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Are There Cults in the Catholic Church?

A friend of mine is a school principal, a job that often requires the skills of a seasoned diplomat. He must balance the desires of students, parents, teachers, coaches, et alia and do so within a slender budget. But recently when he moved to a new school he found himself in the middle of a firestorm like he had never seen before.

It’s not that my friend espouses some wild-eyed education reform or that he has some heinous conviction in his past. His methods are sound and his record as clean and bright as his smile. What riled some people at his new school is that he belongs to one of the new movements in the Catholic Church.

“It’s a cult,” the gossips said. “Do you want your children influenced by a guy who belongs to a cult?” Armed with a collection of articles and letters they found on the Internet (where else?), the gossips mounted their campaign.

“Why would they hire someone like that?”

“Others around here belong to the same cult.”

“He must have pulled the wool over someone’s eyes.”

My friend has not backed away from the challenge ahead of him. He is quietly, even smilingly, going about his business to demonstrate that neither he nor the movement he belongs to is what these gossips have heard or read. Where others might see an insurmountable challenge, he sees an opportunity to bear witness and evangelize.

I too have to deal with some of these same prejudices in my role as communications director for the Regnum Christi movement in North America. The accusation that my colleagues and I are mind-numbed robots subject to the wiles of our spiritual masters is profoundly insulting. It shuts off discussion: If I’m under the influence of the cult, I’m just parroting what I’ve been brainwashed to believe, right? That’s why I believe it is important to examine the difference between cults and the new movements that are growing in the Church.

I will not argue that all of the new movements do everything right and that there is no room for changes to be made. My argument is that it is a mistake to charge a Church-approved group with being a “cult.”

What Is a “Cult”?

Catholic apologists are familiar with the argument that the Church itself is a cult. This attack often cites the basic catechetical definition of the Church as “creed, code, and cult.” The Church has a set of beliefs that are its creed, it has moral and spiritual norms that are its code, and it has a way of coming together in worship that is its cult.

The American Heritage Dictionary’s first definition of cult is positive: “A system or community of religious worship or ritual.” Every religious group has its own form of cult. The word itself derives from the Latin cultus, which means worship. It is the root of other words with positive connotations: culture, cultivation.

The derogatory meaning of cult, which unfortunately has become the more common usage, is reflected in the dictionary’s secondary definition: “Obsessive devotion to a person or ideal; a group of persons sharing such devotion.” This definition is problematic because it is subjective. Who is to judge what is or is not obsessivedevotion? Religion deals with the most fundamental questions in life and calls for ultimate commitment. Indeed, many religions—Christianity among them—require that believers be willing to give up their lives for their faith. If this is obsessive, then only a religion that told believers it is okay to betray their own faith would count as a non-cult.

But it may not be as clear to the average Catholic that the new ecclesial movements are not cults in the sense of David Koresh’s Branch Davidians or Jim Jones’ suicidal followers in Guyana. The new ecclesial movements have leaders, many of whom are still alive, whom to outsiders followers may seem to worship. The movements call for living in a way that seems to change a person’s outlook, even one’s personality. They have writings that are supposed to be for members only. Some have been known to cause divisions in parishes and even families. They can seem downright weird—they don’t go with the flow.

What Does the Church Say?

The Church’s Code of Canon Law (canons 298–329) provides for associations of laity and clergy that are “distinct from consecrated life” but in which the laity “strive by common effort to promote a more perfect life or to foster public worship or Christian doctrine or to exercise other apostolic works” (c. 298). New movements such as Regnum Christi, Legion of Mary, Focolare, Cursillo, the Neocatechumenal Way, Communion and Liberation, and Opus Dei fit this description (though the latter is technically a personal prelature). They have subjected themselves to the scrutiny of the Church and have received at least some level of Church approval. For instance, as recently as June 28, 2002, the Vatican officially announced approval of the statutes governing the Neocatechumenal Way.

The Church does not rush to judgment in these matters. The Neocatechumenal Way first came into being in 1964. Regnum Christi came into being in the 1940s; Pope John Paul II personally approved the constitutions governing it in 1983, culminating 37 years of scrutiny spanning five pontificates. It should be noted that a common characteristic of a cult (in its second definition above) is that it will not bow to any outside authority nor allow itself to be scrutinized. Any group seeking the approval of the Church is most likely not a cult; any group that has received such approval is certainly not one.

In fact, some definitions of cult explicitly state that a cult must be a new religious movement that arises outside any religious framework. A group that arises within a Church but then isolates itself is more properly called a sect, a term first applied to Protestants who split off from the Catholic Church but nowadays applied to any unhealthy splinter group.

So are there sects in the Catholic Church? Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, answered that question in a 1997 article in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official newspaper. He noted that sects are marked by dissent from the Church’s teachings, promoting heresy and even schism. The new movements, by contrast, are known for their fidelity to the magisterium. Indeed, today’s theological dissenters are among those most likely to call the new movements sects or cults precisely because the movements represent a renewal that the dissenters dislike. But the words of Cardinal Schönborn are reassuring: “No one needs to be uneasy if communities approved by the Church are labeled as ‘sects within the Church’ by the public.”

The Brainwashing Controversy

But what of the fact that people who join a new movement may start behaving differently? Cult experts note that a sign of cult involvement is that one changes behavior, starts using different language, associates with different friends, and makes other changes in life. Family and friends may start suspecting that their loved one has become brainwashed, though psychologists have mostly replaced this term with ones such as mind control or coercive persuasion.

Cardinal Schönborn says, “Brainwashing means the inhuman methods that are used in totalitarian regimes to influence people and change their personalities.” Formation in Church-approved groups is something altogether different, he explains, because it “is a freely accepted transformation of the personality into Christ, respecting human dignity.”

There is thus a clear distinction between mind control and the process of profound conversion to which the new movements in the Church call the faithful. True conversion can come only from a free decision to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind. Movements subject to the Church’s authority and faithful to the Church’s teachings present themselves as a good way to approach God in love and service—but never as the only way.

There is a profound controversy among psychologists over what constitutes brainwashing or mind control or if such a thing is even possible. The term grew in popularity in the 1950s after North Korean communists tortured American prisoners of war to make them mouthpieces for communist propaganda. Though some men under duress said what their Korean captors wanted, the brainwashing failed. Similar experiments by the Soviets, the Red Chinese, and the CIA also proved failures.


If torture and extreme deprivation cannot brainwash a person, can less violent techniques? Some cult researchers insist they can, as in the book Snapping by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman. Their theory is that a chemical change happens in the brain when there’s an increase in serotonin, the chemical that enables certain transmissions between nerve synapses, to make people more suggestible to mind control. Serotonin is stimulated, they say, when people sing, clap, and cheer en masse. Combined with sleep deprivation, dietary restrictions, and other factors, the snapping happens when the increased serotonin blocks an individual’s critical thinking and opens the door to being programmed.

Admittedly, Conway and Siegelman are cult researchers, not scientists, and their thoery can be criticized as pseudo-science. Fr. Lawrence Gesy is a pastor and expert on cults for the Archdiocese of Baltimore; much of his 20 years of working with cults is reflected in his book, Today’s Destructive Cults and Movements. Father Gesy espouses the snapping theory, noting that the increasing secularism of our culture has opened the door to cults. “Fifty percent of people today are unchurched,” he said. “We are living in vulnerable times.”

It is impossible to deny the evil perpetrated by cults such as the AUM Shrinyiko, which released serin gas in a Tokyo subway in 1995, or the suicidal Heaven’s Gate cult of Marshall Applewhite. At the same time, mind-control theories raise an important theological question: If God gave us free will, did he also give us the means to take it away from others? Or to give it up unwittingly?

Catholic theology suggests that the answer is no. God’s gift of free will is inalienable. However, there is what Paul calls “enslavement to sin”: If I make the conscious decision not to love God but to give someone else a godlike role in my life, I habitually deform my conscience. Perhaps that is what mind control is in reality: a badly formed conscience.

A final note about brainwashing or mind control: The snapping process does not appear to be permanent. The vast majority of cult members eventually leave of their own accord, which suggests that surrender of free will by joining a cult is primarily a temporary phenomenon, though it can leave deep scars.

Charism-atic leaders

Some critics of the new ecclesial movements point to the enthusiasm members have for their founders as evidence of cultish tendencies. Even though the movements profess their love for Christ and their fidelity to the pope and his fellow bishops, some suspect that is mere window-dressing to hide the real hero worship that underlies the new movements. After all, talk to a Focolare member about the movement and you get an earful about Chiara Lubich. Look for information about Communion and Liberation and you get deluged with the words of Msgr. Luigi Giussani. Is this focus on founders out of proportion?

Not in the eyes of the Church. In a letter to the World Congress of Ecclesial Movements in May, 1998, Pope John Paul II defines a movement as “a concrete ecclesial entity, in which primarily lay people participate, with an itinerary of faith and Christian testimony that founds its own pedagogical method on a charism given to the person of the founder in determined circumstances and modes.”

This definition highlights three traits of the new movements: They are primarily lay, their work is to evangelize, and their charism comes from their founder. Therefore the focus on the writings and teachings of the founder is not some sort of hero worship.

The Church recognizes that when God gives a new gift—a new charism—he does so through individuals who show fellow Christians how to live a spirituality that responds to the needs of the day. It is telling that many of the new movements were prophetic of Vatican II. Founded in the decades preceding the Council, they anticipated the Council Fathers’ call for “the laity to take a more active part, each according to his talents and knowledge in fidelity to the mind of the Church, in the explanation of and defense of Christian principles and in the correct application of them to the problems of our times” (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, 1:6).

Far from being a sign that they are cults, the new movements’ focus on the teachings of their founders is a sign that they have received their unique vocation or charism. It has worked in the same manner for other charisms in the history of the Church: Benedictine, Dominican, Franciscan, Jesuit, Carmelite, Salesian, et cetera. The gratitude and enthusiasm members feel for their founder is natural. Each member owes much to his founder’s generous response to God’s call.

Cult experts warn us that mind-control groups lead to dramatic changes in behavior and personality. They note that destructive cults also have their own jargon. Cult members think differently, act differently, speak differently.

These criteria for judging a cult can become troublesome. Many parents have seen their young-adult children go away for a few months only to come home dressing in different styles, thinking about foreign concepts, and acting in new ways. It’s called going away to college. We shouldn’t trivialize what it means to be a part of destructive groups, because they are a reality. At the same time, certain criteria need to be judged with common sense.

When it comes to Christian conversion, the criteria may need to be judged with un-common sense. Pope John Paul II calls us to join the New Evangelization because our culture has abandoned Christ. If a person begins to change—to watch less television and read more books, to speak less about the latest movies and more about ancient truths—friends and family may think that person is weird. Loving Christ is not fashionable; it can make people uncomfortable. It poses a fundamental question: Am I healthier living by the standards of popular culture or the standards of the gospel?

Ex-members’ complaints

The web sites and pamphlets that denigrate the various new movements draw heavily from the negative comments of ex-members. For example, the web site of the so-called Opus Dei Awareness Network features ex-members’ complaints about such practices as opening of mail, corporal mortification, and burdensome financial commitment.

To someone unfamiliar with consecrated life in the Church, these.aspects of life in Opus Dei can raise concerns. But the opening of mail is a practice in communal religious life that dates back centuries; it is an expression of the freedom and openness of Christians in community with no secrets from one another. Corporal mortification is a practice that centuries of saints have found beneficial. The financial practice for members who promise to live poverty, chastity, and obedience as consecrated laypersons is to surrender their income to the community. This is no different than what is asked of any consecrated person in the Church.

No one in Opus Dei—nor anywhere in the Church—says such practices are for everyone; but no serious Catholic can question the spiritual benefit that this heroic level of imitation of Christ has had for countless persons throughout history. And these are not practices that one enters blindly; members who accept the call to serve the Church and the world as consecrated members of Opus Dei know what they are committing to.

Opus Dei is an excellent example because it has so often been labeled cult-like, and yet it continues to surge forward. It has been heavily scrutinized by the Church and found to be of God, so much so that it is the only personal prelature in existence. And a crowning glory was the October 6 canonization of Opus Dei’s founder, Msgr. Jose Maria Escriva.

Yes, Virginia, There Are Bad Groups

We need to be clear about one thing: Not all new movements that call themselves Catholic are good. Only those approved by the Church or seeking Church approval while staying faithful to the magisterium are worthwhile. The proof that the Church’s scrutiny means something is the fact that some groups are found not to be “of God.”

For instance, Archbishop Marcel LeFebvre’s Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) is a schismatic sect because, in open rebellion against the Holy See, ordaining priests and bishops without the Pope’s permission. The Vatican has worked strenuously to end the schism and bring the SSPX back into full communion with the Church. Other organizations devoted to the old Mass remain one with the Church, but the SSPX has resisted.

Another example of a group found wanting is Fr. Nicholas Gruner’s International Fatima Rosary Crusade. Father Gruner’s priestly faculties have been suspended since 1996. His group has been in conflict with the Church for two decades. Essentially Fr. Gruner has accused the Holy Father of lying about the Fatima message and its application in our times.

The Church has also passed judgment against groups espousing reported apparitions, such as at Bayside in Long Island, New York. When the Church finds that the alleged messages are counter to revealed truth, it declares the apparitions illegitimate. Unfortunately, some of the faithful get caught up in these messages, which often play upon their fears, and the unity of the Church suffers.

Fr. Gesy, the Baltimore priest who works with cult victims, says some “covenanted communities” that claim a Charismatic spirituality have become cult-like in their methods. He notes they tend to have a domineering leader who draws the community away from the Church at large, receding into a tightly restricted group that allow, for instance, young people to date only within the community. Though these groups can seem faithful to the magisterium, in truth they reject the Church’s authority at the local level, be it from their pastor or their bishop. Rather than taking up the apostolate of evangelization, they remove themselves from the Church and the world.

These small, divisive groups are not to be confused with the Charismatic Renewal at large, which is among the approved new movements. The Charismatic Renewal is unique in that it claims no one, individual founder who received the charism. That may be why domineering individuals can hijack Charismatic spirituality and create these cult-like groups.

Fruitful Branches of the Same Tree

In 1995, a former Focolare member, Gordon Urquhart, published a book titled The Pope’s Armada. In it he argued that the new movements, especially Focolare, the Neocatechumenal Way,and Communion and Liberation, were “brainwashing cults” that served as the pope’s secret police exert undue influence on society.

Writing in The Tablet, a British periodical, ex-Jesuit priest Michael Ryan reviewed the book and disagreed with Urquhart’s argument that these new movements are cults. He also disputed the idea that they could be working in concert since, he said, they are “rivals” each claiming to be “the only way” to live true Christianity in our day.

Ryan’s presentation is an example of how ideological bias can affect one’s judgment of the new movements. The Tablet is one of many English-language journals by and for dissenters who want to change the Church’s teachings on key matters such as sexual morality and the ordination of women. Perhaps because the new movements represent renewal in concert with the mind of the Church, dissenters (who fancy themselves progressives) are most ready to dismiss the new movements as cults because their youth, vibrancy, and growth are everything the dissenters’ own movements are not.

Ryan presents only two options in his article: either the movements are cults, as Urquhart says, or they are sects trying to become a “Church within the Church.” Neither is the case. I write from personal experience of several gatherings of the new movements—Pentecost 1998 in Rome, March 2000 in Chicago, and Pentecost 2000 in New York. As these movements grow in knowledge of one another they understand more clearly how the Holy Spirit has inspired charisms that complement one another and are all fruitful as we carry out the Pope’s call to the New Evangelization.

Jay Dunlap



  1. Carol Whiteman Reply

    Doubt the canonization of the Regnum Christi founder any time soon, however!

  2. Elizabeth Nolan Reply

    Great article and sorely needed as Catholics live their lives all week long and across all settings. As a member of Communion and Liberation, though, I have to correct Michael Ryan’s perception that we claim to be “the only way” to live out Catholic Christianity today. That’s not the case. Just a glance at the program for the cultural festival in Rimini or at The New York Encounter would demonstrate the desire to engage dynamically all points of view. Indeed, many have criticized us for engaging too many voices in the conversations we promote!

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