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Dialogue and disapproval: Some see mixed messages in document


The Vatican cast a wide net in its examples of what may be considered part of the New Age movement. Channeling, New Age music, yoga, Feng Shui, crystals, herbal medicine, aromatherapy and even 12-step programs -- they all rate a mention among many other elements of this nebulous, complex movement.

With the broad scope of the document, it is not difficult to find Catholics publicly participating in some of the many practices named, whether it is something as simple as a parish offering a yoga class, or as prominent as celebrity medium John Edward, a Catholic who says he prays the rosary before his “readings” of loved ones who have passed on. And the document itself, “Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the ‘New Age,’ ” notes that “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.”

In Pepper Pike, Ohio, you can find another example: the Ursuline Sophia Center. Sponsored by the Ursulines of Cleveland, it focuses on holistic health -- physical, mental, emotional and spiritual -- and among its many alternative medicine programs are those on yoga, Feng Shui and crystals. The center’s goal is to “attend to the body,” said executive director Ursuline Sr. Donna Capuano. “All the programs are used for that purpose.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church warns against divination such as that practiced by Edward. But for the rest, the new document does not specifically prohibit any practices.

It is to its credit that the document sets a tone “of wanting to understand the New Age and engage in genuine dialogue with those influenced by New Age thought,” said Paulist Fr. Thomas Ryan, a yoga instructor and author of Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice. “Yet there are places in the document where it sounds as though the mind of this partner in dialogue is already made up.”

Ryan noted the association the document makes between New Age and gnosticism, for example, and the document’s assertion that beliefs in Christ and Aquarius are “very much an ‘either-or’ situation.”

“Those statements leave one with the sense that it is not so much about dialogue as it is about identifying certain elements as New Age and refuting them,” said Ryan, who is also director of ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Paulist community in the United States and Canada.

“It’s an age-old issue: To what extent does religion interact with culture?” said David Abalos, professor of religious studies and sociology at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. Many of the elements called “New Age” have been part of Hispanic cultures, with indigenous practices blending with Christian religion since the conquest, such as in Peru, where the Indians’ earth goddess Pacha Mama became identified with the Virgin Mary.

“The question is not so much is it Jesus, is it the Virgin Mary, but is the sacred a force that leads you to liberation or is it used to dominate and bring about oppression?”

The document on the New Age “is a smokescreen for the fact that they are worried that a majority of Catholics around the world no longer follow the moral teachings of the church” on birth control, homosexuality and numerous other points, Abalos said. “A lot of this is an attempt to restore the unquestioned authority of the Catholic church, and that’s a losing battle.”

Benedictine Br. David Steindl-Rast called the document a “missed opportunity for true dialogue with the world today.” The monk of Mount Saviour Monastery in Pine City, N.Y., has a long history of association with what the Vatican document calls “New Age.” He has been a teacher at Esalen and a member of the advisory board for Findhorn, two New Age groups mentioned in the document. Steindl-Rast also founded two Zen-Christian retreat centers.

In the Vatican’s document, “practically everything is mentioned in a cautionary tone -- from alternative medicine to ecology -- which is exactly counter to Vatican II,” Steindl-Rast said. “Vatican II was open to dialogue in the world. This document does nothing but list everything, good and bad, lumps it all together and cautions against it.”

By grouping together practices as beneficial as yoga, Zen and the enneagram, and as innocuous as New Age music and aromatherapy, “we make ourselves ridiculous,” the monk said.

“Large numbers of human beings are eagerly seeking for the truth. We have to give them something more than caution. Show them that some things they are doing are on the right path.”

The document ignores the need to “reformulate the good news in a way that can be heard today,” Steindl-Rast said. Currently, he is doing this by working on the interactive Web site he founded, www.gratefulness.org, which has formed a spiritual community in cyberspace, with several thousand visitors each week. “I’m sitting in my hermitage and have a much bigger audience than before,” he said. “You give them Christian values and they lap it up. But that means you teach the good news in contemporary terms. ... The language of this document is Zulu to most people. There is no attempt made to reformulate things, to use New Age terms to express the good news. It’s only contrasted: This is what the New Age says -- a little distorted towards the negative -- and this is what Christianity says.”

However, Ryan praised the document for inviting discussion in areas where there may be confusion. “The use of the term New Age means little,” he said. “The relationship of the person, group, practice or commodity to the central tenets of Christianity is what counts.” With this in mind, the document can be useful as a tool for discernment, Ryan said.

In the case of yoga, Ryan said, a Christian teacher needs to bring the use of the practice in line with Christian theology. “The reason I have been leading yoga and meditation retreats for Christians is to help them make points of connection between these practices and their faith, executing adjustments of theological understanding in the process, so that the practice is within the Christian understanding of how we come to union with God ... not through our efforts alone, but with the assistance of God’s grace. That is a critical point, and one that a spiritual director or guide in meditation practices or yoga or Zen methods needs to make with great care and conscientiousness.”

Other elements of the document do not seem as fair or accurate, according to Ryan. He called it “unfortunate” that 12-step programs are mentioned, an inclusion that he took to be associated with the document’s criticism of “morally neutral language of addiction and recovery.” But 12-step programs also use the language of sin and salvation, Ryan said.

Both Ryan and Steindl-Rast said the document ignores elements of Christian meditation and mysticism that might bear some similarity to what is called New Age. “The document argues that Christian meditation is not an exercise in stillness,” Ryan said. “But we do have a profound current in our prayer tradition that says at some point all our concepts and understandings of God are going to break apart because no image, no word, no concept can adequately capture God, at which point we must be still and know that God is God.”

Steindl-Rast also disputed the document’s implication that New Age spirituality leads to narcissism and consumerism. The California-based group Esalen, he noted, has had a long history of social engagement, including an American-Russian intellectual exchange program that broke down walls during the Cold War.

According to Abalos, “Recognition of self leads people to the realization that if my life is sacred, so are others,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily follow that people who are very concerned with finding out who they are are narcissistic. The question is, What sacred source are you following?”

Teresa Malcolm is NCR news editor. Her e-mail address is tmalcolm@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003