Bruce Jenner, The “Shadow Council”, And St. Irenaeus

By Very Rev. Robert Barron on uCatholic

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons

 Two news items from last week put me in mind of St. Irenaeus and the battle he waged, nineteen 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.

I realize this requires a bit of unpacking. Let me begin with Irenaeus. Toward the end of the second century, Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, wrote a text called Adversus Haereses (Against the Heresies), and the principle heresy that 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, produced by a low-level deity. The soul is trapped in matter, and the whole point of the spiritual life is to acquire the gnosis (knowledge) requisite 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. 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 emphatically upon the goodness of matter. Scan through Irenaeus’s voluminous writings, and you will find the word “body” over and over again. Creation, Incarnation, Resurrection, the theology of the Church, sacraments, redemption, the 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.

Now you might think that this is all a bit of ancient intellectual history, but think again. As I hinted above, the gnostic heresy has proven remarkably durable, reasserting itself across the centuries. Its most distinctive mark is precisely the denigration of matter and the tendency to set the spirit and the body in an antagonistic relationship. This is why many thinkers have identified the anthropology of René Descartes, which has radically influenced modern and contemporary attitudes, as neo-gnostic. Descartes famously drove a wedge between spirit and matter, or in his language, between the res cogitans (thinking thing) and the res extensa (thing extended in space). In line with gnostic intuitions, Descartes felt that the former belongs to a higher and more privileged dimension and that the latter is legitimately the object of manipulation and re-organization. Hence he says that the purpose of philosophy and science is to “master” nature, rather than to contemplate it. One would have to be blind not to notice how massively impactful that observation has proven to be. Echoes of Descartes’s dualism can be heard in the writings of Kant, Hegel, and many of the master philosophers of modernity, and they can be discerned, as well, in the speech and attitudes of millions of ordinary people today.

All of which brings me back to Bruce Jenner and to the “shadow council” in Rome. In justifying the transformation that he has undergone, Jenner consistently 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 nineteen hundred years ago. For Biblical people, 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 over and against the body; rather, the body, with its distinctive form, intelligibility, and finality, is an essential constituent of the true self. Until we realize that the lionization of Caitlyn Jenner amounts to an embracing of Gnosticism, we haven’t grasped the nettle of the issue.

And just a word about what took place in Rome last week. I want to be careful here, for I’m relying on a few reports concerning what was intended to be a private gathering of church leaders and intellectuals. I certainly want to give all of the participants the benefit of the doubt and I remain sincerely eager to hear their own accounting of what was discussed. But what particularly bothered me—in fact, it caused every single anti-gnostic sensor in me to vibrate—was the claim that the secret council was calling for a “theology of love” that would supplant the theology of the body proposed by John Paul II. For Biblical people, human love is never a disembodied reality. Furthermore, love—which is 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.

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36 Responses to Bruce Jenner, The “Shadow Council”, And St. Irenaeus

  1. As Father Barron suggests, no one really knows what went on in the “shadow council.” And that’s the problem. The Germans – God bless ’em – seem to have a penchant for “private” (i.e., “secret” meetings), and the “shadow council” may turn out to be one of the most problematic since the Wahnsee Conference, and, according to some pessimists, almost as devastating in scope.


  2. kathleen says:

    Fr. Robert Barron has really nailed it here. It is totally false to see the material – or in this case, the body, – as anything other than good, created as it is by God (Man or Woman, not as some sort of weird ‘in-between’), and the vessel by which we may become ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’ as through our bodies we follow Our Blessed Lord. This scorning of the body by the Gnostics is somewhat repugnant I think, though many have gone to the opposite extreme, and nowadays the body cult craze we are so bombarded with in the West has made many forget they are also bearers of an immortal soul!

    This Bruce Jenner case (that one of my Irish contacts linked me to), and many others like it coming out of Ireland since its betrayal of its Catholic heritage at the Irish Referendum on marriage, are a direct result of the craziness let loose there. The whole country has gone stark raving mad, and dear St. Patrick must be turning in his grave!

    P.S. I couldn’t bring myself to put up the photo of Jenner as a pretend ‘woman’ on our blog, preferring the one of St. Irenaeus instead. 😉


  3. toadspittle says:

    “It is totally false to see the material – or in this case, the body, – as anything other than good, created as it is by God “
    In that case, how do we justify the numerous accounts of saints and the like, mortifying their flesh in perverse and peculiar ways, lashing themselves, and wearing spiked doo-dads under their trousers- in order to subdue it?
    And, if the body is so “good,” why are many Christians obsessed with covering it up? Why not display as much of it as possible, whenever the weather permits? Like St, Francis of Assisi was reputed to have? And maybe we can have some more disapproving comments on skin-tight jeans, and mini skirts? (only on ladies, of course – sorry Caitlin!) Always instructive and enjoyable!


  4. johnhenrycn says:



  5. Michael says:

    Toad, maybe this video from Fr. Barron will help:

    He doesn’t specifically answer every point you’ve raised (for example, the ‘extreme’ behaviour of some of the saints has to be seen in the light of their higher calling and subsequent radical perspective on worldly attachment) but hopefully it gives enough context to see that Catholic teaching advocates a rich middle ground between the gnostic, world-denying impulse and the indulgent, permissive hedonism embraced by contemporary culture.


  6. johnhenrycn says:

    “Pretend” woman is right, although I prefer the time honoured expression “female impersonator”. Anyway, my understanding is that ‘Bruce’ still has the tackle he was born with. I think there’s a reality TV show in the works where he will wrestle with it (figuratively speaking, one hopes) before deciding whether to amputate it.


  7. toadspittle says:

    Well, we must admit the very thought of it is enough to make a fellow’s eyes water, JH.
    Rather him/her than you/me, eh? Must be serious. I’d rather go to the dentist.

    I will duly view the vid, Michael. This, despite the rather questionable gesture The Very Rev Robert Barron is making – before our very eyes. And report back. Maybe.


  8. johnhenrycn says:

    Germaine Greer, not one of my favourite people as you may well imagine, is your uber-transphobic. Some of the things she’s said, albeit valid, are not repeatable on a family blog, but you can always google her name + transexual.


  9. kathleen says:

    Oh my goodness JH, what a mind-boggling horrible thought! 🙄


  10. kathleen says:

    In answer to Toad @ 16:34 who asks: “And, if the body is so “good,” why are many Christians obsessed with covering it up? Why not display as much of it as possible, whenever the weather permits?

    “Modesty protects the intimate centre of the person. It means refusing to
    unveil what should remain hidden. It guides how one looks at others and
    behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons.
    Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages
    patience and moderation in loving relationships. Modesty is decency. It
    inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is
    evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet. There is a modesty of the
    feelings as well as of the body. Modesty inspires a way of life which makes
    it possible to resist the allurements of improper fashion and the pressures of
    prevailing ideologies. Modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity
    proper to man. Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means
    awakening in them respect for the human person” (CCC 2521 – 2524)


  11. johnhenrycn says:

    It’s well documented that there’s a huge difference between the number of men undergoing attempted sex change (it’s never been done successfully) and the number of women attempting (also unsuccessfully) the reverse. One doesn’t have to be a qualified statistician to realize this, but it raises the question: assuming some people are psychologically “trapped” in the wrong physical body, why does that affliction occur so much more frequently in men than in women? From a medical and scientific point of view, does this not raise the serious diagnostic question of mental illness? Of course it does. I have no theory why it should strike men more often than women, except that there are other well known differences between the sexes when it comes to other rates of disease.


  12. toadspittle says:

    Strangely enough, JH – I was slightly acquainted with Germaine, centuries ago. One of my drinking companions was briefly her “lover.” (extremely briefly, as I recall.)

    Anyway, you will be gratified to know she always spoke highly of you.
    ….And rightly so.


  13. toadspittle says:

    “(modesty) means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden.”

    Yes, Kathleen – but if the human body is “good,*” as we both absolutely agree – why should it remain hidden? Who says it should? Not me.
    When we cover things up, it immediately makes them interesting, and worthy of further investigation and discovery. Only human nature, innit?

    * Though not as “good” as the body of a horse, a crocodile, or a tiger.


  14. toadspittle says:

    …Lot of tripe.
    “(Modesty) It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons.”
    Well, maybe it’s time it stopped doing that. If we’d seen how much dignity Tony Blair had starkers, perhaps we wouldn’t have invaded Iraq, and unleashed Isis on the Christians there.


  15. toadspittle says:

    Who else but you cares, JH? If any raving idiot chooses – either to cut their own nuts off, or get somebody else’s glued on with Nestle’s Milk – so what?
    Gives them an interest, I suppose.


  16. johnhenrycn says:

    “…there are other well known differences between the sexes when it comes to other rates of disease.”

    Let’s not talk about physical diseases. Let’s talk about mental illness. Why is it that anorexia and bulimia are almost entirely female afflictions? That’s a rhetorical question. Someone more qualified than me can correct me if I’m wrong about the epidemiology of those specific illnesses; but I think the yearning for a sex change is a mental illness that for some reason attacks more men than it does women. Why is that? Not a rhetorical question.


  17. kathleen says:

    According to this 2010 survey (below), at the last count there were 3,477,829,638 men in the world to 3,418,059,380 women – a gender ratio of 102. If I have calculated correctly, that means there are a surplus of roughly 59,770,258 men in the world today!! An estimated 50 million of these ‘extra’ males are in China: as we all know, thanks to the ‘one child policy’ and the overall preference for a boy. (Can that staggering surplus male figure there really be accurate?!)

    That there are very slightly more male births than female is nature’s way of accounting for a higher death rate in male babies up to adolescence, but that figure should even itself out more or less by the time both sexes reach maturity. However, with a clear favouritism for boys in most cultures worldwide, many baby girls are aborted once the sex of the unborn child is detected (and the infanticide of baby girls is tragically not uncommon either) resulting in an enormous imbalance in the sexes.
    This is already creating numerous and unforeseen problems in very many male-dominant places.

    In the meantime, we in the decadent West find other quirky and bizarre ways to chop and change our God-chosen sexual identity, all on a capricious whim!


  18. toadspittle says:

    “I think the yearning for a sex change is a mental illness that for some reason attacks more men than it does women. Why is that? “
    Agreed, it’s a mental illness,JH, but it’s also one of the least interesting questions ever asked.
    Like – why are men more likely to be left-handed than women? What are we going to do with the information?


  19. johnhenrycn says:

    Toad says:
    “If any raving idiot chooses – either to cut their own nuts off…”

    Toad, you have again grabbed from me the sceptre of vulgarity, and I thank you for that. As for your question: “[w]ho else but you cares about transexuals: my concerns and cares are shared by people all over the world, including agnostics and outright atheists. Some of them suspect, like I do, that to be a transexual is to suffer from mental illness and thus to be in need of therapeutic intervention. If you choose not to be interested in their welfare, that’s up to you, but if you think what they are going through is indeed an illness, why would you say that we should not care?


  20. toadspittle says:

    I’m sorry they are sick, JH. I’d prefer it if they were not.
    Same as with people will willingly tattoo themselves.
    Their decision. But I’d prefer they didn’t.


  21. johnhenrycn says:

    Speaking as a left-handed person, Toad, can I ask why you think left-handedness is as equal a societal concern – or mental illness, if you prefer – as yearning for a sex change?

    “What are we going to do with the information” you ask? Probably nothing in our age (in all ages actually) because most people are and have always been like you – going along to get along – However, the day is quickly approaching when that attitude will be our death knell. But you plan on being dead then anyway.


  22. JabbaPapa says:

    Fr. Barron is absolutely brilliant in these aspects of the theology of our Church.


  23. JabbaPapa says:

    ee-yuck … 😦


  24. johnhenrycn says:

    Tattoos are bad, I agree, Toad. But an attempted sex change is something far more significant; and yet you say that it is “their decision”, meaning I think, that whatever a person does to himself, be it a tatoo or an attempted sex change, is no concern of yours or ever will be, except that you “prefer they didn’t”. Thus goes what’s left of civilization.


  25. johnhenrycn says:

    Going out for lunch today with Father, to celebrate his retirement. Of course, priests never actually retire, but at age 79, he wishes to wind down, like his brother (a bishop) did around the same age a few years ago. He has told me previously that he doesn’t have a computer, laptop or smartphone, so he doesn’t know about us 😉


  26. toadspittle says:

    As a zurdo myself, JH – I’d agree being a leftie isn’t as equal a societal concern as my wanting to become a toadette would be. In fact it, is not a concern at all. But is the vast mass of sane society losing sleep over a handful of mentally disturbed people whose problems do not impinge on the rest of us? I think not. By all means fret if you like.
    I won’t.
    Nor do I “plan” on being dead any time soon.
    But then, I don’t anticipate being consulted on the matter.


  27. toadspittle says:

    Yes, I also thought it very well argued. I’d dispute his notion of Nietzsche, “Throwing off the shackles of God,” as what Fred said was God was dead, and thus in no position to shackle anyone.
    But that is likely hair-splitting.

    I also told Michael I’d watch the video.
    When young, I thought the Church’s attitude to “immodesty” – that is allowing the sun to shine uninterruptedly on as much of the body God reputedly gave us, whenever it’s feasible – was blue-nosed and repressive and silly. Still do, in fact.
    Although, happily that dreary old, “cover it up, this minute,” attitude has practically vanished today. I cover my own carcass up in public because I’m old and ugly and don’t want to disgust people. But that’s a whole nother issue.


  28. Michael says:

    I’d dispute his notion of Nietzsche, “Throwing off the shackles of God,” as what Fred said was God was dead, and thus in no position to shackle anyone.

    I’d say that it’s actually very difficult to separate in Nietzsche the desire to throw off the shackles of God and the declaration that ‘God is dead’ – in retrospect a lot of what he says seems very prophetic, but I’m not sure whether this is not just a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy (i.e.; his rhetoric was so influential that it ended up bringing about what he desired). So yes, hair splitting really, but an interesting point to consider anyway.

    What did you think of the video by the way? And do you really think that the attitude towards sex and the body that we have today is okay?


  29. Michael says:

    Very interesting questions JH. It would be useful if we could compare the number of cases of this condition today to previous ages, but I don’t think that data is available. I have a suspicion though that the reason this illness afflicts men more than women is because, while we are all living a time of deep confusion over both sexuality and gender, women are more rooted in their own sex due to the maternal instinct and the natural life cycles that occur within them. Basically, women have a lot more hormonal ‘grounding’ than men, and so men are more easy to confuse in what is a very confusing time.

    There must be more to it than this (which in itself is complete speculation) though, and I’d be interested to hear what anyone thinks about what impact the different psychological makeups of men and women have in this area – obviously physiology and psychology are not unrelated, but I have a feeling that there is something about the male psyche that makes it more prone to this affliction. The whole homosexual movement seems to be a largely male-driven phenomenon too – maybe there is a connection?


  30. Michael says:

    What are we going to do with the information?

    Try and help people by understanding the condition overall and giving them the counselling they very clearly need, instead of allowing them to continue in a delusion which, in the majority of cases, leads to more confusion of identity, self-hatred and crippling depression.


  31. Tom Fisher says:

    it’s actually very difficult to separate in Nietzsche the desire to throw off the shackles of God and the declaration that ‘God is dead’

    When the madman with his lantern in the marketplace declares God is dead, he doesn’t present the fact in joyous terms. That declaration seems quite possible to separate from Nietzsche’s desire to throw off the shackles of Christianity.

    i.e.; his rhetoric was so influential that it ended up bringing about what he desired

    What have you got in mind? I’m not sure that’s true


  32. Michael says:

    When the madman with his lantern in the marketplace declares God is dead, he doesn’t present the fact in joyous terms.

    What I mean Tom is that Nietzsche seemed to hate Christianity, and what he saw as the weakening and oppressive bondage of Christian ethics, and it was very convenient for his project of ushering in a new age where men of strong will ‘created’ their own morality that God be ‘dead’. On the other hand he genuinely seemed to foresee the decrease in humanity’s orientation to a truly biblical vision of God, and rightly criticised the merely conventional adherence to Christianity in his day.

    So I find it hard to decide how much of what he wrote in this area was what he desired to be the case (so that he might throw off those ‘shackles’), and how much was simply an assessment of the way things were going anyway, and would continue to go. This ties in to your second query – it is my opinion that Nietzsche was one of the most influential thinkers of the last two hundred years, and his impassioned critique of Judeo-Christian ethics, as well as his call to bring about a new world wherein we are ‘free’ to shape our own reality, has left a legacy which is still very much with us. The dictatorship of relativism is one notable example of this, but one can see it in the confusion of gender ideology as well.


  33. kathleen says:

    Toad, in answer to your question as to why we cover our bodies if they are indeed good as God has told us, I think we need to look at the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall.

    “And the eyes of them both were opened: and when they perceived themselves to be naked, they sewed together fig leaves, and made themselves aprons.” (Gen. 3:7)

    This implies that before Adam and Eve sinned they lived in total innocence (much like little children do) and were not tempted to sins of the flesh, like lust, impurity, concupiscence etc. Once they had lost their joyful innocence, they gained knowledge of Good and Evil, and felt shame for their nudity, feeling the need to cover their body parts that could give rise to further temptation and sin.

    This is not to say that anything about our bodies is bad of course – they are perfectly made to fulfill our roles as men or women in life – only that we are now aware that certain parts need to be covered for decency’s sake, as St. Paul also describes, and to be kept guarded and hidden for one’s spouse in marriage.


  34. toadspittle says:

    “(i.e.; his (Fred’s) rhetoric was so influential that it ended up bringing about what he desired). “
    A common phenomenon in religious matters, I suggest, Michael. Viz, Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, on an ass. (I will live to regret citing that, for sure.)
    Yes, I enjoyed Barron’s video.
    I’m not sure, even now though, where he stands on the current more relaxed attitude regarding “modesty” (whatever that is) nudity and its environs, but I am very much in favour of nudity, and near-nudity, myself.
    Depending on who’s revealing what, of course. Matters of taste and age are involved, but I do very much enjoy, in an aesthetic sense,* the sight of very scantily clad, attractive young people enjoying the fresh air and sunshine. Good for them, is what I say, and always have. When young, I enjoyed it myself. As I’ve posited on here before, more cover-ups, more “modesty” and repression ultimately result in more, and nastier, sexual behaviour. Only my theory, of course.

    *”Aesthetic? Oh, no Toad – that’s just your excuse for being a dirty old man these days. You like looking lasciviously at young girls,” I seem to hear in advance.
    Not so, nowadays. In the past, yes. Often. Most enjoyable too. But if that’s what people choose to think I’m still like, they are very welcome. I’m too old to care.


  35. Gertrude says:

    A priest friend of mine tells the tale of his grandma, who, whilst telling her rosary whilst sitting by the fire, would utter the words ” men wanting to be women and women wanting to be men; to think our blessed Lord went to the cross for this”.


  36. Michael says:

    I am very much in favour of nudity, and near-nudity, myself.

    I’m not quite sure how seriously to take this comment. It sounds ridiculous, but I’m not about to write off the possibility that you actually think this is a good idea. If you do, I would direct you to Kathleen’s comment on June 11 @12:33 – we are not in a state of innocence any more, and so nudity/near nudity leads to a lot of problems. If I thought the impulse behind the move to dress as scantily as possible really had some kind of innocent, ‘back to the Garden’ spirit behind it, I’d have a bit more patience with it, but I don’t think that’s ordinarily the case.

    A common phenomenon in religious matters, I suggest, Michael. Viz, Christ’s entry into Jerusalem

    Not really sure what that’s supposed to mean. There are clear differences in the two cases, and the conscious intentions of the two figures concerned, as I’m sure you know. Glad you enjoyed the video anyway 🙂


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