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New Age Beliefs Aren't Christian, Vatican Finds

Popularity is partly due to churches' failure to address people's need for meaning and transformation, the study acknowledges.

February 08, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

The Age of Aquarius is ultimately incompatible with Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church declared in a long-awaited study issued this week.

But at the same time, church officials admitted that some of the popularity of New Age beliefs can be attributed to the failure of established churches to adequately address the deepest needs of humans for meaning and personal transformation.

"New Age is attractive mainly because so much of what it offers meets hungers often left unsatisfied by the established institutions," the Vatican said.

The 90-page study, which was issued by the Vatican Working Group on New Religious Movements, responds to concerns raised over the years by bishops and others about New Age thought and practices making inroads among the Catholic faithful. The study said it is important for the church to clearly state what is and is not compatible with Christian teaching.

In particular, the study condemned New Age beliefs and practices that assert that God is fully within each human being, that individuals can save themselves or that Jesus was but one manifestation of an impersonal "cosmic Christ" that permeates the universe.

The term New Age covers a broad array of beliefs and practices. Some adherents speak of the healing powers of crystals. Others claim to be channels to spiritual beings. Many more New Age followers practice yoga and meditation.

"It's much more an idea of tuning themselves to an impersonal reality that is seen as the underlying cause of the universe," said J. Gordon Melton, author of the Encyclopedia of American Religions and head of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara.

When the New Age movement peaked a decade ago, about 3 million to 6 million Americans subscribed in one way or the other to New Age spirituality.

While critical of New Age beliefs, the study candidly acknowledged widespread criticisms leveled at Catholicism and other established Christian churches.

"Some say the Christian religion is patriarchal and authoritarian [and] that political institutions are unable to improve the world," the study said in listing some reasons New Age ideas appeal to many.

The problem with New Age thinking lies not in its assessment of the problems with modern society, but "in what it proposes as alternative answers to life's questions," the Vatican said.

What is disturbing -- and incompatible with Christianity -- is the rejection of a personal and transcendent God, the study said. It also rejected a "spiritual narcissism" rooted in myth, not history, and essentially focused on the individual instead of the community.

"It is clear that, in theory at least, the New Age often recognizes no spiritual authority higher than personal inner experience," the study said.

On environmental awareness, the study warns against an "implicit pantheism" that can assert that all things are God.

"Music that relaxes you is good. But if this music empties prayer and prayer turns into just listening to music and falling asleep, it's no longer prayer," Msgr. Michael Fitzgerald told reporters in Vatican City. Fitzgerald is president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, a member of the working group that produced the study.

Melody O'Ryin, New Age publisher of Light Technology Publishing and Sedona Journal of Emergence, said the Vatican over-emphasized the differences between Christian and New Age thought.

"If you look at the New Age philosophy, there is not that much difference," she said. "There are attempts to explain mysteries, attempts to give details about what the mysteries might mean, but ultimately the further you go, the more mysteries there are."

O'Ryin said her response was actually a statement from the goddess Isis, who spoke through a New Age channeler named Robert Shapiro. Shapiro conveyed his conversation with Isis to O'Ryin, she said.

The Vatican study, of course, is not the only Christian critique of the New Age movement. The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, shares many of the Catholic Church's criticisms.

Richard Land, president of the convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said there would be widespread agreement among Baptists that New Age ideas are contrary to Christian tradition and doctrine.

The criticisms come at a time when some scholars believe that the Age of Aquarius, rather than dawning as proclaimed in the 1968 hit song, is approaching its twilight.

But even if the New Age movement is on the wane, many adherents remain, Melton said.

"A lot of people stuck with it. Millions of people got in. We could hardly count the number of occultists in the 1950s. Now we can count them. Huge numbers bought into the movement, and most of them seem to have stayed with it."

The complete English text of the Vatican study can be found on the Internet at www.vatican.va/phome_en.htm. Click on the word "latest."

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