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Monday, October 23, 2017

Are There Cults Within the Catholic Church?

To answer that, you’d first need to know what a cult is.  Most people assume they know based on some scant knowledge of the Moonies or a memory of the time when hopping chanting members of Hari Krisna, with their bald heads and glazed eyes, were seen in public airports across the country.

I remember hearing stories on shows like 60 Minutes or Twenty Twenty about parents who were trying to kidnap their kids and put them in deprogramming treatment to get them away from cult leaders.  Then there was David Koresh whose compound was raided in the early 1990’s in Waco, Texas, and Jim Jones, who led more than 900 people to Guyana in 1978 and persuaded them to kill themselves.  And of course, then there is all the talk of Scientology which is a favorite of Hollywood stars.  

The cults within the Catholic Church seem for the most part to stay off the front pages and below the radar of most Catholics, but it doesn't mean there aren't plenty of them.  I came across a story published on the National Catholic Register webpage a couple of days ago titled, “Beware of the Cult of Santa Muerte.”  The link to the story is here.  I strongly encourage you to read it and be aware of its growing presence here in the United States as more and more people from south of our border enter the USA.  Followers of this cult often have tattoos of death on their arms and backs of which you may want to be aware. 

So then, what exactly is a cult?  According to the webpage Freedom of Mind,

“Benign cult groups are any group of people who have a set of beliefs and rituals that are non-mainstream.  As long as people are freely able to join with informed consent (which includes full and honest disclosure of the group’s doctrine and practices), and can choose to disaffiliate without shunning, fear, or harassment, then it is not a destructive cult.”  
I would argue with that assessment in that it would also depend on what your beliefs are and what the rituals entail.  

A cult can be very controlling and as such destructive.  This same webpage has a link to a BITE Model which asks a series of questions about a group and allows you to decide for yourself whether you may be in trouble if you decide to get in such an organization or have a loved one in it already.  A destructive cult will try to control your behavior, your emotions, your information, and your thoughts.  As we know, these same criteria might also be applied to dangerous relationships of any kind—boyfriends, spouses, fiancés, etc.

A friend recently showed me a copy of the magazine “The Word Among Us”, published in Frederick, MD.  I made a few notes about the magazine and later tried to find out more about it online.  There is a Wikipedia page about the magazine and at the end of the Wiki article is a link to a report done by National Catholic Reporter (not my favorite go to source) which was published over twenty years ago, and while I admit many things could have changed, I thought it was worth noting its strange beginnings.  The inspiration for this magazine came from Mother of God charismatic group that was later disciplined by Bishop Hickey and made to choose new leadership and reorganize because it had been complained about as having tendencies of a cult.  The founders of Mother of God Charismatic covenant community, Edith Difato and her son Joe left and took with them the publication, “The Word Among Us.”  Joe is still the publisher.  See here.  

I have not read this magazine.  It may be wonderful, but I doubt very much if even a tiny percent of the people who read it know where it started.  The story of Mother of God Community linked above is a long article, but one I think is worth reading.  Under the subheading “Trouble Elsewhere” there is mention of several other troublesome cult like groups that started out innocently enough, but end up with the same controlling, destructive tendencies as are described in the BITE Model. 

Near the end of this article describing the whole history of Mother of God community is this summary, which I believe is good advice about what we as Catholics need to know about any group we think of attaching ourselves to.

“For more than a decade, Fr. Walter Debold of Seton Hall University was drawn into the fray of highly controlled group settings and cults. Debold said there are some ‘good and valuable functioning prayer groups. I can't deny that. There are many people who are very sincere and are not being manipulated. But there's a certain hazard.

“‘We have a lust for certitude,’ he said. And that, ‘combined with the characteristic of the times -- the problem of change -- a lot of times people will submit themselves to the guidance of someone who sounds like he speaks with authority. Many of these movements believe they are trying to save the church from itself.’

“Inside the covenant communities where authoritarian abuses occur, said Ray Dreitlein, a psychotherapist and former People of Hope member, the issue is power.

“‘Who has the power? How is it used on a day-to-day basis? When you have power in the hands of people that, number one, don't understand what they're doing,’ said Dreitlein, ‘then number two, in a lot of ways it becomes a narcissistic thing of how important they are. That's dangerous. The community was never wrong. The community never made a mistake. It was always people that made mistakes.’"

What this information should tell us is that any group has the potential to be a cult and it is up to individuals and pastors to make sure the groups organized in their parishes meet the smell test of allowing members the freedom of will God gave us in the first place.  If something doesn’t feel right to you, then maybe you should be careful about getting too close to it.  Simply having a holy sounding moniker is no proof of the soundness or positive benefits of any group.  This is a list of such groups. 


elpine flower said...

Hi Chriss, years ago my number was given as a resource to a family who were former members of the People of Hope community. In fact, the couple was the first arranged marriage inside the community. They left after having children and joined a mainstream Catholic organization but told me they soon found it to be even more frightening. Later, they relocated to Henceville ,Alabama ,purchasing a home down the street from Mother Angelica's Temple/convent. After Mother became ill and was confined to her bed, they told me things really changed in the area there too and knowing the signs of a cult taking over , they chose to sell their home and leave there also.
They told me Ralph Martin was an integral person helping to form the People of Hope and as I am sure you are aware he also is a key advisor for the Ave Maria community development and college in Naples, Florida.
The second most widely accepted organization was the one that literally frightened them the most. Please connect with Mrs Randy Engel ( she has her email on her publishing site). I am sure you both have knowledge you can exchange.
Thank you so much for writing on this most important topic.

Justina said...

The man currently held to be walking in the footsteps of the Fisherman is a textbook controlling abuser himself.

Gary said...

The bigger question: Is conservative, traditional Christianity itself a cult?

johnflahertyma said...

We have a support page/community for former members of charismatic covenant community on Facebook. Search for "Covenant Community: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

At the end of your story you link to the website of the Catholc Fraternity of Charismatic Communities. This grouping of communities has passed a rigorous examination and has found a place in the Catholic Church. It's charismatic communities should be safer than most others. And if there ARE problems there should be a process through which a person can seek redress.

In all the other Charasmatic Covenant Communities any appeal process ends up being litigated "in house", meaning there is no authority outside the community leadership to hold leaders to acxount.

The two umbrella groups of Charasmatic Covenant Communities that function outside the protection of the Catholic Church are The Sword of the Spirit and the People of Praise. Sometimes you will find one of their member communities have entered into a private Lay Association status with their local Bishop. They advertise this status to receiut local Catholics. But make no mistake: these groups have no relationship of submission to Rome. They have been approved by a local Ordinary who likes their conservative nature but who in all likelihood has no real idea what they teach or how they pastor.

It's confusing... I know. But it's meant to be. These guys have been running the same shtick since the 80s. They're not stupid.