DG asks: “There are so many alternative medicine practices out there. Some of them sound very suspicious to me and refer to ‘life force energy’ and ‘spirit guides’ but some sound okay. I even know of a Catholic chiropractor who prays before treating people but he’s a Reiki Master! How does a Catholic know which ones are compatible with our faith and which ones are not?”
Great question! The “altmed” world can be very confusing to consumers, particularly Christians. This is why it is so important to understand that the term alternative medicine is only used for medical products, techniques, and practices that have insufficient or no scientific backing. These forms of medicine impact Catholics because we are morally obligated to use ordinary (scientifically sound) means to treat anything life-threatening or contagious. In other words, Catholics can use use a herbal supplement to treat a headache, but not instead of insulin to treat their diabetes.
We also need to avoid any form of alternative medicine that includes a spiritual component such as whole medicine systems such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic medicine. Mind-body interventions such as meditation, prayer, and mental healing can also prove problematic for Christians, as can energy therapies that are based on a universal life force such as qi, chi, prana.
But not all altmed treatments fall neatly into these categories. For this reason, we can thank Rev. Dr. Gareth Leyshon, a Cardiff trained astro-physicist and expert on the New Age, who suggests we ask the following questions of a practitioner for the purpose of discerning whether or not a spiritual technique, therapy or practice can be used appropriately by a Christian.
1. Does the practitioner explicitly ask for God’s help in carrying out the practice, or explain that the “spiritual energy” of the practice comes from God?
If so, first ask whether the “god” called upon is God as Christians understand Him, the God who exists as three persons: the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. To seek the help of any other “god” is the sin of idolatry. (See CCC 2113)
Next, does the practitioner claim that God’s help is guaranteed, or is God humbly asked to help without any promise of what He will do? Only in the case of the seven sacraments, or where there is a clear promise in the Bible, or a genuine God-given gift of prophecy, can we guarantee God’s action. Otherwise, anyone who makes an absolute promise of God’s help acts falsely, and sins.
2. Does the practitioner claim to be helped by intelligent spirits – for example, angels, demons, dead persons’ souls, or “spirit guides” – or speak of channeling?
The only legitimate recourse to angels, saints and holy souls is to ask them to pray for us, or to help us in ways which accord with God’s will. Any other attempt to use the power of spiritual beings, especially requesting them to contact us, is a sin of idolatry.
3. Does the practitioner claim to manipulate or depend upon any kind of unintelligent “spiritual energies”?
Doing so is technically called the sin of sorcery (CCC 2117), and is forbidden, even in the case of “healing therapies.”
4. Is it likely, or possible, that the therapy in general, or the method of an individual practitioner, has recourse to spirits secretly? Note that secret elements may include, in example, the use of a dowsing pendulum over the ingredients used in homeopathy or aromatherapy.
To participate unknowingly in such practices is not technically a sin, but may have negative spiritual effects.
5. Is the practice compatible with Christian teaching about Jesus and the nature of human beings?
The most likely alternatives to be suggested in New Age practices are suggestions that you “are God”, are already one with God, can become or get closer to God purely by virtue of your own exercises; and teaching that Jesus is one of many “christs.”
6. Are there good reasons, based either on experimental evidence, or the theory of how the therapy works, to believe it is truly effective?
If there are no good grounds, based either on reason (including scientific research), or on the truths of the Christian faith, then the practice is superstitious (CCC 2110-2111).
7. Am I being sincere, and founding my teaching on good evidence, if I am promoting or offering a particular technique?
Promoting or providing a practice involves you in moral responsibility for others as well as for yourself. Doing so based only on anecdotal evidence could be a sin against truth.
8. Will my participation in this practice give others a false impression of Christianity, or lead Christians into sin? (To answer this question, you will need to consider the practice’s “spiritual significance” in its culture of origin, and in your local culture.)
All Christians are responsible for encouraging every person in the world to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior from sin, even if Catholics do approach this duty differently from evangelical Christians. It is a serious matter to lead anyone to believe that it is good to turn to spiritual powers other than Jesus Christ. Therefore we must consider the impression we will give to others by using a practice which has passed all the other tests.
9. Am I using this practice in a way that is under the Lordship of Christ, and totally trusts Him with my future?
Do we trust in Jesus? If we use any kind of fortune teller to peer into our future, we are implicitly saying that we don’t trust Him, and that is a sin.
Catholics are free to use alternative medicine under the right conditions; however, the prevalence of non-Christian belief systems are so pervasive in this field that the discerning Christian will want to remain vigilant and willing to do their homework before reaching for an alternative solution to their health problems.
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