TURIN, Italy, MARCH 19, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Massimo Introvigne, a leading expert in new religious movements, analyzed the recently published Vatican document on New Age, and expounds on the incompatibility of the spiritual phenomenon with Christian doctrine.
Introvigne, director of the Italy-based Center for Studies in New Religions (www.cesnur.org) says that “the New Age implies an alternative spirituality to traditional religions,” and warns that the influence of New Age is evident among some Catholics, sometimes without their realizing it.
Q: What is New Age?
Introvigne: Sociologists and historians of religion who have been concerned with this subject respond that it is not a religious movement, a religion, or a sect — a term that the Vatican document also uses cautiously, explaining that it uses it in a “sociological” sense and not in its current pejorative use — but the result of a global network, which connects centers and groups that have some characteristics in common, but are not sufficiently stable, permanent or hierarchical to create a movement.
The New Age network avoids exact definitions; however, it is possible to describe it along psychological, historical, sociological and doctrinal lines.
The network’s different components can be classified according to their respective psychotherapeutic, religious or political interests. These precede the New Age phenomenon but in a certain sense are modified by their participation in the network.
What unifies the New Age network is an “alternative” spirit to the prevailing religious tradition in the West, which is Christian, and the hope of a new era, namely, the “New Age,” or Age of Aquarius, which will replace the Era of Pisces.
From this point of view, a historical-sociological study takes into account the doctrinal element, although it states that the New Era affirms it does not have a doctrine. At most it proposes a “vague spirituality,” thus leaving the effort of doctrinal reconstruction with the interpreter.
Another contrasting view stems from the Protestant-evangelical movement “against sects,” which sees in the New Age — or rather, “cult” — the ultimate sect, or better yet, the sect of sects.
Refuting the New Age apologists themselves, who talk — in a positive way — of the “conspiracy of Aquarius,” some evangelical and fundamentalist authors — followed at times by some Catholics — see behind the New Age a great conspiracy and powerful organization, endowed with structures that are partly secret, destined to put an end to Christianity.
There is a secular version of this conspiracy thesis, whose principal exponent is French political expert Michel Lacroix, according to whom, the New Age is a conspiracy of a political character endowed with worrying links to National Socialism — a thesis that I regard as altogether erroneous.
Between the two descriptive points of view of the phenomenon, the Vatican document pursues the path traced by historical-sociological research, affirming that “the New Age is not a movement in the sense usually attributed to the expression ‘New Religious Movement,’ nor is it what is usually understood by the terms “cult” or “sect.”
Rather, it is the result of a “global network,” which the document describes with a schema similar to the one I used in my book “New Age & Next Age” [Piemme, Casale Monferrato 2000], a book which the document quotes repeatedly, as well as the studies of Wouter Hanegraaff, J. Gordon Melton and Paul Heelas, who describe the field of academic research on the New Age.
As it is a document of the Catholic magisterium, emphasis is placed, precisely, on the need to have a consistent doctrinal picture emerge — although with the difficulties that this implies — reconstructed from the basis of the authors quoted earlier, as well as with Christoph Bochinger’s studies.
Reference is also made — perhaps because of his influence in France — to Michel Lacroix’s positions, of which the document takes some points, but his approach can be considered “exaggerated,” according to the document.
Q: Is New Age so important that it warrants the attention of two Vatican organizations, which have written a document on the topic?
Introvigne: What New Age manifests today is what the document calls a narcissistic regression: From the great social utopias it reverts to proposing the purely individual, private, entry into the “New Age.”
But, be careful: The step from the utopian phase to the narcissistic phase does not mean that there are fewer persons involved, nor that the “alternative” character of the underlying theme in regard to the Christian faith does not continue in its irreducible radicalness.
Given that the New Age is a movement or “cult,” it does not have registered members, well-known or baptized leaders. It is difficult to say how many people belong to it.
What is more, the very category of membership is altogether inadequate in this case. The New Era is an influence not an institution, it does not ask for conversions but insinuates sensations. Precisely because of its ethereal and elusive nature, the Church regards it as particularly dangerous.
While one cannot become a Raelian without knowing it, one can absorb ideas from the New Age without realizing it.
Q: Has the New Age infiltrated Catholicism? How?
Introvigne: The document says so and the Pope said it years ago to the U.S. bishops during their “ad limina” visit in May 1993. On that occasion, the Pope affirmed that “New Age ideas sometimes penetrate preaching, catechesis, study seminars and retreats, and influence practicing Catholics, who perhaps are not aware of the incompatibility of these ideas with the faith of the Church.” It is important to note that the Pope speaks of the penetration of ideas, not of the infiltrations of a movement.
Personally, I ask myself if “infiltration” is the right word, as it gives the idea of something organized or planned by someone. In reality, no one organizes the penetration of New Age ideas in an environment. Given that the New Age exists in a nebulous way, it penetrates wherever it finds no barriers or obstacles.
To think that organized “conspiracies” and “plots” exist means to be ignorant of the nature of this non-movement, and to regard it more as a “cult,” in keeping with the definition of Protestant fundamentalist realms and some French secular realms. It is a description that the Vatican document rejects.
Q: Is it possible to engage in New Age practices without harming the Catholic faith?
Introvigne: Just as I explained, the New Age is difficult to describe or delimit in a definition. In sociological terms it is a “meta-network,” namely, a “super-network,” a place of meeting of different networks that already existed prior to the New Age and that are found around the New Era which is presumed to be inevitable.
To participate in one of these pre-existing networks does not mean one is a “New-Ager,” it just means to have the occasion to enter the “super-network,” to pass through a door that one can enter.
Some of these original networks, for example, the ones that unite those who are devoted to some alternative medicines, are not necessarily alternatives to the Catholic faith, but others are so, such as, for example, spiritualism and occultism.
The Great New Age network, as the document explains, entails at least one relativist epistemological option that cannot be accepted by a Catholic who takes the faith seriously.
Q: New Age is described as a mistaken answer, but don’t you think that it implies a licit question in a chaotic world?
Introvigne: Yes, and it is another very important point of the document. In this connection, New Age is a p
ostmodern phenomenon: After the end of the secular ideologies, an interest in the supernatural and the sacred has re-emerged.
The questions that lead New Age followers to be interested in the phenomenon are widespread in the postmodern world. And, in a certain sense, this phenomenon represents a healthy reaction to the secular ideologies of the 20th century.
Anyway, different answers can be given to these questions, and the one the New Age offers is mistaken from the point of view of the Catholic faith.
The document cautions against giving in to easy and quick condemnation: It certainly condemns the error of the answer but it challenges Catholics to elaborate a pastoral strategy that will address the questions.
This task also forms part of the new evangelization, central element of John Paul II’s pontificate.