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Catholic yes to yoga?: Get Religion, February 21, 2013 February 21, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Roman Catholic Church.
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I have been waiting for the American press to pick up an article found in Saturday’s edition of La Stampa, the Turin-based Italian daily, on the Catholic Church and yoga. But as five days have passed with no mention of Bishop Raffaello Martinelli I expect we will not be seeing anything for the moment.

This is shame really as the the intersection of yoga and state, as GR’s editor TMatt has described it, is a live issue. My colleague, Mollie Hemingway, has written about the intersection of yoga and American culture — noting the consternation Hindus feel when its non-Hindu devotees reject claims they are appropriating a spiritual exercise of their faith.

Last December the New York Times ran a detailed article on a dispute in a California school system that had introduced yoga classes for students. On 20 Feb 2013 the Associated Press reported the dispute had now become a law suit with parents suing the school district saying their children are being taught religious doctrine by public school teachers. The school district’s response to the lawsuit is to deny that yoga is religious and that the ends justify the means.

Superintendent Timothy B. Baird said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not directly comment on it, but he defended the district’s decision to integrate yoga into its curriculum this year. The district is believed to be the first in the country to have full-time yoga teachers at every one of its schools. The lessons are funded by a $533,000, three-year grant from the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes Asthanga yoga. Since the district started the classes at its nine schools in January, Baird said teachers and parents have noticed students are calmer, using the breathing practices to release stress before tests.

“We’re not teaching religion,” he said. “We teach a very mainstream physical fitness program that happens to incorporate yoga into it. It’s part of our overall wellness program. The vast majority of students and parents support it.”

The kids are calmer after practicing yoga and therefore it is a good thing. Would the superintendent have been willing to accept money from a Catholic charity to hire someone for each school to teach kids Christian meditation? Or if the issue is movement of the body, would it have engaged a Falung Gong instructor to teach Dharma Wheel Practice if the group had put up the cash?

Into this mix  comes Saturday’s La Stampa article entitled “Vescovo Italiano apre a Yoga” ["Italian bishop open to Yoga"]

The lede states:

Un vescovo italiano, Mons. Raffaello Martinelli (consacrato vescovo il 2 luglio 2009), che è stato per un lungo periodo collaboratore di Joseph Ratzinger quando era Prefetto della Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede, “apre” a forme di meditazione orientale, da utilizzare in un quadro di spiritualità cristiana.

Which I translate as:

An Italian Catholic bishop states he is “open” to the use of Eastern meditation by Catholics in their prayer life. However, Msgr. Raffaello Martinelli, the Bishop of Frascati, (consecrated 2 July 2009), who served as an aide to Pope Benedict XVI when the pope was the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, said these practices must be used in the framework of Christian spirituality.

The article goes on to say that Msgr. Martinelli in December 2010 published a catechesis that is being sold in Catholic book stores in Italy that says meditation practices from non-Christian religions such as Zen and yoga “can be a suitable means for the faithful to stand before God.”

The explanation the bishop offers is that:

Since the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions [Nostra Aetate, 2], a Catholic should not be prejudiced against controlled breathing, mantras and other Eastern practices as being non-Christian. The Catholic can, however, take from them what is useful, provided he does not lose sight of the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and its needs since it is within the Christian spiritual sphere these practices must be employed.

Quite a strong statement from the bishop — and if it finds a way into the yoga and state debate in the U.S. will likely need to be clarified by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Newspaper articles about Catholic parishes refusing to rent space to yoga classes appear from time to time, but the question has not been definitely addressed for Catholics by the Magisterium.

When he was an aide to the then Cardinal Ratzinger, Msgr. Martinelli was involved in the preparation for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation which warned against syncretism. The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue’s Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life also argues that there must be a complete separation of a yoga exercises from their Hindu religious or philosophical roots — and Southern Baptist commentator Albert Mohler has argued Christians should not practice yoga at all due to the dangers of syncretism.

I do hope we will see some quality reporting in this area — there is an abundance of material for the journalist covering the story to find.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock. First published in GetReligion.

The Devil wears Yoga: Get Religion, December 3, 2011 December 4, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Hinduism.
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The Daily Telegraph has been having a great deal of fun with a story about the former exorcist for the Diocese of Rome, Fr. Gabriele Amorth. The 86-year old priest had been invited to a film festival to speak before the screening of The Rite, a new release starring Anthony Hopkins.

In the course of his remarks, Fr. Amorth denounced yoga as Satanic and said the Harry Potter novels were tools of the devil. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! — yes, he really did say that.

The Telegraph sub-editor who came up with the title for this article, “Harry Potter and yoga are evil says Catholic Church exorcist,” should see a little extra in his pay packet this week, as this is a Google search engine dream. If he had only been able to work in Justin Bieber he could have crashed the Telegraph’s servers.

While the story is great fun and smartly written, I came away from it thinking it was not fair. It links the pope to Fr. Amorth’s over the top comments and gives the impression the exorcist’s views are those of the Catholic Church. The Telegraph also avoids the question of the spiritual roots of yoga.

It opens strongly:

Father Gabriele Amorth, who for years was the Vatican’s chief exorcist and claims to have cleansed hundreds of people of evil spirits, said yoga is Satanic because it leads to a worship of Hinduism and “all eastern religions are based on a false belief in reincarnation”.

Reading JK Rowling’s  Harry Potter books is no less dangerous, said the 86-year-old priest, who is the honorary president for life of the International Association of Exorcists, which he founded in 1990, and whose favourite film is the 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist.

This sort of thing is great fun for a reporter — no hemming and hawing nor any need to ask Fr. Amorth what he really thinks. The story then quotes the exorcist and provides some foundation for the opening lede.

The Harry Potter books, which have sold millions of copies worldwide, “seem innocuous” but in fact encourage children to believe in black magic and wizardry, Father Amorth said.

“Practising yoga is Satanic, it leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter,” he told a film festival in Umbria this week, where he was invited to introduce The Rite, a film about exorcism starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as a Jesuit priest.

“In Harry Potter the Devil acts in a crafty and covert manner, under the guise of extraordinary powers, magic spells and curses,” said the priest, who in 1986 was appointed the chief exorcist for the Diocese of Rome.

“Satan is always hidden and what he most wants is for us not to believe in his existence. He studies every one of us and our tendencies towards good and evil, and then he offers temptations.” Science was incapable of explaining evil, said Father Amorth, who has written two books on his experiences as an exorcist. “It’s not worth a jot. The scientist simply explores what God has already created.”

How about that! What a great line … yoga is Satanic and leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter. There is plenty in that sentence to upset the average Telegraph reader as she peruses the paper with her morning tea (hopefully before her yoga class.) The second half of Fr. Amorth’s quotes are less vigorous and taken by themselves do not raise any eyebrows. At this point the Telegraph seeks to place Fr. Amorth’s views in context — but it does so in a somewhat oleaginous way.

His views may seem extreme, but in fact reflect previous warnings by Pope Benedict XVI, when as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy.

In 1999, six years before he succeeded John Paul II as Pope, he issued a document which warned Roman Catholics of the dangers of yoga, Zen, transcendental meditation and other ‘eastern’ practises.

They could “degenerate into a cult of the body” that debases Christian prayer, the document said.

Yoga poses could create a feeling of well-being in the body but it was erroneous to confuse that with “the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit,” the document said.

The “enforcer” line was fun for a few weeks mid 2005, but is a bit stale at this point. However, this linkage between Fr. Amorth’s the devil wears yoga pants and reads Harry Potter and the Catholic Church’s warnings against the New Age won’t do. “Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life. A Christian reflection on the New Age” lays out the church’s teaching on “some of the traditions which flow into New Age … ancient Egyptian occult practices, Cabbalism, early Christian gnosticism, Sufism, the lore of the Druids, Celtic Christianity, mediaeval alchemy, Renaissance hermeticism, Zen Buddhism, Yoga and so on.”

This has nothing to do with yoga poses, and everything to do with the spiritual practices of yoga. The Vatican document explains:

Yoga, zen, transcendental meditation and tantric exercises lead to an experience of self-fulfilment or enlightenment. Peak-experiences (reliving one’s birth, travelling to the gates of death, biofeedback, dance and even drugs – anything which can provoke an altered state of consciousness) are believed to lead to unity and enlightenment. Since there is only one Mind, some people can be channels for higher beings. Every part of this single universal being has contact with every other part. The classic approach in New Age is transpersonal psychology, whose main concepts are the Universal Mind, the Higher Self, the collective and personal unconscious and the individual ego. The Higher Self is our real identity, a bridge between God as divine Mind and humanity. Spiritual development is contact with the Higher Self, which overcomes all forms of dualism between subject and object, life and death, psyche and soma, the self and the fragmentary aspects of the self. Our limited personality is like a shadow or a dream created by the real self. The Higher Self contains the memories of earlier (re-)incarnations.

The philosophical premise then of yoga is one that profoundly conflicts with the Christian world view. However, this review is not the place for a full discussion of the church’s teachings on this point. Suffice it to say the potted explanation provided by the Telegraph is not adequate to the task of explaining why the Catholic Church is uneasy with yoga.

The article then turns to critiques of Fr. Amorth’s views, noting “Italian yoga schools said Father Amorth’s criticism was absurd.”

“It’s a theory — if one can call it a theory — that is totally without foundation. Yoga is not a religion or a spiritual practise. It doesn’t have even the slightest connection with Satanism or Satanic sects.” Giorgio Furlan, the founder of the Yoga Academy of Rome, said yoga had nothing to do with religion, “least of all Satanism.” “Whoever says that shows that they know absolutely nothing about yoga,” he said.

While yoga instructors are given a voice denying the religious nature of yoga, the Telegraph neglects to offer the views of Hindu groups or religion scholars who might hold a contrary position — not about Satanism, but yoga’s spiritual/religious nature.

My colleague at GetReligion, Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, has pointed to American examples of the sort of error the Telegraph has made, accepting without question the premise that yoga is not spiritual. My purpose, however, is not to debate these issues — nor defend Fr. Amorth from the charge that he is a nut, nor argue that he is a saintly man of God. The problem with this story, as journalism, is that the Telegraph errs in ignoring what MZ Hemingway calls the “religious dimensions of yoga and what it means, in a religious sense, to practice yoga.” The editorial voice of the Telegraph story is that an aged Catholic exorcist has gone a bit mad and said some silly things about stretching exercises. There really is more to it than that.

Is this story fair to Fr. Amorth, to yoga, to Hinduism, to the pope? I say no. Am I being fair to the Telegraph? What say you GetReligion readers?

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

First printed in GetReligion.

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