Blog Post

How to Deal with Scandal Caused by Some Catholic Writers

BB writes: “One thing that really puzzles me is that both the well-loved Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen were also known for their study and openness to some Eastern religion practices. How do you perceive their teachings?

"I have also read some of Fr. Thomas Keating (I live in MA and have visited St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer) and he was even recommended to me by my Bible study teacher as was Fr. Richard Rohr who, from what I see on his website, speaks and has written about Enneagrams. What do you think of them and their beliefs?

"How are we suppose to discern all this when a lot of what you are saying contradicts those who I thought were respected Catholics and well known spiritual leaders? Even if they have somewhat of a "new age" approach are we suppose to dismiss their teachings entirely? I would love a response as I am searching ...”

My advice to anyone who is searching for authentic Catholic spirituality is to avoid any writers - no matter how famous or trendy they may be – who mix Christian theology with eastern and/or New Age beliefs. Unless you are well catechized in the Faith and equally well-read in the New Age movement, reading these books is like trying to walk safely across a minefield.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid any book on spirituality or prayer that does not contain a Nihil Obstat/Imprimatur. A Nihil Obstat (“nothing hinders” in Latin) means that the material has been reviewed by a Catholic theologian and contains nothing contrary to faith or morals. The Imprimatur (means “let it be printed”) is the Church’s official declaration that a work is free to be printed. If a book contains a Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, it will always be printed on the copyright page in the front of a book.

By sticking to this simple rule and letting the Church do the “homework,” you avoid the potential of being taught serious errors that will do nothing to further your progress in the spiritual life and may even lead you into the worship of false gods. I say this because many of these so-called “ecumenical” writings are riddled with subtle theological errors that the “average Joe” can hardly be expected to spot.

But having said all that, it’s important to note that in the 1989 document “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation,” issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, we are told that just because a practice adopts Hindu or Buddhist techniques does not make it wrong. We are permitted to adopt what is good from other religions “so long as the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and requirements are never obscured.” This rather significant caveat is often overlooked by those who are eager to leap into trendy Eastern meditation techniques.

Let’s take Centering Prayer, for instance. It was invented by Fr. Thomas Keating after years of ecumenical study with the likes of Zen Masters and Buddhists and incorporates an eastern meditation form known as Transcendental Meditation. This form of meditation involves the practice of blanking the mind twice a day for 20 minutes. It employs a mantra (called a “sacred word” in Keating’s version) to dismiss all thoughts from the mind, the purpose of which is to lead one into an altered state of consciousness.

Unless you are well-catechized, you wouldn’t know that the Church condemns transcendental meditation and considers forms of prayer that involve “blanking the mind” to be “erroneous notions of prayer” (see Catechism No. 2726).

Christians believe prayer is a dialogue with God, and one can hardly carry on a dialogue with someone who is sitting with their head in an empty void. Thus, Centering Prayer not only incorporates eastern religions into its formula, it does so in a way that obscures the Christian conception of prayer.

Another important question BB raises is how to confront the scandal of so many well respected Catholics and spiritual leaders who are promoting non-Christian ideas.

For example, Thomas Merton who was a Trappist monk and prolific writer become a zealous practitioner of Zen, resulting in many of his later works being infested with non-Christian concepts. This blog explains more, and offers a helpful list of what books to avoid.

As for Father Richard Rohr, whole books could be written about the problem with this priest who is a big promoter of the New Age gimmick known as the enneagram, and is a supporter of various dissident beliefs and groups. This blog explains more.

Just for clarification, there are no issues with Henri Nouwen’s writings. His main problem was a close association with the Canadian Catholic philosopher and theologian, Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, an organization devoted to helping people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. A recent investigation found that Vanier had sexually abused numerous women between 1970 and 2005.

My best answer for how to confront the scandal caused by big name Catholics who are promoting non-Christian beliefs is to let the Gospel lead you. Jesus warned us that “ . . . (T)he gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow, and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Matthew 7:13-14

Just because a person is popular and has a wide following doesn’t necessarily mean they are preaching Christ.

This is why we must follow the advice of St. John who tells us: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” (1 John 4:1-3)

Many examples of people who do not confess Jesus are prevalent in the New Age, such as those named above, but also psychics/channelers who claim Jesus is just another prophet and the myriad of "energy workers" who believe God is an impersonal energy force, etc.

BB asks: “Even if they have somewhat of a "new age" approach are we supposed to dismiss their teachings entirely?”

My answer is an emphatic “yes.” Unless you are well-educated in both areas, do not attempt to "mix-and-match" Christianity and the New Age. Even though many try to blend the two in order to attract adherents (and profits) in the largely Christian West, this is impossible because New Age and Christian worldviews are diametrically opposed.

If you have any doubts at all, play it safe and stay away!

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