New Age Is A Pressing Religious, Cultural Challenge
1. Much has already been said about the New Age Movement, and much more will be said. I had asked the specialist, Jean Vernette, to dedicate a subheading to "Movements of the New Age" in the third edition of my Italian work, Grande Dizionario delle Religioni (The Comprehensive Dictionary of Religions), which describes them in the following words: "The New Age Movements, like a huge running river with its numerous off shoots, represent a typical form of the modern religious awareness as a new religiosity that assumes many traits of the "Eternal Gnosis' " (Piemme, 2000, p. 1497-1498). Recently an Italian journal on religious culture entitled: Religioni e sette nel mondo (Religions and Sects in the World, 1996, 1-2) published three times a year, devoted two special issues to the New Age Movement. In my editorial column, I presented this phenomenon in this way: "The phenomenon of the New Age Movement, together with other new religious movements, is one of the most pressing challenges to the Christian Faith. It is a religious challenge, which is at the same time a cultural one; the New Age Movement sets forth theories and doctrines about God, man and the world, which are incompatible with the Christian Faith.
Furthermore, the New Age Movement is both the symptom of a culture in deep crisis and the wrong answer to this situation of cultural crisis, its worries, questions, aspirations and hopes" (Religioni e sette nel mondo; Religions and Sects in the World, 6, 1996, p. 7).
Today, together with Archbishop Fitzgerald, I have the honour of presenting a Document on the phenomenon, which was drafted by Rev. Peter Fleetwood, at that time an official of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and by Dr Teresa Osório Gonçalves of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. It is the fruit, therefore, of a long and authentic collaboration between offices [of the Holy See] in order to help provide an answer, with "gentleness and respect", as the Apostle Peter once recommended (1 Pt 3,15) to this religious and cultural challenge.
2. Today, Western culture, now followed by many others, has passed from an almost instinctive awareness of God's presence to what is often called a more "scientific" view of reality. Everything must be explained in terms of our daily experience. Whatever makes one think of miracles immediately becomes grounds for suspicion. As a result, all symbolic actions and objects, known as sacramentals, once part of the daily religious practice of every Catholic, are today far less evident in the religious panorama than they once were.
3. The reasons for such a change are numerous and diverse, but they all come down to the noticeable cultural shift from traditional forms of religion to more personal and individualistic expressions of what is now being called "spirituality". It seems that there are three specific reasons at the heart of such a change.
The first lies in the feeling that traditional religions or institutions no longer give what they once claimed they could provide. Some people in their view of the world are really unable to find any room for believing in a transcendent, personal God, and the experience for many has driven them to ask whether this God has the power to bring about change in this world, or if He really even exists at all. The dreadful experiences that have convulsed the world have made some people very cynical towards religion. I have in mind terrible events like the Holocaust and the repercussions of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War. I came to realize it personally during the course of my recent visit to Nagasaki when I had the privilege of praying (but utterly unable to find the words) before a monument dedicated to the memory of those whose lives were cut short or compromised forever on that August day of 1945. Today the threat of a war in the Middle East reminds me of my father's reminiscences as a stretcher bearer, during the Second World War. The things he told me about the horrors of war makes it easier for me to understand the doubts that people have about God and religion. The bewilderment of so many people before the suffering of the innocent, which is also exploited by certain movements, explains in part why some believers go over to them.
4. There is another reason to explain a certain anxiety and a certain rejection of the traditional Church. Let us not forget that in ancient Europe, pre-Christian, pagan religions were very strong, and often, unseemly conflicts took place linked to political change that have been inevitably labelled as Christian oppression of ancient religions. One of the most significant developments in what may roughly be called the "spiritual" sphere in the last century was a return to pre-Christian forms of religion. The pagan religions have had a considerable role in supporting some of Europe's most violent and racist ideologies, thus reinforcing the conviction according to which certain nations have an historic role of world-wide importance in such a way as to have the right to subject other peoples, and that has almost inevitably brought with it a hatred for the Christian religion, which is seen as a new arrival on the religious scene. The complex series of phenomena, known by the term of "neo-pagan" religions, reveal the need felt by some to invent new ways to "counter-attack" Christianity and return to a more authentic form of religion, a religion more closely bound to nature and the earth. For this reason, one has to recognize that there is no place for Christianity in the neo-pagan religions. Like it or not, a struggle is taking place to win the hearts and minds of people in the interrelations between Christianity, ancient, pre-Christian religions, and their more recently developed "cousins".
5. The third reason, at the origin of the rather wide-spread disillusionment with institutional religion, derives from a growing obsession in Western culture with Oriental religions and the paths of wisdom. When it became easier to travel outside of their own continent, adventurous Europeans began exploring places that they had previously known only by consulting the pages of ancient texts. The lure of the exotic put them into a closer contact with the religions and esoteric practices of various Oriental cultures from Ancient Egypt to India and Tibet. The growing conviction that there exists a deep-down truth, an essence of truth in the heart of every religious experience has led to the idea that they can and must gather the various elements from different religions in order to reach a universal form of religion. Once again, in such an enterprise there is little room for institutionalized religions, especially for Judaism and Christianity. That is worth remembering the next time you come across a public advertisement for Tibetan Buddhism or some sort of gathering with a guru; these are all things you will often have the opportunity of seeing in any European capital. My concern is the fact that many people, involved in such types of Eastern or "indigenous" spirituality, are really not in a position of being fully aware of the implications behind the first invitation to observe these gatherings. Furthermore, it is also worth noting the fact that for a long time now one finds a vibrant interest for esoteric religion amongst certain Masonic circles that aspire to a universal religion. The Enlightenment used to push the idea that it was unacceptable that there be so many conflicts and that war be waged in the name of religion. On this point I cannot but be in agreement. However, it would be dishonest to fail to recognize that a wide-spread anti-religious attitude developed from the original concern for guaranteeing the well being of mankind. Even in such a scenario it is not uncommon that what gets classified as a religious conflict, in reality is nothing more than a conflict of a political, economic, or social nature.
6. The spirit of this new universal religion was explained more clearly in a very popular way in the 1960 musical entitled Hair, when it was proclaimed to the public of the whole world that "This is the dawn of the Age of Aquarius", an age based upon harmony, understanding and love. In astrological terms, the Age of Pisces was identified with the time in which Christianity ruled; but it appears that this age should come to an end soon in order to make room for the Age of Aquarius when Christianity will lose its influence and leave the way open for a universal, more humane religion. A large part of traditional morals would no longer have any place in the New Age of Aquarius. People's way of thinking should be completely changed and there should no longer be the ancient separation of male and female. Human beings should be systematically called to take on an androgynous form of life in which each of the two sides of the brain gets used in harmony at the right time, and they should not be disconnected as they are today.
7. When we see and hear the expression New Age Movement, it is important to remember that originally this referred to the New Age of Aquarius. The document that is being presented to you is a response to the need felt by the Bishops and faithful in various parts of the world. These people have repeatedly asked for help in understanding the New Age Movement from the moment they became aware of the number of people involved in such a movement in different ways and at different levels. They have also asked for a guide to better respond to this already omnipresent phenomenon. The title itself of the document, from the outset, makes it clear that the age of Aquarius will never be able to offer what Christ can offer. The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar (Jn 4,1-42), told in the Gospel of John, is the key text that has guided the reflection during the drafting of the preliminary report on the New Age Movement presented to you today. As one can see, the Document is not intended to be a definitive declaration on the issue. It is a pastoral reflection aimed at helping Bishops, catechists, and as many as are devoted to the different programmes of formation of the Church in order to point out the origins of the New Age Movement, so that one may see in what way it influences the lives of Christians and to work out means and active methods to respond to the numerous and various challenges that the New Age Movement poses to the Christian community in those parts of the world where it is present. This can also be a challenge for those Christians who are tempted by what the New Age Movement is saying about Jesus Christ, in order to recognize that there are many differences between the Cosmic Christ and the Historical Christ. In the last analysis, this Document is another sign of the Church's attention towards the world. This is born from the Church's obligation to remain faithful to the Good News of the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus, who truly offers living water to all those who draw near to Him with an open mind and heart.
8. The nature and the importance of the Document will be better understood if I explain to you the way in which it was written. There is an inter-departmental study Commission that deals with sects and new religious movements. The Secretaries of the Pontifical Councils for Culture for Interreligious Dialogue and for Promoting Christian Unity as well as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples make up such a Commission. In order to prepare this Document, the officials of the four aforementioned Vatican offices that were working on the text, were helped by an official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Thus, it is clear that the Holy See saw the project as an opportunity to produce a sound, accurate Document. A long period of time was necessary for such a Document to appear. I hope, above all, that this Document inspires reflection among Bishops in the Catholic communities of every sort. If it is to be replaced by a better text, and one that has a more definitive character, it will mean that it has achieved its goal by stimulating all those engaged in pastoral ministry and those who work with them in order to reflect upon it in a theological manner.
9. The Document encourages the readers to do their best to understand correctly the phenomenon of the New Age Movement. That requires an open attitude which Archbishop Fitzgerald will discuss with you later in due detail. But I would like to say that there might be some criticism on the part of Christians who, going through this Document, notice that some current forms of spirituality in which they are engaged come under criticism. The use of the term New Age to define the phenomenon is already problematic. For this reason, some people prefer reverting to the term the "Next Age", but with all due respect, I see it only as shifting the problem and covering it over with hazy terminology. The fact that the term New Age includes many things indicates that not everyone who acquires New Age products or maintains that they are gaining a benefit from a New Age therapy, has embraced the ideology of the New Age Movement. A certain discernment, then, is necessary both for what pertains to products labelled New Age and for what pertains to those who, to a greater or lesser degree can be considered "clients" of the New Age Movement. Clients, devotees and disciples are not the same thing. Honesty and integrity require that we be very prudent and not turn every blade of grass into a bundle, by using labels with the greatest of ease.
10. In conclusion, I would simply want to point out that the New Age Movement presents itself as a false utopia in order to respond to the human heart's deep thirst for happiness, which is prey to the tragedy of existence and the discontentment of the deep unhappiness of modern happiness. The New Age Movement presents itself as a deceptive response to the most ancient hope of man: the hope of a New Era of peace, harmony, reconciliation with himself, others and nature. This hope, which is as ancient as humanity itself, is an appeal that bursts from the heart of people especially in times of crisis. The small document presented will help one to get a better understanding, to discern between things proposed and to raise in the Christian community a renewed commitment to proclaim Jesus Christ, the Bearer of Living Water. I look forward to the debate which our document will certainly spark; in the meantime, however, I sincerely thank the whole team of experts, especially Rev. Peter Fleetwood and Dr Teresa Osório Gonçalves, who have worked with energy and diligence in order to produce it.
© L'Osservatore Romano, Editorial and Management Offices, Via del Pellegrino, 00120, Vatican City, Europe, Telephone 39/6/698.99.390.
© L'Osservatore Romano, Editorial and Management Offices, Via del Pellegrino, 00120, Vatican City, Europe, Telephone 39/6/698.99.390.
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