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Catholic and Gnostic: Why Be Both?

There would seem to be a problem with being Gnostic and Catholic, since the history of Catholicism is overwhelmingly anti-Gnostic and since, even today, all mainline Catholic churches—Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican-- disavow the major tenets of Gnosticism and even many churches which emanate from the modern apostolic work of C.W. Leadbeater and James Ingall Wedgwood have either disavowed Gnostic tenets or decided to refrain from proclaiming them publicly. This essay is an attempt to summarize my personal views of the advantages of being both Catholic and Gnostic.

The late F.W., Presiding Bishop of The Liberal Catholic Church during World War Two, identified three main functions of all religions: (1.) to instruct people as to what beliefs to hold; (2.) to give them guidance as to how to act; and (3.) to access in concentrated form certain psychic energies and direct their flow into the world in definite ways so as to augment the spiritual evolution of various individual sentient beings, as well as groups of such beings. (Bishop Pigott referred to “access[ing]and distribut[ing] spiritual power and grace,” but I think, in the twenty-first century, it is more apropos to conceptualize these realities as energies, understanding, of course, that we necessarily speak analogically when we speak of such matters because their full realities exceed any formulations which can be enunciated and understood by our finite minds at this stage of our development.) Bishop Pigott had no doubts concerning the Divine founding of the Catholic Church—in an inclusive sense, of course, including all members of the Catholic family, whether in union with the Roman See or not, but he put little or no credence in the ability of these churches to perform the first two functions, which he termed “tell[ing] people what they ought to believe and how they ought to live”(pages unknown—I have not been able recently to access a copy of this out of print book). He did, however, in line with Bishops Leadbeater and Wedgwood, consider Catholicism invaluable in fulfilling the third of these functions. I think that Bishop Pigott’s insights can provide a good starting point for a fuller discussion of these matters.

It is necessary, first of all, to emphasize that all religions "receive and distribute spiritual power and grace," and all religions teach and advise—even if they do not, in an authoritarian sense, "tell,"—their adherents "what they ought to believe and how they ought to live." For example, the Liberal Catholic Church and other Gnostic churches, at one end of the spectrum, along with their preponderant emphasis on distribution of grace through sacramental channels, frequently evince very definite attitudes toward such matters as vegetarianism and recreational use of alcohol and tobacco and, often, in official publications, communicate these positions unambiguously. Conversely, Unitarian/Universalist, Ethical Culture, and "non-denominational" communities “ access and distribute spiritual power” through rituals such as communal hymn singing and spiritual fellowship, even if their leaders and most of their members would consciously eschew all sacramentalism.

And to execute one of these tasks is to abet the other. Any reception of spiritual power and grace will incline the recipient (although such inclinations may be misunderstood and/or resisted) to embrace a life "merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth" (Exodus 34:6). Likewise, any instruction in spiritual truths and guidance rooted in natural law will, if sincerely accepted, render the recipient more able to employ spiritual power profitably—power which, in the munificent economy of God—will not be withheld. "Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my spirit unto you..."(Proverbs1:23).

Nevertheless, while all religions embrace both of these purposes, there is a great range or gradation of possibilities as to the proportional emphasis. And different emphases—and, hence, different religions—are "right" for different individuals at various times. People have different needs because they have different karma, are at different stages of development, and reflect the perfection of God in their own unique ways.

What is Christianity's predominant emphasis? We can, I think, agree with Pigott that "the main purpose of the Christian Church...is rather to receive and distribute spiritual power and grace than to tell people what they ought to believe and how they ought to live" and that "if the Church were merely or mainly a teaching body it would be difficult to defend its existence."

In the first place, although Jesus in the New Testament is supremely ethical and always confronting others—in first-century Palestine and twentieth-century Illinois—with their deficiencies in this regard, there is little if anything in his ethic which cannot be found in earlier Jewish Scriptures—particularly in the wisdom, protest, and prophetic literature—not to mention scriptures outside the Semitic family. One who sought guidance in such matters from the Dhammapada rather than the Sermon on the Mount would not, it seems to me, be at a disadvantage. Concern for the poor rather than avarice and sincerity rather than hypocrisy are enjoined by the Holy Qur'an, detachment by the Bhagavad Gita. Indeed these ethical teachings appear universal: Ecclesiastes says, "The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails...which are given from one shepherd" (12:11); the theme song of The Graduate says, "The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, in tenement halls, and in the sounds of silence."

Secondly, in the area of teaching, the record of the official Church has hardly been outstanding; on the contrary, it has frequently been a hindrance rather than an aid in teaching "people...how they ought to live." To cite but a few egregious examraples: Catholics and protestants for centuries sanctioned slavery in North and South America and the European anti-Semitism which culminated in the Holocaust, concerning which the Vatican was silent. The medieval Crusades and the twentieth-century alliance between the Church and repressive fascist-like regimes in Latin America constitute unspeakable abuses of religious authority. Today the Vatican insists—in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence—that third and fourth world countries have no need to regulate their population growth and has discouraged states from providing means of birth control to the desperately poor. Pius the Twelfth specifically disavowed the right of Catholics to make moral judgments about particular wars when faced with involuntary conscription. Lately the Vatican has targeted for attack the burgeoning animal rights movement, which may represent one of the most important expansions of ethical sensibility in human history.

The foregoing indictment of the Church's teaching as to "how [people] ought to live" can be complemented by a consideration of its trustworthiness in safeguarding truths of a metaphysical

nature. Taylor is correct in characterising the official Roman and Anglican theologies as "a code of belief which reflects the thinking and attitude of a vanished age...which seems to be both primitive in its attitudes and incomprehensible in its complexity" (12-13). The "theories of the Redemption" and other elements of dogma which Taylor finds "singularly unconvincing" (13) permeate the Eastern Orthodox communions as well, but without the challenges from dissenters which to some extent enliven Western Catholic theology. The metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas is "beyond" the outmoded conceptions of Aristotle, not the physics of Hawking, Bohr, and Tipler. More seriously, the official Church has through the ages disavowed the ancient Christian Gnosis. The recent Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically condemns the doctrines of reincarnation and karma (1013). Care of the gnosis was never entrusted to the institutional Church per se but rather to the hidden Brotherhood which transcends the boundaries between "different" exoteric faiths. One can, of course, argue that the Church authorities acted in the best interest of the majority of believers by excluding The Gospel of Thomas and similar scriptures from the canon and keeping the Gnosis secret, but Hinduism and Buddhism have not hesitated to publicize the truths of reincarnation and karma; and, in any case, a Church which not only does not emphasize but deliberately and specifically disavows truths of signal importance can hardly justify its existence on the basis of its ability to "tell people what they ought to believe."

The official Church, moreover, in addition to frequently being mistaken, has a long history of driving from its fold sincere inquirers after truth—Boff, Fox, Curran, and Kung are recent examples. Such unscrupulous use of power would seem to suggest that the Church's teaching office may, on balance, retard rather than quicken humanity's development. Conservative protestant churches, of course, manifest the above flaws but in a much more blatant, unsophisticated, and offensive way. Liberal protestant churches, on the other hand, avoid the above pitfalls by espousing a shallow theology with little or no determinant content. Protestant churches, for the most part, have even less to recommend them than their Catholic counterparts when it comes to "[telling] people what they ought to believe and how they ought to live."

There is, however, a much deeper, more fundamental reason for accepting Pigott's statement. Real Christian "teaching" to a large extent is the accession and distribution of power of which Pigott speaks. It can be argued that Christ never really "taught" until the distribution of power after the Resurrection culminating in the outporing at Pentecost, for only then did the former teaching become efficacious, even among the Twelve. Jesus says to one of the Twelve, "Have I been so long time with you, and yet thou hadst not known me...?" (John 14:19) and to another, "Get thee behind me, Satan..." (Mark 9:33) and to his Jewish hearers, "O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you, and suffer you?" (Luke 9:41). Despite three synoptic predictions of the Passion, the disciples even on Good Friday do not understand the significance of these events but flee in terror at the time of the arrest. As Spong points out in Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, almost everything the Johanine Jesus says is misinterpreted by his hearers, who always appear blinded by "the painful naivete of literalism"(187).

Jesus' miracles are not impressive to his skeptical hearers because spiritual truth cannot be apprehended by the intellect unaided by the grace of which Pigott speaks. For this reasson Dives' brothers cannot be saved by visions of paranormal phenomena: "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead" (16:31). We find today many examples which confirm the truth of this scripture: Henry Gordon, James Randi, and the editors of Skeptical Inquirer—such people seem incapable of openmindedness about such matters, regardless of what evidence might be presented; and atheists steadfastly refuse to recognize the Designer despite the overwhelming evidence of intelligent ordering in the universe.

These truths are also expressed in Judaism's central story, the Exodus from Egypt. Pharoah remains obstinate despite witnessing with his own eyes the signs that Moses produces with his staff. He foolishly runs to his own destruction in the Red Sea and takes his army with him despite irrefragable evidence that, like Christianity's first-century Jewish opponents, he is "found even to fight against God" (Acts 5:39). Pharoah says, "Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go" (Exodus 5:2). Pharoah is destined to "know not the Lord" because, by withholding grace, the Lord "will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go" (Exodus 4:21), just as the Sanhedrin will ignore the advice of Gamaliel because, in the Divine economy, Christianity's wine is to be preserved in "new bottles" (Luke:5:38) after a definitive break with Judaism just as the Hebrews are to make a definitive break with Egypt. In each case the break is to be radical and discontinuous—the new dispensation is not to carry the sanction of the old. Grace is withheld from these witnesses for a time so that "they seeing see not; and hearing...hear not, neither do they understand...lest at any time they should see...and hear...and understand...and be converted..."(Matthew 13:13-15).

Real "seeing and "hearing" occur only with the reception of spiritual power which blinded the natural eyes of Saul (Acts 9:3-18) and enabled him and other recipients to "walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:14).

This spiritual energy is accessed and distributed through the Church's sacraments/ preeminently through the Eucharist. We cannot, of course, deny that other religions access and distribute spiritual power through rituals and spiritual and mental training. Hindu yogic and Vajrayana Buddhist practices, for example, offer very advanced means for those disciplined enough to profit from them. Mahayana Buddhist sects have very rich sacramental treasures, and Hinayana has its holy places. No unprejudiced observer can doubt that Muslims release spiritual power through animal sacrifices and other rituals at the Ka'bah in Mecca, as well as through their daily Arabic language prayers, ablutions, and other rituals. The Falashas of Ethiopia, similarly, have been accessing spiritual power through such rituals for the last three milllennia. Nor can we doubt that Hindus access such power through ablutions in the Ganges, eating food dedicated to Divine Incarnations, and chanting holy names such as Rama and Krishna. The Jewish Passover continues to be efficacious for many, along with the ancient prayers said or chanted in classical Hebrew. As Catholics, however, we believe that our sacraments are unique and irreplaceable means of accessing such power and that the power of the Cosmic Christ is preeminently manifested and accessed in the Mass.

It is this accession and distribution of spiritual power which provides the main justification for the existence of a Church whose dogmatic theology is often questionable at best and whose moral theology—while preserving in general the values promulgated by its Founder—is often wrong about particular applications. It is this spiritual power which has inspired so many heroes such as Archbishop Romero and Heldare Camarra, even though the institution has not supported their efforts. It is this supernatural Source of grace which induced St. Catherine of Siena to labor tirelessly for a Church headed by such unimpressive figures as Gregory the Eleventh and Urban the Sixth.

I have indicated that all religions perform both functions— preaching and prophetic witness on the one hand and accession and distribution of spiritual power on the other—with a wide range of proportional emphases. Pigott's statement would seem to apply more to Catholic than to protestant Christianity because the latter lacks the former's Apostolically founded sacramental channels. It would be a mistake, however, to underestimate the extent to which protestant Christianity accesses and distributes spiritual power. Baptists and Pentecostalists perform exorcisms, for example, and the latter do much faith healing as well. Protestants have told me sincerely and convincingly about the power which the name of Jesus has had for them and for others to whom they have brought the Good News. Scripture itself seems to have for many a transforming power beyond what the literal meaning would seem to warrant, even if those transformed consciously believe only in a literal interpretation. Protestant communion services access and distribute spiritual power in some way, even if they are in no way comparable to the Catholic Mass. We are warranted, then, in accepting Pigott's statement in regard to "the Christian Church as a whole," even though it applies more to Catholic than to protestant bodies.

And, among Catholic communions, Pigott's statement would appear to be most applicable to The Liberal_Catliplic Church and other churches which have emenated from it, such as The Reformed Apostolic Liberal Catholic Church, The Young rite, The Liberal Catholic Church International, The Ancient Catholilc Church, The Universal Catholic Church, the Chaldean Catholilc Church, etc. Apostolic succession is important to Liberal Catholics to safeguard sacramental channels, not to support claims to infallibility. Unlike the Roman and Orthodox—and, to a lesser extent, the Anglican—communions, "The Liberal Catholic Church leaves to its members freedom in the interpretation of creeds, scriptures, and tradition..." (Statementof Principles and Summary of Doctrine 9). It seems, in the Divine economy, to have been founded to assist souls who need less external direction than those in other Catholic denominations.

Gnostic Catholic churches might be compared, perhaps, to the Second Temple constructed in the days of Ezra and Zechariah. In regard to the New Temple, Deutero-Zechariah prophesies,

"And it shall come to pass, that when any shall yet prophesy, then his father and his mother that begat him shall say unto him, Thou shalt not live; for thou speakest lies in the name of the Lord: and his father and his mother that begat him shall thrust him through when he prophesieth.

"And it shall come to pass in that day, that the prophets shall be ashamed every one of his vision, when he hath prohesied; neither shall they wear a rough garment to deceive:

"But he shall say, I amno prophet, I am an husbandman; for man taught me to keep cattle from my youth" (Zechariah 13:3-5).

Deutero-Zechariah may have been speaking only of false prophets (he was himself a prophet), but it may be that the New Jerusalem of Deutero-Zechariah's vision anticipates a Gnostic time when external instruction provided by prophets will be unnecessary because, by inward light, all will have become prophets. This may be the next evolutionary leap humanity will take.

In the meantime, of course, there is room for external guidance even for Liberal Catholics. They can even seek the guidance of psychics when appropriate, but all must guard against "the wrong way home" of cult thinking of which Diekmann warns. Would-be spiritual tyrants must be "thrust through," and those who would impose their limited lights on others in contempt of others' freedom must learn to "be ashamed every one of his vision, when he hath prophesied."

And, finally, as the hymn says, "sacraments shall cease." The Third Temple will, physically, most likely never be built because the Dome of the Rock Mosque is probably there to stay— and Orthodox rabbis have their own theological problems with attempts to rebuild the Temple. And this physical fact may represent a deeper metaphysical truth about the final state of humanity. The Third Temple will not exist, at least not in a physical and spatial sense: "...the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem worship the Father.... But the hour cometh...when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth....God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth" (John 4:21-24).

The New Jerusalem will need no Temple because it will need no channels. This final evolutionary leap—this New Jerusalem— was seen not by Deutero-Zechariah but by John of Patmos:

"And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it.

"And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof"(Revelation: 21:22-23).

Works Cited

Diekman, Arthur J. The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.

Pigott, F.W. Religion For Beginners. London: Theological Publishing House, 1928.

The Liberal Catholic Church. Statement of Principles and Summary of Doctrine.

Spong, John Shelby. Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Taylor, Eric S. The Liberal Catholic Church: What Is It? London: St. Alban Press, 1987.