Gnosticism was a family of heresies in the very early Church characterized, among other things, by a belief in the evilness of the material world, a consequent radical asceticism that far exceeded the boundaries of reasonable piety, and a dualistic theological system that pit an evil creating Old Testament demiurge against the loving New Testament God. In these respects, it was at best demented and at worst outright evil.
Gnosticism also had some distinctively mystery-cultic tendencies, with grueling and elaborate initiation rituals and a set of esoteric doctrines that were transmitted only gradually to people passing through the stages of initiation. People like to imagine that the mystery-cultic tendencies of Gnosticism were somehow intrinsic to it, so that if you take away the mystery-cult behavior, you are no longer dealing with Gnosticism. Hence we tend to bind up Gnosticism’s esoteric practices with our evaluation of the evil and demented doctrines they were intended to conceal, and we judge the practices as evil and demented, too; from there it’s a short leap to judging all such practices evil and demented, which nearly everyone today does. But this is, to be blunt, nonsense: all new religions are mystery cults, and early orthodox Christianity was no exception. The expulsion of the unbaptized from the Mass of the Faithful was so religiously observed that pagan Romans suspected the Christians of secretly sacrificing and eating infants (an accusation that was, ironically, plausible precisely because the Christians often adopted the deformed or unwanted infants whom the pagans left to die of exposure). The Alexandrian Church required its catechumens to study for a period of three years or more before being admitted to Baptism. And so on.
It’s only when a religion begins to succeed that it can shed its mystery-cultic tendencies. Those tendencies are a camouflage intended to shield the sect from the outrage that would ensure if its doctrines became widely known, at a time when its doctrines are deeply repugnant to the conventional wisdom. Once a religion reaches a critical mass in society, so that its doctrines and convictions are firmly within the Overton window, the camouflage is no longer needed: it can be safely discarded. Gnosticism never “went mainstream,” so to speak, so it never shed those mystery-cultic tendencies, which died with it. (But it’s mainstream today, and where are the elaborate initiation rituals conducted in secret?) Judging religious esotericism as uniformly bad is a conceit afforded only by modern prosperity and security: when men with swords are waiting around the corner to ambush you and feed you to the lions, it’s a reasonable precaution to take.
There’s no denying that modern society is growing increasingly hostile toward traditional Christian beliefs, practices, and institutions. Increasingly, basic Christian values are seen as repugnant to common sense, conventional wisdom, and the common good, and especially to the hypertrophied modern values of “freedom” and “equality.” This is a dynamic we’re going to be stuck with for a while: although it’s true that traditional, orthodox Christians have a vastly greater fertility rate than secular moderns, and while it’s true that the heritability of religiosity means our children will prove increasingly impervious to the world’s attempts to steal them away, it will probably be two centuries or more before we catch up to them, all else being equal, and we can be certain that they will make sure that not all else is equal. As they lose ground, they will come after us, as they always have: first with legal warfare and social ostracism, later with ghettos and quarantines, finally with knives and nerve gas. It’s important, therefore, that we coordinate this transition effectively. The Catholic Church, barring a massive religious restoration (of which there is no reason to think we will be the major beneficiary), is going to go back into the catacombs: that means we are going to need religious practices that will be well-suited to a Church of the catacombs.
It means we are going to need religious practices that are increasingly mysterious, not immediately intelligible, which say what needs to be said less in words than in actions and which lend themselves easily to the gradual initiation of converts over a period of lengthy instruction, and ideally one which has weathered the trials of past persecutions. Gosh… if only the Church had such a scheme of religious practice close at hand!