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Why Do So Many Catholics Believe in Reincarnation?

on 2010/8/21 17:01:01 ( 8003 reads )


USA, August 20, 2010 (by Stafford Betty, professor of religious studies at Cal State Bakersfield): 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. Some of these Catholics see the wheel of rebirth as a more plausible form of 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.

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.

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. [HPI note: We must point out that there is no union with God in the official Catholic doctrine, or in the mainstream writings of any Abrahamic faith: it is strictly a "pagan" concept. It is striking that the author goes so far as to see it as a common trait of Christianity "as she sees it now." Union with the divine is a modern development except in sidelined groups such as the Gnostics and the Sufis.]

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?

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.

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