Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Cultic Catholicism and the Demise of Catholic Influence in the Public Square

In my posting yesterday about the ongoing intra-Catholic discussion of the funeral of Senator Kennedy (and how that discussion is being related to debates about health care reform), I mentioned a Catholic religious movement about which I’ve blogged a number of times previously. This group is called the Legionaries of Christ.

The Legionaries of Christ are a religious community founded in 1941 by Father Marcia Maciel. The group has both a vowed (i.e., a “religious”) and a lay component: it has both members who follow the consecrated life of religious and priests, and lay people who follow the community’s life without entering religious life. It operates seminaries and schools in a number of countries, including the United States. Its lay movement Regnum Christi is said to have over 70,000 members worldwide.

The influence of the Legionaries and Regnum Christi is considerable, and flows through many different channels, some of them not evident to many members of the public. As an article entitled “Legion and RC Front Groups Identified” at the ReGAIN website (more on this site in a moment) notes, many websites that, at a first glance, one would not know are Legionary-sponsored or Legionary-affiliated (e.g.,, Theology-on-Tap, Catholic Youth World Network) are actually fronts for this influential religious group.

The nationally circulated publication National Catholic Register is owned by the Legionaries. Through its ties to the previous pope, John Paul II, the influence of this movement has expanded exponentially in many countries, including the United States, in recent years. This influence is more extensive than many Catholics realize, due to the group’s penchant for secrecy and its preferred method of evangelizing “from the top.”

As Jason Berry and Gerald Renner’s exhaustively researched study Vows of Silence (NY: Free Press, 2003) notes, the Legionaries and Regnum Christi actively recruit Catholics in economic elites, and rely on the behind-the-scenes influence of these highly placed community members to promote the group’s interests. Come up against the Legionaries of Christ and any of the many institutions and media outlets where their influence is strong, and you come up against a very powerful network, indeed.

Unfortunately, this influential religious community is now under investigation by Rome, after it was discovered that the community’s founder Father Marcial Maciel not only sexually abused seminarians in his religious order, but fathered a number of children whom he supported secretly for years, using his community’s funds to do so.

As yesterday’s posting notes, some U.S. Catholic colleges—a tiny handful—have developed strong ties to the Legionaries and their lay group Regnum Christi in recent years. I suggested yesterday that the Catholicism such colleges end up fostering usually has more in common with cults than with bona fide Catholicity.

I made that suggestion, in part, to reference a growing body of significant literature emerging from former members of the Legionaries and Regnum Christi, which explores parallels between the Legionaries and other cults. In a response to one of those commenting on yesterday’s thread, I recommended a 2006 study by one former Legionary, Father J. Paul Lennon, in the journal of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). Father Lennon’s study takes Janja Lalich and Michael D. Lagone’s checklist of characteristics of cults and applies that checklist to the Legionaries of Christ.

Interestingly enough, even as I was blogging about this issue yesterday, a blogger at a blog dedicated to helping Catholic parents and the public understand how the Legionaries and Regnum Christi operate was posting about this very same issue. I think, but have not yet confirmed, that this blog may belong to the same Father Paul Lennon who published the 2006 ICSA study.

The posting on the Understanding the Legion blog also offers a checklist of characteristics of cults, applying them to the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi (and citing Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias, Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships [Berkeley: Bay Tree, 2006]). For those who want more information about the connections between cults and the Legionaries and the groups they influence (including schools and readers of Catholic publications with ties to the Legionaries), I recommend a treasure trove of resources on this topic at the ReGAIN website. ReGAIN is a network of past and present members of the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi and of others who share ReGAIN’s concerns about the activities and influence of the Legionaries.

I’d like to note a number of the characteristics of cults that, in the view of many former Legionary and Regnum Christi members, apply to the Legionaries of Christ and the movements it sponsors. In particular, I’d like to note cult-like characteristics that, in my view, seriously impede the efforts of Catholic educational groups associated with the Legionaries of Christ to pursue their educational mission effectively and faithfully.

According to the studies cited above, among the characteristics of cults that the Legionaries of Christ and groups associated with it exhibit are the following:

1. Punishment of those who ask questions, raise doubts, or dissent from the Truth/law.

‪2. Excessive use of mind-altering practices including meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

‪3. The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel.

4. Control of information available to group members in order to restrict their ability to think for themselves.

Father Lennon finds strong parallels between the behavior of the Legionaries and Regnum Christi, and the preceding characteristics of cults. He notes (with documentation) how these groups punish those who question, express doubts, or dissent in the following ways:

▪ Critical thinking is deliberately suppressed, and strong pressure is applied to silence anyone who asks critical questions.

▪ Those who persist in engaging in critical thinking, asking questions, or expressing doubts are sidelined, shunned, exiled, and dismissed (e.g., they may be told they are not “good” or “faithful” Catholics, that they have departed from the Truth, that they are “of the devil” and headed to hell, that they are immoral, that they are liars, that they are “liberals,” etc.)

▪ Absolute, unquestioning obedience to the Truth as formulated by the leader(s) is exalted as the primary virtue of religious life.

▪ Dissenters are shamed (they are told that they are worthless, that their questions arise from ill intent, that they are “of the devil,” that they are arrogant/proud/angry/bitter/corrupt, that they support a culture of death, etc.).

▪ Verbal whipping is used by the group and its leaders to shame and then marginalize/expel doubters, questioners, and dissenters.

With regard to the excessive use of mind-altering practices including meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines, Father Lennon notes the following practices of the Legionaries:

▪ Prayer and meditation lean heavily towards discursive rather than affective practices.

▪ These discursive practices discourage the active use of imagination and emotion to probe the significance of beliefs and internalize those beliefs; instead, they try to brand the “truth” of a belief in the adherent’s brain to bend his will to the Truth as laid down by the leader(s).

▪ This notion of prayer depends on the belief that “God’s will is manifested infallibly in the mandates and even the wishes of my legitimate superiors.”

▪ Community members are kept busy at mind-numbing activities that suppress the impulse to think, ask questions, or even probe the significance of the “truths” imposed from above.

▪ Community denunciation sessions are held in which the will of the leader(s) as enforced by the community is imposed on anyone who dissents in any way.

With regard to the third criterion of cults—how members should think, act, and feel is dictated by the leadership—Father Lennon notes the following:

▪ The Legionaries and groups associated with them strongly stress conformity to one way of thinking and acting—a “group-think” in which the community discerns who belongs and who does not, who should be expelled and who should be permitted to remain, who is righteous and who is unrighteous, who is faithful and who is unfaithful, who is headed to heaven and who is headed to hell.

▪ The emphasis on unquestioning obedience and absolute conformity to the “truth” as dictated by leader(s) and enforced by the group causes the group’s belief system to be focused on external appearances rather than internal appropriation and understanding of beliefs.

Finally, regarding the fourth criterion of cults—the group seeks to control all flow of information to restrict the free ability of group members to think for themselves—Father Lennon notes that the Legionaries and groups connected to them do the following:

▪ Restrict social contact with “outsiders,” including even with non-Legionary family members of adherents.

▪ Censor access of group members to books, films, publications, telephones, and the Internet.

As I note above, I find a strong disconnect between the goals and mission of bona fide Catholic education and what the Legionaries and their affiliates are all about. I actually have some personal experience with the movement by which the Legionaries assert their dominance within Catholic colleges. I have taught at one Catholic college which has now become strongly associated with the Legionaries of Christ, and whose educational mission seems to be faltering as a result of that connection.

That college was just on the cusp of “coming out” as a loud and proud Legionary-affiliated institution at the time it chose to smear and then expel me, and seek to refashion itself in line with the dictates of the Legion of Christ. I saw the shift taking place, fought as hard as I could to resist it, and can attest to its destructive effects on the life of this Catholic institution.

This is a college that provided fertile ground for the Legionaries, since it is owned by a religious community that exhibits characteristics already prominent among the Legionaries and their affiliates. For quite a few years, the community has had a sordid history of punishing and expelling members who raise questions or dissent—often brutally so. The college owned by this community in turn applies these techniques of violent control to dissenters within the college community.

Though I had never once spoken, taught, or written about the topic of abortion before I came there or during my stay there, I was told that I was pro-abortion, in favor of killing babies. When my expulsion from the campus community was finalized, the religious superior led a procession of faculty (all men, as it happened) and his community members to the community cemetery to bury fetal remains. I was told by faculty who were in the known that this was a public ritual of humiliation and expulsion aimed at me as a proponent of abortion.

The religious superior announced a few weeks later to the campus that I was a diseased limb that needed to be lopped from the campus tree to assure its health. I had no idea why I was being characterized in that way, since he refused to meet with me to discuss why I was being ritually humiliated and expelled, and my rights violated.

I know of one member who left after years within this particular community, and who was not even offered bus fare or a ride as he left to move to his new home. In another case, a member who left was ordered by the religious superior to mop the floors of the community house for weeks on end, hour after hour each day, before he left. On the night before he left, the superior woke him up up in the middle of the night and told to dust the superior’s choir stall in church, over and over again for the rest of the night.

When I was teaching at the college owned by this community, and as similar techniques of shaming, silencing, and expulsion were being applied to me as a theologian, a student who was in a class I taught entered the community. From the moment he entered, he ceased to speak to me, even to say hello when we passed on the college’s grounds.

After several years, he left, and then contacted me to ask my forgiveness. He told me that the novice master (now the community’s superior) had forbidden him to speak to me. He also told me that one of the ways in which the novice master taught obedience to him and his fellow novices was to have them dig a hole half of one day and then fill it back up the rest of the day. This was in the mid-1990s, when such methods of teaching vowed obedience were increasingly regarded as barbaric, unchristian, and a form of mind control in most religious communities.

Obedience was far and away the premier virtue in this religious community and on the campus it owns. Shortly after I arrived at the college owned by the community, one of the faculty members who wanted to see the college and community move even more to the fringe right than it already had moved took me aside and said that the one flaw in the religious community owning the college was that it did not demand absolute obedience.

This began to shift when I was at the college and a new abbot was elected. This abbot and his second-in-command set up a check-in system for all community members each night, in which they would (so community members told me) stand at the door of the monastery and count each member as he returned home that night, scowling as they did so. Because the religious superior preferred coffee to soft drinks, he yanked all dispensers of soft drinks on each floor of the religious house and decreed that each floor would have a coffee dispenser.

When questions arose about whether to tear down one of the old buildings on the campus which had been built by a previous generation of the community, a plan for the building’s renovation was drawn up and the community members voted to endorse the plan. One morning, they woke up to see the building they had voted to preserve and renovate being torn down. The superior told the community that God had spoken to him in the night and ordered him to tear the building down.

A community member who left this community has told me that after he left, he was asked to return for a conference with the religious superior. There was contention about whether he could have money his family had donated to the community, which should have been given to him, according to the dictates of canon law, when he left the community.

When he arrived for what he was told would be an amiable discussion with the religious superior, he found that a circle of chairs had been placed in the room for the meeting, with his chair in the center. The circle of chairs was occupied by the senior members of the community, who—so he told me—harangued and threatened him throughout the meeting. The person who is now the superior of the community informed him that if he raised questions about the decision of the community re: his money, a damaging letter would be placed in his personnel file, now that he had transferred to the diocese.

As I say, I know a bit about how the Legionaries of Christ gain a foothold in some Catholic educational institutions, and I know what that process does to those institutions. It radically undermines their ability to produce well-prepared, well-educated, well-rounded students with a wide range of knowledge in the liberal arts. It reinforces the pre-existing tendency of these educational institutions to indoctrinate students and browbeat them to external conformity to the community's norms.

To the extent that this kind of education now predominates in Catholic circles, it is having seriously deleterious effects on American Catholicism. This kind of educational system is not producing Catholic leaders who are well-equipped to think and dialogue with others in a pluralistic society.

It is producing, rather, people whose ability to reason, to engage in critical thinking, and to listen and appreciate diverse viewpoints is strongly impaired. It is producing people who substitute slogans and slurs for thought. It is producing people unable to articulate Catholic values and Catholic ideas for the public square, because they themselves do not understand those values and ideas. It is producing moral imbeciles.

And in doing so, it is seriously undermining the effectiveness of Catholicism in the public square, and the ability of the Catholic community to convey its core values to the public square.