Gnosticism Still a Challenge to Christianity

Gnostic philosophy, like a noxious weed, thrives in the barren soil of our post-Christian culture. It also emits a foul odor akin to the smoke of Satan, filtering through the doors of the Church and influencing our anthropology, as well as severely compromising the integrity of our worship of Christ in the Eucharist.

Catholicism is incarnational. Reverence and respect for the body is central to our worship and our way of life. Unfortunately, Western culture has in many ways devolved into a form of Gnosticism: an anti-incarnational, dualist ideology of the separation of body and soul.  Gnosticism is a false spiritualism that values the soul or the mind as the true self. It denigrates the body as an object, a lesser creation, an encumbrance for the soul, or it treats the body as raw matter to be manipulated by the will.

In the Catholic understanding, human beings are not souls who “have” bodies as objects; rather, we are subjects with a body-soul unity. Thinking we “have” bodies can lead us to live in our heads, disconnected from our bodies.

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Gender identity is the most obvious example of the influence of Gnostic concepts on our culture. Some people actually believe they can have a gender identity in their minds which is the opposite of the gender of their bodies! Such people are clearly suffering and in need of compassion, but the absurdity of gender ideology is an indication of the degree to which we human beings are capable of dissociating from the reality of our bodies.

Technology can reflect and reinforce these harmful Gnostic ideas by perpetuating a tendency for us to over-identify with our minds. The Internet allows for more instant communication over vast distances, with the unintended consequence of removing us from our immediate environment.  A stroll down any city block will confirm this observation. People will be so absorbed in their smart phones that they find themselves completely alienated from their surroundings and from other people. Hours spent on mass media can deeply affect the psyche, creating a habit of living in a purely mental and virtual world, separated from the reality of the body.

In the Eucharist, our communion with Christ is vitiated by this habit of living in our minds, detached and dissociated from our bodies and the present moment. If we are not present to ourselves in our own bodies, how can we be present to the Body of Christ in the Eucharist? Christ is truly present but we are not. It is like someone who is so busy and distracted that he shakes hands with someone without looking him in the eye. It is an empty gesture of friendship. Patiently and unfailingly, Jesus stands at the door of the heart and knocks, but there is no answer, because no one is home. The person is so distracted and dissociated he receives the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ as a piece of bread, rather than as a living Person.

In the Catechism, on the section pertaining to the struggle for prayer, we read, “the habitual difficulty in prayer is distraction.” Such lack of attention in prayer is a common, normal aspect of the human experience. However, when distraction deepens to the point of dissociation, we are on the verge of an experience of disembodiment, which severely limits our capacity for prayer and communion with God and others.

I believe we need to bring to light our unconscious collaboration with Gnostic ideas; in our pride and fear, we often prefer to live in our minds rather than in our bodies. Our minds can provide us with the illusion of power and control. Our weak and limited bodies remind us of a reality that many of us find unpleasant and distasteful, to say the least—that we are contingent mortal beings entirely dependent on Another for our very existence at every moment.

But it is only in and through our poor, weak, mortal bodies that we truly worship and enter into communion with Christ in his Body and Blood. Christ took on a human nature so we could have communion with his Divinity through our humanity. And Christ as God embraced his human nature more than we do! He was not ashamed of his human poverty and weakness. Yet so often—far too often—we are ashamed of our humanity, and we desperately want to escape the limits and sufferings of our human condition. But then we have no real embodied communion with Christ.

Jesus is our model for embodied worship. In his Incarnation, when he came into the world in the womb of Mary, he said to the Father, “A body you have prepared for me… Behold, I have come to do your will, O God.”

Christ was not only pleased to become little and helpless as a child, he also consented to suffer incomprehensible pain in his human body in his Passion. He could have chosen to dissociate from his body through ecstasy, a grace given to some of the martyrs who were miraculously spared the full brunt of their sufferings. But Christ refused to drink the wine mixed with myrrh, a narcotic painkiller, because he chose to enter into the full agony of his Passion, to empty the chalice of his suffering to the last bitter dregs.

Most amazing of all is his Resurrection from the dead in a human body. He did not rise as a pure spirit, leaving his body behind. He ascended into heaven in his body. He is now seated at the right hand of the Father in his body. With that same glorified human body, he lives and reigns forever and ever, world without end.

By his Incarnation, death and Resurrection, we are healed. Through Christ’s permanent and irrevocable “association” with his body, he heals our dissociation. By his embodied existence and worship, he enables us to lovingly embrace our human nature and to worship reverently with our whole being. Through our full, active, conscious, and embodied participation at Mass, we can experience more deeply the Eucharist as the source and summit of our faith. Then we will be empowered to announce the Gospel in our secular culture. In the words of St. Paul, we will spread the “good odor” of Christ, displacing the poisoned air of Gnostic fallacies.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is the fresco of the Eucharistic adoration of angels on the ceiling of the church Chiesa di Santo Tomaso, Turin, painted by N. Arduino (1938).  (Photo credit: Shutterstock)


  • Fr. Tim McCauley

    Fr. Tim McCauley is a priest of the Archdiocese of Ottawa. He was received into the Catholic Church in Brooklyn, NY in 1995, and ordained in 2002. He has served in several parishes, as well as vocation director and chaplain at Carleton University. He is currently a priest in residence at St. George’s Parish in Ottawa.

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