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Book Review - Sects and New Religious Movements

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1998, Volume 15, Number 1, pages 91-93. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Sects and New Religious Movements: An Anthology of Texts from the Catholic Church. 

Edited by The Working Group on New Religious Movements, Vatican City. U.S. Catholic Conference, Inc., 1995, 77 pages.

This anthology of texts dealing with new religious movements (NRMs) will be useful not only to those in responsible offices in the Catholic Church but also to scholars everywhere who are concerned with contemporary religious phenomena. It embraces and organizes material from documents authored by the present Pope and by bishops from around the world.

Catholics will be reassured to discover that those in authority in the Church have been paying attention to the developments that have often caused anguish to individuals and to families. In a preamble addressing terminology, the editors confess that the words sects and cults may have a pejorative sense; therefore, a preference is expressed for the euphemism, “new religious movements.” However in the appendix where the earlier 1986 document appears there is the straightforward use of the familiar “cults.”

As a tool for scholars, the listing of 61 documents will prove very useful. They afford a worldwide perspective and demonstrate that the Vatican enjoys a unique advantage in being able to draw to the center experiences from around the globe. Moreover, the editors acknowledge that the very existence of the NRMs serves as a catalyst to spark study on the part of mainline churches and synagogues.

In the introduction the reader is reminded that the present Pope, John Paul II, perceives our modern society as being on a spiritual journey, even, more precisely, on a search. It is a search which sometimes looks backward in hopes of bringing about a “revival” and sometimes lurches forward toward radical alternatives. There is also a note of warning that some of the groups “fail to respect the dignity and freedom of the human person.”

It will not be surprising that many of the contributions have a defensive air about them for the bishops naturally have a commitment to protect and advance the faith of this 2,000-year-old church, but their concerns are expressed with a reasonableness and charity which is influenced by their conviction that we are living in “an age of ecumenical dialogue.” This attitude so colors their statements that anyone who has spent time in the healing of victims of thought reform will wonder at the absence of more forceful warnings about the malice of manipulators. If, indeed, the defense of human freedom is a fundamentally religious issue then one might expect religious leaders to be very sensitive to the violation of freedom. But, then, it is only proper to remind ourselves that this anthology takes 61 different quotations out of their original context where they may have appeared in stronger colors.

The six chapter headings under which these various statements are grouped form a useful framework in which to capture the insights of the world’s bishops. They are “Cultural Context and Causes,” “Diversity of Origin of the Movements,” “Impact and Process of Communication,” “Spiritual and Theological Discernment,” “Pastoral Challenges and Responses,” and “Attitude of Dialogue.”

Quite naturally the papal documents and discourses are presented first in each section, followed by quotations from individual bishops and from their national conferences. In one visit to a parish in Rome, the Pontiff expressed the opinion that one reason for the proliferation of sects is that people experience a “fear of tomorrow,” and Cardinal Arinze said that “the NRMs can arise and attract because people are searching for meaning when they are feeling lost in a period of cultural change.” Also in this section devoted to psychological causes there is a reminder that the depersonalizing structures of modern society create crisis situations which call for psychological and spiritual responses: “The sects claim to have and to give these responses. They do this on both the affective and the cognitive levels often responding to the affective needs in a way that deadens the cognitive faculties.” That analysis is reminiscent of a lecture once given by Dr. Louis J. West on the subject of “mesmerizing” and another conference by Dr. Ray Dreitlein on the manipulative techniques by which “it seems that one part of your brain is put to sleep.”

The National Conference of Bishops in the United States is quoted as saying: “We observe in biblical fundamentalism an effort to try to find in the Bible all the direct answers for living - though the Bible itself nowhere claims such authority. The appeal of such an approach is understandable.... People of all ages yearn for answers. They look for sure, definite rules for living. And they are given answers - simplistic answers to complex issues - in a confident and enthusiastic way in fundamentalist Bible groups.”

The readers of CSJ will realize that the susceptibility to fundamentalist solutions to life’s problems is not limited to religion. It seems to be an anti-intellectual infection that can appear anywhere in the world in any area of life. It seems to grow more resistant as it encounters opposition. Nevertheless it is an enduring challenge to educators. As creatures in time we must overcome “the fear of tomorrow.”

The anthology concludes with an appendix which includes the 1986 Roman document on “Sects and The New Religious Movements.” It, too, hoped to preserve an ecumenical stance, but was frank enough to say, “clearly we cannot be naively ironical.”

This anthology is a very worthwhile piece of work which, it is to be hoped, will be continually updated by the authors when churchmen around this ever-shrinking world continue to experience the pressures of the new religious movements.

Reverend Walter Debold

Seton Hall University

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1998