The Devil wears Yoga

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, Father 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 Father 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 J.K. 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 Father 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 Father 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 Father 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 Father Amorth, to yoga, to Hinduism, to the pope? I say no. Am I being fair to the Telegraph? What say you GetReligion readers?

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