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from issue no. 05 - 2003

Sixty-eight, mysticism, satanism

The relevance of the ancient Gnosticism and its perversions insinuate themselves into Catholic thought even at higher-levels. An interview with Alessandro Olivieri Pennesi, Lecturer at the Lateran Pontifical University

by Giovanni Cubeddu

The Last Supper, Salvador Dalí,1955, National Gallery of Art, Washington

The Last Supper, Salvador Dalí,1955, National Gallery of Art, Washington

The question of the New Age and the relevance of Gnostic beliefs has recently led two pontifical councils, Culture and Inter-religious Dialogue, to present a common document in the form of a “provisional report”, that is at the same time a «guide for Catholics involved in the preaching of the Gospel and in the teaching of the faith at every level in the Church» and an «invitation to understand this cultural current».
The sole Italian writer quoted in the Christian studies taken as reference by the drafters of the report is Alessandro Olivieri Pennesi, a priest from Rome and lecturer at the Lateran University, thanks to his The Christ of the New Age, published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana. An exhaustive coverage that opens immediately with a chapter on Christ in contemporary Gnosticism (which, just like the ancient variety, lives by «devalutation of the present», eliding already beforehand any possibility of historical salvation for mankind) and bringing out the «common esoteric-occultist background» of those who, having «access to the same sources» as Christians, have interpreted them with the ambition of going beyond them, looking forward to a new age, and to affirm a “Christ of always”, an abstract and disincarnate principle.
We began our conversation with Don Olivieri Pennesi starting from the Vatican document.

ALESSAndRO OLIVIERI PENNESI: Scholarly circles were awaiting the Vatican report. And some people pointed out that publication was considerably delayed, though it had been in preparation for some time. It should, nevertheless, be noted that already in 1993 the Pope had warned of the spread of the New Age when meeting the North American bishops, thought the more watchful of them were already aware and had written pastoral letters on the spread of infection in some local communities. The Italian Bishops’ Conference did the same with the document of 1993: The pastoral commitment of the Church in the face of the new religious movements and the sects. Now the drafters of the Vatican document have made an appreciable effort to provide a tool that can be used a bit everywhere, given that the New Age phenomenon exists from Latin America to Japan.
Such attitudes and beliefs have by now spread to all classes.
OLIVIERI PENNESI: The document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of 1989, Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on certain aspects of Christian meditation, was already a reference text on the attention to be given to the reappearance of ancient Gnosticisms, in which salvation came through the esoteric awareness for few. There are countless examples of New Age practice (or Gnostic, which is to say more or less the same) at grass-roots level. To offer just one, the last Vatican text on the New Age mentions the use, in alarming expansion, of the enneagramma: a symbol originally connected with initiation that developed in the esoteric-syncretist sphere, later become system of personality classification into nine psychological types, that serves in the quest of self-realization by esoteric and/or magical means. In the latter case, self-divinization is functional to the acquisition of the power, that becomes concrete also through the extreme form of satanism. We’re plumb in Gnosticism. In Anglo-American Christian circles the method is given room in the field of spiritual guidance and direction (and the American bishops have set up a commission on the phenomenon).
What have you noticed in theological thinking?
OLIVIERI PENNESI: In the field of inter-religious dialogue I know writers who, by looking for points of contact with the eastern religions, end up accepting Gnostic ideas. Let me add that there is an ecological Catholic spirituality that almost accepts the divinization of the ceated world in the figure of Mother Earth (and one doesn’t then see why the universal archetype of the Virgin Mother shouldn’t be raised up in place of the Virgin Mary). These are themes promoted in some of their writings by Leonardo Boff and by now ex-Dominican Matthew Fox, who has founded in Oklahoma the University of Creation Spirituality. In general, those who agree to these theses also eliminate original sin, replacing it with the “original blessing”. Hence mankind, being good and not in need of any grace, must busy itself in recovering the spark of God set in it ab initio. The dialectic between nature and grace is obliterated. There is even a theology of energy, that recalls the comic fluxes beloved of the New Age, and that in the field of Catholic inculturation seem to have citizenship particularly in the Far East.
As you see it, what ways lead to denaturing the faith?
OLIVIERI PENNESI: Simplifying, people want, no doubt with the best intentions, to be à la page, go towards the man of today, at bottom, however, degrading themselves and believing that the religious sense is the factor of the encounter. And then New Age Gnosticism claims it can transform mankind painlessly, it cancels the very idea of sin. While in the Christian life the mystery of the cross is present, the pain that Jesus himself suffered. If it isn’t Jesus who saves, it’s a non-Catholic idea of self-salvation that ends by seducing certain ecclesial circles. As in the Prophecy of Celestine by James Redfield, the contemporary Gnostic bible, where after nine steps one gets to perfect enlightenment. Or, as in what is known as the Catholic theology of the process, always in the North America circles, which is in danger of opening the door to self-salvation.
There are writings by the American religious Maloney on New Age and Christian mysticism that seem to take sides with the New Age taking on some of its principles such as “Christic awareness”: something that, from a certain point of view, has no difficulty insinuating itself into even higher-level Catholic thinking.
So even in the Church non-Catholic thinking can spread...
OLIVIERI PENNESI: The distorted interpretations of the pastorality of the Vatican II Council have some responsibility in that, such as the misunderstanding about what attention to the “signs of the times” meant. Certainly the New Age is a sign of the times, that has to be faced, agreed… but not so as go beyond the tradition, concreteness, as Gnosticism always induces. Aldo Natale Terrin, investigating Post-modernism, maintains that the Church today lives in the acceptance of the a double adherence: being able to be Catholic (but in what way?) and other at the same moment, presumimg that one can by this time go into other sources at no risk. Not only would double adherence be accepted within the Church at various levels, but it is part of the very proposal the Church makes to contemporary man. It’s a tacit agreement, inside and outside. Aldo Natale Terrin adds that Christianity reduced to religion can in no way protect itself from the New Age, it can’t defend itself because it bears within itself the spirit of an age that deos not intend to stand against a defined religious world (cf. Terrin, New Age. The religiosity of the Post-modern, Bologna 1993, p. 247). There is, furthermore, a serious danger connected to the New Age; the review Jesus (March 2003) claims it should be contestualized within the ambit of the esoterism and occultism. I find myself in agreement, because the New Age is only a label for similar contents, and it’s a phenomenon that simply makes plain how wide the spread of esoterism and occultism now is.
Writings on the New Age and Christian mysticism seem to take sides with the New Age taking on some of its principles such as “Christic awareness”: something that, from a certain point of view, has no difficulty insinuating itself into even higher-level Catholic thinking
How widespread?
OLIVIERI PENNESI: There’s a saying attribued to Malraux, troubling and prophetic from a certain point of view, according to which the 21st century would either be mystical or it wouldn’t be at all. That, joined to the loss of the experience of the faith within Europe that was believed Christian, makes one understand how common can be adherence to a faith whether pagan, pre-christian (the original creation is overlaid with a “re-enchantment” of the world, rescuing a mythic vision that the first evangelization had set aside), magical. And here we come back to the double adherence of which I was speaking.
And there is, for that matter, the presence in nuce of a sort of satanism at the very root of the New Age, that is to say in the theosophy, in which devil worship is allowed. Lucifer is alleged not to be evil, but the other face of God. The cultural foundation to which Alice Bailey, the first herald of the new age, referred back was called the Lucis Trust (Lucis being an abbreviation for Lucifer). You have written a lot on Jacob Frank, Frankism… and on purification sought through evil (given that for them evil itself comes from God).
The attempt at divinizing man that the New Age propagates, through a transformation that can be brought about by working on oneself, comes with a retrieval of the idea of alchemy. In the Prophecy of Celestine there is the metaphor of the spiritualization of the man who becomes pure energy: a Gnostic attempt to get back to the divine spark. That also comes in another of the sacred texts of the New Age, Course in miracles. It’s a book that came out of academic circles in the United States, the work of Helen Schucman, who is Jewish. She claimed to enter in contact with her deep self, receiving from it the “revelation” of Christ…
Quite definitely almost nothing remains of the historical figure of Jesus Christ, in the New Age.
OLIVIERI PENNESI: But without historical hope what becomes of Christianity? New Age scholars talk, among other things, of a “Christosophy” that goes against history, that makes recourse to alternative or apochryphal texts to “fill in the time” between the presentation in the Temple and the public life of Jesus, by introducing in underhand fashion – as did the students of “Sixty-eight” – the esoteric journeys of Jesus, initiation among the Essenes of the Qumran community, or his visits to Buddhist India… And symptomatic is the example of a publication like Re Nudo, in which people who experienced and participated in Sixty-eight, after long wandering from their original Marxism have now found a stance of a Gnostic kind. And – in a period in which eschatology would like to lead us all into the final world war – an interpretation in political terms of the outcome of the new stance would be interesting.

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