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cults and the church“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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9 replies to this post
  1. Quite! The older I get, the more fascinating is Chesterton’s observation that genius is centric, not eccentric, the less interested i am in eccentricity and the more fun i have burrowing for aspects of centricity. They are particularly rich in the Church.

  2. My folks were Episcopalians, my father nominally so, my mother very anglo-catholic, even though they were both Scots-Irish. They flirted with a number of cults in the late 60s and early 70s, esp. my father–Mormons, Unitarian, Baha’i, and finally Scientology. My father is a Scientologist to this day–he lives in Clearwater, FL–if you know about them, that should say what you need to know. My father was an academic and my mother an artist–liberals to the core–my father a libertarian, my mother a New Dealer. My father appears today to be an ABC–“Anything But Christianity”. Today I am a Presbyterian minister and really consider myself an Augustinian Catholic. Strange times we live in.

  3. Holy Mother Church is also the Ark. Sane, sober and beautiful Stratford Caldecott! Thank you so much for this today.

  4. Dr Caldecott writes, “Once I had become a Catholic, unreservedly accepting the authority of the magisterium,”
    I noticed a cult-like aspect to catechism and the Catechism(s). ‘Here’s the question; here’s the magisterium’s answer; accept it and move on.’ Am I being too sensitive? [Non-Catholic BTW.]
    The Bible [sometimes called ‘The Bible we Catholics gave you’] seems to be used rarely. Does the magisterium predate it or outrank it?

    • Doug, not too sensitive, but too reductive. We unreservedly accept the Magisterium, the teaching authority of Holy Mother Church, as a divinely inspired exposition of divine law, in perfect accord with the Author of Life and the Holy Scriptures.

      It is not an “accept it and move on” it is either accept it or don’t, all are encouraged to enquire and to struggle with understanding, but your decision determines the quality of your relationship to the Creator.

  5. Thank you, Stratford, for these beautiful insights. I am familiar with almost all of the groups you mentioned, some more intimately than others, and was struck by the whiff of “cultishness” in some of their members and practices. As a Catholic convert, I was puzzled by their tendency to focus on the writings of their founders more than Scripture. And why the secrecy? The lack of transparency was troubling and now I see that it was part of a larger problem in one of those groups. There is such an overwhelming richness in the writing of the Church Fathers and the documents of the Magisterium that I feel that I have entered a vast vault of wisdom that will take more than a lifetime to absorb.

    Like you, Steve, I am burrowing toward centricity.

    And Doug, if it were only “take it or leave it,” I doubt that I would have made the effort to explore Catholicism deeply. Instead, I was encouraged to think, wrestle with the teachings, and lean into them with the full force of intellect and spirit that I possessed. I battered myself against Church teachings one by one until I concluded (reluctantly at the time!) that Catholicism had better answers to my questions. As a convert, I have been filled with more zeal than cradle Catholics because I know the treasures in this vast vault of wisdom that I have entered. Christ is at the center, one in substance with the Father and the Holy Spirit —as is Holy Scripture, the story of God’s relationship with man.

  6. As a former cultist myself, I am sometimes accused by my fellow ex-cultists of jumping from one cult to another. How could I leave a cult and then go and be Catholic, of all things?

    So I put it in the terms of a few questions.

    Does a group have a charismatic leader you’re not allowed to criticize? (I love Pope Francis, but people sure feel free to criticize him!)

    When people leave, are they shunned by everyone still inside? (Nope, we all have lapsed Catholic friends, I think.)

    If you have a question, are you given an answer or encouraged to look for one, or told off for asking? (Some Catholics fail on this question, but inquiry is the Catholic way.)

    Is it possible to dissent in any way from the leadership? (The main proof is whether people ever do …. which is why the vast numbers of dissenting and disobedient Catholics are a great comfort to me — they are proof that I am free to accept or reject Church teaching, that the Church in her wisdom allows us to disobey without shunning, rejecting, or punishing us. Excommunication, as we may have noticed, is the exception rather than the rule.)

    The answers to all of these questions reassure me that the Catholic Church really does respect conscience. You accept or reject it in freedom. There’s no sneaky tactics to lure you in, no commitment before you know what you’re getting into, and no pressure to ignore your gut, conscience, and reason once you’re a part of it.

  7. Steven and Barbara: I’ve been away from the internet for a while. Thank you for your thoughtful replies.

    From the Catholic Encyclopedia at
    [quote] The distinctive tenet of the Hussites is the necessity, alike for priest and layman of Communion under both kinds, sub utraque specie whence the term Utraquists. … [Jacobellus von Mies], taking His stand on the Bible as the supreme rule of faith and practice in the Church, persuaded the people that partaking of the chalice was of absolute necessity for salvation, this being expressly taught by Christ: “Amen amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.” (John 6:54)[end quote]
    Further, at we read
    [quote] (1) Under this head the following points are to be noted: (a) In reference to the Eucharist as a sacrifice, the communion, under both kinds, of the celebrating priest belongs at least to the integrity, and, according to some theologians, to the essence, of the sacrificial rite, and may not therefore be omitted without violating the sacrificial precept of Christ: “Do this for a commemoration of me” (Luke 22:19). This is taught implicitly by the Council of Trent (Sess. XXI, c. i; XXII, c. i). (b) There is no Divine precept binding the laity or non-celebrating priests to receive the sacrament under both kinds (Trent, sess. XXI, c. i.) (c) By reason of the hypostatic union and of the indivisibility of His glorified humanity, Christ is really present and is received whole and entire, body and blood, soul and Divinity, under either species alone; nor, as regards the fruits of the sacrament, is the communicant under one kind deprived of any grace necessary for salvation (Trent, Sess. XXI, c., iii). [end quote] [“Communion under Both Kinds”]
    Further, [quote] “It may be stated as a general fact, that down to the twelfth century, in the West as well as in the East, public Communion in the churches was ordinarily administered and received under both kinds. That such was the practice in Apostolic times is implied in 1 Corinthians 11:28” [end quote]
    Note these things please: First, the “error” slipped by the magisterium for over a millennium. Next, the scriptural quote is correct, accurate, and from Our Lord. It stood for over a millennium. Third, the literal application of John 6 is made by your Church in order to bolster doctrines like Real Presence and such, yet you won’t be held to its literal application here. I hold you to it. Next, “commemoration” is a good word for the events at “The Last Supper”. It cause us to remember—not re-create—the events. Paul points out, quite logically, that Christ died once for all; whether “all Christians” or “all time” is irrelevant. Finally, the “Communion” article uses—as is common in such discussions—non-scriptural words that appear first in and are central to discussions of purely Catholic doctrines: Eucharist, priest [NT usage], hypostatic union and so on. Magisterium over Scritpure. That’s my point, made with your Bible and your Encylopedia
    My application of it to the OP (Cults and the Church) is this: It is the “law” (under whatever term you use to describe liturgies) that the lay celebrant will get only bread. It’s ironic that under another heading a CathEn writer says, ‘Well, of course, no one TELLS a celebrant that he can’t have both…’ The same article summarizes the actions of the Hussite Wars, fought to “tell” Hussites they couldn’t have both.
    There are many other points to be made but I’ll wait to hear your thoughts on this one.

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