The response, in many quarters, has been scathing. "We're under attack from an incredibly well-financed Wahhabism, and these guys are worried about yoga?" Such was the reaction of one blogger to the news that the Vatican had called a meeting to discuss the threat of New Age religions last week. The distinguished philosopher of religion Professor John Hick was only marginally less dismissive in a letter to this newspaper the other day saying he was shocked that the Vatican had lumped medieval alchemy together with Islamic Sufism or Zen-Buddhism.
It is easy to be alarmed, just as it is easy to mock the Vatican document on which the conference was based. When it came out last February Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life: a Christian reflection on the "New Age" provoked some mirth with its references to Woodstock and its reprinting of the lyrics of Hair. For a papal document to have chapters headed "Good Vibrations" and "Magical Mystery Tour" had the same feeling of embarrassing cultural dissonance that young people experience when we oldies express an interest in hip-hop. And it is easy to make a list of everything the document touches upon - from practices as innocuous as yoga, aromatherapy and the enneagram, to more outlandish stuff like alchemy, divining the future and shamanism - and suggest that the Vatican regards them all equally, which the 90-page document makes clear it does not.
It is easy, too, to forget how far the Church has come. As recently as 1989 Rome was warning Christians about yogic and other meditation systems. This document uses a language and tone which are far more conciliatory. For a start it acknowledges that some aspects of the New Age search for inner peace are positive. But it worries that New Age thinking has entered our subconscious to such an extent that most people are unaware of which bits come from the "human potential movement" and which from Eastern Oriental mysticism or Western occultism. Yet when it comes to the question of which New Age practices are compatible with Christianity the document is surprisingly undogmatic. It's all a question of individual discernment, it says. "There is no condemnation here," a top Vatican official said at its launch. Apart from divination, the document does not specifically prohibit much.
So what was happening last week? Some 22 of the bishops who had sent Rome responses to the document, or questions on it, dispatched representatives for three days of workshops to prepare some practical guidelines. It is not clear yet what they will recommend, nor whether their view will be accepted by the Pope and his advisers.
Things could go either way. The secular world's accepted wisdom is that people are mostly fed up with religion, but quite interested in spirituality. That means we all want to attune ourselves to values beyond material success and access our deepest resources to achieve a deeper personal satisfaction. But we want nothing to do with doctrinal formulae or external authority that is viewed as oppressive or even abusive. The Church could respond to this by accentuating what the document calls "the solid richness of the spiritual, ascetic and mystical patrimony of Christianity, which many Catholics do not know adequately". And in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council it could open itself to dialogue with the world on what is good and bad within the New Age.
Or it may go for the lumping-it-all-together, slippery-slope approach and start banning things which it sees as misguided or which never expose us to any reality beyond ourselves. Christianity is essentially the story of how one human life was made the vehicle of divine action through which human lives are potentially changed once and for all. To work it has to connect us with other people. It has to take us beyond ourselves, not merely deeper within.
Precedents offer little help here. Take the example of Rome's relations with other mainstream religions. Vatican II declared that the "Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy" in other religions which "often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men". And the Pope has invited representatives of many different faiths to pray with him in Assisi. Yet in 2000, in his document on the new millennium, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, he warned that "care will always have be taken not to cause harmful misunderstandings, avoiding the risk of syncretism and of a facile and deceptive irenicism". To get his meaning across more plainly he soon afterwards excommunicated a priest from Sri Lanka, Father Tissa Balasuriya, who had been engaged in dialogue with Hindus and Buddhists - and who, in Rome's eyes, clearly went too far.
Paradox, in so many areas, is one of the hallmarks of this papacy. The key question is, will the dying Pope see in the New Age an opportunity or a threat?