Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Donna Steichen on the New Age in the Catholic Church

I've been reading Donna Steichen, Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism (Ignatius Press, 1991). It is a snapshot of the situation in the second half of the 1980s. It is important to understand how we got to where we are today, and Steichen's observations from a quarter of a century ago are particularly helpful in that respect. She wrote at what was in many ways the high-water mark of the attempt by liberal Church employees, clergy, and religious, to use the resources of the Church herself to teach Catholics an alternative religion. This was the era of tens of thousands of priests and religious being laicised and released from their vows (or simply leaving without authorisation), but these individuals very often remained active in the Church, writing, speaking, teaching in schools and universities, and being involved in diocesan offices of one kind or another, and providing the warm bodies for a movement for reform. They managed to gain and retain control of Catholic educational institutions, above all, but also of many other aspects of the Church with propagandistic potential, giving talks in parishes, organising liturgy, and so on.

Steichen explains that the route out of the Faith was opened up by the common-or-garden variety of theological Modernism, but the opening was exploited by people influenced by quite distinct movements: feminism, the New Age, and Neo-Paganism.

Scholars who pruned the supernatural from scriptural interpretation on the grounds that 'modern man' could not believe it give no sign of having second thoughts as modern men and women flood into fundamentalist churches or pay thousands of dollars to seek advice from New Age mediums.

Nuns who in the early 1960s had warned students not to view the sacraments as 'magical', came to embrace occult practices, implicitly if not explicitly demonic. Out of the human instinct to express faith through physical gestures, many of those who ceased to kneel for prayer began to substitute yoga postures, T'ai Chi, 'New Age' spiritualism or circular dances, widdershins, around a smoking cauldron. ... Some who denied the existence of angels found New Age 'channelling' and 'spirit guides' credible.

Some of the New Age stuff would seem relatively harmless if it were happening outside the Church. Inside, of course, it powered a persistent attack on the Faith of ordinary Catholics, who were bewildered to find New Age spirituality replacing Catholic spirituality in sermons, retreat centres, and supposedly Catholic literature. The Neo-Pagan and Occult aspects, however, were far from harmless. Steichen witnessed serious attempts as witchcraft and goddess-worship in conferences attended overwhelmingly by current or former female religious. She quotes a former witch:

When I was a witch, I performed rituals. I evoked spirits. I called entities. I cast spells, burned candles, concocted brews. The only thing I didn't do was fly on a broom, but I probably would have figured it if given time. But where did it lead to? Into darkness, depression and the creation of an aura of gloom around me. I was frequently under demon attack. The house where I lived was alive with poltergeist activity ... due to residual 'guests' from rituals. My friends and family were afraid of me. I knew I had no future; all I had was a dark present. I was locked in by oaths and by 'destiny'. But I had power, something I'd always wanted. It wasn't Satan's fault. He didn't exist--or so I thought. I gave it all up, and came to Jesus on my knees. ... He freed me from the oppression and gave me back my soul--the one I had so foolishly given to evil in exchange for power. .. Our salvation was bought at a great price and all we have to do is reach out for it. But we cannot serve two masters.
Carmen Helen Guerra, 'The Practice of Witchcraft', letter to the editor, National Catholic Register May 18th 1986. Quoted in 'Ungodly Rage' pp70-1.

By the end of the 1980s, attendees at quasi-Catholic 'goddess' get-togethers were clearly ageing. The exodus of female religious from the Faith, and mostly from their communities, had created a market for this stuff which wasn't going to be renewed with future generations. They tried desperately, of course, to influence ordinary lay Catholics, old and young, but insofar as their work was effective it overwhelmingly led to lapsation rather than more recruits for their internal revolution. In the meantime conservative lay groups, and the appointment of at least a smattering of conservative bishops, started to put a brake on the attempts to drag Catholic institutions into the Neo-Pagan fold.

We can look back and see what has happened since then. Ageing religious sisters, and former religious sisters, can still be found making life difficult for orthodox Catholics (and particularly for priests) in parishes, chaplaincies, retreat centres and so on. The more straightforward kind of modernism continues to destroy historic Catholic institutions, which after a generation of being not-very-Catholic are often closed down for lack of custom or officially secularised. Conservative and Traditional alternative religious communities and institutions have begun to put down roots.

But while goddess-worship isn't seriously on the agenda for many Catholic parishes, the underlying problem still persists. As Steichen asks:

Are these drawn to idolatry--to false goddesses and false prophets--seeking satisfactions largely lost to post-conciliar iconoclasm and the sterile feminist mores of American life? Do they hunger for the sacred, for the richly symbolic drama of color, meaning and mystery that has been leached out of contemporary liturgy, for the interior life so seldom mentioned in the prosaic, culturally adapted Catholicism now prevailing, for a compelling sense of ultimate purpose? The false mysticism of neo-gnostic feminism offers an illusion of these.


If the Church does not offer something of substance for the human spirit, not just the unadorned sacraments but something of a culture and spirituality to sustain individuals, families, and communities, from day to day, Catholics will look elsewhere, and we continue to see the adoption by Catholics of New-Agey ideas and practices. This confirms the thesis of Roger Buck, author of a new book on the New Age and the Church, that the New Age thrives in Low Church cultures where Christianity does not appear to offer access to transforming mystery. What has happened since the 1960s is that, with neo-Modernism, we have imported this problem into the Catholic Church.

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1 comment:

  1. New Age is the new Gnosticism...people want hidden knowledge and think they are superior to others who do not have it....Also, some New Age ex-Catholics I know are in irregular marriages and contracept...They do not want the morality demanded by the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.