Are there cultic aberrations in the Catholic Church?
Pokrov.org Note: While this article’s focus is on groups within the Catholic Church, we thought some of the information could be applicable to similar groups operating in the Orthodox Churches.
The Sectarian Spirit in the Mainstream
Background of an ICSA conference track entitled, “Are there cultic aberrations in the Catholic Church?”
The Roman Catholic Church, the largest religious organization in the world, has more than one billion adherents. For this reason, if for no other, what happens in the Catholic Church matters to non-Catholics as well as Catholics.
In recent decades, some Catholic movements and organizations have generated controversy because outside observers have called them “cultic” or “sect-like.”
The hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church makes it easier to connect these various movements and organizations to the Church. Protestantism also has many cultic movements; however, there are so many Protestant denominations and so many independent Protestant churches that it is more difficult to associate them with an institution.
Definitions of “cult” (“sect” is the preferred word in Europe) vary considerably, and the term lacks precision. In the context of Catholic movements, it may be more useful to speak about “cultic dynamics,” that is, to usually deceptive forms of authoritarian control and influence that generate inappropriate levels of dependency and conformity in members and that sometimes may result in psychological, financial, or sexual abuse or exploitation.
Cultic dynamics of influence and control may arise in any group — mainstream and non-mainstream religious and nonreligious. Cultic groups, which exemplify the notion that appearances can deceive, are found on the fringe of all the world’s religions, as well as in business, politics, and psychotherapy. The concept of a wolf in sheep’s clothing has universal appeal because the phenomenon has occurred throughout the world and throughout history.
Given the size of the Catholic Church, it is not surprising that some Catholic movements and organizations have exhibited cultic dynamics. Indeed, one could argue that the mathematics of probability predict that cultic dynamics will arise from time to time in any large organization. The central issue isn’t whether or not such unwanted events occur, but what the host organization does to address the damage and reduce the probability of future occurrences.
Catholic authorities have used the terms “sectarian spirit” and “sectarian mentalities and attitudes” to describe situations in which groups and/or individuals within the Church behave in ways that the secular world might call “cultic” or “sect-like.”
Strictly speaking, one should not treat the Catholic terms “sectarian spirit” or “sectarian mentalities and attitudes” as synonyms of “cult-like” or “sect-like.” Church authorities often conceive of “cult” in theological terms. Their primary concern may be that the sectarian spirit within the Church draws people away from Church teachings and/or that a “cult of personality” becomes divisive.
Those who tend to be psychologically oriented focus on how people are treated and the psychological distress that may result. Sometimes the phrase, “it’s the deed, not the creed,” has been used to emphasize the theological neutrality of those who are concerned about cultic practices, although some recognize that deed and creed are often intertwined. Within the network of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), for example, one will find people from all the major faith traditions, as well as atheists, agnostics, and adherents of new religions. In part because of this diversity, the organization encourages dialogue among people with diverse views.
ICSA is attempting to promote such dialogue between psychologically and theologically oriented persons in a special collection of sessions spread over two days at its 2013 annual conference in Trieste, Italy, which has over 100 talks on a variety of subjects. This special track is entitled, “Are there cultic aberrations in the Catholic Church?”
The sexual, financial, and organizational scandals surrounding Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, gave impetus to this special track because the Maciel controversy caused Church authorities to pay more attention to the sectarian spirit within the Church . Many who were fooled into thinking that Maciel was headed for sainthood asked, “How could we have been so wrong?”
People affiliated with ICSA are not so surprised. They know of many instances in which seemingly benign leaders or organizations turned out to be very different from their public faces. As with Maciel, this duplicity masked the strategic application of social-psychological pressures to prevent members from discussing, or even acknowledging to themselves, disagreement with the beliefs and/or practices of leaders or organizations. Groups such as the Legion may claim allegiance with a mainstream religion in a sly attempt to “hide” themselves in orthodoxy by shifting the meaning of key theological terms. One might view them as “ideological frauds.”