Monasticism = Gnosticism?


One of the earliest enemies of Christianity was Gnosticism, a heresy which held to a spirit/body (immaterial vs. material) dualism. “Spirit” (the immaterial) was “good” or “more real,” while “body” (the material) was “evil” or “less real.” The former was to be desired and sought, while the latter was to be eschewed and avoided. A later form of this error was known as Docetism, which believed that the material was illusory, and spirit was real. Thus, Docetists held that Jesus only appeared to be a physical being, but was actually only divinity. The Catholic Church has consistently rejected such a view as a denial of the Incarnational Principle, the idea that the created order (the material world) has been sanctified through the incarnation of Christ, is therefore inherently good (Genesis: “And God saw that it was good”), and is no less real or good than immaterial realities.

Here’s my question: This appears to conflict with the Catholic ideal of m*onasticism *(monastic spirituality), in which one seeks to draw nearer to God (the immaterial or spiritual) through a denial or rejection of the things of the temporal world (the material or bodily). Thomas a’Kempis’s Imitation of Christ is a famous example of this:

"Learn to despise this world of outward things, and devote yourself to what lies within; there, within you, you will see the coming of God’s kingdom."

Here is the immaterial/material dualism mentioned above. The implication here is that “the world” (= “things of the physical world”) is “bad” in relation to “spiritual things,” that material realities are less desirable or less substantial than immaterial realities, that the “soul” is to be valued far above external, bodily concerns. So, spiritual (internal) things are virtuous and desirable, while material (external) things are dubious and detract from spiritual realities, which we are do seek above such mundane “unspiritual” pursuits.

So, in light of this, is not the monastic ideal a form of neo-gnosticism? Is this popular Catholic approach to spirituality (immaterial vs. material/spirit vs. body) essentially a Docetic view of reality? If so, how can we Catholics justify such an approach?

Any thoughts?




Nah, I don’t think so. Not any more than an occasional retreat is. If anything it is a sacrifice of the pleasure of companionship to fellowship with God and to intercede for the salvation of others.


There is not an intrinsic connection between monasticism and gnosticism; otherwise, monasticism (orginally a lay movement) would not have taken root in the Church.

This is NOT to say there were not funny ideas or excesses in places.


The connection seems to be the affirmation of a spirit/matter dualism:

~ “spiritual” (immaterial) = “good/virtuous/real” vs. “natural” (material) = “bad/dubious/less real”

Therefore, in the Catholic monastic approach, the former is to be preferred and sought over the latter, which is to be denied, avoided and shunned. This is a view that any gnostic or docetist would understand and affirm wholeheartedly.

So, again,. I’m not sure how to reconcile these two Catholic ideals: [1] the Incarnational Principle, vs. [2] the monastic approach to Catholic spirituality.




Monastism is not and was not a singular calling within the Catholic Church. So even if the spiritual was emphasised in the monastic life, how can you attribute it to the whole church.

And, I still don’t get how you equate “rejecting the world” with “rejecting the material”.


I do so because popular Catholic spirituality derives its core from the monastic ideal of a withdrawl from or rejection of “the things of this world,” an emphasis on the immaterial, internal, and eternal, in opposition to the material, external, and temporal.

And, I still don’t get how you equate “rejecting the world” with “rejecting the material”.

I don’t, but monastic spirituality does. How do monks express their understanding of “rejecting the world”? By withdrawing from human society at large, by forsaking the physical, external, and “unspiritual” distractions of human culture. One isolates himself in order to focus on “more spiritual” pursuits, such as prayer and contemplation (internal, immaterial, spiritual). This spirit/body (or immaterial/material) dualism is a common feature of the gnostic/docetic worldview.




I think the difference with monasticism is that this was not an absolute metaphysical distinction. The flesh is fallen, and the Incarnation, fleshly Resurrection and the Holy Eucharist teach us the hope of the redemption of our flesh.

Any monastic that denied this would be in heresy. Now the Gnostics did deny the fleshly nature of all of the above and taught that the flesh was an objective poverty in which nothing of God will be or has ever been derived.

Monasticism is a movement within the Church that, while emphasizing the unruly nature of the flesh, has never nor will every be imposed on the whole Church. It is simply an emphasis among many within Christian doctrine and serves to remind the large body of the faithful not to fall into hedonism. There is nothing objectively heretical about monasticism when considered in the context of the whole teaching of the Church.

Gnosticism on the other hand, expunged the flesh from any place in salvation and formed a basic tenet of the movement.


Great question. I was going to start my own thread on the exact same thing. Having had an evangelical mindset the past few years, I see this problem. I think it was actually my love of a monastic lifestyle that led me to my leaving the CC for Mennonitism. Just read “Evangelical Is Not Enough” by Thomas Howard which touches on this very thing - though not so much the monastic aspects.

Having grown to love the poverty of St. Francis of Assisi and the contemplative nature of Carmelite spirituality I first got drawn into studying Buddhism (which I saw many correlations to) and eventually fell away from my Catholic faith altogether and went to a very conservative Mennonite church - the emphasis on poverty, foresaking the world, focus on the inner life, simplicity, etc…

I’m not exactly sure about gnosticism and docetism, but I wonder if there isn’t some difference - perhaps they see matter as evil (?). I don’t think that is the same as reaching beyond the created order to attain a deeper union with God. I would say the Mennonites definately saw the world and all w/in it as an obstacle to holiness - not in the sense that everything in it was evil though. They see many things as a temptation toward materialism, pride, idolatry, worldliness, etc… and therefore to be foresaken.

But a few things with monastacism: firstly, is the call to simplicity and the desire to give up everything to follow the Lord. Certainly we are all called to this in some measure, if not in a literal manner, at least in the sense that nothing in our lives (material or otherwise) should come before the Lord.

Secondly, and most importantly, is the desire to reach beyond the glory of God that is revealed in the created order for What is infinitely more glorious; namely, God Himself. This does not mean matter is evil though, but rather that what God reveals about Himself through creation pales in comparison to Himself. I like how Fr. Dubay put it in his book “Fire Within” when speaking of John of the Cross: “John sees created splendor as normally enkindling a great love in the human person, a love that is soon thirsting for a far greater vision of and immersion into the divine beauty than infinite reality can possibly trigger. Discursive meditation, then, is to lead one rapidly to so penetrating a yearning for the Beloved’s presence that nothing short of Him can cure her grief. Nothing worldly satisfies one who has tasted the divine: ‘Any other communication further increases and awakens her appetite, like the crumbs given to a famished man.’ Created messengers are no longer adequate. The knowledge of God they bring is ‘remote’. Lofty John portrays the growing soul to be thirsting now for nothing less than some direct contact with the Fountain: ‘You have revealed Yourself to me as through fissures in a rock; now may You give me that revelation more clearly.’ Through the beauties of creation God has communicated ‘as if joking with me; now may You truly grant me a communication of Yourself by Yourself’. Good as meditation is, the holy person will find that finite beauty is only a messenger. An intermediary is no longer enough: ‘May You, then, be both the messenger and message’”.

The point is that as lovely as the created world is, for one truly in love with God, it is worth foresaking knowing that there is something far better to be obtained, even in our earthly life; the union with God obtained through contemplation.



Thanks to all for your insightful comments. Let me try to summarize a Catholic reply to my original post:

~ the phrase “the world” refers not to material reality per se, but rather to “that which draws one away from God.”

~ monastic spirituality is not a rejection of the material world as if it were inherently evil, but rather a forsaking of it for something infinitely superior; a form of self-denial in which one forgoes that which is temporally good for what is eternally valuable.

~ not all “outward/inward” dichotomies are necessarily or automatically gnostic or docetic. One must take into account the theological/philosophical rationale behind the language.

~ the created order is affected by the Fall (is itself “fallen”). Though still “good” (Gen. 1:31) and sanctified through the Incarnation, it is nevertheless fallen from what it should be, and thus may serve as a hinderance to spirituality, as much as a help to it.

~ monastic spirituality reaches beyond the created order to attain a deeper union with God, who is a pure Spirit (Jn. 4:24). It goes beyond that which reflects the Creator to focus on that which is reflected by the creation, that is, God himself. So, then, it’s not a rejection or forsaking of the material world, but a transcendence of it in order to take on the image of the Transcendent Creator.

This is my basic synopsis of the answers given so far. Any comments or clarifications?




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