Sense and Nonsense: Gnostic Catholicism

Eric Voegelin’s thesis that Gnostic ideology is dominant in the modern mind, including the religious mind, because of the weakness of Christian faith, has been much on my mind of late. In a sense, nothing is more curious than the susceptibility of apparently free, intelligent Christians to ideologies, which have parodied or replaced Christianity, even while they retain much of its vocabulary and moral enthusiasm. Contemporary Gnostic Christians adamantly insist that they are “merely” elaborating the “true” faith for our time, and pretend shock when their doctrines are spelled out. The problem is not only the extent and import of this phenomenon, but perhaps more, the striking inability of much of the hierarchy to see the issue as such, leaving the public order largely in the hands of Gnostic intellectuals. And those who do sense the enormity of the problem, such as the Holy Father or Joseph Ratzinger, are looked upon somehow as aliens, as betrayers of the enthusiasms that would ground faith in contemporary politics or ideology.

Last summer, in San Francisco, I came across a used copy of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, which I put aside to read during Christmas break. This novel was published in 1869, while Dostoevsky was living briefly in Berlin, Baden-Baden, Basel, Geneva, Milan, and Florence. Evidently, The Idiot was inspired by Dostoevsky’s visit to the Museum in Basel, where he first saw Hans Holbein’s “Christ Taken from the Cross.” The Idiot is said to present the perfect view of a Christian. Indeed, the novel is both Socratic and Christic: the oddness of the philosopher or the saint before the normal affairs of men, as well as a hint of the closeness of the philosopher to the tyrant, or the saint to the fool.

During Christmas, then, I began to read this powerful, strange novel everywhere I went — at mother’s, on the Muni, on BART, on Greyhound, at my brother’s in Aptos. At a quiet moment on Christmas Day, my brother, who does not pass up such occasions, especially those involving his older, clerical brother, without comment, asked me what I was reading so intently. I told him. He laughed. “It figures,” he said, “my brother is reading The Idiot on Christmas Day!” But I persisted, determined to finish it before returning to Washington in January.

Dostoevsky’s understanding of Roman Catholicism and of Jesuits (the latter, in his day, apparently keen supporters of the former) is, to be sure, a topic of long controversy. In The Idiot, the hero, the Prince, in a kind of elevated discourse, talked of the relation of Roman Catholicism to atheism. In fact, “Roman Catholicism is even worse than atheism” because it taught a “distorted Christ.” This “distortion” existed because Roman Catholicism “believes that the Church cannot exist on earth without universal temporal power.” Everything is subordinated to this view, “beginning with the faith.”

What is remarkable about this position, over a century after it was set forth, is not that official Roman Catholicism holds this position about temporal power, but that, in a sense, the Gnostic view of contemporary Christianity does. In the name of rights and well-being, Christianity is transformed into an auxiliary to aid in establishing “universal temporal power,” in which the unfulfilled desires of faith are immanentized into a socio-political doctrine. This latter position, in turn, is used to attack classical Catholicism on the grounds that it is not concerned with mankind’s “real” problems.

Dostoevsky’s Prince went on to propose — quite similarly to Voegelin’s analysis of the same phenomenon — that atheism itself had appeared as a just reaction to this temporal version of Roman Catholicism. And, in words that find echo in hundreds of contemporary Christian pulpits and journals as the latest version of the faith, we read in Dostoevsky:

For socialism, too, is the child of Catholicism and the intrinsic Catholic nature! It too, like its brother atheism, was begotten of despair, in opposition to Catholicism as a moral force, in order to replace the lost moral power of religion, to quench the spiritual thirst of parched humanity, and save it not by Christ, but also by violence! This, too, is freedom through violence!

Needless to say, these are words out of contemporary theology, but out of a theology that is attempting to transform Roman Catholicism into the sort of “Catholicism” Dostoevsky, a century ago, thought it was.

The notion that “socialism” is in its essence an endeavor to replace the moral tone of religion, even through the use of violence, in order to regain the Kingdom of God as a social movement in this world, is very common. But Dostoevsky’s hero was also concerned about the proper location of this Christian spiritual force. “He who has renounced his native land has also renounced his God.” This is why writers like Solzhenitsyn have rightly seen “socialism” as anti-Russian. But the New Testament has proposed that anyone not willing to leave mother, father, and all things is not worthy of Christ. In Dostoevsky’s proposal, Roman Catholicism was a kind of unground substitute for this concrete land.

If a Russian is converted to Roman Catholicism, he is sure to become a Jesuit, and a rabid one at that; if he becomes an atheist, he is sure to demand the extirpation of belief in God by force . . . It is not from vanity alone . . . that Russians become atheists and Jesuits, but from spiritual agony, from spiritual thirst, from a yearning for higher ideals, for the firm shore, for the mother country in which they have ceased to believe because they have never even known it!

Thus, the argument between Roman Catholicism and Russia was over which one was the temporal Kingdom of God. International socialism was a futile attempt by the atheist to retain some spiritual depth to human life by transforming even violence into this project.

At its deepest level, what is at issue here is the certainty of faith which holds that the Kingdom is a reality, but not of this world. Roman Catholicism in particular, and Christianity in general in the late 20th century, appear to have lost this side of faith and seek instead to compete with the ideologies, themselves substitutes for faith as a way to establish the Kingdom on earth. Voegelin had argued that the temptation to substitute the doctrinal truths of classical Christianity for Gnostic, man-made ideologies would be characteristic of Christians, since the faith did not pose a concrete solution to man’s deepest callings in terms wholly subject to human origins. The understandable longings for substitute salvation could end in either socialism, atheism, Holy Russia, or temporal Roman Catholicism supported by the Jesuits. What is to be remarked about authentic Roman Catholicism as such is that it does reject each of these substitute positions. This rejection is itself apparently a minority position among many intellectual, that is, in Voegelin’s phrase, “Gnostic,” Christians.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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