Presentation of Holy See's Document on New Age

Author: Rev. Bernard Ardura, O. Praem.


Rev. Bernard Ardura, O. Praem.
Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture

See Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life
Also Presentations by Cardinal Paul Poupard
and Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald

Jesus with the Samaritan Woman

New Age will never provide what Christ can offer

For years the complex phenomenon of New Age has given rise to many questions and provoked the concern of the pastors of the Church, not just because it is a widespread trend, but also because it is difficult to understand it in its overall approach and complexity.

At this time, it is necessary to respond to the requests of many bishops and persons engaged in the pastoral work of the Church who come into contact with the New Age phenomenon. The Commission on New Religious Movements, whose members were the Secretaries of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, of the Pontifical Councils for Promoting Christian Unity, for Interreligious Dialogue and for Culture, and staff members of these offices, has drawn up a set of points for reflection. Its principal editors are the Pontifical Councils for Culture and for Interreligious Dialogue, and it is published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana.It is entitled: Jesus Christ, the Bearer of theWaterof Life. A Christian Reflection on the "New Age".

Report will help to understand the appeal of the movement

This publication is a "preliminary report" that wishes to acquaint persons with the NewAge from the doctrinal, cultural and pedagogical viewpoints. It seeks to help us understand the fascination that this type of religiosity exerts over so many Christians who are perhaps not fully satisfied with their own communities, and are convinced of feeling frustrated because, in their opinion, the community does not pay sufficient attention to the spiritual, moral and cultural topics which many contemporaries hold to be fundamental for the meaning of life.

It is not enough to know the New Age in order to understand its strictly cultural dimension. This report reminds Catholics of the need to understand genuine Catholic doctrine and spirituality in order to assess correctly the themes and content of the NewAge cultural trend.

Modern desire to privatize religion, to lessen institutions

In the contemporary context, marked by strong pressure to privatize religion and liberate the individual from "institutions", New Age seems to correspond with the new cult of the human being that culminates in the celebration of the sacredness of the self. Far from being a religious break with "enterprise" or "consumer" culture under the banner of prosperity, this movement shares many of its "values". New Age is in easy harmony with the syncretist tendencies that favour the so-called "super-market religion" in which each one chooses in the different sectors whatever suits him and skips the rest. In this perspective, there are not lacking deviations that lead from Christianity to theism even before the radical turning to self, that is the sign of a genuine paganism that is in perfect harmony with today's cultural tendencies,—freedom, authenticity, autonomy, etc.—oriented to the cult of the individual. "Instead Christianity is an invitation to look outwards and beyond, to the 'New Advent' of the God who calls us to live the dialogue of love".

Historical roots in Gnostic mediators

Rooted in the ancient esoterism of the West, many contemporary New Age currents have not much to offer that is new. They developed in a parallel way with the scientific visions of the 18th and 19th centuries that were marked by the gradual rejection of a personal God and the focus on "mediators" between God and men, left-overs from ancient gnosticism. Religious relativism, indifference or antipathy to the Christian faith, and, especially, to the Catholic Church, in addition to a deep desire to feel emotionally integrated into an affective community, have substantially contributed to the spread and success of the New Age, while challenging the Pastors of the Church, and also Christian communities in which sometimes the warmth of a true family can be lacking.

If we admit that New Age religiosity in some ways responds to some legitimate aspirations of our contemporaries, we should also observe that it tries to do so by opposing Christian revelation. In fact, it spreads essentially by exploiting our contemporaries' nostalgia for and curiosity about ancient forms of wisdom, esotericism and gnosis, for what is known today as "Celtic" spirituality, or one that refers to the religions of the ancient peoples. In his book, Crossing theThreshold of Hope the Holy Father comments: "Gnosticism never completely abandoned the realm of Christianity. Instead, it has always existed side by side with Christianity, sometimes takingthe shape of a philosophical movement, but more often assuming the characteristics of a religion or para-religion in distinct, if not declared, conflict with all that is essentially Christian"(op.cit., ed. Vittorio Messori, Jonathan Cape, London 1994, p. 90).

Difficulty in understanding movement

There is no doubt about it, "the success of the New Age offers the Church a challenge". Christians, therefore, must be ever more firmly rooted in the fundamentals of their faith, come closer to Christ the one Saviour and hear the cry of those who need to be welcomed with brotherly love.

This document, the result of a joint effort by various offices of the Church, offers "a pastoral response to a current challenge" in the attempt to understand it correctly, "in order to evaluate it fairly",

The basic difficulty is this: the New Age is not a movement in the normal understanding of the term, "new religious movement", nor is it exactly a "cult" or a "sect". "Because it is spread across cultures, and is present in phenomena as varied as music, films, seminars, workshops, retreats, therapies and many more activities and events, it is much more diffuse and informal". Yet the New Age is also a coherent, if syncretistic, current of thought; it is the profound reaction of many people to the mainstream culture, a current of thought that rejects organized religion, "because in their judgement it has failed to satisfy their needs", and it has the features of a searching for "spirituality" that could put it in the context of an "esoteric religiousness".

Pastoral aid for critical assessment

This document, which is presented as a pastoral aid, is first and foremost, an effort to understand and assess the phenomenon. It is also intended as an invitation to readers to enter into a critical dialogue with those who follow the main lines of the cultural movement of the New Age, "whose essence is precisely to break out of what are seen as the constricting limits of rational discourse". In fact, the extreme rationality of science and technology is in sharp contrast with the radical irrationality of the indeterminate New Age and makes dialogue all the more difficult.

Syncretism of secular and esoteric elements

For this reason, this document intends to help those who encounter difficulties in facing the complex and elusive reality of the New Age. Keys for the interpretation of the phenomenon are offered, for an understanding of New Age thought and in order to "produce a Christian assessment" of its components, that form a "syncretism of esoteric and secular elements" whose goal is to bring about a fundamental change in individuals, societies and in the world in reaction to the mainstream culture.

A fascination with extraordinary manifestations and paranormal entities, with "mediums", friendly angels and counsellors from the spirit world as well as the quest for harmony characterized by "good vibrations"—because they stem from love, a positive energy—all this, oriented to developing our human potential, is considered an excellent way of putting every person in touch "with our inner divinity".

As a pastoral aid, this document sums up the fundamental principles and cultural themes of New Age thought in order to help Christians who are living in cultures marked by this extremely widespread phenomenon, in which "we recognize an implicit pantheism". In this way the reader can discover what New Age says about God, the human person and the world, the better to understand its attraction which is profoundly linked to the cult of the individual.

Meeting of Jesus with the Samaritan Woman is key

To describe New Age in terms of spirituality, I will borrow the words of Cardinal Poupard, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture at the press conference for the presentation of the new document, Jesus Christ,the Bearer of the Water of Life: "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 title of the document itself, from the outset, makes it clear that 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), narrated in the Gospel of John, is the key text that has guided the reflection during this first report on the New Age 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".

On the same occasion, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, explained: "Light is shed on the dialogical character of the Christian life that is founded on the eternal dialogue at the heart of the Trinity and shapes from within the conversation between God and the human creature, giving a new shape to all interpersonal relations". On the other hand, the document highlights the need for Christians to be ever more deeply rooted in their own faith and in ecclesial communion. Archbishop Fitzgerald notes: "Dialogue is fruitful if our identity is clear"; dialogue is not fog, it does not mean eliminating the differences.

Solid formation of Christians

Consequently, anchored in the faith, and prompted by love, Christians should feel the need for a solid formation since New Age offers nothing less than an alternative to the Christian faith and the Judeo-Christian heritage, given that "many of the movements which have fed the New Age are explicitly anti-Christian. Their stance towards Christianity is not neutral, but neutralizing". When they come up against irrationality, for Christians "the challenge is to show how a healthy partnership between faith and reason enhances human life and encourages respect for creation".

Once again, let us not forget that the document is a pastoral guide that aims to provide pastors and faithful with information on the New Age so as to spread knowledge, discernment and dialogue in the truth. In an appendix, it sets out a list of pastoral documents and other useful resources for study, as well as a glossary that explains keyconcepts not only of today's New Age,but also of the most ancient currents of thought at the root of the fundamental ideas of this trend.

Recalling the Holy Father's words in his Apostolic Letter NovoMillennio ineunte: "There is also a call in all of this to come closer to Jesus Christ and to be ready to follow Him, since He is the real way to happiness, the truth about God and the fullness of life for every man and woman who is prepared to respond to his love", Catholics will not fail to base their life and action on contemplation of the face of Christ, the Word who took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. 

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 March 2003, page 7

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