Bruce Jenner and St. Irenaeus Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Jun. 18, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

Two news items from last week put me in mind of St. Irenaeus and the battle he waged, 19 centuries ago, against the Gnostic heresy.

The first was the emergence of Bruce Jenner as a "woman" named Caitlyn, and the second was a "shadow council" that took place in Rome and apparently called for the victory of a theology of love over John Paul II's theology of the body.

Fighting Gnosticism

I realize this requires a bit of unpacking. Let me begin with Irenaeus.

Toward the end of the second century, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, wrote a text called Adversus Haereses (Against the Heresies), and the principle heresy he identified therein was Gnosticism.

Gnosticism was, and is, a multi-headed beast, but one of its major tenets is that matter is a fallen, inferior form of being. The soul is trapped in matter, and the whole point of the spiritual life is to acquire the gnosis (knowledge) to facilitate an escape of the soul from the body.

On the gnostic interpretation, the Yahweh of the Old Testament, who foolishly pronounced the material world good, is none other than the compromised god described in gnostic cosmology, and Jesus is the prophet who came with the saving knowledge of how to rise above the material realm.

How Irenaeus responded

What Irenaeus intuited -- and his intuition represented one of the decisive moments in the history of the Church -- is that this point of view is directly repugnant to biblical Christianity, which insists upon the goodness of matter.

In Irenaeus' writings you will find the word "body" over and over again. Creation, Incarnation, Resurrection, the theology of the Church, sacraments, redemption, Eucharist, etc., all involve, he argued, bodiliness, materiality.

For Irenaeus, redemption is decidedly not tantamount to the escape of the soul from the body; rather, it is the salvation and perfection of the body.

Relevant today

You might think this is ancient intellectual history, but think again. The gnostic heresy has proven remarkably durable, reasserting itself across the centuries. Its most distinctive mark is the denigration of matter and the tendency to set the spirit and the body in an antagonistic relationship.

Many thinkers have identified the anthropology of René Descartes, which has influenced contemporary attitudes, as neo-gnostic. Descartes drove a wedge between spirit and matter or between the res cogitans (thinking thing) and the res extensa (thing extended in space). Descartes felt the former belongs to a higher dimension and that the latter is the object of manipulation and re-organization.

Hence he says that the purpose of philosophy and science is to "master" nature. One would have to be blind not to notice how massively impactful that observation has proven to be.

Echoes of Descartes' dualism can be discerned in the speech and attitudes of millions of ordinary people today.

Application to Bruce Jenner

In justifying the transformation that he has undergone, Jenner says something along these lines: "Deep down, I always knew that I was a woman, but I felt trapped in the body of a man. Therefore, I have the right to change my body to bring it in line with my true identity."

Notice how the mind or the will -- the inner self -- is casually identified as the "real me" whereas the body is presented as an antagonist which can and should be manipulated by the authentic self.

The soul and the body are in a master/slave relationship, the former legitimately dominating and re-making the latter. This schema is, to a tee, gnostic -- and just as repugnant to biblical religion as it was 1900 years ago.

The body can never be construed as a prison for the soul, nor as an object for the soul's manipulation. Moreover, the mind or will is not the "true self" standing against the body; rather, the body, with its distinctive form, intelligibility, and finality, is an essential constituent of the true self. The lionization of Caitlyn Jenner amounts to an embracing of Gnosticism.

A 'theology of love'

A word about what took place in Rome. I want to be careful, for I'm relying on a few reports concerning what was intended to be a private gathering of Church leaders and intellectuals. I want to give the participants the benefit of the doubt and I remain eager to hear their own accounting of what was discussed.

But what particularly bothered me -- in fact, it caused every anti-gnostic sensor in me to vibrate -- was the claim that the secret council was calling for a 'theology of love' to supplant the theology of the body proposed by John Paul II.

Human love is never a disembodied reality. Love -- an act of the will -- does not hover above the body, but rather expresses itself through the body and according to the intelligibility of the body.

To set the two in opposition or to maintain that an inner act is somehow more important or comprehensive than the body is to walk the gnostic road -- which is just as dangerous a path as it was in the time of St. Irenaeus.


Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org