Catholics from more than 25 countries are in Rome this week to hammer out a strategy for combating the threat posed to Christianity by “New Age” religions and fads. “Astrologers believe that the Age of Pisces – known to them as the Christian age – is drawing to a close,” explained an exhaustive report on the New Age produced by the Catholic church last year. And as priests around the world watch their congregations dwindle through boredom or plain disbelief, the Church believes that the moment has come to fight back. Monsignor Peter Fleetwood, one of the authors of the report, said those at the closed-door conference include priests and lay people from Latin America “worried that they can be pushed out by something that has come from abroad”, and from Asia where “a lot of traditional religions are reviving.”
But for Fleetwood the greatest challenge may be in England and North America, “where the New Age began … and where it has become such a part of everyday life that we don’t notice it”. That makes it harder to attack, he says: “Where one sees a threat, it’s easier to battle it.” This is an enemy with dozens of heads: the version of the Jewish kabbalah espoused by Madonna, the Enneagram personality-reading cult, ancient Egyptian occult practices, Sufism, the lore of the Druids, Celtic Christianity, medieval alchemy, Renaissance hermeticism, Yoga, Zen Buddhism, and many more. The report acknowledges the strength of the Enemy Within: “In Western culture in particular, the appeal of ‘alternative’ approaches to spirituality is very strong….
New forms of psychological affirmation of the individual have become very popular among Catholics.” Under the liberal dispensation of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, Catholic missionaries explored the religious traditions of lands where in the past their task would have been restricted to converting the heathen. In Japan, one Jesuit missionary became a Zen Buddhist roshi (“master”). He in fact became a reverse missionary, implanting Zen Buddhist ideas and practice in Catholic groups in Germany and elsewhere, where they continue to thrive. But Pope John Paul II’s church is far less tolerant about practices that the Pope’s “enforcer of the faith”, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dismissed as “spiritual auto-eroticism”. New Age beliefs are getting a grip on Christians because many are failing to find authentic spirituality in the Church. They are failing to find, as the report put it, “the importance of man’s spiritual dimension and its integration with the whole of life, the search for life’s meaning, the link between human beings and the rest of creation, the desire for personal and social transformation, and the rejection of a rationalistic and materialistic view of humanity.”
While one of the two “pontifical councils” involved in taking up the challenge is that for “inter-religious dialogue”, suggesting that the New Agers be dealt with on a similar footing to Muslims, Jews, and indeed Anglicans, the Pope himself appears to see the issue as a simple matter of right and wrong. “We cannot delude ourselves,” he says, that “this return of ancient Gnostic ideas” “will lead toward a renewal of religion.” It is, he said, “a way of distorting His Word…in distinct, if not declared, conflict with all that is essentially Christian”. The time for a decisive battle is clearly fast approaching. And the message to faithful in the report is plain: quit “shopping around in the world’s fair of religious proposals.”