Church in the World
Vatican grapples with New Age beliefs
8 February 2003
A major new Vatican document on the New Age movement has warned that a number of Catholic retreat places, seminaries and religious formation houses are dabbling in New Age spirituality which is incompatible with Christian doctrine.
?It must unfortunately be admitted?, say the authors of the booklet, which was released on Monday, ?that there are too many cases where Catholic centres of spirituality are actively involved in diffusing New Age religiosity in the Church.? This confusion, they go on, ?should of course be corrected? because ?it is not possible to isolate some elements of New Age religiosity as acceptable to Christians, while rejecting others?. The movement has to be judged as a whole.
The 90-page text, which has been several years in the making, does not name the retreat houses or their practices, reports Robert Mickens from Rome. But it identifies the enneagram - a system for understanding personality types developed partly by American Jesuits ? and Jungian depth psychology as elements of New Age, together with Feng shui, deep ecology, and practices such as tantric exercises and transcendental meditation.
Much of the early part of the document is taken up with an account of the genesis of New Age, a term which originates in the astrological belief that the Age of Pisces is drawing to a close and a new Age of Aquarius is beginning. Among the esoteric elements identified as making up the New Age movement are theosophy, spiritualism and anthroposophy, as well as early Christian gnosticism, Sufism, medieval alchemy, Renaissance hermeticism, Zen Buddhism and Yoga. Other influences include the Renaissance, the Reformation, the enterprise culture and the prosperity gospel.
Among those whose ideas have flowed into the contemporary New Age movement, the document names Carl Jung and his depth psychology. While it was true that Jung?s psychology ?sheds light on many aspects of the Christian faith, particularly on the need to face the reality of evil?, the report?s authors say his image of God was confused and often indistinguishable from the psyche.
The report also identifies deep ecology, with its idea of Mother Earth or Gaia, as a part of the movement. Deep ecology believes that the Gaia is a ?divinity pervading the whole of creation? which ?is held to bridge the gap between creation and the transcendent Father-God of Judaism and Christianity?. As such, it ?removes the prospect of being judged by such a Being?, the document points out, adding that ?the New Age shares with a number of internationally influential groups the goal of superseding or transcending particular religions in order to create space for a universal religion which could unite humanity?. Closely related, the document adds, is ?a very concerted effort on the part of many institutions to invent a Global Ethic?.
Despite its warnings and admonitions, Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life a reflection on the ?New Age? is an attempt to understand the phenomenon as well as to signal its incompatibility with Christian doctrine. Its authors ? the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue ? describe the booklet as a resource for people ?engaged in pastoral work? which aims to help them ?explain how the New Age movement differs from the Christian faith?. The result of a Vatican working group on New Religious Movements that also included the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the booklet is pitched at a wider audience than most Vatican texts. Published with a glossy sky-blue cover featuring a waterfall, it uses section titles from popular songs, such as ?There Must be an Angel?, ?Magical Mystery Tour?, and ?Good Vibrations.? But the document, described by its authors as only a ?provisional report?, also bears marks of being assembled by different working groups writing for congregations with different objectives.
It is mainly New Age?s spiritual understanding which exercises the document?s authors, its ?vision of a closed universe that contains ?God? and other spiritual beings along with ourselves?, a view which ?pervades all New Age thought and practice?. This ?implicit pantheism?, it adds, ?conditions in advance any otherwise positive assessment where we might be in favour of one or another aspect of its spirituality?.
Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life urges Christians to offer seekers after the truth the example of Jesus? dialogue with the woman of Samaria at the well in the fourth chapter of John?s Gospel. Jesus? approach ?could yield a rich harvest in terms of people who have been attracted to the water-carrier (Aquarius) but who are genuinely still seeking the truth?, the document notes. It also suggests some ?practical steps? by which the Church could engage with the New Age movement, by making better use of the networks of its pastoral and spirituality centres, and inviting New Age representatives to come and speak. But it warns against New Age prayer groups. ?There is no problem in learning how to meditate?, the document notes, ?but the object or content of the exercise clearly determines whether it relates to the God revealed by Jesus Christ, to some other revelation, or simply to the hidden depths of the self?.
New Age is attractive, the authors accept, ?mainly because so much of what it offers meets hungers often left unsatisfied by the established institutions?. Its appeal raises a challenge to the Church ?People feel the Christian religion no longer offers them ? or perhaps never gave them ? something they really need?, the booklet acknowledges, adding that people are led to New Age by ?a genuine yearning for a deeper spirituality, for something that will touch their hearts, and for a way of making sense of a confusing and alienating world?. The Church?s members, say the authors, need to ?understand the often-silent cry in people?s hearts? which attracts them to the New Age.
But there is never any doubt in the document that New Age is incompatible with and hostile to the core beliefs of Christianity. ?At the heart of New Age?, says the document, ?is the belief that the time for particular religions is over.? New Age rejects ?tradition in the form of patriarchal, hierarchical, social or ecclesial organisation? and is a ?conscious search for an alternative to Western culture and its Judaeo-Christian religious roots?.
New Age spirituality, it says, derives from ?esoteric and theosophical roots, and is basically a new form of gnosis? in which access to the divine is via knowledge of hidden mysteries. Its beliefs run ?counter to Christian revelation? and the Judaeo-Christian view of creation and the universe, while withdrawing the possibility of ?a relationship to a personal God revealed in Christ?.
A long section of the document compares the spiritual practices of New Age with the tradition of Christian prayer. The ?spiritualism? of New Age is described as ?immanentist? and ?Pelagian? in that it offers an ?essentially human enterprise on the part of a person who seeks to rise towards divinity by his or her own efforts?. Much New Age literature shows the conviction that there is no divine being ?out there? or ?in any way distinct from the rest of reality?, the document notes, concluding that ?New Age practices are not really prayer, in that they are generally a question of introspection or fusion with cosmic energy, as opposed to the double orientation of Christian prayer, which involves introspection but is essentially also a meeting with God?.
The document?s reference to the enneagram, a personality type indicator which makes use of an ancient nine-point symbol, is brief but damning. The enneagram reached California via esoteric circles and was developed by New Age practicioners. But it was also adapted by Jesuits as a tool of spiritual discernment for use in formation and retreat houses, where it is has proved popular. But the document refers only to Helen Palmer, a secular practioner, while ignoring Catholic authors such as Richard Rohr OFM and Suzanne Zuercher OSB who emphasise the primacy of grace in spiritual development. ?When used as a means of spiritual growth,? the document says, the enneagram ?introduces an ambiguity in the doctrine and the life of Christian faith?.
The document ends with a comprehensive glossary of some 37 New Age terms, including feng-shui, holism, planetary consciousness, and shamanism, and a brief summary of the key tenets of New Age, along with a wide-ranging bibliography in a number of languages. It also lists three ?key New Age places? Big Sur in California, Findhorn in Scotland, and Monte Verit? in Switzerland. In describing the latter, the Vatican document adds ?It is fascinating to see the list of those who have gathered over the years at Monte Verit?.? Despite the usual suspects such as Carl Jung, Monte Verit??s web site lists as former speakers luminaries such as the Jesuit cardinal and Vatican II expert Jean Dani?lou, the Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich, the Viennese Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, the Catholic patristics scholar Fr Hugo Rahner SJ, and the former provincial superior of the English Jesuits, Fr Martin D?Arcy.
Harry Potter books and films are, however, consistent with Christian doctrine, Fr Paul Fleetwood, an English member of the Vatican?s Council for Culture, said. ?I don?t see any problems in the Harry Potter series?, he told reporters at a press conference to release the document, adding ?I don?t think there?s anyone in this room who grew up without fairies, magic and angels in their imaginary world.? The creator of the Harry Potter phenomenon, J.K. Rowling, was a ?Christian by conviction?, Fr Fleetwood said, ?even in her way of writing?.