The spreading phenomenon of New Age is causing disquiet in Vatican circles. Two influential Pontifical Councils (for Culture and for Inter-religious Dialogue) have recently published a long document addressed to Catholic catechists – providing guidelines on how to interpret and respond to the New Age movement.
The document Jesus Christ the bearer of the Water of Life. A Christian reflection on the New Age appears as a Catholic vademecum on the subject.
It contains much essential information on the New Age movement – its historical roots, sociological context and religious motivations.
The chief purpose of the text seems to be to caution Catholics on the distinction between New Age beliefs and Roman Catholic doctrine.
The Vatican acknowledges that an increasing number of ostensibly Catholic people ‘consider it is possible to mix Christianity and New Age, each drawing from the other that which they believe to be the best in both’.
Indeed, according to the document, New Age has a ‘syncretistic structure’ which encourages the fusion of different religious elements and reformulates them acording to its own esoteric and secularised world-view.
In this sense, says the document, New Age ‘offers an oriental formula in Western terms’.
This is evidenced in various ways: in the forms of spiritism practised; in the search for cosmic and evolutionary harmony; in the concept of life as a magical and mysterious journey; in attributing sacredness to reality; and in the implicit pantheism of New Age teaching on the relationship between visible and invisible universes.
The most interesting part of the document deals with the Vatican’s theological interpretation of the complex New Age phenomenon.
It is seen as a form of spiritual narcissism which leaves no room for the otherness of God, acknowledges a cosmic Christ (albeit not necessarily in the person of Jesus), and practises a mysticism which seeks to blend man’s ‘inner god’ into an impersonal divine.
Against this pseudo-theology the document sets the established doctrine of Catholic Christianity, which can be found in abundant quotations from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The conclusion is a pressing exhortation to Catholics to be discerning, and a pledge to undertake a critical dialogue with those affected by New Age influences.
Many of the document’s observations are correct and pertinent. Yet they leave questions to which no reply is offered.
The first question concerns syncretism (the merging and synthesis of different, sometimes conflicting, beliefs).
The document criticises centres of Catholic spirituality which promote New Age practices and beliefs, and warns Catholics who mingle their faith with practices linked to the ‘new spirituality’.
However, does not the Catholic worldview itself advocate the acceptance of diverse elements, seeking to incorporate them in a wider framework, that is, the Roman Catholic synthesis?
The document censures the ‘syncretistic synthesis’ of New Age. But the Church of Rome is itself syncretistic – a structure in which elements of pagan culture, superstition and naturalistic religion have taken root over the ages.
What of the syncretism which Catholicism harbours and promotes in its theological compromises (such as inclusivism) and forms of popular devotion (such as the worship of Mary as the ‘Queen of heaven’) – things totally foreign to biblical teaching?
The problem of ‘syncretistic synthesis’ is not just external to Catholicism, but also within it. The Vatican should give thought to its own acquiescence and accommodation to compromise, besides looking into that of the ‘new spiritualities’.
The second question has a more theological thrust. Quite correctly, the document highlights the anti-Christian character of New Age, which envisages the prospect of self-redemption and a fusion between the self and the ‘divine whole’.
Against this, the Vatican reiterates the traditionally Catholic teaching of ‘synergy’ with divine grace, that is, the ‘co-operation’ between faith and reason.
In other words, we cannot save ourselves but we can contribute to our salvation by co-operating with divine grace.
From an Evangelical point of view, this model is unacceptable, for it represents a loophole through which the man-centred religion of the New Age (in all its variations) can enter.
On the contrary, the Bible proclaims that salvation is a gift received by grace alone, by faith alone, through Christ alone.
Thus Roman Catholicism is a religious system already programmed to accommodate synergism. Little wonder that many Roman Catholics take the path to the extreme narcissism of New Age.
The Vatican will have to reappraise its own dogmatic synergistic structures before it can effectively address the fluctuating forms of New Age.