My paper explores the issue of the clash between what the Polish New Age adherents assert and what the Polish Catholic activists declare. I am going to sketch the most important lines of the conflict, however, I must say the task is not trouble-free. No legible map of fronts or interrelations will emerge as a result of this presentation. This is by virtue of the fact that generally we cannot speak about the clear representation of two independent, self-confident parts ready either to get into dialogue or to defend their standpoints on the platform of free exchange of opinions assured by the civil society.
Reflecting on that difficulty not only must we consider the common feature of the New Age phenomenon that does not speak with one consent. Also to be taken into account is the peculiarity of the Polish New Age, I mean the peculiarity that originates both from the ways of introduction of the New Age ideas to Poland, and from the way they function within the Polish monoreligious, Catholic society. As will be showed, the Polish New Age adherents are involved in conformist attitudes what does not allow them to form an autonomous, self-reliant part of the potential debate. As far as the Polish Catholic discourse is concerned, it must be stressed that it does not form a monolith, it is ranging from the strong fundamental bias of some media like the populist Radio Maryja to more open position of the Catholic officials. Generally speaking, however, the whole Polish Catholic language is plunged in traditionalism supported by rather non-intellectual patterns. Obviously, this situation favours neither the constitution of one Catholic standpoint toward the New Age phenomenon, nor the respectful dialogue between the Catholics and the New Age adherents.
My presentation will be divided into several parts. Firstly, I will briefly speak about the emergence of the New Age in Poland. I will also summarize the Catholic response to this phenomenon. Secondly, I will give a case of the discussion between the Reiki advocates and the Catholic activists as it was presented in the monthly titled Nieznany Świat [The Unknown World] that propagates the New Age ideas. Thirdly, I will mention other polemics held by the Nieznany Świat authors, and I will set them in the broader context of the Polish religiosity. In the end, conclusions will be formulated.
During the communist period, when the New Age ideas triumphed in the Western Europe and America, the Polish official propaganda ordered combating all symptoms of irrationalism in culture. Of course, the communist ideology was not so strong some publications drawing on the occult were edited, the Polish Psychotronic Society was functioning, and the first courses of rebirthing and Transcendental Meditation were introduced. However, it was not till the 90s when the New Age trends came to Poland in the mass. They appeared together with the ideological pluralism and the introduction of the free market rules. Numerous periodicals and series of books on the theme of parapsychology, magic, yoga, dowsing, UFO, astrology, fortune-telling or alternative therapies have become visible. Appropriate courses and workshops have been organized, and psychotronic schools and centers for esoteric knowledge have come into existence in the whole country. Among the periodicals launched in those days Nieznany Świat improved its position to be one of the most popular and opinion-leading. The magazine’s profile is determined by themes enumerated at its front cover. They are: “esotericism, parapsychology, dowsing, alternative medicine, astrology, secrets of nature, palaeoastronautics, UFO”.
It is worth noting that the New Age spirituality came to Poland in its mature form. It was not anymore the millenaristic, utopian version of the New Age sensu stricto. It was giving great value to the holistic worldview and suitable practices without alluding explicitly to the approaching Age of Aquarius. Usually, the term “New Age” itself was not recognized by the Polish alternative spirituality followers at the beginning of the 90s, and the label “New Age” was being associated with the commercialism and the superficial religiosity. An utterance of the today’s leader of among others shamanism and astrology, is very distinctive in this context:
“I see this New Age as a kind of American fashion, more superficial than the counterculture of the hippies for sure […]. Then [by the end of 80s DH], I was preparing horoscopes, I used the I-Cing and tarot cards, I was practicing yoga, reading on the odd things that used to happen to Carlos Castaneda and Robert Monroe, I took part in the Buddhist sangha, and I was prostrating, and I was saying mantras, but neither I felt the necessity for dubbing it all with the name ‘New Age’, nor I even knew the name itself […]. Later, no one knew when, it appeared that in the West, mainly in the USA, this designation was functioning. However, it didn’t come to me as a name for something ‘mine’, but it was at once pronounced ironically, as something you should reject or you shouldn’t identify yourself non critically” [interview given to the author of the MA dissertation on the New Age in Poland; Nowak 2003: 227, 228].
The trend has remained and until today the Polish leaders of what we sociologically recognize as the New Age usually avoid the designation of the “New Age” for what they propagate [Nowak 2003]. However, for the purpose of this paper I will use the term “the Polish New Age adherents” referring to the followers of the alternative spirituality that is usually labeled “the New Age” by scholars of this phenomenon [Hanegraaf 1996, Heelas 1996].
Correspondingly to the spiritualistic boom of the 90s, many publications produced by the Christian critics have emerged. They have been both translations of texts written in countries where the New Age was settled more firmly than in Poland, as well as commentaries created by Polish authors. The scope of these publications is huge: from the fundamentalist condemnations to conceptualizations of the New Age as a positive challenge.
Among Polish authors, priests Aleksander Posacki and Andrzej Zwoliński are the most active in the field of strong critique. They point out the devilish sources of the New Age activities and they warn against the serious, terrifying consequences that the New Age adherents risk. The other authors expressing strong xenophobic opinions are sister Michaela Pawlik and Stanisław Krajski (Ph.D.), both connected with the populist Radio Maryja circle. Sister Michaela is a leader of the anti-cult organization called Movement for the Family and the Individual Defense and she vividly combats all the alleged manifestations of cults including the New Age. Dr Krajski in turn associates the New Age with the freemasonry presented in very phantasmatic way and he offers conspiracy theories regarding its emergence and growth. On the other hand, there are less active Catholic circles that promote more open attitude to the New Age adherents. They do not attack them explicitly, sometimes they encourage the Church members to get into dialogue with them, but without meddling into the New Age practices [see e.g. Śliwiński 1998]. Those are not necessarily Catholic officials.
Between two mentioned extremes many other Catholic voices could be located, including bishops’ letters to Church members, as well as Sunday sermons. No matter how significant the differences between all these positions would be, at the beginning of the 90s they could have been characterized by one important similarity. Namely, the majority of publications referred to the notion of the New Age worked out abroad, under different historical and social circumstances. Yet the New Age as a self-conscious phenomenon of this name has never existed in Poland. As a result the Polish new spiritual trends’ adherents usually Catholics as about 95% of the Polish society declares itself as Catholic could hardly feel as if the critique had addressed particularly them.
An editorial lead to an article in the Nieznany Świat monthly is worth quoting here:
“In many letters you ask what the New Age actually is, and whether we could say something more about it. The beginning of the new 1994 year seems to be a good occasion for that […]. By the way we kindly inform a priest from Tychy, who as we have been informed sauced Nieznany Świat from the pulpit for reeling people’s heads and tricky dissemination of wicked New Age ideas, that Nieznany Świat is not connected with the New Age, nor with any other movement, although we do not conceal that the spiritual message of the New Age seems to be for us a vehicle for very important and respectable values. At the same time we have a pleasure to inform that among the readers of Nieznany Świat there are also clergymen, luckily broader-minded than the parish-priest from Tychy” [NŚ 1/94: 4].
Note that firstly the Nieznany Świat editors repudiate the term „New Age”, secondly, they allude to the fact of Sunday condemnations, and thirdly, they recall other priests more open to the questions presented in the magazine which is the strategy I am going to comment on further.
Going back to Catholic publications, I must say that until now many authors have resigned from exaggerate using of the term “New Age”, and they criticize particular practices as e.g. Reiki [Posacki et al. 1997], or the Silva mind control [Posacki w.y.p.; see also Zwoliński 2001 who enumerates various practices from the belief in amulets to the UFO observations and bioenergotherapy]. The majority of these publications, however, continue to be strong rejections of these techniques on the basis of suggestions that they are associated with devil forces.
The strong split of the Polish Catholic discourse concerning the New Age phenomenon has not been dimmed by the publication of the Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life Vatican document. Not so fundamental Catholic advocates have became equipped with official formulas. Now the document has become the support for their not-so-fundamental critique. For instance the following comment has been given by archbishop Życiński: “Before publishing the document on the New Age some supporters of the Christian vision of culture tried to defend less radical versions of the New Age by stating that better kitsch than nothing. Nowadays we know the thesis is not defensible, as the kitsch will never replace the authentic values”. As far as the fundamentalistic Catholic circles are concerned, they still act as if they have not heard about the Vatican statement, and they continue to associate the New Age with dangerous cults. This is the case of anti-cult centers that are active also in the internet [see e.g. www.effatha.org.pl, www.sekty.net; the link “New Age” is also present at the website devoted to exorcisms www.egzorcyzmy.katolik.pl (other links are: occultism and magic, divination, Satanism, homeopathy)].
In 1997 the “Letter” Association for the Evangelization by Media published a book titled Reiki: the Rain of Heavenly Energy? [Posacki et al. 1997]. Priests Zwoliński and Posacki renowned for irreconcilable criticism of the New Age were among authors of this publication. The book consists of four parts. The first section includes two critical articles previously published in the Catholic press, and one “testimony” of a person firstly engaged in the Reiki therapy and then converted to Catholicism. The second part contains two amendments sent to periodicals by the Reiki masters. The third section is the critical answer to them. The smashing evaluation of the Reiki therapy is supported by both the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the bishop Pawłowicz’s opinion. The bishop was responsible for investigation of cults and new religious movements in Poland on behalf of the Conference of the Episcopate of Poland, and he classified Reiki as a destructive group [Pawłowicz 1996: 315]. The fourth section of the book is the priest Posacki’s summary on the relation between Reiki and Christianity. Briefly speaking, the publication explicitly condemns the Reiki practice.
Dissemination of the book overlapped with the death of a Reiki master Mariusza, who was a Catholic nun acutely criticized by the authors. As a response the Nieznany Świat monthly published articles devoted to the sister, and at the same time very critical of the Catholic publication [NS´ 4/98: 18-24]. Editors of the periodical associated the nun’s death with the anti-Reiki drive on her activity, labeling it a “crusade”. Likewise, they presented an interview with a Catholic priest, who was the Reiki practitioner and sister’s collaborator, and finally they referred to factual abuses caused by the authors of the book on Reiki.
Undoubtedly, evident abuses could be indicated on various levels of how the Reiki therapy was presented by Catholic critiques. Then the emotional reaction of Nieznany Świat could be seen as understandable. However, there was one very specific motif in this response. That is, the standpoint of the Reiki defenders was strongly supported by the authority of other Church representatives, engaged by themselves in alternative practices. An interview with the Catholic priest looks as it was quoted with a goal to legitimize the therapy.
The strategy of the periodical was neither accidental, nor exclusively connected with the fact that the defended person was a Catholic nun. Other polemics undertaken by authors of the monthly were conducted in the similar way. That was the case of discussion on the Silva mind control [an interview with a Catholic priest was quoted see: NŚ 2/99: 59], as well as the case of the defense of dowsing [priests that practiced the technique were recalled see: NŚ 3/02: 10-12]. The editorial lead to the presentation of the New Age that I quoted earlier could be another example of the tactic.
The method of argumentation used by authors of Nieznany Świat might be explicated in various ways. As the time is limited I will give only one comment that obtrudes itself when we take into account the Polish context in which the New Age ideas exist. Namely, the practices and the worldview, spread by the periodical, demand justification coming from the authority of Catholicism, for the reason that many Polish New Age adherents are not concerned about distinguishing themselves from the dominant religion. This is what my anthropological researches have revealed. Statements like ‘I am Catholic’ are easy to be heard in the esoteric galleries or in the alternative medicine fairs where the fieldwork was realized.
The strong conformist attitudes of Poles in the area of religion have been recognized by sociologists. They have pointed the prevalence of the complex of “belonging without believing” in the Polish society [Borowik and Doktór 2001: 151]. The today’s ideological pluralism and the high individualization of the religious belief co-exist with a general declaration of being a Catholic and with a dutifulness in a religious ritual domain, including Sunday masses. Among 95% of Poles declaring themselves as Catholics only one fourth believes in the Catholic interpretation of what happens after death [ibid.]. Polish sociologists call them “unconscious heretics” epitomizing their doctrinal ignorance not perceived as colliding with the Catholic faith. Undoubtedly, the bulk of the Polish New Age adherents contributes to this Polish mainstream of “unconscious heretics”.
The spectacular example here could be the response of the Polish New Age advocates to the death of the pope John Paul II. The general admiration for the pope (without the careful ear given to him) has become one of the features of the Polish religiosity. Soon after his death short text messages were circulating among the New Age adherents. Their content was as follows: “Let’s turn out our lights for five minutes at 10:37 p.m. Let the whole Poland be in the dark for a while… for saying goodbye to our faded pope, enlightened during his life [my emphasis DH] and saint after his death. Forward this message, please”. I will add on the margin that the leading article of the Nieznany Świat edition from May was devoted to John Paul II. The following opinion was expressed by the chief editor: “none of the Vatican chief officers has done as much for opening the Church and for realization of the ecumenical ideas as Karol Wojtyła has” [NŚ 5/05: 3].
Today’s common trends of the Polish religiosity have been determined by historical factors. By the beginning of the 20th century parish structures were playing the key part in Poland dominated by agrarian culture. These structures were building the conviction of belonging to one, Catholic denomination. The strong sense of community was being confirmed and intensified by common participation in rituals like divine services, kermises, processions and pilgrimages. During the period between the 1st and the 2nd World War the features of the country-side religiosity were being laid on the whole Polish society, i.e. on the intellectuals and workers [Sroczyńska 2000: 324]. Common but superficial religiosity was the dominant pattern. Later, during the communist era this model of mass religiosity, focused on the ritual was integrating the society with the Church and it has efficaciously disabled the propaganda and materialistic indoctrination. At the same time, however, it strengthened the anti-intellectual, anti-individualistic and conformist tendencies.
Not only the today’s New Age adherents are entangled in the historically shaped patterns. Also the Polish Catholic discourse is submitted to them. Definitely, the Polish traditionalism nourishes fundamentalistic narrations embodied e.g. by Radio Maryja. However, even the prominent Church officials are entwined in the traditional discourse. Apart from some exceptions this traditionalism has never been interpreted in intellectual terms. Likewise, no vivid intellectual debates have been held in the womb of the Polish Church. Consequently, the non-intellectual Church could hardly constitute a part of any serious discussion, including the potential exchange of views with the New Age adherents.
Some non-fundamental Catholic critical assessments of the New Age have been more or less self-conscious reaction to the fact that many Catholics have become visible as “unconscious heretics”. Indeed, several publications raised the question of reeducation of the Polish Catholic masses. However, until now few initiatives have been undertaken to bring the postulate into practice. The only example I know comes from the diocese of Płock, where the bishop ordered a special catechesis during Sunday masses.
(1) Polish religiosity dominated by traditional Catholicism is the context that has principally determined the reception and assimilation of the New Age trends.
(2) For the lack of apparent representation of both parts, no dialogue between the New Age and the Church has been undertaken.
(3) Lines of conflict usually do not form the axis: the New Age the Polish Catholic Church, if they do, the enemies are created in very phantasmatic way.
(4) Lines of conflict refer rather to particular practices, and even in these cases they are hazy as the New Age practitioners avoid distancing themselves too much from their Catholic identity.
Borowik, Irena and Doktór, Tadeusz, 2001: Pluralizm religijny i moralny w Polsce [Religious and Moral Pluralism in Poland], Kraków: Nomos.
Doktór, Tadeusz, 1999: ‘The “New Age” Worldview of Polish Students’, Social Compass, 46:2, pp. 215-24.
Hall, Dorota, 2003: Peculiarity of the New Age Movement in a Catholic Country: the Case of Poland, paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 conference Religion and Democracy: an Exchange of Experiences between East and West, Vilnius, April 9-12, 2003, available at: www.cesnur.org/2003/vil2003_hall.htm
Hall, Dorota, 2004: ASANAS goes mainstream, or mainstream goes ASANAS? New Age in the local context (Poland), paper presented at the ASANAS 2004 conference ASANAS Goes Mainstream?, Wolverhampton, May 21, 2004, available in audio version at: www.asanas.org.uk
Hanegraaff, Wouter, 1996, New Age Religion and Western Culture, Leiden: Brill.
Heelas, Paul, 1996: The New Age Movement: the Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity, Oxford: Blackwell.
Nowak, Patrycja, 2003: Samoznoszące się proroctwo. Problematyka polskiego ruchu New Age w perspektywie liderów, w konfrontacji z krytykami [Self-Abolishing Prophecy. The Issue of the Polish New Age Movement in Perspective of Leaders, in Confrontation with Critics], MA dissertation, Warsaw University (unpublished).
Olechnicki, Krzysztof, 1998: New Age. Kościół wobec wyzwania Wodnika [New Age. The Church toward the Challenge of Aquarius], Warszawa: Oficyna Naukowa.
Pawłowicz, Zygmunt, 1996: Kościół i sekty w Polsce [The Church and Sects in Poland], Gdańsk: Stella Maris.
Posacki, Aleksander, without the year of publication, probably 1999: Dlaczego nie Metoda Silvy… [Why not the Silva Mind Control…], Kraków: Stowarzyszenie Ewangelizacji przez Media „List”.
Posacki Aleksander et al., 1997: Reiki: deszcz niebiańskiej energii? [Reiki: the Rain of Heavenly Energy?], Kraków: Stowarzyszenie Ewangelizacji przez Media „List”.
Sroczyńska, Maria, 2000: ‘Fenomen religijności ludowej w Polsce ciągłość i przeobrażenia’ [‘Phenomenon of Folk Religiousness in Poland Continuity and Changes’], in Witold Zdaniewicz and Tadeusz Zembrzuski (eds.), Kościół i religijność Polaków 1945-1999 [The Church and Poles’ Religiosity 1945-1999], Warszawa: Instytut Statystyki Kościoła Katolickiego SAC, pp. 253-70.
Śliwiński, Piotr Jordan, 1998: Kraina Wodnika i okolice [The Land of Aquarius and Its Environs], Poznań: Księgarnia Świętego Wojciecha.
Zwoliński Andrzej, 2001: Tajemne niemoce [Secret non-Powers], Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Sióstr Loretanek.
as well as all the issues of the Nieznany Świat monthly, especially:
NŚ 1/94: editorial lead to the article New Age by Andrzej Donimirski, no. 1, year 1994, p. 4.
- editors, ‘Odejs´cie siostry Mariuszy’ [‘The Departure of Sister Mariusza’], no. 4, year 1998, pp. 18-19.
- Lamparska, Joanna, ‘Krucjata przeciwko zakonnicy’ [‘The Crusade Against a Nun’], no. 4, year 1998, pp. 19-20.
- ‘Reiki samo w sobie jest wybaczeniem’ (wywiad z ksie˛dzem) [‘The Reiki in Itself is Forgiveness’ (interview with a priest)], no. 4, year 1998, pp. 20-22 and 24.
- Rymuszko, Marek [chief editor] ‘Anatomia kłamstwa’ [‘The Anatomy of Lie’], no. 4, year 1998, p. 23.
NŚ 2/99: editorial answer to reverend Posacki’s letter on the Silva Mind Control, no. 2, year 1999, p. 42 and 59.
NŚ 3/02: Matela, Leszek, ‘Spadkobiercy inkwizytorów’ [‘Successors of Inquisitors’], no. 3, year 2002, pp. 10-12.
NŚ 5/05: Rymuszko, Marek [chief editor], ‘Trauma w cieniu Fatimy’ [‘Trauma in the shadow of Fatima’], no. 5. year 2005, pp. 3 and 19.
 See Hanegraaff 1996 on the distinction between the New Age sensu stricto and the New Age sensu lato.
 An extensive review of these standpoints could be found in Olechnicki 1998.
 Following the Catholic Information Agency: http://www.wiara.pl/tematcaly.php?curr_hit=1&idenart=1046688161
 I refer to investigations titled Space in the New Age Culture (years 2000-2002) and New Age Between Belief and Wisdom (years 2002-2004). They were realized under my direction by students of the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology of the Warsaw University. More on the theme of peculiarity of the Polish New Age and its entanglement within the Polish Catholic patterns see my conference papers: Hall 2003, Hall 2004.
 Of course, the individualistic trends of the New Age are also present in Poland and promoted by some New Age leaders. They give ear to a number of New Age adherents, mostly to young people who demonstrate a tendency to define themselves in secular categories [see Doktór 1999].