“I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?” (1 Cor. 3:2-4)

To a person of religious sensibility—someone searching for God—it is easy to be drawn into a cult, rather than one of the more respectable “religions.” But what is the difference between a cult and a religion (in the modern sense of these words)? To outsiders they may appear indistinguishable. The early Christians were a cult in the eyes of the Romans. Modern Christians still are, in the eyes of Richard Dawkins.

A cult in the generally accepted meaning of the term these days is a group defined by a distinctive set of beliefs—beliefs promulgated by a leader venerated by his followers as the sacred vehicle for this teaching. The more uncritical the followers, the more irrational their allegiance, the more they fall under the modern meaning of “cult.” I ask myself whether I have ever been tempted in that direction. Like many others brought up outside the Church, I was once tempted by cult-like groups of a broadly “new age” or “gnostic” character. Before my conversion to Christianity I was a Bahá’í for a couple of years, but I joined because it seemed like a rational faith—less of a cult than a religion, in fact.

Once I had become a Catholic, unreservedly accepting the authority of the magisterium, I was protected from many temptations and influences. Yet I was drawn to the new ecclesial movements, especially Communion and Liberation, founded by Mgr Luigi Giussani. There are other such groups, which I never joined, among the largest being Focolare, the Neo-Catechumenal Way, and Regnum Christi (part of the Legionaries of Christ). The latter is a worrying case, its founder and leaders having been proved to be deeply corrupt, a corruption undetected for many years. Then there is Opus Dei—not a movement but a personal prelature—with its saintly founder (old school) and its aura of secrecy. And yet all these groups, despite some similarities to cults outside the Church, are legitimate parts of Catholicism.

Is the Church herself a community of “cults,” saved only by the occasional saint? Fortunately the Church has the means to discriminate. She can distinguish a healthy “ecclesial movement” from a dangerous “Church within a Church,” a cuckoo in the nest. She also has the moral framework and the authority by which to detect corruption (even if in practice she sometimes doesn’t). When we condemn a community in the Church for financial or sexual impropriety, it is the Church’s moral teachings we use as a yardstick. Without them, how could we condemn, or even criticize?

The Church is for sinners. Her job is not to filter and exclude, but to make available to them the means of reconciliation and sanctification. Sinners will inevitably form cliques and cabals, as Pope Francis has reminded us, and we find them both inside and outside the Church. C.S. Lewis called this the temptation of the “inner ring.” No wonder we find all kinds of communities within the Church—even sometimes cults in the bad sense of the term. But we can be sure that the Church herself is not a cult.

She is imaginatively conservative. She is conservative in the sense that she preserves her tradition, and imaginative in the sense that she is always generating new ideas, new communities. But none of this is enough. Of course, many people stop with this. Dazzled by Apollos, they do not look any further.

But she is more, much more than this, much more than any religious leader. What is the Church? She is something very different and infinitely greater. The Church is a field hospital for the wounded, an ocean of grace, the Body and Bride of Christ. She is the Tree of Life. She is a safe haven for all. She is a home for those who follow Christ. No matter what they may have learned from Apollos, the Church is not a place where “there is jealousy and strife among you,” as there is among the cults. The cults seek to win friends and members. They seek supporters and protectors in high places. But the Church, and the communities within the Church, seek Christ, and only Christ.

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