Attack of the Bishops

Originally posted August 5, 2009 at

Last March, the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a report condemning Reiki and directing that it should no longer be used in Catholic hospitals or institutions.  Many people in the Reiki community and the rest of the world of healing practitioners were shocked.  A number of them wrote eloquent and well-reasoned responses.  Unfortunately, reason does not seem to have had much effect thus far.  I’m going to quote from the bishops’ presentation here and explain why it made no sense.  I am attempting to feel love and empathy toward the bishops, who I’m sure think they’re properly doing their job as they see it, but as you’ll probably notice, I’m still in a major snit about this.

Why would a group of bishops feel that they needed to weigh in on a medical issue like this, which is obviously not part of their area of expertise?  Their answer:  “From time to time questions have been raised about various alternative therapies that are often available in the United States.  Bishops are sometimes asked, ‘What is the Church’s position on such therapies?’  The USCCB Committee on Doctrine has prepared this resource in order to assist bishops in their responses.”

And why do I care about this?  I’m a Doctor of Oriental Medicine, and the Ki, or Qi, that the bishops don’t believe exists is the center of my practice and my life.  I’ve taught Reiki, and I have many years of experience doing it and other forms of what we loosely term “energy medicine.”  I had 12 years of Catholic school, and while I’m as lapsed as a Catholic can possibly get, I have a certain respect for some of the people who are sincerely working within the Church, and do not wish to see them harmed by this kind of ignorance.

And if the bishops can dictate what medical treatments can be done, I might as well talk about theology.

“The Church recognizes two kinds of healing: healing by divine grace and healing that utilizes the powers of nature.”

“As for the first, we can point to the ministry of Christ, who performed many physical healings and who commissioned his disciples to carry on that work.” Exactly. A number of Reiki practitioners who identify themselves as Christians (some of whom are clergy themselves) have pointed this out.  “In fidelity to this commission, from the time of the Apostles the Church has interceded on behalf of the sick through the invocation of the name of the Lord Jesus, asking for healing through the power of the Holy Spirit, whether in the form of the sacramental laying on of hands and anointing with oil or of simple prayers for healing, which often include an appeal to the saints for their aid.” In a footnote, the bishops add:  “Some forms of Reiki teach of a need to appeal for the assistance of angelic beings or ‘Reiki spirit guides.’  This introduces the further danger of exposure to malevolent forces or powers.” Amazing– I was taught, as a small Catholic child, to ask for help from my guardian angel, but now apparently this is a horrible and non-Catholic thing to do.  And it’s fine to appeal to saints, who are dead human beings, for help, but to ask for the help of spirit guides, who are often also dead human beings, is dangerous.  Now, I’ll give the bishops a point for this one; it certainly is possible to find oneself in contact with beings who are unsavory and not working for our good.  However, the attunements and procedures of Reiki are intended to create some protection against such an event.

“As for the second, the Church has never considered a plea for divine healing, which comes as a gift from God, to exclude recourse to natural means of healing through the practice of medicine.  Alongside her sacrament of healing and various prayers for healing, the Church has a long history of caring for the sick through the use of natural means.  The most obvious sign of this is the great number of Catholic hospitals that are found throughout our country.“

“The two kinds of healing are not mutually exclusive.  Because it is possible to be healed by divine power does not mean that we should not use natural means at our disposal.  It is not our decision whether or not God will heal someone by supernatural means.”

“As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, the Holy Spirit sometimes gives to certain human beings ‘a special charism of healing so as to make manifest the power of the grace of the risen Lord.’  This power of healing is not at human disposal, however,  for ‘even the most intense prayers do not always obtain the healing of all illnesses.’  Recourse to natural means of healing therefore remains entirely appropriate, as these are at human disposal.  In fact, Christian charity demands that we not neglect natural means of healing people who are ill.”

What is the distinction, exactly, between “natural” and “supernatural” healing?  I would say, along with most workers in the vineyards of energy medicine, that the power to heal is innate to human beings, as to all living things.  This working of the Source of all is natural in every sense, yet many people would identify it with God.  What the bishops refer to as divine power is not something that exists somewhere “out there,” separate from the world that we normally experience.  The dichotomy between “natural” and “divine” is ultimately not very meaningful in the context of healing (or anywhere else), but the bishops, spiritual leaders though they are, seem to believe that the material world exists apart from spiritual reality.

“As we shall see below, however, distinctions between self, world, and God tend to collapse in Reiki thought.  Some Reiki teachers explain that one eventually reaches the realization that the self and the ‘universal life energy’ are one, ‘that we are universal life force and that everything is energy, including ourselves’ (Libby Barnett and Maggie Chambers with Susan Davidson, Reiki Energy Medicine:  Bringing Healing Touch into Home, Hospital, and Hospice[Rochester, Vt.:  Healing Arts Press, 1996], p. 48; see also p. 102).” I’m having a lot of trouble understanding why this is a problem, especially since the most venerated Christian mystics, such as Saint Teresa of Avila, have spoken of their experience of oneness with God.  I was under the impression that official Catholicism considered this a state greatly to be desired, but the bishops seem quite uncomfortable with the idea.  At any rate, physics has made it clear that everything is indeed energy, and everything is interconnected and interpenetrating.  Sorry, bishops.

“Although Reiki proponents seem to agree that Reiki does not represent a religion of its own, but a technique that may be utilized by people from many religious traditions, it does have several aspects of a religion.  Reiki is frequently described as a ‘spiritual’ kind of healing asopposed to the common medical procedures of healing using physical means.  Much of the literature on Reiki is filled with references to God, the Goddess, the ‘divine healing power,’ and the ‘divine mind.’  The life force energy is described as being directed by God, the ‘Higher Intelligence,’ or the ‘divine consciousness.’  Likewise, the various ‘attunements’ which the Reiki practitioner receives from a Reiki Master are accomplished through ‘sacred ceremonies’ that involve the manifestation and contemplation of certain ‘sacred symbols’ (which have traditionally been kept secret by Reiki Masters).  Furthermore Reiki is frequently described as a ‘way of living,’ with a list of five ‘Reiki Precepts’ stipulating proper ethical conduct.”

The Reiki symbols have never been presented to me as “sacred.”  While I would say that everything is sacred in some sense, I would find the idea of these symbols having a religious meaning or being venerated in themselves rather bizarre.  It’s possible that some teachers present the symbols this way, but that hasn’t been true of anyone I’m familiar with.  Likewise, the attunements have not been spoken of as “sacred ceremonies” in my experience.  It’s true that the symbols used to be kept secret, but they have been so generally published and disseminated that by now they are a very open secret indeed.

“Nevertheless, there are some Reiki practitioners, primarily nurses, who attempt to approach Reiki simply as a natural means of healing.  Viewed as natural means of healing, however, Reiki becomes subject to the standards of natural science.  It is true that there may be means of natural healing that have not yet been understood or recognized by science.  The basic criteria for judging whether or not one should entrust oneself to any particular natural means of healing, however, remain those of science.” Yes, and that’s fine– the science on Reiki looks good from what I’ve seen of it.

“Judged according to these standards, Reiki lacks scientific credibility.  It has not been accepted by the scientific and medical communities as an effective therapy.” If Reiki has not been accepted by the “medical community,” how can it be that those nurses are using it in hospital settings?  Are nurses and hospital administrators not part of the medical community?

“Reputable scientific studies attesting to the efficacy of Reiki are lacking, as is a plausible scientific explanation as to how it could possibly be efficacious.” This is simply not true.  There is a body of research on Reiki, as well as similar types of healing, that supports its effectiveness.  Some of this research was described in responses to the bishops from the American Holistic Nurses Association and practitioner William Lee Rand.  I am not going to attempt to recap it myself; please check the applicable websites.

“The explanation of the efficacy of Reiki depends entirely on a particular view of the world as permeated by this “universal life energy” (Reiki) that is subject to manipulation by human thought and will.”

“Reiki practitioners claim that their training allows one to channel the ‘universal life energy’ that is present in all things.  This ‘universal life energy,’  however, is unknown to natural science.”

Apparently the bishops are completely unfamiliar with Qi Gong, Therapeutic Touch or the like, or even with acupuncture.  They must never have read about the work of Valerie Hunt, Rosalynn Bruyere, or others who have participated in measurements of the human energy field.

“Some people have attempted to identify Reiki with the divine healing known to Christians.  They are mistaken.  The radical difference can be immediately seen in the fact that for the Reiki practitioner the healing power is at human disposal.  Some teachers want to avoid this implication and argue that it is not the Reiki practitioner personally who effects the healing, but the Reiki energy directed by the divine consciousness.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that for Christians the access to divine healing is by prayer to Christ as Lord and Savior….” Apparently non-Christians have no access to divine healing whatsoever; the only access available requires a not only prayer to Christ but a specific viewpoint about Him.  And God is such a limited being that the Divine does not work through anything except this one kind of prayer.

“… while the essence of Reiki is not a prayer but a technique that is passed down from the ‘Reiki Master’ to the pupil, a technique that once mastered will reliably produce the anticipated results.  Some practitioners attempt to Christianize Reiki by adding a prayer to Christ, but this does not affect the essential nature of Reiki.  For these reasons, Reiki and other similar therapeutic techniques cannot be identified with what Christians call healing by divine grace.”

“Reiki Masters offer courses of training with various levels of advancement, services for which the teachers require significant financial remuneration.  The pupil has the expectation and the Reiki Master gives the assurance that one’s investment of time and money will allow one to master a technique that will predictably produce results.“ I don’t know that anyone teaches that Reiki will give predictable results.  The Reiki classes to which I’ve been exposed have emphasized the idea that the body and the energy transmitted will do whatever is most needed by the person being treated, which may not be what either the patient or the practitioner consciously expects at a given time.  The practitioner is not the source of Reiki, nor the commander of it.  We are taught to get out of the way and let the healing happen on its own.

This issue is difficult to think about clearly, however.  While healers do not and cannot truly control healing, and while trying to be in control usually makes our work less effective, we also know that intention (including prayer) has great power.  I intend to write about this in a separate article.

“The difference between what Christians recognize as healing by divine grace and Reiki therapy is also evident in the basic terms used by Reiki proponents to describe what happens in Reiki therapy, particularly that of ‘universal life energy.’  Neither the Scriptures nor the Christian tradition as a whole speak of the natural world as based on ‘universal life energy’ that is subject to manipulation by the natural human power of thought and will.” A reading of such “apocryphal” writings as the Gospel of Thomas would give quite a different perspective on early Christian tradition, but the bishops wouldn’t pay any more attention to those than they would to me.

“In fact, this world-view has its origins in eastern religions…” Ki/Qi is simply a fact, and observations of it in ancient times did not depend upon religion.  “…and has a certain monist and pantheistic character, in that distinctions among self, world, and God tend to fall away.” Again, why is this presented as an objection?  Were we not taught that God is everywhere?  Isn’t this dissolution of the distinction between God and self the essential experience of mystical Christianity?  Ah, but here is that dichotomy between the “orthodox” Christians and the “heretics.”  Any suggestion that individual humans can experience union with God, without the mediation of the Church hierarchy, must be squelched immediately.

In their conclusion, the bishops state:  “For a Catholic to believe in Reiki therapy presents insoluble problems.” It is so very tiresome to hear references to energy healing couched in terms of belief. There is no requirement to believe or disbelieve.  Reiki works, and is a fact.  One does not speak of believing in aspirin or erythromycin; one simply uses them as appropriate.

“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 to natural science.” This is another highly questionable statement, since a case can be made that to do healing is to perform a quintessentially Christian act, and since Reiki is as subject to natural science as any other human endeavor.

“Without justification either from Christian faith or natural science, however, a Catholic who puts his or her trust in Reiki would be operating in the realm of superstition, the no-man’s-land that is neither faith nor science.  Superstition corrupts one’s worship of God by turning one’s religious feeling and practice in a false direction.” The bishops’ definition of “superstition” appears to be anything that does not fit their specific dogma.

“While sometimes people fall into superstition through ignorance, it is the responsibility of all who teach in the name of the Church to eliminate such ignorance as much as possible.” And some of us are taking responsibility to try to eliminate ignorance from the Church itself, but this appears to be a gargantuan and probably impossible task.

But here is the punch line, or shall I say the punch to the gut:  “Since Reiki therapy is not compatible with either Christian teaching or scientific evidence, it would be inappropriate for Catholic institutions, such as Catholic health care facilities and retreat centers, or persons representing the Church, such as Catholic chaplains, to promote or to provide support for Reiki therapy.” This is where we leave the realm of theological speculation, where real harm is being done to real people, including those involved with a program of free clinics for seniors for which I volunteer.  A Reiki practitioner who worked with us had to leave the program.  Fortunately, since I am seen as an acupuncturist and the powers that be have no idea what else I do, I have not been molested.  But knowing that patients all over the country are being denied treatment that could make a huge difference for them is intensely painful to me.

I am also utterly astonished, and deeply offended, to see the entire basis of my profession ridiculed by people who have made no serious effort to learn about it.  The bishops have no experience or training as healers themselves, yet they feel qualified to proclaim that those of us who work every day in this field are benighted idiots, that we are merely deluding ourselves and our patients, that we are caught in the grip of “superstition.”  How do they think nurses are trained– do they believe that nurses not only have no concept of science or intellectual rigor, but that they are so stupid that they can’t even tell when their treatments are useless?  Do they think that we would all keep doing Reiki year after year, and teaching it to others, because we simply imagined that it helped people?  Do they think that patients, as well, have no idea whether a treatment is benefiting them?

Ah, but I forget– individuals know nothing, understand nothing, and can perceive nothing, except by the grace of those who have put themselves at the head of the Church, the one and only arbiter of truth.

I cannot imagine voluntarily giving authority over my own beliefs, thoughts, and activities to such people, but there are thoughtful, serious, intelligent human beings who do work within the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations, and quite a few of them do Reiki.  The bishops referred to websites created by some of these practitioners, largely in order to ridicule them.  It did not appear to me that they actually read the contents.  I did, and I found these writings valuable, although in many ways they are not consonant my own point of view.  I encourage you to take a look:

Obedience to God or to Man?

For the American Holistic Nurses Association, including their response to the bishops, see


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