And as priests around the world watch their congregations die out and dwindle away through boredom or plain disbelief, the church believes the moment has come to fight back.
Monsignor Peter Fleetwood, one of the authors of that report, said those at the closed-door conference include priests and lay-people from Latin America who are “worried they can be pushed out by something that has come from abroad”, 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 enemy has 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.
And despite the rank exoticism of so much of it, it is also the Enemy Within.
As the report acknowledges, “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, intrepid 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”), without ceasing to be a Christian priest, becoming 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 so-called “enforcer of the faith”, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, has dismissed as “spiritual auto-eroticism”.
New Age is 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”.
But while one of the two “pontifical councils” involved in taking up the challenge is for “inter-religious dialogue”, suggesting that the New Agers be dealt with on a similar footing to Muslims, Jews and indeed Anglicans, the Pope 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, and is “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 the faithful in the report’s conclusion is plain: quit “shopping around in the world’s fair of religious proposals”.
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