In the last few weeks I’ve had several interesting discussions on Facebook regarding different aspects of the New Age Movement and how Catholics should respond to it. Confusion abounds, as does frustration. In this 2-part series, I want to discuss the three most popular New Age practices in contemporary America: Yoga, Centering Prayer, and mindfulness.
In Part I, let’s establish four principles.
1. The Church has cautioned us not to flirt with the New Age.
In 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. This authoritative document, as its name indicates, was primarily focused on distinguishing between authentic Christian prayer and New Age prayer methods. The first footnote mentions Zen, Yoga, and Transcendental Meditation. It continues:
“The orientation of the principles and methods contained in this present document is intended to serve as a reference point not just for this problem, but also, in a more general way, for the different forms of prayer practiced nowadays in ecclesial organizations, particularly in associations, movements and groups.”
In other words, the principles of Christian prayer laid out in the CDF document can and should be applied to other practices not specifically mentioned. Neither Centering Prayer nor mindfulness is mentioned by name in either document, but as we shall see, they both fall under some of the New Age errors outlined by the CDF.
In 2003 the Pontifical Councils for Culture and Interreligious Dialogue created a working document on the New Age called Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life. Its purpose was to put New Age challenges in context, and to help teachers of the faith in particular to dialog with those in the New Age movement while teaching the truth without compromise.
“Even if it can be admitted that New Age religiosity in some way responds to the legitimate spiritual longing of human nature, it must be acknowledged that its attempts to do so run counter to Christian revelation.” (1.4)
In other words, we should be cautious.
2. Caution is not scrupulosity or rigidity.
Pope Francis often criticizes rigidity. Some Catholics take offence at this criticism, and it does seem (note that word, please) that in some instances he is calling people rigid who only intend to protect the deposit of the Faith or the beauty of tradition. However, I have seen and continue to see lots of rigidity among my fellow Catholics, especially on social media.
How is caution different from rigidity or scrupulosity?
Fr. John Hardon defines scrupulosity as:
“The habit of imagining sin where none exists, or grave sin where the matter is venial.” (Modern Catholic Dictionary)
Rigidity has a more mundane meaning:
“A moral trait characterized by an unwillingness, or inability, to change one’s attitudes or way of acting. Great difficulty in adjusting to socially justifiable change.” (Ibid.)
So, here is a real-life example that many of us have encountered. Some traditionalist Catholics argue that women should always wear skirts or dresses, never pants. This seems to be an instance of both scrupulosity and rigidity.
The scrupulous person feels guilty even when he has not sinned. On the other hand, when the Church feels the need to caution us at length about New Age practices, it is not scrupulous for individual Catholics to caution others. It is prudent and shows a care for others’ souls. It is not remotely akin to an individual requiring other Catholics to live up to a higher standard than the Church requires.
3. Lack of complete condemnation does not mean “anything goes.”
On researching this post, I found that Catholic proponents of mindfulness argue that what the Church has not specifically condemned is fine for Catholics to practice. I meet this same argument often when debating the permissibility of Centering Prayer or Yoga. The argument goes:
Nostra Aetate said we should accept whatever is good in non-Christian religions. [Insert New Age practice] is good or neutral, so it does not matter that it originated in Eastern religions. Besides, in On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, the CDF said even non-Christian meditation techniques can help us prepare for prayer. Therefore, if you condemn these techniques, you are being scrupulous and rigid.
What does the CDF actually say?
“That [which the CDF has been outlining] does not mean that genuine practices of meditation which come from the Christian East and from the great non-Christian religions, which prove attractive to the man of today who is divided and disoriented, cannot constitute a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God with an interior peace, even in the midst of external pressures.” (No. 28)
Note, the CDF does not say that all meditation practices indiscriminately are suitable. It simply says we cannot dismiss all of them as unsuitable.
Eastern meditation techniques can help us slow down and calm a racing mind. That does not mean the CDF is recommending that we use them or even giving a blanket green light to them (excuse my mixing of metaphors!).
4. New Age meditation techniques are not prayer.
This is the most important of the four points, one both Vatican documents emphasize. Christian prayer is dialog with God, even if that dialog is sometimes beyond human understanding.
Meditation techniques originating with Hinduism or Buddhism are not and can never be Christian prayer. Buddhism avoids speculation about gods. In Hinduism there is a wide variety of beliefs, with some sects worshiping a personal god and others not. In either case, Hindu theology and anthropology are very different from their Christian counterparts. It follows that Eastern meditation can never take the place of Christian prayer. A generally healthy person who does not spend time in daily mental prayer should never be encouraged to spend time in daily meditation of an Eastern type, as though one is just as good as the other. (We will talk about the therapeutic uses of each practice in the next post.)
Now, many Catholic proponents of Yoga and mindfulness would protest that they are not proposing these activities as a kind of prayer. There are some Catholics who recommend Yoga as a spiritual practice. Centering Prayer advocates, of course, are always promoting their practice as prayer, but it is really just eastern meditation with a few Catholic terms patched onto it. Catholics who promote mindfulness generally claim it is only psychological, not religious/spiritual, or that they have baptized it and made it Christian. We will discuss these points in detail next time.
So, that sums up the foundational principles. Next week we’ll look at the three practices in light of these principles.
Note: The original version of this post said that Hindus do not believe in a personal god. It has been modified, thanks to an alert reader.