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Vatican looks at ‘New Age,’ issues ‘appeal to discernment’


If Vatican documents came with soundtracks, most would probably feature a classic sacred sound -- Gregorian chant, perhaps, or Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Stern rulings from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith might be backed by John Williams’ “Imperial March” from the “Star Wars” movies.

But the recent “Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the ‘New Age’ ”?

Try “They Call Me Mellow Yellow.”

The classic ’60s anthem by Donovan seems ideal for a text that fairly beckons the adjective “groovy.” Rarely does one find documents of the Holy See featuring section headings such as “Magical Mystery Tour” and textual references to the hippie musical “Hair.”

Also part of the “good vibration” of “Water of Life” is its positive tone. The document offers cautions about New Age spirituality, but deliberately avoids condemnations or prohibitions. When it was presented to the press, one of the authors even praised a pop culture phenomenon that some conservative Christian groups have blasted for promoting interest in magic: the highly successful Harry Potter books and movies. (See related story.)

The 88-page meditation on the New Age movement was released Feb. 2. It is a joint project of four Vatican offices: the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Since the subject raised doctrinal issues, there was also input from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The thesis is that many practices bundled under the heading of “New Age,” whether tarot cards or astrology or channeling, reflect ideas “difficult to reconcile with Christian doctrine and spirituality.”

While acknowledging that New Age thinking is highly eclectic, the document offers these specific contrasts with orthodox Christianity:

  • For the New Age, God is often an impersonal force, but for Christians God is a being with whom believers have a relationship;
  • In New Age thinking, Jesus Christ is one avatar among many, while for Christians he is the lone savior of the world;
  • Christians believe salvation is a gift from God, while in the New Age salvation is a do-it-yourself exercise;
  • Christians believe prayer and meditation is a conversation with God, whereas in the New Age it’s a monologue with the self;
  • Christians acknowledge sin, suffering and death, but in the New Age they are either denied or minimized;
  • Christians believe the future is something to construct, whereas for the New Age the future is written in the stars.

New Age thinking, the authors argue, has been given a boost from three disparate sources: Western religious relativism, fascination with Eastern religion, and a kind of “deep ecology” that tends towards pantheism.

The authors warn that some New Age practices have become commonplace in Catholic circles, “even in retreat houses, seminaries and institutes of formation for religious.” One example is the enneagram, a nine-type tool for character analysis with obscure origins, which has been embraced by many Catholic spiritual directors.

Yet even here, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, said in response to a reporter’s question that the Vatican does not intend to prohibit use of the enneagram.

“There is no condemnation here,” he said, waving “Water of Life.” “This is an appeal to discernment, nothing more.”

Evidence lends some credence to the Vatican’s concern. In Italy, experts on new religious movements say, there are now more fortune-tellers than Catholic priests. Every night of the week, soothsayers willing to read your palm or cast your fortune with tarot cards can be found in Rome’s Piazza Navona, just 10 minutes walk from the Vatican. A recent poll in France, meanwhile, showed that over half the French believe in faith healing and telepathy, a third believe that dreams can predict the future, and a quarter believe a person’s destiny is inscribed on their palms.

The term “New Age” refers to a cosmic turning point in history long predicted by astrologers. They say the current era is the Age of Pisces, which has been dominated by Christianity. It is due to be replaced by the “New Age” of Aquarius early in the third Millennium. (Exactly when is a matter of debate).

Yet New Age spirituality resists precise doctrinal elaboration. It is perhaps best understood as a bewildering smorgasbord drawn from theosophy, spiritualism, anthroposophy, the Jewish Kabbalah, ancient Egyptian religion, Sufism, pre-Christian European religion, Zen, yoga, and on and on.

The problem, according to the Vatican document, is not that most people are consciously aware of these philosophical and theological undercurrents, but that they pick them up unconsciously, like a cold.

The document can be almost Manichean in its criticism. “People who wonder if it is possible to believe in both Christ and Aquarius can only benefit from knowing that it is very much an ‘either-or’ situation,” it says.

Yet officials were at pains not to paint with an overly broad brush.

“Many elements of New Age spirituality are in themselves good things,” Fitzgerald told NCR. “Music, relaxation techniques, and so on can be quite good. The problem is when you put it all together as a system of thought.”

This is not the first time the Vatican has set off alarms. In 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document titled “Some Aspects of Christian Meditation,” warning against prayer and meditation methods inspired by New Age-style “pseudognosticism.” In 1992, the new Catechism of the Catholic Church rejected “horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums,” stating that such practices “contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.”

The best-known case involving the church and New Age spirituality was that of former Dominican theologian Matthew Fox, who in 1994 became an Episcopal priest. Fox was silenced by the Vatican in 1988, then expelled from the Dominicans in 1993, largely in reaction to the unconventional programming at his Institute for Creation Spirituality in Oakland, Calif. Among other things that caused concern among church authorities, Fox hired faculty members who included a masseuse, a Zen Buddhist, a yoga teacher and a self-described witch named Starhawk.

If “Water of Life” sounds no retreat from the doctrinal principles upon which the battles with Fox were fought, it may nonetheless signal a shift in tactics, away from excoriation toward a search for better ways to package the Christian message.

“We must take note of our inability to satisfy this thirst,” said Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. “We do have responses, but they’re insufficient. We have to work on this.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org.

Related Web site

Text of “Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the ‘New Age’”

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003