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Monday, August 23, 2010

STAFFORD BETTY: Why do so many Catholics believe in ... - Bakersfield.com


A recent poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed that 28 percent of American Catholic adults believe in reincarnation.

Why have so many adopted the belief? What attracts them to it? In the course of teaching Asian religions for several decades and listening to what students say on the subject, I've come to the following conclusions.

Many Catholics think that a single life of anywhere from a few seconds' duration to 110 years is not enough time to determine the destiny of a soul for all eternity. They feel that God would be unloving if He (excuse the conventional pronoun) were to condemn a sinner to hell, but irrational if He rewarded a baby born dead with heaven. To them it makes sense that a merciful God would give us as many chances as necessary to grow our soul. Some of these Catholics see the wheel of rebirth as a more plausible form of purgatory. Both, they point out, are designed to provide us with more time to improve ourselves spiritually and morally and ready ourselves for a deserved entry into heaven.

For them salvation is a long process, and that process is more reasonably staged on earth in a series of embodiments than in a mysterious afterlife region called purgatory.

The other main reason that Catholics -- and other Americans -- adopt a reincarnational worldview turns on evidence. Much, perhaps most, of what passes as evidence comes from the popular media. Stories about people who have seeming memories of a previous life or mysterious phobias or obsessions or talents that cannot be explained by events in this life abound, and they often set people to wondering. The History channel serves up occasional stories of apparent rebirth, and these are based on research by paranormal investigators. And who doesn't know someone who has been hypnotically regressed and has dredged up a few "previous life" memories?

There is also some reputable academic research being done on reincarnation that trickles down into public awareness. This is the work of Ian Stevenson, the famous reincarnation researcher affiliated with the University of Virginia who died in 2007. Stevenson and his associates traveled over the world tracking down little children, usually aged between 3 and 5, who claim to have memories of past lives. In hundreds of cases from all over the world their memories would match actual events that happened to the adult they remembered being. Stevenson's research has been published in mainline psychiatry journals, and his meticulous methodology is often praised, even when his conclusions -- that reincarnation is the most natural explanation of all the data -- have not been accepted. Some Catholics have warmed to Stevenson's research.

Most Catholics who believe in reincarnation for one reason or another just go on being Catholic. They are no more troubled by their departure from Church guidance on the subject than on birth control. But is reincarnation reconcilable with cardinal doctrines of the faith? Would Catholic theology break apart if it were officially tolerated? In particular, would Jesus' role as savior be diminished if salvation were accomplished over several lifetimes as opposed to one? I don't see why it would, though I would welcome correction on the point. As I see it now, the goal of the Catholic, and of all Christians, is union with the Divine. If the process of salvation is a long one, as Catholic teaching on purgatory implies, then is it of any great importance whether the process is accomplished in purgatory or in successive lives on earth?

A hundred years ago, Catholic theologians argued that the dogma of the resurrection of the body would rule out reincarnation, for the question would arise which body would be resurrected. Nowadays Catholics think of the dogma less literally. As recently as 1975 only 6 percent of Americans were cremated. Today a third are, and Catholics are part of that trend. In fact Catholicism lifted its ban on cremation in 1963, and in the process de-emphasized the once crucial role the body played in Catholic teaching.

I hope the Church will do an exhaustive study of the reputable research on reincarnation before making any pronouncements on the subject. Perhaps one option it should consider is that the answer is indeterminable at this time and that Catholics who believe in it are free to do so without censure, just as they are free to choose cremation.

Stafford Betty is a professor of religious studies at Cal State Bakersfield.

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