21 September 2008

Can good Catholics dabble in New Age practices? (Revised)

In this post I want to offer what most Christians believe to be the very basics of our faith. By way of comparison, I will offer as well the New Age/neo-pagan revision of these beliefs, concluding that the two are incompatiable in a single spirituality. For those Christians who may be considering engaging in some sort of spiritual practice that might be suspect, I offer a series of questions at the end to help you decide whether or not any particular practice is compatiable with the faith. This comparison and my questions are of necessity incomplete but nonetheless a good start. Also, as a Catholic priest, one shouldn't be surprised that I have written from a decidedly Catholic perspective.

I. Christian Basics

GOD: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, all this is seen and unseen…” GOD is. No predicate the human mind can discover or invent, no predicate that the human tongue can pronounce or garble can follow the verb “is” in that sentence and be absolutely accurate. In fact, “GOD IS.” God is not a being, the sort of being that possesses existence as a quality. GOD is BEING, per se. Paradoxically, God is wholly Other and intimately Father; He is Absolute Distance and Necessary Love. In more traditional terms, God is both utterly transcendent and personally immanent. Given this, Christians cannot think of their Creator as The Watchmaker Who Makes and then abandons what he has made, or as Earth Spirit, our planet as a god. The Watchmaker image denies God’s immanence in His creation. The Earth Spirit image denies God’s transcendence.

CREATION: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. . .and saw that it was good.” Christians prejudice the description of all the things around us when we call these things collectively “creation.” By definition a creature is something that is created, that is, made by its creator. A wedding cake is a creation of the pastry chef. We do not find wedding cakes growing naturally in the forest. Cars are designed and made by engineers. We do not dig up new cars like we would potatoes. Creation, the whole universe seen and unseen, is a creation, designed, made, and sustained by its Creator, God. Creation cannot be its own Creator. This follows logically. That which is created cannot be its own creator since it would first have to exist in order to create itself. That which does not exist cannot cause itself to exist because it would have to exist first in order to be a causal agent. Given this, Christians cannot believe that creation is its own creator. All of creation is necessarily dependent on its Creator, utterly contingent, wholly and completely gratuitous. Creation is worthy of our care because the Creator called His creation “very good.” However, since “goodness” applied to creatures makes sense only in reference to Goodness Himself, Christians cannot worship God’s good creation as they would God Himself.

CHRIST: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ…who for us men and our salvation… was crucified…suffered, died, and was buried and rose again…” For Christians, Christ is understood simultaneously in three different ways: Christ the Anointed One (both human and divine), Christ the Event (the coming), and Christ the End (the coming again). Christ the Anointed One is both human and divine, fully man and fully God. He is the Word spoken at creation (“God said…”). He is the Word made flesh (“Born of the Virgin Mary…) and He is the final and unique Self-revelation of God (“And the Word was God…”). The coming of the Christ into human history was an intervention, a breaking into both our lives as humans and into the stories we tell about our lives. He came for a very specific purpose: to offer us the chance to be reconciled to the Father and to live with Him eternally. To accomplish this purpose, he suffered for us, died for us, and rose again in order to make it possible for us to follow him back to the Father. He not only shows us the way back, he is the Way Back. And not only is he the Way Back, he is right now who we will be once we are back: both human and divine, immaculate spirit and resurrected flesh, perfectly human. Given this, Christians cannot believe that Jesus is merely human, or merely divine, or only a teacher/prophet/sage, or that he is one of many saviors sent by God. Jesus Christ is final. He is unique. And his is the only name given under heaven and on earth of our salvation.

To sum up: Christians believe that God is wholly Other and intimately present and working in His creation, a creation that is entirely dependent on His will to exist. Christians believe that the Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation for creation. No other god, prophet, sage, teacher, or savior can offer God’s human creatures the intimate relationship necessary to draw us to Himself.

II. New Age/Neo-Pagan Revisions

Typically, the New Age movement rejects these ideas and replaces them with what amounts to pantheism, that is, a belief that God is His creation, that creation is not only holy but divine, and that Jesus is one savior among many who make it possible for us to find ultimate happiness and peace.

Since the beginning of the Church at Pentecost, Catholics have embraced some combination of these false teachings in order to do what Adam and Eve wanted to do in the Garden—make themselves gods without God. The serpent offered our first parents the knowledge they needed to bypass the laws of their Creator so that they might join the divine pantheon without His assistance. Since that time, various “Gnosticisms” (salvation by knowing how) have plagued the Church. These Gnosticisms are easily identified in the Church today: the rejection of the finality and uniqueness of Christ by overemphasizing his “cosmic” character and by turning his incarnation into an archetypal event that has happened many times before and after the birth of Jesus; the rejection of the apostolic Church as Christ’s living body in an attempt to diffuse the authentic witness of the apostles so that personal experience becomes the sole criterion for the truth of the faith; the rejection of the historical character of the Christ event as essential to determining the nature of the Church herself, that is, by rejecting the historical facts of Christ’s life (that he was a man, that he was a first-century Jew, etc.), New Age Catholics foster false teachings such as the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood and that the primacy of Peter among the apostles was merely an organizational convenience; the rejection of the Church’s liturgical heritage in favor of syncretistic ritual, novelty for the sake of novelty in sacramental practice, and an emphasis on the sacred feminine that borders on goddess worship (for example, the so-called “Sophia Christologies” of feminist theologians and the insistence of these feminists that the Church embrace inclusive language when addressing God in liturgy, “Our Mother who art in Heaven…”).

Most all of the religious practices of New Age Catholics are in some way a rejection of the proper relationship between the Creator and His creation. Believing that they will make themselves into gods without God, these folks embrace any number of liturgical practices that focus their intellect and will on themselves, making themselves into their own end. In other words, they worship themselves as already divine but fundamentally ignorant of their own divinity. Liturgical worship then becomes a matter of “coming to know” themselves more fully as always-already divine. Of course, this sort of Gnostic salvation creates a class of Fully Knowing Christians who are enlightened in their divinity. And, predictably, this elite class chafes at the authority of the Body of Christ when taught the truth that they are not enlightened but rather darkened in their rejection of the faith.

III. Discernment Questions

Given all of this, how does a faithful Catholic avoid New Ageism in his or her spiritual journey back to God? Ask these questions:

1). Does this practice clearly embody the proper relationship between myself as a dependent creature and God as my creator? Am I being taught to see myself as divine rather than good and holy?

2) Does this practice require me to reject the historical facts presented to me in scripture and tradition? (e.g., does the practice require me to reject Jesus as both fully human and fully divine incarnated as a first-century Jewish man?)

3). Does this practice lead me outward to God, or inward toward myself? (NB. A properly Catholic practice might lead you inward to God but in the end God is always both immanent and transcendent; that is, God is not found solely “inside me.”)

4). Does this practice have a reputable history in the long tradition of the Church herself, or is it something recently invented, cobbled together from other traditions, or merely an updated Gnostic practice rejected in the first four centuries of the Church?

5). Does this practice require me to involve myself with “spirit guides” or “energies” that lay claim to an existence apart from God as Creator?

6). Does this practice require me to reject as fundamental to my created nature my dignity as one made in the image and likeness of God Himself? Or to reject in another person his/her dignity as a creature of a loving God? (e.g., any practice that requires you to reject your embodied spirit as male/female, or violates human dignity by making the person into something easily killed, enslaved, neglected, etc.).

7). Does this practice ask me to ignore God’s providence by seeking answers to questions or seeking after insights into my future through divination?

8). Does this practice ask me to worship other gods or make created things into idols? (e.g., some forms of meditation, yoga, healing all rest on false notions of the body/spirit relationship and require a certain amount of willful negligence of one’s Creator).

9). Does this practice assume my accomplished divinity and then ask me to become more aware of this divinity as a means to salvation/enlightenment?

10). Does this practice explicitly make Jesus Christ the only mediator between myself as a member of the Body of Christ and the Father, or does it require me to place someone else or something else between me and my Creator? (e.g., some forms of “dedication to the Blessed Mother" dangerously push this essential spiritual truth, that is, some prayers in private liturgies explicitly require the believer to acknowledge the B.V.M. as the savior.)

11. Does this practice rely solely on the power of God to achieve His desired end for me and with me, or does it require me to believe that I am capable of manipulating God through ritual or prayer? (e.g., some forms of popular devotion border on the magical in practice, "guaranteed never to fail novenas")

12). Finally, does this practice require me to understand my blessings and gifts as self-made, or am I encouraged to give thanks to God for all that I am and all that I have.

IV. Conclusion: Obedience

This list of questions could go on for several more pages. These are a few of the essential questions to get you started. The best way to avoid New Ageism in your spiritual practice is to obey the Church, that is, to listen carefully to the teachings of the Church and submit yourself to the long wisdom of our mothers and fathers in the faith. This is not some sort of “blind faith,” but rather the practice of humility and trust. Before rejecting a teaching of the Church as false or harmful, ask yourself this question: “Am I smarter, wiser, holier than 2,000 years of God’s saints?” And even if you still find yourself wanting to reject a teaching of the Church, rather than assuming that the Church is wrong and that you are right, assume for the sake of argument that you have misunderstood the teaching and seek after clarification. In my experience, people who have rejected the Church have done so not because they disagree with what the Church actually teaches but because they have failed to understand the Church. I am reminded of the example of a young man who approached me one time and informed me that he had left the Catholic Church because his roommate’s Bible Church pastor had shown him that Catholics worship Mary, a practice condemned by the bible. He was shocked to hear me say that the Catholic Church also condemns the worship of Mary as idolatrous. Without first understanding the Church’s teaching, this young man left the Church not because he disagreed with the Church, but because he failed to understand.

UPDATE: If you would like for me to answer a specific question, I will do so briefly in the combox. Unfortunately, email/comboxes are not the best forum for protracted spiritual direction. If your question is a little more involved, go ahead and leave it in the combox and I will either answer it or refer you to a source for more info.

While you're here, you might as well check out my
U.S. WISH LIST and/or my U.K. WISH LIST (scroll down the list for the philosophy books) and help a friar out with the books he needs for classes this academic year! (I know, I know. . .shameless. . .but my book budget is VERY small this year! Tom, I saw that!) :-)

Oh! And the Sunday homily is almost done. . .I'm a little behind in my work. . .we start past tense Italian verbs tomorrow and I'm not sure I know the present tense all that well.


  1. Your #10 jumped out at me. We have some friends who are so strongly Marian my spouse says they worship her.

    I do find her place confusing with the talk of Redemptrix, Co-Mediatrix, and what not.

    All your other questions to ask are wise, and will help us raise our child with appropriate awareness (I hope). Thank you. And thank you for the occult practices post below, too. It's everywhere.

  2. So what do you think of Centering Prayer w.r.t. The New Age? I read lots of people who are totally opposed to it, but yet I know of Parishes which allow Centering Prayer workshops to be held on their grounds. I've never dabbled in it, myself, but I'm a bit skeptical of it.

  3. Anonymous9:33 AM

    I would like number 7 explained in a little more detail. Does this included going to "mystics" for answers?

  4. Anon, yes, mystics would be excluded. They use divination and/or contact the "spiritual world." Very dangerous.


    Centering Prayer is iffy at best. I know lots of Catholics who do and swear by it, but you have to careful that you are in fact focused on God as transcendent Father and not on Ben as a Manifestation of the Divine, or whatever. If the C.P. you are practicing keeps you attentive to your total dependence on God for your very being and never (not even once does it hint) that you are somehow the point the mediation, then I would say you simply doing nothing more than mediating. Not sure what's so sexy about calling it Centering Prayer.


    As written the proposed dogma on the Mary as Co-redemptrix is harmless. We have a tendency in English to hear "co" as meaning "equal to" as in "Co-Chair of the Committee." But in Latin "co" means "with." Nothing more. By assenting to the Lord's will and bearing Christ to the world for its salvation, Mary worked "with" the Redeemer to being about our redemption. In this sense we are all co-redeemers b/c we must accept Christ's invitation to be saved from death. IOW, we co-operate with our Redeemer in our salvation. Mary is NEVER to be understood as in any shape, form, or fashion as a replacement for or an equal to Christ. She herself would condemn such nonsense.

    Fr. Philip, OP

  5. I'd suggest that one must discern carefully things like Yoga, Tai Chi, Aikido, etc. even when the explicit spiritual stuff is removed.

    In my Aikido training for example, the instructors (thankfully) stuck to the physical-training aspect and left terminology and references to the Shintoism it is based on out of the equation. Even still, there was a palpable sense of a competing world-view that may or may not have been compatible with the Faith. To put it roughly, the moves are meant to be harmonization/balancing with the universe (a yin-yang, perhaps pantheist expression). That is, the physical moves are an expression of a world view. Since Catholics know that we worship with the body as well as with words, this aspect cannot be casually dismissed.

  6. What about enneagrams? Our parish nun is big on these and wanted to have a workshop to explain them to us. I don't know enough, but expressed some concern to her that it seemed New Age and that we had so much more to offer in our faith.

  7. Mil, enneagrams are about as Christian and as accurate as astrology. These things have been all the rage among women religious for some time. Basically, it's a kind of peronality test like the Myers-Briggs or the MMPI that assigns certain dominant personality characterics a number from 1-9. Your enneagrams number is supposed to tell you whether you are a Doer or a Leader, etc. In some ways it seems entirely harmless, but in fact, the whole thing is based on the mystical teachings of a Muslim sect called Sufism; therefore, the practice falls under "Goofy Syncretistic Spirituality Trends That People Who Ought to Know Better Get All Excited About Because It's Shiney New and Will Likely Make Someone in Rome Squirm."

    My advice: google "enneagrams" and "Fr. Mitch Pacwa," print off the article and give it to your pastor and your nun. And then have nothing to do with it (after researching the subject, of course).

    Fr. Philip, OP

  8. Anonymous11:53 AM

    Interesting post Father. However, this has to be put in perspective. The Church has never accepted "occult" practices wholesale but there has always been a degree of wiggle room.

    St. Albertus Magnus was quite the mage and the priest Marsilio Ficino literally wrote the book on renaissance astrology. Yes, there have always been heretics but most of the medieval and renaissance mages were defenders of orthodoxy.

    I am not defending or advocating such practices as the church was always somewhat uneasy about these practices. However, things are not completely black and white in this area and I love playing Devil's advocate Haha,

    wait a sec hmmmm

  9. Anonymous12:49 PM

    Any advise for a practicing Catholic who could be clasified as Claircognizance (knowing)? I do not attempt future telling, claim to know the minds of men or the meaning of God's purpose. However, my whole life random names come to me, and I "see" people's thoughts, as if in a movie.

    I have done this my whole life, I believed it was normal. Only in the last year did my husband and I recognize it is not "normal", but rather something others call mystical.

    I pray for discernment and humility, (there I times I feel pride when I am right)and I offer this "ability" to the Lord if it is not of a Holy origin. But it still exists, and at times, I have been wrong. I know that if I am wrong, it is not God. I also know that I can be right and it is still not God. I don't talk about it everytime it happens, but those who know me may ask me questions at times, and those are the times where I find if I am right or wrong.

    Since I have had this since early childhood, and it originates from my paternal side of the family, (all the females on that side have an ability)I don't understand why I would have always had it, and I don't know what to do with it. All I know for sure is when I'm wrong, I stop.

    I don't see the dead or communicate with spirits. Mostly I see what has already happened in detail and get names of people who may associate with those I know. I can look at a picture of someone and feel them, good or bad. I have been tested on this. I am confused and don't have knowledge of what this is. I try to learn from Padre Pio, but by no means am I that humble, or gifted by the Lord.

    I fear discussing this with our Parish Priest, or others from the Church. Any thoughts on how to rid myself of this if it is not from our Lord, or to be more discerning and humble?

  10. Shepherd, my non-Christian friends love to point out to me that St Albert was an alchemist...my usual response: "You mean a medieval chemist? Yea, I know." There's very little doubt that St Albert understood what he was doing was investigating God's creation as way of finding out more about God Himself. He never dabbled in the demonic occult as a way of God's will for him. Same goes for astrology...you mean "astronomy"? :-)


    I would have a whole lot more about your situaton before I could give you any personally direct advise. From what you say in your post, I see no reason to get worried about your "gift." When you set up shop and start charging the gullible for your "insights," then we can worry. Just keep praying that God will show you how to use your gift for His glory and don't worry too much about it. I am also inclined to frequent intuitive bursts of insight. Frequently I can tell when a spiritual directee is hiding something and ask exactly the question that needs to be asked to provoke a good response. Good guessing skills? Maybe. Help from the H.S.? Probably.

    Fr. Philip, OP

  11. Anonymous12:11 AM

    Dear Father,

    Those are all very good questions for discernment. Very well done!

    I'd just like to add one thing... we must guard against being taken in by seemingly positive testimonies from people who swear that they have been healed, cured, made happier, made wealthier, etc. by New Age methods. Those people may sincerely believe that, and it may even appear to be objectively true to the rest of us. But we can't always know what is really happening inside those people.

    I thought I was on top of the world when I dabbled in the New Age, and other people thought so too. But in reality, I was dying a slow and miserable death, rotting to my core, and it took a long time for me or anybody else to realize it. I am so incredibly fortunate to have been saved.

    Remember: Satan is not stupid. He knows that evil has to be somewhat attractive in order to snare souls. So just be extremely vigilant and discerning. Question everything, and don't let anything play with your emotions. Father's advice will certainly help!

    God be with you,

  12. Excellent, just excellent.

    [May I have permission to link to this article on my blog and to comment?

    Please delete my bracketed comments if needed.]

  13. Parin, please do...

    Fr. Philip, OP

  14. Anonymous11:36 AM

    Exactly! Alchemy and astrology were manners in which St. Albertus felt one could study God and his creation. But you couldn't exactly say he was just a medieval scientist as science has a much more narrow definition today than it had then. You probably wouldn't ask an astronomer for advice on when the stars were in an auspicious arrangement for you to sell your house but St. Albertus could probably point you in the right direction.

    Our attitude today is that all these things are by definition demonic period. However, prior to the reformation these arts were seen as the study and application of natural but hidden(occult) forces and not by definition demonic.

  15. Anonymous6:05 PM

    Fr. Philip,

    How would you advise someone who is not strong in the faith about not being able to refuse an invitation to go to seances and to take part in ceremonies of a New Age cult?

    God bless.

  16. Augustine,

    This is not a matter of ability but one of will. You simply say, "No thanks. I will not go." When the pressure to participate starts to gather and grow, repeat: "I will not to go." In other words, you give yourself an excuse for buckiling under pressure when you say, "I don't have the ability to refuse." In fact, you do. What you don't have is the courage to use your will to say no. It takes practice! So, now's a good time to start. Simply say, "No thanks. I will not to endanger my immortal soul in conversations with demons."

    Fr. Philip, OP

  17. Anonymous9:09 AM

    Fr. Philip,

    Thanks for your reply, but I wasn't talking about me, but about someone else. How could I advise that person to avoid endangering her soul by participating in such actions, even if reluctantly?


  18. Augustine,

    The answer is the same...

    Fr. Philip, OP

  19. Augustine,

    The answer is the same...

    Fr. Philip, OP

  20. Anonymous6:27 PM

    Dear Father Philip,
    I work at a very liberal High School. A friend is literally shoving the Eckhart Tolle book The Power of Now to my 30yr old daughter with MS, single, two toddlers, etc as a cure for her demise. As a Catholic it reads like your article on what to avoid. How do I gently decline. God Bless Therese

  21. Therese,

    Since this is a family blog, I cannot use the language I want to use to describe to you what I think of the Tolle books.

    His philosophy is purely demonic. I see no reason for you to "gently decline" it. Tell the high school teacher that Tolle's work is not Christian and spiritually dangerous.

    Would you gently decline drinking from a passing cup of raw sewage?

    I would also report this teacher to the principal and bishop.