Advice for Church Authorities


Introductory Comment

Michael D. Langone, PhD
Executive Director, ICSA

This section of the Website will not be developed fully until after the Trieste conference, perhaps long after the conference. Indeed, if the level of discussion on this topic achieves the quality and quantity for which I hope, this page will expand and evolve over time. I look forward to your comments and hope that someone among us will someday order these various comments into a coherent set of propositions that will help Church authorities limit the sectarian spirit within the Church.

The discussion must begin somewhere. Since I’ve designed this Website, I’ll start.

First, please examine the articles and links we list here. In particular, see the Catholic Church reports and the following articles:
  • Vere, Peter. Sifting the Wheat from the Tares: 20 Signs of Trouble in a New ReligiousGroup. Vere states his purpose: “As a canon lawyer, I am often asked what the Church looks for when assessing new groups forming within the Church. While the following is by no means exhaustive, it presents a pretty good list of red flags and warning signs that would give any canonist pause when examining a new association.”
  • Bussell, Harold. Why Evangelicals are Vulnerable to Cults. I believe that Catholics will find much that is useful in this insightful article. For example, Bussell discusses how the notion of “being led by the Lord” can deceive: “This spring I have received over twenty letters from leaders of musical groups, pastors, and evangelists who have been ‘led by the Lord’ to minister in New England during the first half of October. Of course this is during the peak of fall colors. Interestingly, God never seems to lead ministries to New England during the month of February.”
  • Reimers, Adrian. More than the Devil’s Due. This Catholic philosopher begins his article with a personal anecdote that illustrates his theme that devilish influences can be conveniently constructed, rather than discovered: “I never knew I was a sexual pervert - not until the leader of our covenant community and his wife prayed with me for deliverance. During this prayer in our living room the leader discerned that for most of my life I had been unknowingly oppressed by an evil spirit, a spirit of sexual perversion. I had never acted perversely. But our leader identified this demon, which was crippling my life in the Holy Spirit and interfering with my ability to live and to love. When he cast the demon out, then its hitherto undetected baneful influence was gone from my life. Like every other member of our covenant community, I was made dramatically and intimately aware of the deceptions and power of the devil to ruin my Christian life.” 
If psychology has taught us anything since Freud – let me rephrase that, since St. Augustine, it is that self-deception is real. Because self-deception exists in all of us, whether we admit it or not, I submit that questioning, that doubt, is good - within limits, of course.

Cultic environments tend not to permit genuine doubt or questioning, in part because they rely on social-psychological pressures that promote self-deception. They may demand a tendentious form of self-examination designed, as do some New Age large group awareness trainings, to “break you down and then build you up” – according to the specifications of the leadership. But they do not permit doubt that questions the leadership or its doctrines.

In a survey I conducted in 1991, 308 subjects from 101 groups rated their groups on about 100 dimensions. The two items that received the highest rankings – near unanimity on a 1-5 scale – were: (1) the group considers itself to be an elite and (2) dissent is not tolerated.

I've discussed the second item. But what about elitism? Being part of an elite is the carrot of cult involvement. Stifling one’s capacity to think critically, to question, to dissent is part of the price one pays for that carrot.

How can the elitist "carrot" manifest in Catholic contexts? One way, in my opinion, is through misuse of the notion of charism, which may fall prey to a self-deceptive desire for elitism. When I first began studying the Legion of Christ, I read and heard often about Maciel’s charism. One Legion priest told me that if Maciel were proven to be a liar, his charism would be false and the priest would have to leave the Legion. (The last I heard, the priest was still in the Legion.)

To my skeptical ears, much of this talk sounded like pride. It made me think of some of the elitist phrases I've heard in my cult work. My favorite is the cultic Christian group that called itself, “God’s Green Berets”!

Could pride sometimes lurk behind the belief that one is following "a living saint"? Could some people exploit that tendency toward pride for purposes inconsistent with the Church's mission? Maciel appears to have done so. Have others within the Church?

An odd thing about the near unanimity of elitism among cultic groups is that so many groups extol “humility.” The concept of humility, however, can be exploited in manipulative settings that define humility in ways that amount to self-debasement designed to demonstrate the member’s subordination to leadership.

This kind of shift in meaning of basic terms is a common manipulative ploy in cultic groups. Members who have come to be indoctrinated in the group hear one meaning for a particular term, while nonmembers hear another meaning. Such definitional shifts enable groups to "hide in orthodoxy." They may seem orthodox to individuals using the normal meanings of key terms, but the strategic meaning shifts of these terms among members permit the leader to act in unorthodox ways while seeming to be pure as snow. I've referred to this phenomenon as "ideological fraud."

Another factor to be sensitive to is fear. I once conducted a research study of the International Churches of Christ, which many have called a cult. As part of the study, I interviewed several dozen former members. What most struck me in these interviews was the amount of fear that people had felt when they were members - fear in a group that professed to emulate the love of Christ.

Such fear ought to be an especially noteworthy warning sign in Catholic groups. After all, did not Pope John Paul II write a book with the title, "be not afraid"? Again, I also refer you to Adrian Reimers' article, "More than the Devil's due."

In summary, my initial advice to Church authorities is:
  • Remember that self-deception is universal.
  • Be suspicious of groups that discourage questioning.
  • Look for key definitional shifts that may be signs of "ideological fraud."
  • When examining new movements, look for signs of fear.