from issue no. 06 - 2011

A commentary on the phrase of Don Luigi Giussani


by Paolo Mattei

The phrase of Don Luigi Giussani to John Paul II in the early ’nineties: ‘No, Your Holiness. Not agnosticism, but Gnosticism is the danger for the Christian faith’, has generated interest, even beyond the circle of our readers. The daily newspaper L’Avvenire presented the news in a brief article that sums up precisely the words and intentions of Don Giussani. The quote in full: “In the last number of 30Giorni there is a phrase of Don Luigi Giussani: ‘Not agnosticism, but Gnosticism is the danger for the Christian faith’, so he said to John Paul II in the early ’nineties. Lorenzo Cappelletti writes, introducing the republication of an article by Massimo Borghesi from 2003 (The pact with the Serpent): ‘A couple of decades later we can now see how provident that shift of Don Giussani was. A shift that can also be documented by the interview, given in April 1992, in which Don Giussani speaks of the persecution against those “who act within the simplicity of Tradition”. To the interviewer’s question: “A real persecution?”, Don Giussani replied, “Just so. The world’s wrath doesn’t arise today at the word Church, it also stays quiet at the idea that someone should define himself Catholic, or at the person of the Pope viewed as a moral authority. Indeed there is formal, even sincere, deference. The hatred is unleashed – barely contained, but soon it will overflow – on those Catholics who take a stance as such, Catholics who act within the simplicity of Tradition”‘1.

Don Giussani, in those years, not only identified the relationship between Gnosticism and the persecution of those “who act within the simplicity of Tradition”, but also clarified the way in which Gnosticism becomes a danger for the Christian faith.

In a magnificent speech during the spiritual exercises of Communion and Liberation university students, on 12 December 1998, he said: “History is made of dramatic alternations: the dissenting points seem to dilate more than those of the past. Their predominance is statistically the most bitter and dramatic observation that a true Christian can make precisely on the situation of the Church. Today the fact that Christ exists – who He may be, where He may be, which way to go to Him – is lived only by very few, almost a remnant of Israel, and even these are often infiltrated or blocked by the influence of the common mind”2.

Gnosticism is the danger for the faith, not, in itself, in so far as it’s a worldly culture. This does not imply that the Christian can not judge the culture of the world, evidencing in it critically, we could say secularly, positive instances, limitations and errors (cf. 1Thess 5, 21). From this point of view, the very phrase of Giussani itself: “Not agnosticism, but Gnosticism is the danger for the Christian faith” could suggest a hypothesis for interpreting modern worldly culture, that is, the assumption that the culture of the modern world should not be characterized, contrary to the usual definition given of it, by the radical secularization of Christianity, but from a re-interpretation of the Christian novelty within the already known categories of Gnosticism. This hypothesis had in Augusto Del Noce its most systematic proponent3.

But aside from this intelligent and interesting hypothesis about the interpretation of the modern, Gnosticism is the danger for the Christian faith in so far as “often it infiltrates and blocks”, to use Giussani’s very clear words, the little flock, “almost a remnant of Israel”, which is the Church.

Not Hegel, Goethe and Jung, to name three great masters of modern Gnosticism, whose images illustrate the cover of the latest number of 30Days, are in themselves a danger, but those in the Church, who in a more or less hidden manner (“occult and horrible poison” is the term used by St Augustine for the Pelagian heresy 4), “often infiltrate and block”, and therefore distort, the simplicity of Tradition.

The tragedy of the massacre in Oslo on 22 July may indicate how the distortion of the faith of the Old and New Covenant can overflow into the most inhumane and most diabolical hatred. In fact, if instead of entrusting to God alone in prayer the revelation of His mystery (and Apocalypse means revelation), man wants to construct and anticipate it by himself, he renews the diabolical presumption of being like God (cf. Gen 3, 4-5).

Some readers have asked that the meaning of Gnosticism be explained to them in the simplest way possible. It seems to us that the brief words of the beloved disciple, in his second Letter, state with unsurpassed ease what is meant by Gnosticism or gnosis (or indeed, better to say false gnosis, because faith in Jesus Christ is also awareness, awakened by the attraction of His grace). St. John writes: “Anyone who is so ‘progressive’ as not to remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God; whoever remains in the teaching has the Father and the Son”. (2John 9). The danger of Gnosticism for the Christian faith is expressed in the attempt to go beyond the doctrine of Christ, beyond the faith of the apostles. We could also say that the gnostic does not remain in the humanity of Jesus, that humanity that according to the Apostle Paul encloses in abundant fullness “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2, 3). Here Paul to indicate “knowledge” uses precisely the Greek term “gnosis”.

To help a further understanding of the words of Don Giussani we repropose, accompanied by a brief biographical sketch, the article by Jules Lebreton on Origen (185-254), theologian of the Church of Alexandria. Lebreton wrote that Origen’s theology is “an idealism that believes it approaches God but loses sight of the humanity of Christ”.

Some of Origen’s theses were condemned by the Magisterium of the Church. This does not mean that his theology can not and should not be valued in all that proposes itself as positive and useful for the understanding of Christian doctrine. In this sense the words of St. Augustine are dear to us: “The absolutely true and inviolable rule of truth shows that what is false and dissolute in each one be disapproved and corrected, and what is true and upright be recognized and accepted”5.

Good reading.




1 Don Luigi Giussani: Il pericolo oggi è lo gnosticismo [The danger today is Gnosticism], in Avvenire, 14 July 2011, p. 27.

2 L. Giussani, Cristo è parte presente del reale [Living reality], 30Days, No 12 December 1998, p. 60-61.

3 A. Del Noce, Il problema dell’ateismo [The problem of atheism], Bologna 1964, esp. pp. 27 and 192.

4 Augustine, Contra Iulianum opus imperfectum II, 146: ‘Occultum et horrendum virus haeresis vestrae’.

5 Augustine, De unico baptismo contra Petilianum, 9, 16.

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