggesting otherwise. Is abandoning a spouse wrong? Yes. Is being abandoned by a spouse wrong? Possibly a person could “drive” a wife or husband to the road, but in many cases, there is a shared responsibility for a broken relationship, and not an active sin involved. Is a non-Catholic ignorant of Catholic teaching responsible for “grave” sin if they divorced, remarried, and then wanted to become Catholic? By the strict definition of serious sin, I don’t see it. These are all important questions to explore.

      • charlesincenca says:

        I’m thinking we’re going all over the map somewhat in our respective commentaries. Access to sacraments is a ramification you seemed to have pulled up, Todd (unless it was also alluded to by Jen.) The hysteria you observe certainly doesn’t have it origin in Fr. Barron’s remarks. “Secret synod” is just a convenient handle, albeit flawed, that was not the essence of father’s remarks either.
        Now to your basic questions- there have been numerous scientific studies, both focusing upon non-human species as well as homo sapiens that have concluded that the necessity of procreation often results in females purposefully seeking multiple mates not only for success in the endeavor, but for genetic superiority. We know as well of the propensity certain non-human species to engage in same gender sexual “congress.” So, why is adultery still wrong? Why does the Church adhere to divine revelation as to the physical consequences of SSA? I get Jim’s “fact over doctrine” argument, but pardon the pun, “facts” are just as fluid and changing as political doctrine and actions. You are very right that these are serious questions to be asked and answered. But I don’t see Barron as piling on this news cycle item as an agent for propagandist purposes. YMobviouslyV.

      • Todd says:

        Big map? Fair enough. It does appear the so-called secret synod raises alarm in some. And Communion for the remarried is indeed a biggie for the alarmists. It’s less of a problem for me, but then again, I remember the history of the sacrament. I suspect Irenaeus would be scandalized by modern Roman practice.

        I didn’t cut-n-paste Fr Barron because I don’t like that methodology. An aggregator pulled out his claim of gnosticism, so that’s the only thing I zeroed in on. I don’t think it fits. And if it’s a misfit, I think his whole essay is off on the wrong foot. I think he can do better.

        By all means, we should be discussing this, with and without trans persons in the room. But we have to get past the name-calling, something a number of conservatives seem unwilling or unable to do. How to crank down the temperature? I wish I knew.

  3. FrMichael says:

    Your references to the wheelchair bound and the man with the leg infection are not equivalent to Bruce Jenner’s situation. The former two persons are dealing with the imperfection of bodies post-Fall, a consequence of Original Sin. They presumably did not cause the paralysis or infection intentionally. Mr. Jenner has intentionally mutilated his body via pharmaceuticals and perhaps surgery (I’m not following the story closely enough to know all the details) to deal with the mismatch he perceives between his mind and his body. While he is in an unenviable position and I’m not sure what I would do if I were in a position to provide pastoral care, surely we can say as Christians that mutilating the body is the wrong answer. I find Fr. Barron’s comments are spot on.

    • Todd says:

      But we are talking about Fr Barron’s point of gnosticism, which he describes as a heresy involving dualism, or antagonism toward one’s body. The quote he lifted from Jenner doesn’t make sense as a foray into anonymous gnosticism. Not from my view.

      I think it is right to be concerned about trans persons, to listen to them carefully and take their suffering seriously and without comedy. If indeed transgendered activities of “mutilation,” as you describe it, are disordered, then the Church is obligated to present the most gentle and persuasive case for support we can. Not to turn people, trans or their allies, away with jokes or condemnations.

      As for the specifics of Caitlyn Jenner: none of my business and none of Fr Barron’s. Even with the celebrity factor. If Catholics are bothered and confused about it, we start from there, and let’s not get manipulated into the cult of celebrity. And if we have real trans persons in our communities, it is our duty and responsibility to listen, support, and accompany. And perhaps to stuff our own opinions.

  4. Atheist Max says:

    “But not being in my friend’s state, would my utterances just seem like pious condescension?”

    Of course they would. We have no knowledge at all of what people are going through. Any judgement of their actions is out of line – so long as those actions to not impinge on others.

    “Love played an important role in John Paul II’s theology.”

    I disagree completely. John Paul II was about obedience and respect for authority – not love.
    It is impossible to love that which you cannot define or grasp (God) and furthermore, it is impossible to love and to also not completely accept Caitlyn Jenner for who she says she is.
    And should the day come if “she” becomes a “he” again, it is not for us to ponder her journey or her difficulty. Our only moral task is to listen and to help others who suffer from her distress.

    • Todd says:

      Thanks for commenting Max. First, I do know what rhetorical questions are, and I wasn’t expecting an answer. Second, you would have to be well-read in JP2 to make that assessment. If you can cite something from him, including context and a link, we can consider it. Otherwise, your statement is wishful thinking.

      I would disagree with your limitation on love. Love is not predicated on intellectual understanding. It is a choice. Simple as that. I don’t need to know everything about a person to make a choice to love them.

      • Atheist Max says:


        “Love is not predicated on intellectual understanding. It is a choice.”

        No. That isn’t true.
        Love is what happens between people who are kind toward each other, trusting and feel completely safe with each other.

        Christianity thinks love should be handed out like bird food – that everyone is worthy regardless of how much harm they have done to everyone around them.
        The church cheapens love by making it mandatory and compulsory to love everyone – even enemies. What good is such a love? What then is true love?
        This is a corrupt (and corrupting) view of human relationships.

        I suppose if you have cheapened love to the point that you can dish it out to every person you ever met – in that case it clearly is “a choice” but don’t call it love. It is a complete disfigurement of the term.

      • Todd says:

        Fair comment, Max. I disagree with you on love, and on the Christian notion of love. And since you self-identify as no longer Christian, I would submit you are competent to comment on one atheist’s opinion–your own–and probably not able to give an interpretation of what floats a Christian’s love boat. So to speak.

  5. charlesincenca says:

    Max, honestly, why do you even bother to get up in the morning? I recently noticed that Stephan Hawking is contemplating “physician assisted suicide/euthanasia.” Makes perfect sense from his perspective.
    Give me the late, great Dr. and Mrs. Nash every time. I’m astounded by your hubris to define for anyone what constitutes “love.”
    I choose to love you, Max, because of Mt.25 and natural law, and apparently in spite of yourself and me. Believe me, that’s not cheap. Consider, please, taking your carpetbag elsewhere.

    • Atheist Max says:

      “I choose to love you, Max…consider, please, taking your carpetbag elsewhere.”

      “Execute them” – said Jesus (Luke 19:27) because he loves them so …

      • Todd says:

        Old hat for you, Max. And debunked here long ago. Jesus no more advocated capital punishment than you heard a Who when you read Dr Seuss to your children.

      • Atheist Max says:

        Jesus’ eternal, unending torture which is arranged for most of us (‘the way is narrow’) is even worse than Capital Punishment.

        From your own words:
        “A paralyzed person struggles with a body that cannot function as it was designed. How does the person know?”

        The human brain has evolved to think; to question, to doubt claims and seek correct answers.
        Jesus forbids thinking – his argument for discipleship is entirely emotional and anti-intellectual. Same for Allah and other gods – simple surrender to a set of claims – and you know it.

        I think this gnosticism argument is important. It shows where religion does needless damage. There are millions of Caitlyn Jenners in the world who need not only compassion (which can be condescending) but full acceptance. Religion does impede this.

  6. charlesincenca says:

    That’s the best you got, Max?
    Have you ever encountered how you really sound and look via the media of recorded sound and video?
    And you have the sheer egotism to distill my concern for your being as “execute them.” That is the most pathetic proof text you’ve ever proffered. Max, for YOUR sake, give it a rest. Please.

    • Atheist Max says:

      I’m not going to discuss Jesus’ Parousia and his not-so-veiled warning to his disciples (as he plays the Nobleman in Luke 19:27) to “Execute those enemies of mine” as I am forbidden from discussing what you refer to as scripture. I can’t go into why the Nobleman is Jesus – or discuss why his method of executions puts the ‘good servants’ in charge of those executions.

      You have every right to your beliefs. I just think it is worth challenging a claim when it is made.

      You said, “I’m astounded by your hubris to define for anyone what constitutes “love.””
      Yet that is exactly what Christians are doing all the time.
      I certainly feel qualified to discuss love.

      The Love of Jesus:
      “I love you… but…it is not unconditional.
      1. If you stop believing I am real I will send you to eternal Hell.
      2. If you don’t follow God’s laws I will send you to eternal Hell.
      3. You must accept it that I made you in such a way that you will find it impossible to follow God’s laws.
      4. Most of your family will go to eternal Hell. Get over that one.
      5. Even if you do get into Heaven, most of your family won’t be with you no matter how hard you pray.
      6. Accept these claims blindly; reject all thinking to the contrary.
      7. I command you to fear that which I commanded you love; God.”

      Hubris is associated with unsupportable claims. Where is my hubris?
      I see no reason to think the Love of Jesus has anything to do with love of any sort.

      You might say you love me. But unlike you, I would never – under any circumstances even as an Atheist – send you to anything like ‘eternal torture’.

      My love for you is vastly, overwhelmingly superior and more compassionate to whatever love you think you have for me.

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