Is There a Gnostic Catholic Theology? Some Notes on Cyril O’Regan and Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange

Recently I have been deeply influenced by Catholic theologian Cyril O’Regan’s Gnostic Return in Modernity, the methodological introduction to his multi-volume series on the recurrence of what he labels a “Valentinian narrative grammar” in a certain line of Protestant theology and religious literature. This line, first identified by the German Protestant theologian Ferdinand Christian Baur, is expanded upon by O’Regan to include figures such as Jacob Boehme, William Blake (and other English and German Romantics), Hegel, Schelling, and twentieth-century theologians such as Thomas J.J. Altizer. Indeed, Altizer’s Death of God theology is especially implicated by O’Regan’s analysis, because there is a major overlap between Altizer’s lineage of apocalyptic Christian thinkers and O’Regan’s proposed line of Gnostic return — especially Boehme, Blake, and Hegel. (In typical Altizer fashion, though O’Regan’s book contains a major critique of his theology and labels him a Gnostic, Altizer regularly recommended it, which is also where I first ran into it.)

I’m increasingly convinced that O’Regan is on to something in his ascribing a certain strand of Christian theology to Valentinian Gnosticism, which is why I’ve become more comfortable myself with understanding my own theology to be in some sense Gnostic. On the other hand, I obviously differ from O’Regan on several important points, most especially in the entire neo-Irenaean aim of his Gnosticism project to defend what he sees as the orthodox Christian narrative against the dangers of Gnostic return. 

Another point that seems important to O’Regan is very perplexing to me. O’Regan is at pains to show that, while he argues there is a constant thread of Valentinianism running through a line of modern theology, this thread does not make its way into Roman Catholic thinking, apart from a few idiosyncratic exceptions (for example, the poetry of Novalis). According to O’Regan, Gnostic return is more or less an exclusively Protestant phenomenon.1 O’Regan devotes an entire section of Gnostic Return in Modernity to this argument (p. 181–196), but it seems to me unconvincing, both due to the lack of scope in the Catholic figures he discusses and due to certain a priori assumptions about the effectiveness of authority and dogma in Roman Catholic history that I think are debatable.2 In the following I’d like to write a little about the former issue in O’Regan’s work.

O’Regan goes so far as to say that one “would be hard pressed to come up with a single instance of Gnostic return in contemporary Catholic theology,” but his index never mentions modern figures such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, labeled a “giant gnostic snake” by none other than Karl Barth in a 1963 letter.3 More significantly, O’Regan has a (perhaps unsurprising) blindspot toward the fin de siècle French occult and Gnostic revivals, movements which are still quite active today and which self-identify as Gnostic.

Of course, one could say these movements still evinced an influence from the Valentinian-Protestant line that O’Regan focuses on — Boehme was certainly an influence on figures like Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, and Saint-Martin was a major influence on the whole French occult tradition.4 But this undermines O’Regan’s point in Gnostic Return in Modernity that Gnostic return, traceable to the influence of Boehme as its link with classical Gnosticism, only occurs within modern Protestantism, for the French occult and Gnostic revivals emerged out of a deeply Roman Catholic cultural and religious context. Indeed, some of the immediate influences on the doctrines of Jules Doinel’s French Gnostic Church, one of the first Gnostic churches in modern times, were figures like Éliphas Lévi and Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre, who always self-identified as Roman Catholic. Various figures in the history of the French Gnostic Church, such as Jean Bricaud — who introduced the word “Catholic” into the very name of his church, L’Église Gnostique Catholique — also evinced “catholicizing” tendencies in their theology, liturgical aesthetics, and embrace of the orthodox apostolic succession (in addition to Doinel’s Gnostic succession), as detailed by French Gnostic priest and historian Mat Ravignat. Many churches in the independent sacramental movement today can trace themselves back to a combination of Old Catholic, National Catholic, and French Gnostic Churches (usually all of the above); many of these churches also hold esoteric and Gnostic theologies — and almost none of them would identify as Protestant.

Closely associated with French Gnosticism for most of its history is the Christian esoteric movement called Martinism, which refers to both the doctrines of the eighteenth-century Christian esotericists Martinez de Pasqually, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, and Jean-Baptiste Willermoz as well as to the French fin de siècle Martinist Order founded in 1886 by Augustin Chaboseau and Gérard Encausse (better known as Papus). While the nineteenth-century Martinist Order was not Roman Catholic, it emerged out of Catholic influences — Lévi, Saint-Yves d’Alveydre, and Martinez de Pasqually, whose Order of Élus Coëns held a neo-Gnostic cosmology and Masonic structure, even while they considered themselves to be devout Roman Catholics.

O’Regan doesn’t mention this history in Gnostic Return in Modernity, even though it would seem to undermine his argument that Gnostic return is mainly a possibility within Protestant theology and culture rather than Roman Catholicism. However, there is at least one major Catholic theologian who did seem to be aware of these currents — the twentieth-century neo-Thomist Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, who explicitly mentions the French occult and Gnostic movements in his controversial 1946 article “La nouvelle théologie où va-t-elle?”, or “Where is the New Theology Leading Us?”5

Garrigou is often maligned as a deeply outdated theologian representing the old mechanistic Thomism of pre-conciliar Neo-Scholasticism.6 He has seen a recent revival among the traditionalist Catholic crowd, for obvious reasons — Garrigou represents a pre-Vatican II opposition to both the more conservative theology of figures like Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and the more liberal theology of figures like Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx. This is because both of those movements in Catholic theology emerged out of the nouvelle théologie of the mid-twentieth century, which Garrigou deeply opposed, and which traditionalists often see as a modernist aberration which helped lead to the Second Vatican Council.

The nouvelle théologie is precisely what Garrigou writes against in the 1946 article in which he mentions French occultism and Gnosticism, and is in fact what gave this school of theology its name (originally meant to be a derisive term). Though the proponents of the nouvelle théologie saw themselves as leading a “return to the sources” of the Catholic tradition by reviving the study of the Scriptures and the ancient Church Fathers, in this article Garrigou argues that, by deviating from the traditional Scholastic theology of the Catholic Church, they actually created an entirely “new theology” which was, in fact, none other than a form of theological Modernism — a heresy.

What is most interesting for our discussion here is that, in the conclusion to the article, Garrigou explicitly states that the view of truth which is implicit in this “new theology” could lead directly to the same type of transformation of Catholic doctrines carried out by the esoteric and Gnostic theologies of the French occult revival. Garrigou argues that the “new theology” ends up with a modernistic, relativistic view of truth, no longer based on “the conformity of judgment to extra-mental reality and its immutable laws” but on “the conformity of judgment to the exigencies of action and to human life which is always evolving.”7 For the new theologians, just as for the Modernists, “the truth is no longer that which is, but that which is becoming and is constantly and always changing.”8 According to Garrigou, this change in the definition of truth “leads to saying what the enemies of the Church” — in this case, the French occultists and Gnostics — “wish to hear us say”:

When one reads their [the French occultists and Gnostics’] recent works, one sees that they are completely content and that they themselves propose interpretations of our dogmas, whether it be regarding original sin, cosmic evil, the Incarnation, Redemption, the Eucharist, the final universal restoration, the cosmic Christ, the convergence of all religions toward a universal cosmic center.

Garrigou-Lagrange, “Where is the New Theology Leading Us?”, 77

A footnote to this paragraph describes even more specifically who Garrigou has in mind here, and how their doctrines are transformations of Catholic dogmas (while the dogmas themselves are retained in form):

Authors such as Téder and Papus, in their explication of martinist doctrine, teach a mystical pantheism and a neo-gnosticism by which all beings come from God by emanation (there is then a fall, a cosmic evil, a sui generis original sin), and all aspire to be re-integrated into the divinity, and all shall arrive there. This is in many recent occultists’ works on the modern Christ, and his fullness in terms of astral light, ideas not at all those of the Church and which are blasphemous inversions because they are always the pantheistic negation of the true supernatural, and often even the negation of the distinction of moral good and of moral evil, in order to allow only that which is a useful or desired good and of cosmic or physical evil, which with the reintegration of all, without exception, will disappear.

Garrigou-Lagrange, “Where is the New Theology Leading Us?”, 77, n. 43

Essentially, Garrigou argues here that the French occultists perform a Gnostic metalepsis of orthodox Christian doctrines, which O’Regan identifies as one of the distinguishing features of Valentinian narrative grammar. According to O’Regan, metalepsis is the tendency of Valentinian texts to systematically reconfigure Scriptural narratives: 

In an astonishing variety of ways a biblical narrative will be disfigured and reconfigured, analytically broken down and then synthesized in new narrative structures, according to different rules of formation than those operative in more orthodox circles. Crucially, disfiguration-reconfiguration of the biblical narrative is comprehensive and radical. It is comprehensive in that every single aspect of the biblical narrative from creation to apocalypse is distorted and basic commitments reversed. And it is radical in that this comprehensive rereading or misreading of the biblical narrative is understood not to belong to the order of faith but to that of knowledge, moreover a knowledge that saves. 

O’Regan, Gnostic Return in Modernity, 92

One doesn’t have to agree with O’Regan’s critical view of this Valentinian way of reading Scripture to see how it is similarly carried out in French occult and Gnostic circles. According to Garrigou, the same metaleptic operation would result from the nouvelle théologie because of its change in the definition of truth — predicting the traditionalist Catholic argument that the post-conciliar Church, deeply influenced by both conservative and liberal forms of mid-century nouvelle théologie, has lost all connection to orthodox Catholic dogma and tradition.

Two points should be made here to conclude this discussion. First, I obviously don’t agree with either O’Regan’s negative assessment of Valentinian narrative grammar as “disfiguring” the Christian narrative — as opposed to providing an esoteric interpretation of it — or with Garrigou’s assessment of the French occultists as spreading “blasphemous inversions” of the Christian faith. Instead, I think these traditions are legitimate examples of what we could call a Gnostic Catholic theology (to use a phrase common in the nomenclature of the French Gnostic Churches since the time of Bricaud).

Second, and relatedly, even if it were true that the nouvelle théologie led to similar transformations of Catholic doctrine as occurred in the French occult revival — Garrigou’s condemnation of the nouvelle théologie was hotly contested by Catholic theologians both at the time of his writing and ever since9 — O’Regan’s argument about the constant possibility of Gnostic return in Christian theology, now expanded to include both Catholic and Protestant examples, would actually suggest that this line of Gnostic metalepsis isn’t a “new theology” or a purely modernist theology at all, but part of a long-standing lineage of theological speculation threaded throughout the exoteric churches since at least the second century, and constantly reemerging.

In other words, it is what some esotericists have called the Hidden or Inner Church, the Church of St. John.

1 It is understandable why O’Regan would emphasize this argument, given his work is essentially a modern version of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies on behalf of orthodox Catholic theology, including a sort of Tridentine-feeling proxy polemic against Protestantism. Indeed, at one point O’Regan states that, “[g]iven its renegade status in post-Tridentine Catholic figuration, Protestantism can be associated with every heresy which preceded it.” Cyril O’Regan, Gnostic Return in Modernity (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 194.

2 By a priori assumptions about authority and dogma, I mean that O’Regan seems to assume that the emphasis on these things in Roman Catholicism would help to prevent individualistic, heterodox and/or Gnostic interpretations of Christian tradition from emerging in Catholic contexts. It seems to me that this is a rather large and problematic assumption — Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms comes to mind as one example of how heterodox beliefs can naturally surface in popular consciousness, in this case in Catholic Italy. I also do not think O’Regan’s dismissal of Catharism as an example of Gnostic return in a pre-Reformation Catholic context is particularly convincing, since his argument is essentially that the Cathars were more Marcionite than Valentinian — maybe so, but doesn’t this at least undermine his point that there is really something about dogmatism and authority in Catholicism that helps to prevent the very emergence of heterodoxy?

3 O’Regan, 194–95.

4 O’Regan does mention Saint-Martin briefly in a footnote, identifying him as a French follower of Boehme, while discussing the esoteric influences on nineteenth-century Polish literature as described by Czeslaw Milosz. However, he does not elaborate on Saint-Martin’s context or ideas, and never discusses the French occult movements that were deeply influenced by him (and thus indirectly by Boehme). O’Regan, 239–40, n. 17.

5 Originally published in a 1946 volume of the theological journal Angelicum. Translated into English by Suzanne M. Rini and reprinted as Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, “Where is the New Theology Leading us?” Josephinum Journal of Theology 18, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2011): 63–78.

6 As usual, David Bentley Hart has a great zinger for the tendency of trad-Cath neo-Thomists to revere Garrigou: “Those manualist neo-paleo-neo-Thomists of the baroque persuasion you run across ever more frequently these days, gathered in the murkier corners of coffee bars around candles in wine bottles, clad in black turtlenecks and berets, sipping espresso, smoking Gauloises, swaying to bebop, composing dithyrambic encomia to that absolutely gone, totally wild, starry-bright and vision-wracked, mad angelic daddy-cat Garrigou-Lagrange.”

7 Garrigou-Lagrange, “Where is the New Theology Leading us?”, 77.

8 Ibid.

9 Though it must be said that the patristic theologians whose study the nouvelle théologie revived were often Neoplatonic in a way that makes them seem closer to Gnosticism and esotericism than to Neo-Scholasticism, while von Balthasar infamously wrote the afterword to Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot. Today, some schools of theology heavily influenced by the nouvelle théologie, such as Radical Orthodoxy, sometimes openly embrace elements of Christian esotericism, Hermeticism, Cabala, and gnosis. Ultimately, I think there is an element of truth to Garrigou’s assessment, even if what he and other traditionalists have to say about the dangers of occultism or Gnosticism in modern theology is overblown.

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