Dear Donagh,
…I'm very worried about my husband who is a recovering alcoholic. He's off the drink for 4 years now and he attends his AA meetings every Wed. and Sat. He was drinking heavily when I married him and we had a terrible life for nearly ten years - I won't go into it. It's great to have enough money now for decent clothes and proper food…. I read in a magazine that the Church has condemned AA. Is that true? If it is I can't understand it. Our life would still be hell only for it. I'm terrified that my husband will find out it's condemned and go back on the drink. He's very religious. How can it be wrong when it does so much good for people…? Can you tell me something about that document…? Theresa

    Dear Theresa, Thanks for your letter, and I hope you don’t mind that I shortened it to the above. The magazine was referring no doubt to a recent document from two Vatican bodies, the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, entitled "Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life - a Christian reflection on the 'New Age'”. No, I can tell you straight away, it is not true that the document condemns AA or any of the twelve-step programmes such as Narcotics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous…. Notice that the document calls itself a "reflection", not a judgment or a condemnation. Thank God for that! - for it would be difficult to name any movement that has been even half as effective as these twelve-step programmes in helping people who are struggling with addictions.
    The one and only reference to these programmes is in a section entitled "Health: Golden Living," where it gives a list of about 25 so-called 'New Age' approaches to promoting holistic health. It includes the twelve-step programmes in that list. Attempting to describe these approaches, the document says, "The source of healing is said to be within ourselves, something we reach when we are in touch with our inner energy or cosmic energy" (2.2.3). Elsewhere the document says that New Age thinking involves the "rejection of the language of sin and salvation, replacing it with the morally neutral language of addiction and recovery" (2.4).
    If I could make just two points about this: 1. I doubt that any AA or Al Anon member could see in these phrases anything resembling their own or their family member's struggle for recovery. From listening to hundreds of AA members over many years I can say that what impresses me continually is their deep understanding of the need to hand over their lives daily to the 'Higher Power'. They come on their knees begging help from God. (The usage 'Higher Power', rather than 'God', was adopted by the founders of AA, not because they were vague about their faith, but because they wanted non-believers too to come to recovery.) 2. Alcoholics (and this may be true of other addicts too) are nearly always crippled with guilt; they have no doubt at all, deep down, about being sinners. They come to AA precisely because all their own moralising - and that of others - has failed to help them. In AA they begin to learn that there is not a simple equation between sinner and addict (even though all human beings are sinners); they begin to understand the nature of addiction and they begin to find some glimmer of hope for recovery. Many do recover. This is a way that works. It begins where preaching fails. All the themes of the AA and similar programmes are deeply spiritual, as anyone can see from reading the Twelve Steps. (I put them in as this month's "Wisdom Line", the last page on this site.)
    So, rest assured that AA is not condemned in this document. It's a pity that the twelve-step programmes were referred to at all. You asked for further comments on the document itself. It is written in a new style - almost chatty. It doesn’t quite come off, however. It appears rather gauche at times, probably because it is so new. I'm afraid the old style lies just below the surface! For example, "this is very much an 'either-or' situation" (6.1) is a reasonable translation of anathema sit! There are many similar examples. The document tries to get a handle on the New Age movement as such. It has to admit of course that this is less a movement than a cultural climate with very unclear boundaries. "The mere use of the term New Age in itself means little, if anything" (6.2), it says, and some things "are frequently labelled 'New Age' for commercial purposes" (1.4). Having said that, it goes on, surprisingly, to speak of it as if it did indeed mean one thing: "The gnostic nature of this movement calls us to judge it in its entirety" (4). No dialogue here! Only a box of answers! It calls itself "a provisional report," and "an invitation to understand the New Age and to engage in a genuine dialogue with those who are influenced by New Age thought" (1); it "does not aim at providing a set of complete answers to the many questions raised by the New Age" (1). Yet by pasting onto it the names of ancient heresies - 'Gnosticism' (2nd century), 'Pelagianism' (4th century), 'Quietism' (17th century) - it does indeed prejudice the case against it; name-calling is hardly a form of dialogue. Neither is it analysis: to say 'A is like B' is not to analyse A, because A is also in fact unlike B (inescapably so when A is 21st-century and B is 2nd-century). It admits that "the term New Age has even been abused to demonise people and practices" (6.2). The document itself, despite its own disclaimers, has many passages that are examples of just that.
    I think there is no substitute for going into each of the practices alluded to by the woolly term 'New Age' - painstakingly, one by one. When dozens of useful practices are put in the same bag with things like Satanism and sorcery, everything in the bag gets soiled. This is not the way to understand anything. In the 13th century the philosophy of Aristotle, as it came into the West in the translations of Islamic scholars, must have appeared to most Christians as a "deterministic" system, in that respect a little like Aquarian thinking. While some people went along with it uncritically, others condemned it out of hand, and others again went along happily with both (a position known as duplex veritas - 'double truth'), St Albert the Great and St Thomas Aquinas set themselves the much more laborious task of studying it in depth and painstakingly integrating much of it into Christian theology. There's no substitute for that labour.
    The situation is also like (and unlike!) that at the beginning of the 20th century. Then too the Church, under Pius X, had to take account of a new climate of thought. It named it 'Modernism', summarised it, formulated it in its own way, and condemned it with extreme violence of language, initiating what has been called "a Reign of Terror in the Church" that lasted fifty years. The present reaction, thank God, is very different. The manner is friendly, more humble, more human, often tentative, and the word 'dialogue' is used even if there is still a long way to go. But we're on the way….
    According to the Gospel, the way to judge something is by its fruits. "By their fruits you shall know them." I pray that your husband will continue with AA, which has already brought such blessings to your family.

Donagh O'Shea

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