What the Vatican’s statement on New Age movements does – and doesn’t say
Syllabus of Errors Condemned by Pope Pius IX (1864)
Venerable Brothers, it is surprising that in our time such a great war is being waged against the Catholic Church…... It is from them that the synagogue of Satan, which gathers its troops against the Church of Christ, takes its strength…. But this scourge, winding through sinuous caverns, . . . deceiving many with astute frauds, finally has arrived at the point where it comes forth impetuously from its hiding places and triumphs as a powerful master. Since the throng of its propagandists has grown enormously, these wicked groups think that they have already become masters of the world and that they have almost reached their pre-established goal. Having sometimes obtained what they desired, and that is power, in several countries, they boldly turn the help of powers and authorities which they have secured to trying to submit the Church of God to the most cruel servitude, to undermine the foundations on which it rests, to contaminate its splendid qualities; and, moreover, to strike it with frequent blows, to shake it, to overthrow it, and, if possible, to make it disappear completely from the earth……
The success of New Age offers the Church a challenge. People feel the Christian religion no longer offers them – or perhaps never gave them – something they really need. The search which often leads people to the New Age is a genuine yearning: for a deeper spirituality, for something which will touch their hearts, and for a way of making sense of a confusing and often alienating world. There is a positive tone in New Age criticisms of “the materialism of daily life, of philosophy and even of medicine and psychiatry; reductionism, which refuses to take into consideration religious and supernatural experiences; the industrial culture of unrestrained individualism, which teaches egoism and pays no attention to other people, the future and the environment”.8 Any problems there are with New Age are to be found in what it proposes as alternative answers to life's questions. If the Church is not to be accused of being deaf to people's longings, her members need to do two things: to root themselves ever more firmly in the fundamentals of their faith, and to understand the often-silent cry in people's hearts, which leads them elsewhere if they are not satisfied by the Church. There is also a call in all of this to come closer to Jesus Christ and to be ready to follow Him, since He is the real way to happiness, the truth about God and the fulness of life for every man and woman who is prepared to respond to his love.JESUS CHRIST THE BEARER OF THE WATER OF LIFE :A Christian reflection on the “New Age”(2003)
Same church, 140 years apart.
Quite a change, isn’t it? Or maybe not - in the important ways, at least. No matter what some might lead you to think, the Vatican’s recent document on “New Age movements” is no sell-out. The tone may be a world away from Pio Nono’s mid-century tirade, but, lest we be tempted to be see this as regress, let’s reflect for a moment on the Gospels.
For if we do that, we make the most curious observation: Jesus did not convert people by yelling at them. He did not draw people closer to God’s love by condemning them. He saved his harshest language for the leaders of his own religious tradition, those guilty of contributing to the alienation of those whom God calls to Him.
The apostles followed Jesus’ lead in this regard. Moving through the ancient near east and beyond, sharing the Good News, they proceeded with vigor, yet care. They shaped the Good News to the capacity of the hearer, at all times, so that all might understand, in their own language, the mercy of God and the promises of the messiah. Remember Paul in Athens? He “debated,” but if his speech at the Areopagus is any hint of what these debates were like, it doesn’t seem as if they were composed of thundering condemnations. He burrowed into his listeners’ assumptions and presented them with the flaws in their beliefs, and then carefully turned them to the truth:
For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, “To an Unknown God.” What, therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23)
These new document takes this approach as its model, as well as the words of Peter in his first letter:…” always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have. But give it with courtesy and respect and a clear conscience” (1 P 3, 15 f.).
And remember the source of this document. It’s not from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It’s from the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, so its intentions are to understand and clarify, all in service of the ultimate goal of being able to proclaim the truth more clearly.
It’s well worth reading, and should be required for all those involved in ministries in which they are dealing with these types of questions and concerns. It should also be read by those interested in a Vatican document – the one and only, we can probably be assured – that uses a lyric from Hair as evidence and the title of both Beach Boys' and Beatles’ songs as a chapter heading, rather unfortunate choices because they give an otherwise thoughtful document just the slightest whiff of lameness, like the intense 50-year old trying hard to get down with it. Anyway.
The document gives an overview of the history and general shape of New Age thinking, contrasts it with Christianity, offers suggestions for how to answer common questions as well as a glossary and resources. You can go here to read it, and I’m not going to summarize – but I do want to share some quotes with you to give you a sense of what the document is all about:
While much of New Age is a reaction to contemporary culture, there are many ways in which it is that culture's child. The Renaissance and the Reformation have shaped the modern western individual, who is not weighed down by external burdens like merely extrinsic authority and tradition; people feel the need to “belong” to institutions less and less (and yet loneliness is very much a scourge of modern life), and are not inclined to rank “official” judgements above their own. With this cult of humanity, religion is internalised in a way which prepares the ground for a celebration of the sacredness of the self. This is why New Age shares many of the values espoused by enterprise culture and the “prosperity Gospel” (of which more will be said later: section 2.4), and also by the consumer culture, whose influence is clear from the rapidly-growing numbers of people who claim that it is possible to blend Christianity and New Age, by taking what strikes them as the best of both.2 It is worth remembering that deviations within Christianity have also gone beyond traditional theism in accepting a unilateral turn to self, and this would encourage such a blending of approaches. The important thing to note is that God is reduced in certain New Age practices so as furthering the advancement of the individual.(1.1)
Even if it can be admitted that New Age religiosity in some way responds to the legitimate spiritual longing of human nature, it must be acknowledged that its attempts to do so run counter to Christian revelation. In Western culture in particular, the appeal of “alternative” approaches to spirituality is very strong. On the one hand, new forms of psychological affirmation of the individual have become very popular among Catholics, even in retreat-houses, seminaries and institutes of formation for religious. At the same time there is increasing nostalgia and curiosity for the wisdom and ritual of long ago, which is one of the reasons for the remarkable growth in the popularity of esotericism and gnosticism. Many people are particularly attracted to what is known – correctly or otherwise – as “Celtic” spirituality,5 or to the religions of ancient peoples. Books and courses on spirituality and ancient or Eastern religions are a booming business, and they are frequently labelled “New Age” for commercial purposes. But the links with those religions are not always clear. In fact, they are often denied……An example of this can be seen in the enneagram, the nine-type tool for character analysis, which when used as a means of spiritual growth introduces an ambiguity in the doctrine and the life of the Christian faith. (1.4)
The appeal of New Age religiosity cannot be underestimated. When the understanding of the content of Christian faith is weak, some mistakenly hold that the Christian religion does not inspire a profound spirituality and so they seek elsewhere.
Science and technology have clearly failed to deliver all they once seemed to promise, so in their search for meaning and liberation people have turned to the spiritual realm. New Age as we now know it came from a search for something more humane and beautiful than the oppressive, alienating experience of life in Western society. Its early exponents were prepared to look far afield in their search, so it has become a very eclectic approach. It may well be one of the signs of a “return to religion”, but it is most certainly not a return to orthodox Christian doctrines and creeds. (2.1)
One of the central concerns of the New Age movement is the search for “wholeness”. There is encouragement to overcome all forms of “dualism”, as such divisions are an unhealthy product of a less enlightened past. Divisions which New Age proponents claim need to be overcome include the real difference between Creator and creation, the real distinction between man and nature, or spirit and matter, which are all considered wrongly as forms of dualism. These dualistic tendencies are often assumed to be ultimately based on the Judaeo-Christian roots of western civilisation, while it would be more accurate to link them to gnosticism, in particular to Manichaeism. (2.2.4)
is essential to bear in mind that people are involved with New Age in very different ways and on many levels. In most cases it is not really a question of “belonging” to a group or movement; nor is there much conscious awareness of the principles on which New Age is built. It seems that, for the most part, people are attracted to particular therapies or practices, without going into their background, and others are simply occasional consumers of products which are labelled “New Age”. People who use aromatherapy or listen to “New Age” music, for example, are usually interested in the effect they have on their health or well-being; it is only a minority who go further into the subject, and try to understand its theoretical (or “mystical”) significance. This fits perfectly into the patterns of consumption in societies where amusement and leisure play such an important part. The “movement” has adapted well to the laws of the market, and it is partly because it is such an attractive economic proposition that New Age has become so widespread. New Age has been seen, in some cultures at least, as the label for a product created by the application of marketing principles to a religious phenomenon.49 There is always going to be a way of profiting from people's perceived spiritual needs.(2.5)
For Christians, the spiritual life is a relationship with God which gradually through his grace becomes deeper, and in the process also sheds light on our relationship with our fellow men and women, and with the universe. Spirituality in New Age terms means experiencing states of consciousness dominated by a sense of harmony and fusion with the Whole. So “mysticism” refers not to meeting the transcendent God in the fullness of love, but to the experience engendered by turning in on oneself, an exhilarating sense of being at one with the universe, a sense of letting one's individuality sink into the great ocean of Being
This fundamental distinction is evident at all levels of comparison between Christian mysticism and New Age mysticism. The New Age way of purification is based on awareness of unease or alienation, which is to be overcome by immersion into the Whole. In order to be converted, a person needs to make use of techniques which lead to the experience of illumination. This transforms a person's consciousness and opens him or her to contact with the divinity, which is understood as the deepest essence of reality.
The techniques and methods offered in this immanentist religious system, which has no concept of God as person, proceed 'from below'. Although they involve a descent into the depths of one's own heart or soul, they constitute an essentially human enterprise on the part of a person who seeks to rise towards divinity by his or her own efforts. It is often an “ascent” on the level of consciousness to what is understood to be a liberating awareness of “the god within”. Not everyone has access to these techniques, whose benefits are restricted to a privileged spiritual 'aristocracy'.
The essential element in Christian faith, however, is God's descent towards his creatures, particularly towards the humblest, those who are weakest and least gifted according to the values of the “world”. There are spiritual techniques which it is useful to learn, but God is able to by-pass them or do without them. A Christian's “method of getting closer to God is not based on any technique in the strict sense of the word. That would contradict the spirit of childhood called for by the Gospel. The heart of genuine Christian mysticism is not technique: it is always a gift of God; and the one who benefits from it knows himself to be unworthy”
…..All meditation techniques need to be purged of presumption and pretentiousness. Christian prayer is not an exercise in self-contemplation, stillness and self-emptying, but a dialogue of love, one which “implies an attitude of conversion, a flight from 'self' to the 'You' of God”. It leads to an increasingly complete surrender to God's will, whereby we are invited to a deep, genuine solidarity with our brothers and sisters. (3.4)
It is important to acknowledge the sincerity of people searching for the truth; there is no question of deceit or of self-deception. It is also important to be patient, as any good educator knows. A person embraced by the truth is suddenly energised by a completely new sense of freedom, especially from past failures and fears, and “the one who strives for self-knowledge, like the woman at the well, will affect others with a desire to know the truth that can free them too”
An invitation to meet Jesus Christ, the bearer of the water of life, will carry more weight if it is made by someone who has clearly been profoundly affected by his or her own encounter with Jesus, because it is made not by someone who has simply heard about him, but by someone who can be sure “that he really is the saviour of the world” (verse 42). It is a matter of letting people react in their own way, at their own pace, and letting God do the rest. (5)
Now, those who have no real engagement with the world and with the faith of others but through the pages of books and internet websites won’t like this. But those who actually live and minister in a world populated by real human beings on real journeys know how true it is.
Forgive all the quoting, but I think these passages are really the highlights of the document, and deserve more than paraphrasing. There is much more specific material about the specific aspects of New Age thinking, to be sure, and hardly anything - from angels to channeling – is left out, at least in that regard.
So yes, I think it’s a good document, and not pernicious in any sense. But there are a few weaknesses that I picked up, points that are left hanging or are neglected, points come to mind because I’ve been confronted with them many times in my own catechetical ministry.
What about Wicca?.
Sure, neo-paganism and Wicca don’t exactly fit under the category of New Age Spirituality, but they’re put in the same section in the bookstore, and in some ways, at least in the West, they seem to have superceded more cosmically-oriented New Age stuff in popularity, particularly among the young. It seems to me that the cosmic stuff is a Boomer interest, and their kids have turned to neo-paganism. It would have been helpful if this document could have addressed that, as well.
I’m real spiritual, but not so religious…
That, the most common distinction made by modern Westerners, is not addressed in this document, and it should have been. I’m heartened that the phrase “religiosity” is used quite frequently, rather than “spirituality,” because it closes the divide a bit, but that assumption - that the only good place to find spirituality is outside religious traditions (especially Western ones) needs a vigorous thrashing, and it’s not here.
What’s the alternative?
The document does a good job of outlining the thinking of the opposition, but is not so hot on helping pastoral ministers what to say in response. Present them with the truth and the love of Jesus Christ is basically it, with, of course, specific rejoinders to specific tenets. They say, God is immanent, and whatever you want him/her to be. You say No, He’s not.
That’s a wicked little paraphrase there, but really, that’s all it amounts to, every time. We can hope and assume that pastoral ministers would know what rejoinders to offer, but we all know that these days, no matter where your Diocesan DRE’s degree is from, that’s a foolish assumption.
There’s an awful lot of good stuff about seeing what needs New Agers are seeking to have fulfilled, and statements of how Christianity has dropped the ball in not pointing them out, but not much help in pointing us to the places in our tradition and practice that address those same needs. The seeker is looking for a sense of wholeness, of acceptance. Where is that to be found in our understanding of Christ?
The Basis of Truth
What it all comes down to is the absence of any real help in explaining why New Age claims are false and why Christian claims are true. Understanding is important, but so is the next step, particularly in a relativistic age. This kind of discourse – that with an apologetic tint – should not have been the focus of this document, but it really did deserve a paragraph or two.
You can talk until you’re blue in the face to the New Age adherent about how Jesus will fulfill her needs, but she’s very likely to simply listen politely (because tolerance is, you know…important), and then turn away, because it’s really all the same to her, and if you want to believe that, fine, but just because you believe it is no reason for her to believe it.
Pastoral ministers need to be encouraged to understand, but they also need to be encouraged to challenge the truth-claims of the New Age movement. Not to yell and scream and condemn, but to simply ask adherents to explain the basis of what they believe. Why do you believe that god lives inside you in this balmy New Age kind of way? Who told you? Why do you believe them? What’s the evidence?
And upon listening, we say, okay – now, can I tell you about Jesus? Just for a minute, and just because I care about you and I care about the truth. Let me tell you what Jesus says about God’s love and mercy and your place in his universe and his embrace, and let me tell you why it’s true. Let me tell you about that death and that rising and what happened to those apostles afterwards and what they did. Let me tell you why they believed it was true – they saw it with their own eyes and they staked their lives on it.
And what does Deepak Chopra have to say about that?