These days New Age activities and Eastern religions are proving increasingly attractive to not a few Australian Catholics, who are being lured into places which in ages past the well-catechised would have avoided like the plague.
Seeking "body-mind-spirit" balance, many of them would consider to be harmless practices such as reiki, reflexology, clairvoyancy, crystal gazing and yoga.
However, those who have been involved in them and later left them behind say they open the doors to accepting occult influences in one's life, with serious spiritual and psychological consequences.
Indian priest Father Manjackal points out that teachers of yoga know it is not merely a form of exercise. Rather, it is a spiritual discipline whose aim is to lead the world to "sanadhi", or total union with the "the divine being" in several ascending stages.
Some poses are salutations to honour the Hindu sun god and, in one form of yoga, sitting upright aims at the "Kundalini Awakening" - the release of the serpent coiled at the base of the spine, inviting real possession by alien spirits.
Yet yoga has been naively adopted in some Catholic schools as a means of relaxation and parish halls are routinely rented out for yoga classes. (After early morning Mass I have walked past yoga classes in full swing in the hall next to the church.)
The release of a study on the New Age, "Jesus Christ the Water Bearer of Life", by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 2003, warns Catholics against being deceived by attempts to blend Catholicism with other spiritual systems.
This warning could well have been referring to the Earthlink Centre sponsored by the Queensland Sisters of Mercy.
The Earthlink website makes the following statement: "Earth link at Four Winds [the Sisters' residence] encourages connectedness between people and earth. It does this through education, earth-sensitive spirituality, promotion of biodiversity and sustainable living and action for justice for Earth."
However the underpinnings of this environmental concern become clearer in the statement: "The Universe is My Body, My Body is the Universe."
A Catholic with genuine spiritual sensitivity would recognise the lurking pantheism and monism in this statement and similar ones on the website.
Of course, Christians, from the beginning have had the most profound respect for God's creation (read the psalms) and no-one disputes the need to conserve our earth's resources - though they may disagree on how to do it.
But the Four Winds formulation of it is deceptive and dangerous for unsuspecting Catholics because it comes from a religious order's website and hides an alien spirituality beneath "environmental concern", with the clear distinction between the Creator and His creatures and creation blurred.
In the latest newsletter from the Four Winds website, advertising the women's centre in Brisbane, called "Womenspace", where talk of Gaia the earth goddess is commonplace, there was a course advertised for 3-4 December 2005 called "Singing the Chakras: Finding the goddess", to be run by an Anique Radiant Heart who is called a "priestess of the goddess". Goddess worship and environmentalism are linked in an esoteric blend.
The reading list linked to this site is even more revealing: in it are works by well-known new-agers such as Fritjof Capra, Mathew Fox, Joan Chittister and Paul Collins, and works such as Rosemary Radford Reuther's new age eco-feminist work Gaia and God: an Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing.
Likewise of concern was the recent Catholic Earthcare Conference (18-20 November 2005 in Canberra) as reported in The Sydney Morning Herald: "Australia's five million Catholics were as morally bound to combat the loss of biodiversity as they were to protect the rights of the unborn child, according to a landmark statement by the church's bishops that calls for Australia to cap greenhouse emissions."
It was a sad irony that as this conference was equating environmental concerns with the uniqueness and sanctity of human life, there was another radical threat to human ecology proceeding at the same time not far away - the parliamentary push for wider availability of RU 486.
A public statement from the conference condemning this would have been welcome. Tony Abbott would certainly have welcomed such moral support.
One of the Catholic links on the Catholic Earthcare website is that of the Social Action Office of the Queensland Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes. It states as its vision: "We yearn to be fully engaged in Sophia's transformative dream for all creation - a world wherein an ongoing creative process brings to life justice, peace and the inter-connectedness of the earth community."
One would expect a disclaimer that this mingling of New Age goddess worship with eco-pap-theology has nothing to do with the main website. Not only is there no such disclaimer but in the "Rituals Archive" of the same site there are instructions on how to make a sacred space and say a prayer to the four winds invoking various spirits such as "the spirit of transformation", "the spirit of awakening" and "the spirit of illumination", which are not part of any Catholic tradition and in fact are similar to certain occult types of prayer.
Naive formulations which blend environmentalism, goddess worship and New Age beliefs will lure Catholics who are not well catechised and cannot critically assess them. There is a need to protect the laity from this current creeping blend of the pagan and sacred. To do otherwise is to abandon the innocent in the face of a well-planned, New Age, eco-spiritualism which has already infiltrated some sections of the Church.
Wanda Skowronska is a registered psychologist living in Sydney. She works as a school counsellor in inner Sydney schools and has also taught at school and university level. She has done some pro-life lobbying at the UN and does voluntary work for Family Life International.