Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate (“Rejoice and be glad”), is a reflection on the universal call to holiness, the reminder by the Second Vatican Council that all God’s people — not just priests and religious — are called to be saints.
In the course of his reflection, the pope critiques some common faulty approaches to holiness, one of those being “Gnosticism,” an ancient heresy that grew up alongside Christianity and continues to exist today.
The name, Gnosticism, comes from the Greek work for knowledge, gnosis. This false path to holiness concerns itself solely with thinking “deep thoughts” about spiritual stuff. It settles for pursuing mere enlightenment instead of the total transformation of our entire mental, spiritual, relational and physical beings through grace, which Christianity proclaims. As Pope Francis explains, Gnosticism is “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.”
Superficially, Gnosticism can look and smell like Christianity, but Gnosticism is a disembodied faith, one that has us going to church, saying prayers and studying faith-facts, but never letting the faith transform the way we live, act and relate to one another.
In contrast to Gnosticism, Christianity teaches that Christ, as our embodied savior, demands an embodied response from those who follow him. Christians believe that it wasn’t enough for God to love us “from a distance.” God went all-in with his love for us, emptying himself and becoming a human being so that we could experience his love for us totally. As St. Paul tells us in Philippians 2:6-7, “though he was in the form of God, [Christ] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness.” In response to God loving us with everything he had to give, including his body, St. Paul tells us in that same passage, “Have among yourselves the same attitude.”
Pope Francis observes that a true Christian cannot ignore the importance of the body in Christian discipleship. And although he primarily focuses on the importance of good works, there is another sense in which Gnosticism has largely supplanted the pursuit of authentic holiness among Catholics; namely, the widespread rejection of the Church’s teachings on bodily love, especially regarding contraception.
The driving force behind the popular resistance to Church’s sexual teaching is the very gnostic notion that what we do with our bodies behind closed doors couldn’t matter less. As I observe in my book “Holy Sex!” (The Crossroads Publishing Company, $14.95), the modern gnostic believes that as long as we say our prayers and think holy thoughts, we can do whatever we want in the bedroom.
But it was exactly this gnostic attitude that was condemned vigorously by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, the prophetic document that reminded Christians that God doesn’t only want to teach us how to love each other rightly with our minds and hearts, but with our bodies too.
The richness of dates
Church watchers know that popes often say as much with the timing of their proclamations as with the proclamations themselves. For instance, it was no coincidence that, in 1955, Pope Pius XII proclaimed that the feast of St Joseph the Worker should be celebrated on May 1. At the time, this day was best known as the atheistic communist holiday May Day, which celebrated humankind salvation through work for the state instead of laboring for the kingdom of God. Pope Pius XII used the timing of his proclamation to poke communism in the eye.
Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that it’s a coincidence that Pope Francis would release a document on holiness that specifically condemns disembodied, gnostic approaches to spirituality on the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the document that rocked the world by insisting that God cares deeply how Christians love each other with their bodies.
Laypeople step up
The sad fact is, by Pope Francis’ definition, most Catholics are gnostics. Some studies suggest that only 3-5 percent of Catholics use Natural Family Planning. In fact, according to a recent report in the National Catholic Register, only 12 out of 197 dioceses in the United States require engaged couples to learn Natural Family Planning, giving them the means to live out God’s plan for embodied Christian love.
Of course, in spite of the fact that only 12 dioceses equip Christian couples with the means to live embodied discipleship in marriage, all 197 U.S. dioceses require priests and religious to make an embodied response to Christian discipleship by living the gift of celibacy. Why the double standard? Sadly, the witness of the Church all but shouts from the rooftops that we really don’t believe that the universal call to holiness applies to laypeople.
In light of both Gaudete et Exsultate and the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, it is long past time the laypeople stopped being treated — and stopped thinking of ourselves — as second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. In light of this new call to holiness by Pope Francis, it’s time we started demanding our right to be given the tools that we need to live truly holy lives. Lives that enables our minds, souls and bodies to be transformed by God’s grace.