Archbishop Tarsizio Bertone was named secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 1996. He spoke to Register correspondent Alejandro Bermudez in early September regarding the CDF's warning that some writings of the late Father Anthony de Mello were not compatible with Catholic belief. The Vatican requested that Catholic publishers cease reprinting the Jesuit priest's books and that Catholic bookstores remove copies already for sale.
Alejandro Bermudez: Father Anthony de Mello's writings have often been associated with the so-called New Age movement. How would you describe this “New Age?”
Archbishop Bertone: It is difficult to define “New Age” with accuracy, as it is not a philosophical or theological tendency with well-defined boundaries. Rather, we are talking about a group of principles which try to approach the sacred by seeing the divine as a force, a dynamism, an all-pervading cosmic entity which permeates everything, including human beings. We face [in New Age], therefore, a more or less pantheistic conception of life and religion, in which the divine somehow runs through all created things, reaching its perfection only in human self-consciousness, as only self-conscious beings can strive for perfection.
Naturally, this cannot be regarded as a religion, but as a so-called philosophy of life, which leads to a fundamental life option aimed at achieving self-control and a “balanced” relationship with other human beings and the cosmos.
From such a perspective, this elusive system cannot accept the existence of a personal God, and therefore denies any creator-creature relationship between God and man. More precisely, there is no creation as such, because the cosmos is seen as an immanent reality which does not have its origin in a creator, in a God that is outside the universe. Consequently the relationship with God is not conceived of [in the same way] as in Christianity. There is no sin, only “imperfections” of the human person. Thus, all effort is directed toward achieving perfection. In such a doctrine, there is no revelation, there is no need for salvation, nor for the truths of salvation history.
The works of Father de Mello include aphorisms that seem to be related to a cosmic, rather than God-centered, spirituality. Could we say in this sense that his writings belong to the New Age?
Yes. We must remember that Father de Mello was a priest of the Catholic Church, [brought up in the] Christian faith, and therefore nurtured in a Christian philosophical and theological context. At the same time, however, he assumes as the framework of his thoughts the existence of a cosmic energy, which he represents as omnipresent and equivalent to the figure of God. He speaks about a “perfection” present in the cosmos which is within the reach of those willing or able to recognize this perfection; therefore, there is no need of salvation as it is understood by Christianity. On the whole, it [Father de Mello's work] follows a pseudo-spiritualist tendency. As an author, Father de Mello evolves from positions more or less acceptable to a Catholic perspective — as the CDF document says — toward forms of thought more New Age, developing, as it were, a sort of proto-New Age.
What are the problems posed for a Catholic by a spirituality of this kind?
The main problem, of course, is the relationship to God. We believe we are creatures and God is the creator; we are mortal and he is infinite. This is the key issue. Our relationship with God brings us into relationship with the Son of God, Jesus Christ, sent to us for our salvation. In the books of Father de Mello, there is no trace of the acceptance of salvation or of the human need for salvation — nor is there a consciousness of sin from which human beings must be redeemed by a Savior. The concepts of creation, sin, and salvation are intimately connected, and are central for Christian life.
A consciousness of sin enables the human person to perceive his own frailty; this human inconstancy is a truth that we accept from revelation. But in Father de Mello's work, there is neither acceptance of, nor need for, any revelation. Without revelation, perfection is no longer the consequence of following God's design that he himself revealed to humanity; rather, perfection becomes something achieved by each person's individual quest for wisdom and salvation.
If we have rejected the concept of sin as revealed truth, as well as the human need to be liberated and saved, the image of Christ is totally effaced. He is no longer the redeemer sent by the Father, but only an exceptional role model. In this sense, Father de Mello suggests a sort of human omnipotence, which is in itself capable of achieving perfection without the participation of God and his grace. Christ is no more than a great human example. We might call such a conception “do-it-yourself” salvation.
To what extent can someone claim to be a Catholic and at the same time support or assume Father de Mello's main ideas?
I cannot understand how a Catholic could accept the principles, assertions, and spiritual guidance of the New Age movement. To show this, I would like to note here a series of dualities or polarities which are fundamental to Catholic doctrine: God and man, God and the world, creator and creature, supernatural and natural, grace and sin, heaven and earth, faith and history, eternity and time, Christ and his Church, Sacred Scripture and theology, faith and works, theology and philosophy, faith and reason, and — the great theme of the pope's next encyclical — the mystical and the moral. All these dualities are fundamental to the Catholic vision, and give meaning to our faith when integrated in a balanced tension, under the primacy of the divine. There cannot be a confusion or divorce between the elements of any of these dichotomies, as there is in the New Age movement.
From this perspective, I cannot imagine how a person who claims to accept the truths of his or her faith could, at the same time, accept the presuppositions of the New Age, which basically ignore the existence of these dualities. The bottom line is that, for us, the word of life is found in Sacred Scripture, not in the books of Father de Mello. His books can certainly be treated with respect. We can even say that they might make good meditation material for a non-Christian, with the reservation that they convey a certain amount of New Age spirituality.
How do you interpret the increasing influence of such pseudo-spiritualities, even in the lives of many Catholics?
First, it shows how much ignorance exists among Catholics regarding their faith. In this sense, I would strongly recommend and urge the study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a means of strengthening a faith which can be considered mature only when it is well-formed and able to understand the true meaning, scope, and consequences of being a Catholic.
Where there is ignorance or lack of knowledge, there will be a search for substitutes to the truth. Today, searching for substitutes is an easy matter, as there are so many religious or pseudo-religious notions around. Such notions, however, only bring [about] deeper misunderstandings and confusions, which lead to the conviction — explicit or implicit — that each of us can become the “author” of our own salvation.
Such a situation leads responsible Catholics to understand the challenge we confront, with regard to formation and catechesis. But there is still another problem, in addition to this: the problem of communication. The media in general, including the print press, TV, the radio, and now the Internet, frequently convey messages opposed to Catholic teachings which are, at the same time, presented as if they were Catholic. We therefore face a problem regarding how to communicate faith and truth as absolutes that are valid for all. The overload, both of information and of misinformation, tends to obstruct the adequate formation of Catholics. As you may note, these problems are interconnected. They are among several factors which shape a quite complex scenario, which poses a pastoral challenge related to the teaching and the transmission of faith.
Personal: Born in Romano Canavese, Italy, on Dec. 2, 1934.
Background: Ordained a priest in 1960. Appointed by Pope John Paul II to the see of the Archdiocese of Vercelli in Italy in 1991, where he was consecrated as archbishop in July of that year.
Current Position: Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
What should be expected from Catholic bookstores and publishers regarding the books of Father de Mello in the wake of the Vatican's recent notification?
That's a good question. It is important to talk about this. We expect those who are not Catholic to, at least, take note of the Church's teaching on this matter. From Catholic bookstores and printing houses, however, we should expect a coherent vision, which means not printing or distributing any books incompatible with the Catholic faith — and the notification, however careful or moderate, has been absolutely clear in stating that these books contain “ideas and doctrines incompatible with the Catholic faith.” Therefore, the appropriate thing is not to print these books. If books must be available [through secular sources] for those who want to know their content — and the Church respects freedom of conscience and presumes the maturity of a Catholic conscience — the least we would expect is to see the notification added to the text, to make absolutely clear to the reader that the book is incompatible with Church teaching.