Christine French attends Mass every Sunday, sings in the choir, volunteers with Vacation Bible School, and participates in a Bible study. She's also a committed yogi who, whenever she's in her hometown of Omaha, makes a beeline to her favorite yoga studio.
"In my head I replace a few of the things they say in class," says French, a math teacher currently working on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. "When the instructor tells us that we have the power and to trust ourselves in meditations, I often think about how God is in control and I need to surrender to him. We are being asked to spread love, joy, and peace to others, and I think my source of that love, joy, and peace is Jesus. They say [the source is the universe in class, but I'm capable of making that adjustment in my head."
Still, she knows some of her Catholic friends and family don't feel the same, so she tends to keep quiet about her practice. She won't give it up, though, and here's why: "Yoga integrates my physical body with my spirituality, something I have never found in the church."
While yoga causes some Catholic eyebrows to raise, it's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to non Catholic spiritual and religious practices that have made their way into the lives of many Catholics.
Part of that comes from the mainstream acceptance of practices such as yoga, meditation, and holistic healing. Another part comes from a greater visibility and understanding of other religions as well as more personal connections between Catholics and adherents of other religious traditions.
The phenomenon of Catholics engaging in "alternative" spiritual practices is hardly new--Thomas Merton started his dialogue with Buddhist philosophy professor D.T. Suzuki more than 50 years ago. But in the past quarter century alone, church leaders have been particularly focused on the issue. Recent church documents have set forth doctrine (Dominus Iesus, 2000), have urged bishops to respond and caution "those who are interested in some Eastern religions and their particular methods of prayer" (Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Sorne Aspects of Christian Meditation, 1989), and have instructed Catholics "to have an understanding of authentic Catholic doctrine and spirituality in order to properly assess New Age themes" (Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life, 2003).
In her book Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life (Oxford), religion sociologist Meredith McGuire explains how lived religion doesn't have to be logically coherent and based on systematic beliefs. Rather, she writes, "It requires a practical coherence: It needs to make sense in one's everyday life, and it needs to be effective." Religious practices that promote physical and mental health, improve personal relationships, and help make sense of the world often offer just that, regardless of where they come from.
That's a challenge for church leaders who are charged with helping Catholics understand what is authentically part of church tradition--and what is even acceptable to church tradition. In 2009, for instance, the U.S. bishops issued Guidelines for Evaluating Reiki as an Alternative Therapy, a document that brought chagrin to Catholics who had used the nonmedical healing technique that originated in Japan more than a century ago.
A Reiki practitioner places his or her hands on or above a patient's body to restore the flow of "universal life energy," and, in turn, helps the patient heal physically or spiritually. The bishops' guidelines state that Reiki "finds no support either in the findings of natural science or in Christian belief" and stress the lack of scientific evidence explaining Reiki's effectiveness.
In regards to spiritual healing, the guidelines warn: "To use Reiki, one would have to accept, at least in an implicit way, central elements of the worldview that undergirds Reiki theory, elements that belong neither to Christian faith nor natural science. …