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.’"