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Father Alessandro Olivieri Pennesi Responds

VATICAN CITY, JULY 1, 2004 (Zenit) - The spread of New Age and its use and abuse of Christian elements make of the movement a challenge for the baptized, says a specialist at the Lateran University.

Father Alessandro Olivieri Pennesi, a professor at the Mater Ecclesiae Higher Institute of Religious Sciences of the Lateran, gave that warning in an interview with us.

An international consultation on New Age, held by the Holy See from June 14-16, emphasized the need to know this phenomenon better in order to provide more appropriate Christian answers.

Q: Why does the spread of New Age represent a challenge for Christians?

Father Olivieri Pennesi: New Age constitutes a great challenge for Christianity. Not only because it is spreading on a global level, but especially because it incorporates elements of Christianity, altering its original meaning. For example, Jesus Christ is no longer recognized as Son of God and only savior of the world.

There is the loss of the concept of truth; we are living in an age of pure subjectivism. God has a thousand facets: cosmic energy, extra-cosmic energy, a Mind, the All, we ourselves are God, etc.

If Jesus Christ is no longer the savior, people go in search of other salvations which become "self-oriented salvation" through methods, meditations, different practices, including magic. The eschatological expectation is devoid of meaning, insofar as salvation is attainable after some or many reincarnations.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle that must be addressed is, undoubtedly, the loss of awareness of truth, which vitiates every attempt to use the paradigms of reason.

Q: Is it true that "weak thought" and a particularly emotional approach to New Age spirituality are quite widespread phenomena in the Catholic world?

Father Olivieri Pennesi: Some have said that New Age is "a phenomenon that is typical of the postmodern culture, based on weak reasoning, ethical relativism and consumerism." I cannot but agree with this statement.

New Age philosophy is spread in many forms and by many ways in a subtle and almost imperceptible manner, says the Secretariat for Ecumenism and Dialogue of the Italian bishops, and it is presented by highlighting its features of universal love and defense of nature.

This proposal can lead to deceit insofar as it presents some objectives on which it is easy to agree: harmony between man and nature, awareness and commitment to improve the world, mobilization of all the forces for good for a new unitary plan of life.

New Age empties the salvific event of Christ from its truth, singularity and fullness. In fact, according to this line of thought, man can make himself capable, through specific techniques, of experiencing the divine without the aid of divine grace, effecting by his own strength his salvation, on which universal harmony depends.

The 1989 document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on certain aspects of Christian meditation, is a reference text on the attention that must be given to updating the ancient Gnosis, in which salvation takes place through the conscience, [and is] esoteric, for the few.

In regard to New Age -- or Gnostic, which is to say more or less the same thing -- practices, there are at the basic level, numerous examples.

To mention one: the last Vatican text on New Age refers to the use -- expanding alarmingly -- of the enneagram: a symbol originally of an initiation character developed in an esoteric context, syncretist, which has subsequently been transformed to a system of classification of the personality of nine psychological types, which serves for the search for self-fulfillment by an esoteric or magical way.

This is pure Gnosis. In Anglo-American Christian environments, such a method gains ground in the area of spiritual direction and guidance, so the U.S. bishops have created an appropriate commission to discern this phenomenon.

Q: What are the conceptual characteristics that describe New Age? And what are the main differences that characterize Christian doctrine?

Father Olivieri Pennesi: Douglas R. Groothuis, an American author, has identified six characteristics of New Age thought: Everything is one; everything is God; humanity is God; we must transform our conscience; all religions are one; optimism in regard to cosmic evolution.

We can summarize in the following points what those of New Age generally affirm:

One, there is no source of external authority -- only that of the interior -- "the god within us." Truth as objective reality does not exist, says one of the best-known spokespersons of New Age: actress Shirley MacLaine.

Two, the Creator is confused with his creation, believing that God is part of creation and is not separated from the latter. They adopt the belief in monism from the Eastern religions -- that "everything is One" -- only one essence of the universe, everyone and everything forms part of this essence.

Three, Christ, more than an individual, is a type of energy. This idea of "Christ-like awareness" states that Jesus was not the only Christ, but that he was predisposed to receive the "awareness of Christ," as were Buddha, Krishna and Mohammed. This is a well-known teaching of Gnostic occultism which has its roots in the Babylonian mystery religions.

Four, insofar as sin is concerned, while reference to Adam's sin is silenced, it is affirmed, as "A Course in Miracles" states, that man's principal problem is his ignorance of his divinity. Every perceptible fault that man thinks he has is more an absence of knowledge; with this is eliminated the need for salvation and for a savior.

Five, the New Age follower considers his good where he finds it. His morality is in his criteria, trusting in what he feels is good.

Six, the traditional way of seeing the personification of evil as the devil or Satan is clearly absent from New Age literature. In regard to history and Lucifer's task, Benjamin Creme, a known speaker of the movement, states that "Lucifer came from the planet Venus 18.5 million years ago. He is the director of the evolution of our planet, he is the sacrificial lamb and the prodigal son. Lucifer made an incredible sacrifice, a supreme sacrifice for our planet."

Seven, New Agers take up again the old doctrine of the Eastern religions on reincarnation, modifying it substantially in order to attain a perfection through innumerable cycles of death and rebirth. Together with this is the practice of so-called channeling through which disincarnated entities will direct humanity's spiritual evolution.

Eight, in the document written by the Pontifical Councils for Culture and for Interreligious Dialogue -- "Jesus Christ, Bearer of Living Water. A Christian Reflection on the New Age" -- one reads: "New Age has a marked preference for the Eastern and pre-Christian religions, which are reckoned to be uncontaminated by Judeo-Christian distortions. Hence great respect is given to ancient agricultural rites and to fertility cults." Somewhat later "Gaia," Mother Earth, is criticized.

I think a denunciation is obvious of certain animalistic and environmental ideologies which tend to re-propose a modern form of neo-pagan pantheism.

Q: What is your opinion?

Father Olivieri Pennesi: The divinization of nature, also known as "Gaia hypothesis," in homage to Greek mythology, is the result of the move from a correct safeguarding of the environment to forms of protection which I believe remind one of the sacred cows of the Hindus.

The latter marks the influence of New Age ideas in the ecological movement beginning with the first Earth Day in 1970, when the planet was recognized as a living being, worthy of adoration. The incompatibility of this veneration with Christian teachings is obvious and is stressed by those who favor Gaia.

Many esoteric publications see biblical teachings as the cause of great ecological problems. In an issue of Time magazine relating to environmental problems, the Bible, and in particular the Book of Genesis -- where man is given dominion over the earth and its inhabitants -- is mentioned as one of the reasons for the mistreatment of nature by man. According to some environmentalists, the spread of Christianity led to a negative development of a technology that would damage the earth.

In line with this attribution of guilt, the worship of Mother Earth and the environmental ideology are also accompanied by the devaluation of the human being, placed at the same level as the other "species" and even accused of excessive and harmful fecundity.

It is symptomatic, in fact, that none of the many environmental organizations present in the world equate the defense of nature and the defense of human life; [hence they are not] pronouncing themselves against abortion.

Q: Cardinal Georges Cottier has said that New Age is "incompatible with Catholic doctrine." What are the reasons for such an explicit condemnation?

Father Olivieri Pennesi: It's true. The cardinal says that "the main theses of New Age are incompatible with Christianity, what is more, they are antithetical."

According to the Vatican document "Jesus Christ, Bearer of Living Water. A Christian Reflection on the New Age," "It is difficult to separate the individual elements of New Age religiosity -- innocent though they may appear -- from the overarching framework which permeates the whole thought-world on the New Age movement.

"The gnostic nature of this movement calls us to judge it in its entirety. From the point of view of Christian faith, it is not possible to isolate some elements of New Age religiosity as acceptable to Christians, while rejecting others. Since the New Age movement makes much of a communication with nature, of cosmic knowledge of a universal good -- thereby negating the revealed contents of Christian faith -- it cannot be viewed as positive or innocuous."

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