Alright, I teased about this a couple weeks back, and today we’re doing it: Pope Benny XVI having a go at yoga.
- The text: ‘Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation’, 1989
- The author: The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who became Pope Benedict XVI).
- Read it yourself: I’m working from this online version from the Vatican website.
So I have this loose plan for the theology side of the blog, right. I’m working in phases, so that I can keep some rough boundaries around what we’re doing and give it a sense of cohesion. We’re currently in what I think of as phase one, the big names survey. I’ve gone through Luther, Aquinas, Augustine, and Calvin, and now we’re dallying around with some other mad lads like John Owen and Maximus the Confessor. As one of my later phases, I was planning to do a raid through the different proclamations and encyclicals from the Catholic church – just for a lark, just to see what they’ve been up to. So when I come across an interesting-looking Catholic document, I make a note and file it away for later. But this one – ah, it couldn’t wait. It’s a letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who are basically the Catholic lore police, and it’s about why yoga is bad. Amazing. Had to read it. So here we are.
Ratzinger’s letter starts with a statement of focus: he’s not really interested in discussing the scientific health benefits of yoga. If yoga really is good for calming your mind or exercising your body or whatever, that’s fine – nobody’s really debating that. Ratzinger is solely concerned with the spiritual implications of yoga. It’s probably also worth noting that Ratzinger is much more concerned with delineating proper Christian practice than with explaining or defining any of what he sees as Eastern meditation. It’s not an piece arguing against yoga, it’s arguing for what he sees as the boundaries of proper Christian practice. Eastern meditation in this letter exists as a nebulous undifferentiated fringe, alluded to and criticised but never drawn out and discussed at length. That’s interesting, because it leaves open the possibility of Catholics doing yoga as long as they adhere to all the boundaries and guidelines laid out in the letter. However, it also means that Ratzinger doesn’t have a lot of accountability in his argument. There might be some things that come up where you go well, you know, that’s not actually part of the philosophy of yoga anyway – and you might be quite right. But because of how this thing’s written, Ratzinger never has to attribute his claims to specific types or schools of Eastern meditation – he just said that it was something you shouldn’t do, and he just happens to be saying it in a letter about the perils of Eastern meditation, where he never clearly defines what ‘Eastern meditation’ means or which specific types of so-called Eastern meditation he’s talking about at any given moment.
With all of those qualifiers, let’s get into the body of the text. The key dynamic in this letter is a distinction between the physical and spiritual realms. Ratzinger doesn’t want them being collapsed into each other. He sees meeting places between the two, but broadly speaking, what’s physical is physical, and what’s spiritual is spiritual. There’s a line, and you fucking stay on your side of it. For example, near the start of the letter, Ratzinger talks about two historical heresies from the early church: Pseudognosticism and Messalianism (sections 8 and 9). Messalianism, apparently, was a bunch of Christians who “identified the grace of the Holy Spirit with the psychological experience of his presence in the soul.” In other words, they hinged their relationship with God on their feelings. God wasn’t there unless they felt like God was there – and they had to feel it, or it wasn’t real. Now, I was raised Pentecostal, so that one strikes close to home. There’s definitely a tradition in happy-clappy churches where the emotion and the hype of worship gets identified as (and maybe even mistaken for) a Real Encounter With God. Against that view, Ratzinger is basically saying, you know, the validity of an encounter with God shouldn’t be judged against your emotional reaction. That’s not the litmus test for a true encounter. At the end of the letter (section 30), he even suggests that there are always moments where you don’t ‘feel’ anything in prayer – which is obviously the case for everyone. In these moments, Ratzinger says, prayer can sometimes seem artificial or sort of forced, or even just like box-ticking rather than real relationship. But “it is at that very moment an expression of his [the individual’s] fidelity to God, in whose presence he wishes to remain even when he receives no subjective consolation in return.” Ratzinger sees those unexciting moments as the true test for Christians: they demonstrate whether someone is actually seeking God as God, or whether they’re just trying to manufacture some purely physical or psychological sense of happiness.
As much as Ratzinger is trying to distinguish between the physical and spiritual realms, he’s also trying to lay out the proper relationship between them, at least in terms of prayer and meditation. God is a spiritual God. An encounter with Him doesn’t necessarily hinge on your physical emotions, because it’s a primarily spiritual encounter. That idea is essentially at the core of any shade that’s being thrown at Eastern meditation and yoga – it might make you feel happy or calm, but that doesn’t mean it’s Actually Spiritual (at least according to Ratzinger). In section 23, he further argues the point, claiming that ‘technique’ per se is kind of an inappropriate concept to apply to the encounter with God. “Genuine Christian mysticism has nothing to do with technique: it is always a gift of God, and the one who benefits from it knows himself to be unworthy.” There are obviously techniques (in yoga or elsewhere) for calming your mind and re-centering your focus and bringing yourself back into a sort of psychological balance. Ratzinger doesn’t hate them, but he really wants to emphasise that they’re physical practices that, again, in his view, don’t necessarily have anything to do with a spiritual encounter with God. That encounter is a gift, it’s something that’s given, and it’s not something that we can induce with lotus pose.
And this is where I’ll start to push back a little bit. I do think there are maybe some tensions in this letter, I don’t think it’s totally tidy in how it’s trying to draw this line between the physical and spiritual realms. Ratzinger does explicitly say that “the position and the demeanour of the body also have their influence on the recollection and dispositions of the spirit” (s26). That’s our spirits, right, the spirits or souls inside each of us. So we’re physical, but we also have spiritual souls, which can commune with God, and which can be affected by the actions of our physical bodies. Clearly bodies and souls are entangled in some way in our selves: they act on each other, they interfere with each other. Physical things can manifest on a spiritual level, and vice versa. So when Ratzinger tells us not to mistake physical phenomena for spiritual encounters – well, what if a spiritual encounter manifests in a physical way? How are we supposed to distinguish between the ‘merely’ psychological and the ‘truly’ spiritual? How would Ratzinger differentiate a true spiritual encounter from some stoned hippy feeling at one with the universe?
There is an answer, but it’s frustrating and not that satisfying. Ratzinger says that the true spiritual encounter is marked by a relationship with Christ through the Holy Spirit and the Scripture (as in section 6, for instance). What that boils down to is ‘My spirituality is real, your spirituality is fake.’ Ratzinger accepts that both yoga and Christian meditation can produce similar psychological effects – meaning that, in purely physical terms, there’s not really any substantive difference between them. He locates the key difference in spirituality. My religion is real, your religion is fake, and your feelings about it don’t matter, because feelings aren’t proof of spiritual realities. That’s why we’ve got the focus on Messalianism at the start – it’s essentially a way for Ratzinger to remove or deny the experiential testimony of people who practice yoga or so-called Eastern meditation. They might feel like they have something spiritual going on, but according to Ratzinger, their feelings don’t matter. Feeling spiritually connected isn’t proof of anything.
I dunno. As I say, part of that speaks to me, to my religious heritage. I see value in the basic concept of the Messalian heresy as a way of critiquing the emotional excesses of the Pentecostals. But at the same time – I mean, it’s a dangerous argument to invoke, because it cuts both ways. If feelings aren’t proof of spiritual connection for the Messalians, or for people who practice yoga, why should they be proof for Christians? Christians feel like they have a relationship with God, but couldn’t that just be fake emotional delusions too? Further, if yoga can make you feel happy and fulfilled and calm – just in terms of your physical emotions or mental state – then why not stop there? Why bother with religion at all? Why not just abandon spirituality as a concept? What’s it doing for us at that stage? Maybe there could be an afterlife, but most people aren’t convinced – and even if they were, Ratzinger says that their feeling of conviction is not necessarily proof. So why bother at all? This aren’t my personal questions, by the way, I’m just – these are the questions that are raised by this type of language. Ratzinger is playing around with themes and topics that lead into the biggest problems that people have with Christianity today. It feels very appropriate to the zeitgeist, to the spirit of the age. But we’re not really seeing any resources for dealing with it. Ratzinger’s just using those themes to preach to the converted. That’s probably appropriate for a letter to the bishops of the Catholic church, but it’s also, in the broader view, unsatisfying. He should’ve just come out and said lotus pose was for Satanists. That’d at least be funny.