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The Pope can hardly slam superstition

IT HAD been billed in some quarters as the Vatican's response to New Age mysticism. John Paul II, commentators have been saying for weeks, was about to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his papacy by delivering a rebuttal of the vaguely Eastern hotch-potch of beliefs that has captivated so many Westerners. They would be condemned in a Papal encyclical, the 13th in a reign characterised by an austere - some would say deeply illiberal - approach to many aspects of the modern world. This is a Pope who has crusaded against contraception and abortion, and excommunicated rebels such as Father Tissa Balasuriya, a 72-year-old Sri Lankan priest who tried to reconcile Christian ideas with those of other religions. Fr Balasuriya was re-admitted to the Church, but only after reading out a recantation approved by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who rejoices in the sinister title of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Even so, I was never quite convinced that the Pope was going to lay into New Age credulity, partly because "Pontiff slams superstition" is such a deeply ironic headline. Anyone who believes in the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection should have few problems, it seems to me, with concepts like alien abduction and star signs which influence everyday events. Indeed, when it was published last week, the Pope's Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) encyclical had little to say on these subjects, leaving it to a Polish archbishop to denounce "a naive faith in UFOs, astrology and the New Age". The Pope surprised many observers by acknowledging at the outset the contribution made to his theme - "the fundamental questions which pervade human life" - by Buddha, Lao-Tze, Veda, Confucius, Plato and fifth-century Athenian dramatists. While he asserted the primacy of Christian ideas, the pontiff praised other cultures mentioned in the Bible, including ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, as "singularly rich in deep intuition".

What I conclude from this is that John Paul II is in trouble. Although his 36,000-word encyclical appears to be an attack on the shortcomings of contemporary philosophy, it is really a broadside against secularism. When the Pope criticises philosophers for concentrating on "modest tasks such as the simple interpretation of facts" rather than a search for what is "beautiful, good and true", he is really saying he does not like the answers they have come up with. What he condemns as "nihilism" is a secular outlook which rightly condemns all superstition, whatever its source, and holds that there is no single meaning of life in the over-arching sense suggested by theologians.

This does not imply, as believers often suggest, a moral vacuum. Secular values can be just as rigorous and compassionate as religious ones, perhaps more so in that they proceed from individual logic rather than a central, unquestioned authority. The Pope's problem is that, contrary to what he asserts in Fides et Ratio, we have known since the Enlightenment that there is a conflict between faith and reason. New Age mysticism represents a worrying resurgence of belief in the supernatural but its followers are the very people who, only a few years ago, would have signed up to more institutional forms of religion. When Nietzsche suggested in the 19th century that God is dead, he added "there will perhaps be caves, for ages yet, in which his shadow will be shown" - an observation whose prescience is demonstrated by the current craze for healing crystals, feng shui and tarot cards. John Paul II cannot condemn their followers too harshly, just as big corporations have to be wary of antagonising customers of rival organisations who might just, one day, change their allegiance.

IT IS NOT that long since the Church believed in witchcraft, with terrible consequences for the 100,000 European women condemned, according to the historian Olwen Hufton, between 1560 and 1660 alone. The playwright Arthur Miller, who wrote about the Salem witch trials in The Crucible, contributed an impassioned article to the New York Times last week, comparing the witchcraft hysteria in New England 300 years ago to denunciations in the American press of Bill Clinton. "The tone of iron vituperation and the gut-shuddering hatred are reminiscent of the fury of the Salem ministers roaring down on the Devil as though they would grind their heels into his face," Miller suggested.

In a country that bears the scars of the political witch-hunt embarked on by Senator Eugene McCarthy in the 1950s, the comparison is superficially attractive. But Miller goes on to observe that witch-hunts are usually caused by a terror of "women's horrifying sexuality", not realising he has exposed the flaw in his own argument. The targets of witch-hunts are far more likely to be women than men and it is Monica Lewinsky, not Mr Clinton, who has suffered most grievously from this one. Attacked on all sides as mad, bad, even a stalker like the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction, Ms Lewinsky's reputation is in shreds and her future unimaginable. Mr Clinton is a jerk, but he remains President of the United States.