An Age of Unreason
Catholics and the New Age
reviewed by Donna Steichen
The times are passing strange, all right. Science outshines nature with ever more dazzling technology, uninhibited by traditional morality, while tenured theologians excuse its most abhorrent ventures by denying that any act can be intrinsically immoral. Updated religious bureaucrats writhe in embarrassment when simple believers protest in vitro conception or the grisly harvest of transplant tissue from aborted babies. Renowned scholars presume to weed Christ’s own words out of Holy Scripture, citing scientific advances in literacy and historical criticism as justification. Surely this must be the scientific age?
Then how explain those presumably sane Americans—not the aging hippies and vegetarians, but the nuclear physicists, doctors of sacred theology, nuns with master’s degrees in religious education—who are flocking to psychic fairs, studying horoscopes and enneagrams, celebrating solstices, talking to crystals, describing past incarnations, seeking out “ancient wisdom” channeled by mediums? Has superstition triumphed after all?
These inconsistent persons are caught up in the New Age movement, where internal contradictions abound. New Age theory grew out of the radical 1960s youth culture. It is a medley of discrete beliefs filched from primitive superstition, old-fashioned occultism, Hindu mysticism and 19th-century theosophy, mixed with questionable speculations from 20th-century psychology, physics, and theology into a highly seasoned, morally individualistic, spiritual bouillabaisse. Its devotees have revived long discarded notions that confuse the universe with its Creator, successfully introducing into mainstream culture their unifying premise that “All is one,” or “God is everything and everything is God.” That monist pantheism, C. S. Lewis said, “may be the most primitive of all religions. . . . the attitude into which the human mind naturally falls” without the light of divine revelation. Under whatever name presented, it is intrinsically repudiation of the personal, transcendent, immutable triune God.
The New Age movement is not a form of Satanic worship but, like the feminist Wicca to which it is organically related, a form of amoral neo-pagan nature worship. It is properly called Gnostic because, like ancient Gnostic religions, it holds that believers are saved (“enlightened” or “transformed”) by esoteric knowledge. What knowledge? Since everything is God, I too am God, and my insights and impulses, however singular, are my own divine truth. Good and evil are whatever I say they are; what Christianity has called “sin” is simply further opportunity for experiential growth. The extraordinary success of this alien belief system in a culture rooted, however remotely, in Christianity, convinces New Agers that they are steering the “emerging American culture” to a universal New Age religion that will usher in a glorious new Aquarian Age.
Some Christians who hear that millennialist prediction conclude that it is a centrally directed conspiracy bent on world tyranny. People have indeed been misled by New Age evangelists, inexcusably including school children; the movement has inflicted great harm on individuals, families, and institutions. But it has not been done at gun point. Many adults embraced New Age mysticism lightly, just as they had previously embraced other intellectual fads; if an Aquarian future depends on their constancy, Christianity has little to fear. The movement may in fact have passed its peak among ordinary folk already. One publisher has discontinued production of a separate line of New Age books, and New Age bookstores here and there have closed their doors. In the American Catholic Church, however, New Age fever is still climbing.
When the Princeton Religious Resource Center polled American Christians earlier this year to see how their faith had been affected by New Age ideas, nearly a quarter of the Protestants surveyed (23 percent) said they saw no conflict between Christian doctrine and New Age beliefs. That troubling news paled beside the responses from Catholics, almost 60 percent of whom said New Age beliefs and Catholicism are entirely compatible. It would be false comfort to read those results as evidence that Catholics don’t know what New Agers believe. More probably, they don’t know what Catholicism teaches. A 1992 Gallup poll asked adult Catholics about the church’s doctrine of the Eucharist. Even when the Catholic definition of Christ’s Real Presence was read to them, only 30 percent recognized it; among younger adults, only 21 percent.
What have Catholic institutions been teaching instead of church doctrine? An appalling number have been teaching New Age theories and practices, and the phenomenon is growing. Catholicism in North America is torn by a civil war over liturgy, authority, doctrine, and spirituality. Over the past 30 years, vowed Catholic religious have experienced an astonishing decline in numbers, in order and in faith. Never before in the church’s history has such a collapse proceeded from within the church. Contrary to common assumption, it was not always those who ceased to believe who abandoned religious life. Some believers left their vocations sadly, unable to endure life in communities controlled by ecclesiastical revolutionaries. And because many who stayed behind had lost their faith, they became agents of revolution, bent on subversion and expropriation.
Yet human beings must believe in something. As G. K. Chesterton observed, when they cease to believe in God they don’t believe in nothing but in anything. For reasons ranging from curiosity to conformity to perceived political expediency, many chose New Age ideas to believe in. Especially among church middle management, the movement is a fulminating plague. However unlikely this may seem to readers whose images of nuns and priests were formed when films like The Bells of St. Mary’s were not wildly inaccurate, the evidence is overwhelming.
Some Catholic parishes now offer A Course in Miracles, a study program straight from the monist heart of the New Age. On a bulletin board at the fairly orthodox church where I attended Holy Thursday Mass was a notice of a Jungian dreamwork class. At several seminaries, instructors use “guided imagery” to lead students in “energy-raising” witchcraft rituals during liturgy classes. Within a single week last spring, I heard parental complaints of New Age events at three unrelated Catholic schools, in the Northeast, the South, and the Far West. The mildest involved bringing a yoga teacher into a religion class as guest speaker. The most offensive was a student “retreat” virtually devoid of Catholic doctrine or spirituality, where, as “male bonding” activities, boys painted their faces and pounded drums, while in another room, girls made “womanspirit bags” to hang around their necks. Catholic retreat centers from coast to coast offer enneagram courses, “creation spirituality” workshops, conferences on feminist, native American and even “goddess” spirituality. Catholic bookstores across the country are stocked with heterodox works like Joseph Girzone’s Joshua, Rosemary Ruether’s Woman-Church, Paul Knitter’s No Other Name?, Bruce Lawrence’s Nizam Ad-Din Awliya, John Hitchcock’s The Web of the Universe, Michael von Bruck’s The Unity of Reality and Sandra Schneider’s Beyond Patching, as well as Matthew Fox’s many titles. Professors at Catholic universities—and seminaries—ridicule those who cling to the articles of the Apostle’s Creed as “fundamentalist folk Catholics”; Catholic college students are encouraged to sample translated Eastern mysticism in “centering prayer,” or to attend, for example, a panel discussion on Christology led by feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, who denies the Incarnation. The dismal truth is that the Catholics surveyed by the Princeton Religious Resource Center probably picked up their New Age ideas at Catholic institutions.
In Catholics and the New Age, Father Mitch Pacwa provides an understandable introduction to the problem and backs it up with incontestable evidence. A Jesuit who teaches Sacred Scripture at Chicago’s Loyola University, Pacwa is equipped by academic training and personal experience to address the errors of the New Age. He knows Catholic teaching, and he also knows the New Age movement—from the inside—because 20 years ago as a seminarian he dabbled in New Age practices himself. In his book, he analyzes some of the most popular New Age forms, describing their history, reviewing their claims, and exposing the fraudulent scholarship on which they depend. In his analyses, Pacwa contrasts each New Age theory with the orthodox Catholic doctrine it contradicts. Some readers might doubt that New Agers could be persuaded by simple restatement of Catholic teaching, but Father Pacwa knows better. His essential faith in Jesus Christ, and his desire to serve him as a priest, were lifelines that time after time pulled him back to safety when he was drowning in New Age enthusiasms. Despite mention of one Satanic high priest, he firmly avoids the sensational. This is a confession of youthful error by a man who looked for enlightenment in the wrong places but, through God’s mercy, found his way home to orthodoxy. Father Pacwa has written a useful, charitable, and ultimately optimistic book.
Catholics and the New Age opens with examples of New Age activities in purportedly Catholic settings. The author gives a brief overview of the movement’s roots, its expectations and the depth of its infiltration of American culture. Then begins the autobiographical account of Pacwa’s own dalliance with New Age thought, which ranged from Hermann Hesse and Teilhard de Chardin through Hinduism, Jungian psychology, dreamwork, astrology, and the Sufi enneagram.
How did a well-meaning Jesuit seminarian get entangled in forms of spiritualism counter to Christianity? Not through genuinely unconventional thought, but by pursuing notions common among his generation to their center in the self. Twenty-year-old Mitchell Pacwa entered a Jesuit novitiate in Milford, Ohio, in 1968, just as turmoil in society was converging with postconciliar turmoil in the order. The Milford novitiate was shut down at the end of the academic year after two-thirds of the novices left, and Pacwa was sent to work with street gangs at an inner-city Chicago parish. Anti-establishment romanticism made his approach to social justice rashly direct until, once more, circumstances diverted him from his chosen course. In May of 1970, his life was threatened because he was the sole witness to a neighborhood murder. In consequence, he was compelled to give up his plans for a career as a community organizer.
Initially he was disappointed and angry at having to trade social justice work for philosophical study, but soon Pacwa began to think he had discovered a different way to change the world. On the reading list for his first philosophy class he found three writers who influenced him profoundly: Hermann Hesse, whose fictional Buddha discovered the oneness of all things through spiritual enlightenment; Theodore Rozsak, who said that spiritual enlightenment was as valid a path to counterculture as political activism; and Buckminster Fuller, who promised that man could avert otherwise inevitable planetary destruction and build a global utopia of peace and unity by radically redesigning the environment. Pacwa was hooked.
Jesuit superiors come off better than some critics might expect; they often warned Pacwa against taking trendy and deceptive classes—even when taught by other Jesuits, as was often the case—and forbade his use of drugs. But as a student at a Jesuit university in the early 1970s, it was possible for the rebellious seminarian to disobey, telling himself that all spirituality is really one anyway. If Pacwa had been in a traditional seminary setting, unable to choose classes in defiance of his superiors, pursuing a rigorous program of Thomistic studies, it is unlikely that he would have strayed into so many blind alleys before finding the truth he was looking for. Immersed in the church’s wisdom, he would probably have accepted Catholic teaching about God and the universe (which is neither sentimental nor utopian) as the only promise of salvation, the only means for fallen man to accomplish good. At least he might have been too busy to be tempted by New Age fantasies. Even strongly attracted as he was to non-Christian ideas, Pacwa never stopped believing in Jesus Christ, and as he matured his belief created a cognitive dissonance he couldn’t ignore.
But at the outset, he hoped to find a Catholic theological perspective to support his belief in universal unity. Compartmentalizing his new monist vision, smothering doubts about its conflict with his Catholic faith by remembering that all things are made one in Christ, he continued to attend daily Mass and gospel meditation. In a 1971 class on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Pacwa found the theology he was looking for. Teilhard’s evolutionary synthesis of matter and spirit was enormously popular then with Catholic intellectuals not firmly grounded in theology or science, who seized on it as a way to blend the two. Scientific questions aside, it has grave theological shortcomings. Teilhard treats original sin as a condition inherent in the evolving universe rather than as an act of disobedience by our first parents, focuses on Christ’s Incarnation as an evolutionary advance rather than as the means of our redemption, and implies, at least by omission, that God is not separate from evolution. As Pacwa studied Scripture and theology, he came to recognize those contradictions. Some other Teilhard devotees never recovered but slipped on into pantheism; great numbers of New Agers praise him as the inspiration behind their “enlightenment.”
Next Pacwa began to study the oriental religions that were attracting his university classmates, hoping, he says, to understand their interest so he might be able to evangelize them. This important section of his book sheds needed light on the deceptiveness of the New Age by contrasting the complex fatalism of the Hindu worldview with the fragments selectively appropriated and gravely distorted by New Agers. Pacwa illustrates with quotes from bestseller Shirley MacLaine, an apt choice both because of her popularity and because, as a writer, she cannot be accused of subtle ambiguity. New Agers misinterpret the Hindu doctrine of karma by denying the reality of good and evil; they maintain that each reincarnation is chosen by the discarnate soul for learning and enjoyment. Hinduism teaches instead that reincarnation in a lower life-form is a punishment for sin; a bad man might return as a woman for example, since women are regarded as inferior. Unlike Christians, who seek salvation precisely because the soul is immortal, Hindus believe the reward for perfection is escape from the cycle of rebirth to individual disintegration in Brahma, the ground of all being. Few New Agers, and few Catholics, would find real Hinduism appealing. Given the enormous popularity Carl Jung currently enjoys among Christians, Catholics and the New Age would be worth buying for the chapters on Jungian psychology alone. Doubtless because of Jung’s reputation as the first prominent psychoanalyst to admit the importance of the spiritual, Jungianism is ubiquitous in Catholic circles, not only in overt practices like dream interpretation, but also in allusions to Jungian concepts and use of Jungian terms. Those who make such references often have no intention of rebelling against the faith but are merely using a fashionable vocabulary they do not adequately understand. For example, when a book by one faithful Catholic writer made approving reference to such Jungian concepts as animus and anima (his terms for masculine and feminine components existing in everyone’s unconscious) and the need to integrate one’s bad experience in order to achieve “wholeness,” I asked the author, “How much of Jung have you studied?”
“Oh, I never read any of his books,” the author answered. “I just went to a workshop about him once.”
Pacwa’s accessible exploration of Jung’s thought, documented with citations from his writings, provides essential information for such uncritical Catholics. They need to know that Jung did not regard Christian doctrines as true but as “mythic archetypes” in humanity’s “collective unconscious.” The son of a Swiss Reformed minister, Jung regarded Christian belief as dangerously inflexible because it rejects the integration of sin (“the shadow side”) into the personality, and thus impedes psychological growth to “individuation.” He praised the church’s declaration of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary because he said it incorporated the feminine into the godhead, making the Trinity a “quaternity” and changing the “unbalanced” Trinitarian symbol into a proper four-part “mandala.” Jung’s spiritual preferences were for Gnosticism, occultism, alchemy, and even polytheism.
Pacwa was drawn to Jungian depth psychology because memories of the murder he had witnessed continued to trouble his dreams. Trying guided imagery and hallucinogenic drugs for relaxation had heightened his interest in the subconscious, and he was delighted to find in Jung a respected authority who attached importance to religious symbolism and said that dreams and the subconscious were necessary to spiritual experience. But in reading Jung’s autobiography—Memories, Dreams, Reflections—Pacwa discovered that Jung had explicitly repudiated Christian faith, equating Jesus Christ with pagan demigods and holding that God too must have a shadow side in order to be complete. Pacwa knew he had to choose between Catholicism and Jungianism. Once again, without hesitation, he chose Catholicism.
Confidence in the scientific validity of Jungianism had led Pacwa into an “astrological” period during which he cast horoscopes for friends and family and, as a faculty member at a Jesuit high school, taught a “mini-course” on astrology. All that ended when he realized that astrology is in fact a superstitious fraud based on the occult. But before that time, the enneagram came along, and Pacwa fell once more.
In three detailed chapters, Father Pacwa explains the symbolism and purported merits of the enneagram, a diagram of a nine-pointed star within a circle that supposedly identifies every possible personality type—all of which are false “egotypes” or “sin types.” Enneagram disciples maintain that it originated with Islamic Sufi mystics more than 2000 years ago, which was well before Islam existed. The actual origins of the symbol are obscure, but its use in personality typing is of more recent vintage: Peruvian occultist Oscar Ichazo and psychologist Claudio Naranjo first used it in the 1960s and popularized it through classes at Esalen Institute. Jesuit Father Robert Ochs learned it there during a 1971 sabbatical and brought it back to his religious experience classes at Loyola University in Chicago, where he taught it not as occult but as a guide to self-understanding and a tool for spiritual direction. Soon enneagram fever had become pandemic among Catholic religious professionals. Those involved tend to be intensely defensive, perhaps in part because, as Pacwa notes, an “enneagram industry” has sprung up.
Pacwa encountered the enneagram at Loyola in 1972, in one of Ochs’s seminars. Elated by the possession of special knowledge, he spread the enneagram message among family and friends. For months he tried zealously to achieve an altered state of consciousness by mastering yoga postures and meditating on his path (head), oth (heart), and kath (belly) centers. Obediently, he examined his characteristic failings, a form of meditation Ochs advised as a means to self-acceptance; after each admission of imperfection, Pacwa was to say, “I did these things, and this is perfect.” Understandably, he stopped going to confession. And the more intensely he looked into himself, the more he despaired.
At last, while meditating on Scripture at a directed retreat, he turned to Jesus to find the way out. He made a general confession and experienced an intense awareness of Christ’s forgiving presence. Pacwa’s conversion was a marvelous mercy, as conversion always is. Facing a distasteful assignment as a high-school religion teacher, he reluctantly accepted religious obedience as the Lord’s will. Later events show that his real growth began with that submission. He saw that the enneagram system hinged on faulty assumptions about both original sin and actual sin, that its view of salvation was not centered in Jesus but in the self. He turned away from the New Age movement forever. Once he had discarded his New Age books and started reading C. S. Lewis, he found ways to teach Christian truth to his classes. After experiencing the baptism of the Holy Spirit a few months later at a student prayer group, he understood that:
Having exposed those parts of the New Age that he dealt with firsthand, Pacwa also reports on some varieties he didn’t get involved in, including crystal mysticism, channeling, the syncretist Church Universal and Triumphant, and the influential creation-centered spirituality of Father Matthew Fox, under whom he narrowly escaped studying through the command of a wise superior. Pacwa performs an important service by shredding Fox’s shoddy scholarship so thoroughly that not even the most devoted votaries could continue to defend it, if only they could be persuaded, or forced, to read this book.
The final chapter of Catholics and the New Age discusses how Catholics should respond to New Age infiltration of the Church. Pacwa wisely starts with ardent practice of the faith, recourse to the sacraments, and daily prayer. These are basic both as armor and as example; dangerous spiritual illusions thrive where faith is neglected. Second, he recommends study of orthodox theology and apologetics, in such classics as C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and Frank Sheed, or from current sources like Catholic Answers. For Christians, the answer is always to preach Christ crucified, and for that, Scripture study is the requisite preparation. In his advice on the difficult matter of evangelizing New Agers, Pacwa’s charitable attitude mirrors the patience God showed to him, and is doubtless correct for dealing with the sincerely misguided. Who could argue with his remarkable account of converting a Satanic high priest?
On this question of evangelization, however, Pacwa seems to see more honest gullibility than I do; his advice assumes that New Agers, however misguided, believe what they profess. The dialogue methods he proposes are apt to be fruitless in dealing with false prophets who, for political ends, foster New Age practices they do not believe in. Prominent feminist theologian Carol Christ, for example, has explained why religious feminists encourage women to practice Wicca. “Symbol systems cannot simply be rejected; they must be replaced,” she said. “Where there is not any replacement, the mind will revert to familiar structures at times of crisis, bafflement or defeat.” In other words, unless women can be taught to invoke “the goddess within” at spiral dances, they may backslide to saying the Rosary when trouble comes along, and be lost as political allies. While the New Age is not overtly Satanic, it is surely demonic, in the sense that fallen angels must aid and rejoice in such attacks on the body of Christ. Yes, God will judge deliberate deceivers in the end, but in the meantime, pastors and college presidents are inviting them to address the faithful. In those distressing cases, Catholics must combine resources, as Father Pacwa rightly urges; now more than ever Christians must be wise as serpents.
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“An Age of Unreason” first appeared in the Summer 1992 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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