Clericalism is a Heresy; the Heresy is Gnosticism

This posting is too long, yet barely scratches the surface of the topic. Thinking about clericalism got me thinking again about Gnosticism. In what follows I try to explain that the still powerful heresy of Gnosticism is the root of today’s clericalism, and thus the root of the sexual abuse and cover-up crisis.

In what follows, especially in the examples I give from my experience in Denver, I make hard judgments and on occasion use harsh language. Yet I believe the present moment allows, perhaps demands, such judgments and rhetoric, even if they risk adding to present polarization. I hope that my language does sting, but that it may not wound.

Recent calls for reform in the Catholic church correctly focus on “clericalism” – on that aspect of clerical culture which for so long protected criminals, which still allows (I believe) too many in the hierarchy to hide behind veils of secrecy, and which more broadly continues to encourage some priests and bishops to assume pretentious and sanctimonious superiority – though thankfully this is not true for the vast majority of good priests or most bishops.

So why another comment about such “clericalism”? Because we need to get beyond “old boys club” descriptions if we are to oppose it. This essay, following Pope Francis’ suggestion, seeks to explain how a seemingly ancient heresy called “Gnosticism” is the root of today’s clericalism. For there will be no truly radical reform of clericalism if we do not discern the operation of that rotten root.

Let me, however, be clear from the first about the difference between clerics and clericalism. The latter is a corruption of the former. And the former – the existence of a class of professional “clerics” – is simply inevitable and necessary in human organizations. Said differently, whatever reforms are needed in the Catholic church, we will still need clerics – trained professionals subject to standards as well as scrutiny – whether they be married or celibate, female or male, given special licensing (ordination) or just in fact running things. The need for clerics, as I’ve said, is simply a fact about human organizational behavior. And not just in churches. It is as true for medicine and law, business and politics and education, as it is for religion – true even in the most egalitarian institutions. Yet such clerical groups have always been (and will remain) susceptible to the vice or corruption of clericalism.

What we Catholics, then, need to understand and oppose is the clericalism which corrupts the clerical structures of our church. And from my perspective no one has called for such discernment and reform more insistently than Francis.

For despite criticism from both right and left, he has been hard at work since day one trying to reform the culture as much as the structures of the Vatican and the hierarchy. Even more fundamentally, of course, since day one he has with constant urgency called all of us, whatever our “office” or situation in the church or in the wider world, to reform of our lives. That was the central message, for both priests and people, of his first major exhortation on “The Joy of the Gospel” in 2013.  It was even more explicitly the challenge of his recent 2018 exhortation “On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World.”

My remarks here about clericalism as a gnostic heresy draw primarily on that latter text. For there, after an opening chapter on the universal call to holiness, Francis writes what seems a fairly academic second chapter on the heresies of Gnosticism and Pelagianism. In subsequent chapters he discusses more traditional aspects of the call to holiness, such as the third chapter’s meditation on the Beatitudes and the final chapter’s discussion of discernment. (The entire document is very much worth reading and even prayerful re-reading.) Yet while Francis’ discussion of Gnosticism and Pelagianism will be abstract or academic for most readers, I believe it is very important. For these ancient heresies are perennial human tendencies, prevalent today as much as in the past. And we still need to discern their presence and oppose their power, both in ourselves and in the structures of our church, and in the wider world.

These days, though, we typically don’t know what to make of talk about heresies. For many the whole idea is an embarrassment – a reminder of inquisitorial pasts and witch-hunts. For others it’s just a kind of theological name-calling. So most don’t talk about it. Yet that, Francis clearly suggests, is a serious mistake. For heresies are powerful realities affecting the present, powerful ideas and tendencies which get embodied in personal vices and cultural corruptions.

Pelagianism, for instance, may well be the besetting vice of American life. For we Americans continue to embrace an imperative rooted in our Puritan and Enlightenment beginnings – an imperative to “action,” to enterprise, to constant making and doing – whether in business or politics or just in constant efforts to improve our individual lives. It is an imperative, a deep urge and urgency, to do and do and do…and then do some more. It is not just a matter of superficial slogans to “just do it.” It is, rather, a very strong and often a very destructive force that pervades our lives. And many of us, even if we would never use the term “Pelagianism,” are increasingly aware of how it burdens daily life and leaves us often exhausted. We may also know the difficulty of resisting its imperatives.

Fewer, I suspect, are aware of the Gnosticism which is a constant counterpart and the typical antecedent to such Pelagianism.

Yet Francis makes it clear that both these heresies are real and present dangers. He calls them “false forms of holiness” which present themselves as the real thing, as real holiness, as “orthodox” Christianity.

He describes Gnosticism as an intellectual and spiritual tendency to equate holiness (or being “on the right side”) with the inner light of special knowledge (gnosis) – knowledge possessed above all by insider elites. Pelagianism is the correlative tendency to think that we, especially “those in the know,” attain such righteousness by our own efforts, especially by following the rules and practices that identify us as the good guys.

I write to suggest that the forms of clericalism which distort the church are all rooted in the heretical Gnostic claim to special knowledge or doctrine – to a special knowledge which alone saves us from the outer darkness of “the world” and the mess of its streets, knowledge which also allows condemnation of others who seek more authentic forms of Catholicism. Gnosticism, in other words, is the ground of clericalism’s sanctimonious claims to superior righteousness.

Francis would seem to agree with my linkage of Gnosticism and clericalism since (at least as I read his text) the most obvious target of his second chapter are the self-proclaimed “orthodox,” especially in the Vatican and the hierarchy, who believe that they alone possess the truth and thus have the right and duty to rule, even to “excommunicate,” those who do not embrace their orthodoxy and submit to their rules.

Of course this suggestion may itself be pretty abstract and academic. So let me attempt to illustrate some of the ways I think that Gnosticism is at work in today’s clericalism.

My examples are not drawn from the present crisis, but involve far more common forms of clericalism which (I strongly believe) have made those terrible extremes possible. My examples are drawn from my experience in Denver, though I suspect the reader who is sympathetic to my argument will readily identify analogous examples from her or his experience. They begin with overall episcopal attitudes and arrogance, then move to clericalist control of the liturgy, and finally take up contemporary conflicts about sexuality and gender.

Of course, my judgments may well be quite wrong, more testimony to my liberal/academic Gnosticism than evidence of clerical Gnosticism. Yet even if, as I believe, my judgments are accurate, it remains very important to add that I cannot judge the personal motivations of the clerics involved, sorely tempted though I am to do so. As Pope Francis has famously said, only God can judge consciences. I assume that these men are sincere and not directly culpable for the heretical corruption I find in their attitudes and behavior.

As a first example, let me speak about the ways Gnosticism corrupts the hierarchy, particularly the office of Archbishop in my home diocese. I actually know little (and frankly care less) about the present Archbishop who seems little more than an episcopal place-holder. Yet I had some direct experience with his predecessor, Charles Chaput, now in Philadelphia. For we crossed swords a number of times in the Denver newspapers when he sought to pressure Catholic voters during two successive presidential election cycles. Many will remember the stories which got national attention. By letters read from the pulpit, editorials in the diocesan paper, and other forms of public statement, he effectively told Catholics that they could not vote for Democratic candidates because they were “pro-Abortion.” Chaput himself didn’t endorse the more extreme position of the guy in Colorado Springs about refusing communion to Catholics like John Kerry or Joe Biden, but neither did he reject it.

At the time, I wrote that Chaput and his cronies were abusing their legitimate ecclesial authority with a sleight of hand designed (I still believe) to confuse Catholics . For they extended their quite legitimate authority to teach that abortion is evil into an authority they did not have to judge the adequacy of public policy about abortion. In doing so they ignored and effectively opposed the more nuanced voter guidelines which came both from the Vatican and from the United States Bishops’ Conference.

Fortunately, many Catholics were not fooled, though few were as articulate as one 80+ grandmother who told me, “I’ll be dammed if I let that fool tell me how to vote.” Yet my own attempts to explain more authentic Catholic teaching (as expressed by the Vatican and the USCCB) in the local newspapers put me more firmly on the diocesan black list. And an effort to meet with Chaput – on his turf, with a promise of total confidentiality – simply to try to find some common ground, was rejected on the grounds that it could cause scandal to the faithful if it got out that their Archbishop was actually talking to this heretic.

As one further example of Chaput’s superior (and Gnostic) knowledge, I note that in a lengthy interview at that time in The New Yorker he made the explicit claim that most Catholics in the pews were really “Protestants who continued to go to communion.” How’s that for an exaggerated claim to knowledge? How’s that for pastoral outreach to the flock he is ordained to serve (and the folks paying his bills). And how’s that for fidelity to the ecumenical outreach mandated by the Second Vatican Council? But of course he knew better.

For me (and it shows in my rhetoric) all such pronouncements, from Chaput or other bishops, stink of Gnostic clericalism. Even as they are typical of many bishops appointed by the late and supposedly great John Paul II.  (Saints can be awful managers, and often are.)  Those who, one suspects, have long opposed Vatican II and of late have secretly signed on for the campaign against Francis. All, of course, because of their special insider knowledge.

I should add at this point in my rant that I support the episcopal structure of Catholicism – the fact that we have bishops (and a Pope) in key positions of governance. Like the general inevitability of clerical classes, the historical development of the office of bishop, with all its twists and turns, and even its frequent corruptions, strikes me as a good thing – perhaps especially now in this era of a global church. Yet I don’t believe there’s much evidence that Jesus himself established this structure or even made Peter the “first Pope.” And it seems clear to me that the future evolution of this episcopal form of governance will involve far greater local control in the selection of bishops, with women priests electable to the office, and so on and on.

Now a second and more specific example of such episcopal/clerical gnostic overreach — the ongoing effort by many bishops to micro-manage the way the baptized worship, always of course in the name of fidelity and good order. Episcopal control of priests and of the liturgy has, of course, a complicated history. And much of that history has involved needed reforms to wrest control from the corrupting influence of money and political authority – whether by medieval princes or Communist bureaucrats. It’s also clear that Vatican II called for further development in the relationship between clerics and laity, and between the local episcopates and the Vatican – something largely stalled by John Paul and only now again called for in very preliminary ways by Francis. Yet many episcopal-clerical Gnostics still believe (sincerely one suspects) that they alone are really “in the know” when it comes to liturgical forms and practices.

To my mind, the most obvious national example of such Gnostic over-reach remains the closed-door cabal some years back to “restore more authentic language” in the mass even though that meant opposing liturgical language agreed upon by all their predecessor bishops in the English-speaking world. I remain amazed that the people in the pews went along with this – probably because their pastors urged acceptance to avoid a public dispute with these “orthodox” hierarchs. (Which itself is a good example of the attitudes and collaborations of clericalism which have led to such scandal in the matter of sexual abuse.)

The most obvious international example of Gnostic over-reach (and yes, I am accusing him of heresy, however non-culpable) was John Paul’s fatuous (and totally ineffective) proclamation not only that women could never be priests but that all discussion of the matter must be banned. As if. But he clearly thought he knew.

But let me cite a recent local example of clericalist efforts to control people’s prayer at mass.  When I am in Denver, I typically go to Sunday mass at a church which for years, and with the pastor’s encouragement, has developed a strong tradition of congregational participation. Before the consecration, for example, the pastor would invite those who wished to come forward around the altar. Typically half the congregation would do so, the others happily remaining in the pews, mostly standing, most joining hands during the Our Father, and all returning to their seats for the Kiss of Peace and for orderly procession to receive Communion. This church’s practice was very reverent and communal and, as I said, a matter of long-standing practice or, dare I say it, of serious tradition.

Until, that is, the recent appointment of an absent pastor and of a Sunday presider whose heavily accented English is virtually unintelligible, and then the even more recent reception of a letter from the diocesan bureaucracy which has mandated that the congregation remain in their pews and kneel from the consecration through communion. Why? So that this parish follow canonical rules as a sign of the unity of the diocesan church. Duh? How about support for immigrants as a sign of unity among local parishes?

As far as I can tell, this recent mandate is all about control. It is, as I see it, a clear violation of the church’s teaching at Vatican II about lay participation in the Liturgy. But these Gnostics know best. They have never (in my opinion) taken the Council seriously and now see themselves as “chosen” to correct what their inner circle considers all forms of “post-conciliar excesses.”

But enough about liturgy, though there are many other examples of such gnostic overreach in this crucial arena of church life.

One such example – control of rules and rituals for marriage — leads me to a third arena of clericalist Gnosticism that may be the most important in terms of its destructive effects on church unity and authority and membership. I’m speaking about the hierarchy’s continual efforts to impose a narrow orthodoxy in matters of human sexuality. Chalk this one up as well to John Paul the Great since he clearly made such “narrow orthodoxy” the litmus test for the appointment of bishops during his long reign. Though Paul VI also deserves blame because of his resort to special insider knowledge about birth control.

Before going further, let me stress what I’ve long said and written. I believe the broad outlines and fundamental elements of Catholic teaching about sexuality are sane and especially needed as a critique of enlightened opinion and Hollywood persuasion about our sexual behavior. Here, though, I am arguing that clericalist Gnosticism has distorted such official Catholic teaching – made it little more than a “narrow orthodoxy” that is ignored by many (most?) Catholics and far less helpful than it could and should be to all of us living in this often sexually crazy culture.

I call the official Catholic teaching about sexuality narrow (and Gnostic) because it is proclaimed and where possible (as in rules governing marriage) imposed by folks who don’t walk the streets with their people and for the most part find it impossible to learn from people’s experience of discerning God’s presence in their struggles for sexual and marital sanity. They — and here I am talking about the guardians of orthodoxy, not the many, many good priests who as pastors have indeed walked the streets with their people — they have not tried to help their children move into sexual maturity and healthy marriages. They have not suffered with divorce among family and friends, nor rejoiced when the divorced find some healing and hope, often in a more mature relationship and marriage. They have not had to grow through the challenges of more equal relationship between the sexes, or the often hard won liberation of embracing alternative sexual identities. Thus it is all too easy for them to join Archbishop Chaput in seeing so many of their people as protestants who happen still to go to communion. And to allow the Catholic teaching on sex and marriage to become narrow and often arcane. And to effectively sideline all those seeking significant reform and development of such teaching.

Enough said, yet not nearly enough. Many undoubtedly agree with me about the need for development in Catholic teaching about sexuality and marriage. Many will continue to disagree, often ferociously. Thus our present culture wars about that teaching. Thus too the great need for dialogue and discernment among us – laity and clergy alike and together. (On such discernment, I again recommend the concluding chapter of Francis’ recent exhortation.)

Yet Gnosticism on all sides – among liberals as much as conservatives, laity as much as clergy – is the great obstacle to such discernment and dialogue. In this writing I have been especially concerned to criticize the heretical Gnosticism that is the root of today’s clericalism. Yet the corruptions of Gnosticism are far more widespread (and more dangerous) than the present crisis in our church. I hope in future writing to discuss the wider and more corrupting reach of such Gnosticism.

St. Paul often wrote to the early Christian communities about the deep disputes which divided them. And he regularly counselled against our temptation to know more and better than our opponents. Let me end with one such warning: “Brothers and sisters: knowledge [gnosis] inflates with pride but love builds up. If anyone supposes he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if one loves God, one is known by him.” (I Cor 8: 1-3)

5 thoughts on “Clericalism is a Heresy; the Heresy is Gnosticism

  1. John, I think Ivan IIlich fought against Gnosticism in education and health (“Deschooling Society”; “Limits to Medicine”). He called for constructive dialogue between professionals and laity in choices and standards affecting their lives in these areas.
    These things extend to the pastoral realm. The laity needs the conviction that their prayer and liturgical and moral experience is a word of God. They are called to state their positions forthrightly. The professionals need the humility to listen.

    But this Gnosticism won’t be pierced until the non professional realizes that his/her experiential knowledge is vital for the process of growth. The professionals need humility to recognize both the limits of academic knowledge and the necessity of experiential knowledge. But acquiring this humility necessitates the professional admitting they don’t have exclusive knowledge. It also requires the lay person owning his/her knowledge and responsibility.

    The entitlement to special knowledge does nurture that sense of exclusiveness setting up a wall that the professionals have a tendency to safeguard. But it is harmful and it is connected to the abuse crisis.


    1. Bravo, John. The Chaput-bishops attempt to blame their long-nurtured problems on Francis is the most stupidly cynical crap since Trump’s Inaugural Address.


  2. Thank you John. Am forwarding your essay to my book club — as we are currently reading “On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World.”


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