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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children.

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Irish Elk
Tuesday, July 30, 2002  
Catholic 'Born-Agains' – or Moonies?

Law, whose Masses in Boston this year have generally been greeted by protesters unhappy with his past failure to remove abusive priests from ministry, seemed delighted to be among a large group of young people celebrating their shared Catholic faith. He attempted, somewhat awkwardly, to join the youngsters in a rhythmic set of claps and hand gestures to a set of religious rock songs. He then taught them the verses and led them in singing a more traditional Christian praise song, ''Spirit of the Living God.'' After Mass ended, he spontaneously broke into a circle of dancers around a statue of Mary, asking the dancers, members of a global evangelical Catholic movement called the Neocatechumenal Way, to show him their steps. Boston Globe, July 27, 2002.

With all the discussion of VOTF, little attention has been paid to the influence in more conservative Catholic circles of such sects as the Neocatechumenal Way, which has a "born-again" emphasis evocative of Protestant evangelicalism, but which critics say has more in common with cults like the Moonies or Scientologists.

The NCs are big into World Youth Day, as Gerard Serafin observes in a favorable assessment of the movement. At an April meeting to prepare for WYD dozens of young members declared religious vocations en masse.

Two years ago, when the Pope celebrated a youth Mass on the Mount of the Beatitudes in the Holy Land, nearly half of the 75,000 pilgrims attending were reported to be members of the Neocatechumenal Way. The site of the Sermon of the Mount is where the NCs planned their international center, Domus Galilaeae, a grandiose project from which the Mormons and Freemasons might take pointers.

The Pontifical Council for the Laity that organizes World Youth Day also oversees the Neocatechumenal Way and recently approved its Statute, and is likewise involved with similar "ecclesial movements" like Opus Dei and Catholic Charismatic Renewal.

However, the more you read about "The Way," as it is called, the more odd and unsettling it appears. It's not every Vatican-approved faith movement that ends up listed on an Internet cult index along with Amway, Benny Hinn and the Jehovah's Witnesses. (Well, Opus Dei does, too.)

The Boston archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot, which on July 19 ran a two-page spread on Holy See recognition of the Neocatechumenal way is edited by a member of the NC, as is the archdiocese's Spanish-language paper. Some at The Pilot have bemoaned what one longtime contributor of impeccably orthodox credentials has described as the "Opus Dei [expletives]" now running the paper.

There is much about the Neocatechumenal Way, founded in the 1960s by a guitar-playing Spanish artist, which would strike average Catholics as unorthodox. Their special liturgy, for one.

But the controlling and secretive – some would say cult-like – aspects of the movement are particularly troubling, say critics.

An eye-opening account of the NC is found in this excerpted chapter from The Pope's Armada: Unlocking the Secrets of Mysterious and Powerful New Sects in the Church, by former Focolare member Gordon Urquhart.

Parishioners Against a Secret Church is a group that has taken a stand against the NC.

Here is the English-language version of a French site targeting the NC movement. (Warning to those of you at work: Hit the mute button on your speakers before visiting.)

And here is the text of an article that ran in the British newspaper The Guardian in 1996 and raised troubling questions about the NC. (Bold emphases mine.)

The Guardian (London)
March 2, 1996
LENGTH: 4974 words

The Pope loves them. He calls them 'our own sect' and looks to them to revitalise Catholicism. But in Britain, devout Church members are challenging the 'Neocatechumenate', which they see as an evil cult with a malign obsession with sin

BYLINE: Madeleine Bunting

Mervyn Alexander, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Clifton, is a kindly, conciliatory man, but finds himself in an explosive situation. He is caught between a lobby of fiercely articulate local Catholics and the authority of the Papacy. At dispute is a secret Catholic movement with the unpronounceable name of the Neocatechumenate - understandably abbreviated to NC.

Opponents say the NC is an evil cult that psychologically damages adherents in its pursuit of power. The Pope heralds the movement as a glimmer of hope in the bleak landscape of shrinking Catholic congregations. In fact, John Paul II fondly talks of the Neocatechumenate as his beniamini, or favourite children; he sees this brand of Catholic fundamentalism as a powerful weapon in the global battle against Protestant evangelicalism. In an unfortunate turn of phrase, he christened it 'a sect of our own'.

Bishop Alexander has wriggled unhappily in the crossfire of this David and Goliath conflict. A few years off retirement, he has no inclination for a showdown with the Vatican, which, under its current incumbent, has established a reputation for dealing promptly and efficiently with wayward bishops. But, reluctantly, he has become one of the first senior members of the Church hierarchy in the UK to challenge the NC, which has its power base in Europe but has made inroads into Britain over the past 20 years. Last year, he barred the NC from proselytising any further in his diocese, and an inquiry into the sect has just started work. He has been under great pressure. Bishop Alexander's diocese includes parishes in Cheltenham, Gloucester and Bristol, where some of NC's most voluble critics are gathered. It has become an issue of excruciating embarrassment in the diocese where local papers sprinkle headlines with words like 'secret', 'cult' and 'brainwashing'.

And not, it appears, without some reason. From the descriptions of disillusioned former NC members, the movement combines 'born again' zeal with the methods of more sinister groups: secrecy, elitism, destruction of the individual, and the development of a group dependency. Miranda (an assumed name) was involved with the NC for six years. What first attracted her was the vibrant church services. There was a genuine spirituality and friendliness to the long mass said specially for the NC on Saturday evenings.

'It was very emotional but, rather than happy-clappy, it was grim. There was a huge emphasis on sin and suffering. They weren't afraid to talk about the more sordid sins such as homosexuality, adultery, sex before marriage and masturbation. They called a spade a spade. Sex and money were idols. It was like a form of group therapy.

'The idea is that you have to go down to understand your full unworthiness, in order to understand the love of God. This is standard teaching, but the NC took it upon itself to force that on you. Systematically, they began to destroy our dignity and self-worth.'

The history of the Catholic Church has been littered with secretive movements. Criticism has been levelled, for instance, at Opus Dei, the secret organisation of priests and laity that came out of Franco's Spain as a counter-balance to the leftist worker-priest tendency in the Church. Opus Dei, it is said, targets universities and seminaries in a bid to recruit an educated elite who will eventually move into positions of power.

The Neocatechumenate also originated in Spain. It was founded by a Spaniard, Kiko Arguello, in the slums of Madrid in 1964. The name comes from catechumenate, the word used by the Early Church for the period of instruction prior to baptism. Four years later, the NC moved to Rome and embarked on a worldwide expansion. Today it is still led by Arguello and a former nun, Carmen Hernandez, and is particularly strong in Italy and Spain. Its membership is put at somewhere between 500,000 and a million. Its progress in the UK has been hampered by adverse publicity in Catholic circles, but nevertheless it has established a seminary in London and bases in parishes in Ealing, Mile End, Peckham, Kensington – as well as Bristol, Cheltenham, Gloucester, St Albans and Glasgow.

The NC is a shadowy movement. Its headquarters in Rome are unmarked and, it seems, the phone is rarely answered. There is no literature available: all Arguello's teachings are transmitted orally. In England, my inquiries were passed around a bizarre circle of English, Spanish and Italian priests and eventually ran into the sand when it became clear my article might detail criticisms of the movement.

Former NC members are also nervous about talking - and cross with themselves for being so. They all insisted on anonymity. They feared that the most intimate details of their lives would be dredged up to discredit them. Many of them are deeply devout Catholics and still have difficulty teasing apart what they found wholesome and holy in the teachings of the NC and what they came gradually to perceive as manipulative and evil. For years they believed the NC was inspired by the Holy Spirit and was the work of God. They still recognise that many prominent NC members are wonderful people - warm, intelligent, devout - if terribly misguided. But slowly, painfully they became disillusioned. What they still have difficulty understanding is how the Pope can be wrong and how the Catholic hierarchy can tolerate such a movement. They demand to know, with a touchingly naive faith, why Cardinal Basil Hume hasn't done something.

What makes the NC such a fascinating case is that it lies at the point where orthodox religion and cults merge. This was the dangerous area revealed by Sheffield's Nine O'Clock Service, which showed how vulnerable a religiously illiterate generation is to spiritual abuse and how personally devastating the manipulation of faith can be.

'The Way' of the NC, as laid down by Arguello, consists of at least eight stages of induction and can take up to 20 years (reminiscent of 'The Process' for Scientologists). The idea is that you cannot properly call yourself a Christian until you have passed the first stages. Even priests and strong, cradle Catholics are described as 'pagans', with the effect that everything before, or outside, the NC is spiritually invalidated.

The NC starts by recruiting the priest of a parish; he then gives an open invitation to his congregation to attend a six-week course of two evenings a week. At the end, those still interested go away for a weekend for a 'convivence' where they are invited to form a community. 'Responsibles' are elected to help organise it, and a team of 'catechists' - longtime lay NC members - lead the community, which usually numbers about 40. There are, usually, several evenings of Bible reading a week as well as a long mass on Saturday evening. Complaints that the meetings leave little time for one's family prompt accusations that the member has 'idolised' his or her children.

The introduction is gentle, and there is a great emphasis on the voluntary nature of the commitment, which initially reassured members such as Miranda. It helped her to accept without demur that the teaching could not be questioned. 'They groomed us into passive acceptance. I can see that now.' Gradually, they introduced the idea that quiescence was a mark of holiness.

'Each community was isolated from others,' Miranda recalls. 'Those further along The Way never spoke about their experiences. We were taught to be secret - it was the disciplinum arcani, or the law of secrecy. They legitimised this with reference to the Early Christian Church. They justified a lot like that.' Miranda described how the teaching on obedience and submission (a constant theme) subtly changed over time. First it was cast in the context of obedience to God. Then, because the Church is the body of Christ, members were told to obey the Church - standard Catholic doctrine. But then, they extended the idea to claim that the NC was the Church, so members had to obey the NC.

'What they did was gradually build up a dependency culture. You must trust the NC because it has been given to you by God. You are a child in faith . . . We (the catechists) are adults in faith.' After several years in the NC, members are expected to refer every personal decision back to their catechist. One member reportedly had to have his vasectomy reversed. Marrying 'out' is disapproved of, and one member who married a non-NC was reminded of how God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Elizabeth, another former NC member, was told by a catechist: 'You must trust us completely. Even if we say that white wall is black, you must believe us and trust us.'

'The NC attracts people with low esteem who are depressed and emotionally mixed-up,' Miranda says. 'They are very clever and subtle - they know where to touch people who want to take faith seriously and manipulate that deep and sincere desire.' Each stage of The Way ends with a Scrutiny, the most controversial aspect of the NC spiritual discipline. The first one is relatively mild; it focuses on getting members to accept the suffering of their lives, just as Christ accepted the suffering of the Crucifixion. 'Turning the other cheek' is a dominant theme of the NC and can be taken to literal and horrifying lengths; one woman who was being beaten by her husband was told to submit. Miranda says: 'You're told at the First Scrutiny to sell your belongings and give them to the poor. We had to break the power of the idols to which we are all in thrall, such as money and sex.' It was not uncommon for members to give pounds 10,000 or more to charity. Members come under increasing pressure to contribute to the movement; black bin-liners are passed round and cheques written. The amount donated is announced immediately, and if it is not enough the bag goes round again. Eventually, communities agree to tithe - give a tenth of their income - to the NC.

It becomes increasingly difficult for members to leave the movement. The crunch comes at the Second Scrutiny, which is usually four to six years after the founding of the community. There is a big build-up and catechists urge members to prepare well. 'They told us that if we passed the Second Scrutiny, we wouldn't need to go through the Last Judgment. It would already have been done,' Miranda says. 'We were told it was a 'narrow door' which only opens if you are ready. They told us, 'We are Jesus Christ for you' - they were coming closer and closer to identifying themselves with God.' Mark found the Second Scrutiny shattering. Even now, years later, he struggles to stop himself crying at the memory. During the six weeks, he felt close to a nervous breakdown and suicidal. 'You're told that it is absolutely secret and you should never ever talk about it. I now know why. It is very psychologically violent. People's lives were opened up and questioned. They were after every detail of your sins. They wanted to break you down.'

Two or three times a week, the community has to meet; members sit in rows facing a panel of about seven catechists and a priest with notebooks and pencils. In front of the panel is a large cross and an empty chair. There are usually about a dozen NC members from other parishes as observers. One by one, each person in the community has to take the chair and is subjected to a scrutiny of their sins for about an hour. 'When you sat in the chair, they said, 'You are before Jesus Christ.' Eighty per cent of those scrutinised broke down and cried,' Mark recalls. 'They were very keen on sex. One man admitted he had been looking at pornography, and the catechist asked if the pornography was of men or women. There was a long pause, then he replied it was of women. Another evening we heard the gruesome details of a homosexual's confession.

'One girl had had a lot of trouble with her family; she had had a baby and they told her she was the type to kill it. Everything that had happened in your life was twisted to put the blame on you. For example, the son of an alcoholic mother was told that he had killed her . . . I felt spiritually abused and ashamed, embarrassed and guilty about it.' The panel judges whether the community as a whole has 'passed' or 'failed' the Scrutiny. Most communities fail and have to repeat the process the following year. Mark's community failed and was told there was 'a lot more to come out'.

Gordon Urquhart, author of The Pope's Armada, a book on three current fundamentalist movements in the Catholic Church, believes the NC is the most sinister. He identifies six 'cult' characteristics: elitism, secrecy, a living founder with a personality cult around him, practice of ego destruction, a strong hold over finances and a demand for blind obedience to the catechist.

Kiko Arguello's religious paintings are reproduced and distributed around NC centres, the services depend heavily on music he has written, and his sayings are frequently quoted, bizarre though they may be. For example, he once said parents hug their children because they want to murder them.

Faced with criticism, particularly in England and France, the NC has reacted defensively. Those who persecute it, Urquhart says, are referred to as 'Judases'; bishops who oppose it, as 'pharoahs'. Members draw parallels between themselves and the Franciscans - a much-loved order of monks and nuns devoted to poverty and charity - who were once persecuted by the Church. 'Where they score is that they get results. They get vocations to the priesthood and to religious orders. They get people into church,' says Urquhart.

This is part of their appeal for the Pope. They are Catholicism's answer to the rise of Protestant evangelism - indeed, the NC bears many of the characteristics of the worldwide rise of fundamentalism in all faiths.
John Paul II looks forward with increasing pessimism, and has seized upon the NC as a tool for revitalising the Church in the next century. In Rome itself, the practice of Catholicism is being virtually wiped out in a generation; the parishes with any vitality are NC. Its advocacy of huge families - it goes further than the Vatican and frowns even on natural family planning - provokes particular praise from the Pope.

At a mass in an NC parish in Rome celebrated by the Pope, he blessed their 'children who, thanks be to God, are numerous. They are also a cause for great hope because the world, secularised, dechristianised, agnostic, which no longer has faith in God, is losing faith in itself, is losing faith in man . . .' 'It seems that the faithful, those baptised years ago, are no longer strong enough to oppose secularisation and the ideologies which are contrary not only to the Church but also to religion in general,' said the Pope on the same occasion. 'You, with your Neocatechumenal Way, in different environments, try to rebuild what has broken down: you seek to rebuild it in a more authentic way, I would say, approaching the experience of the Early Church.'

Privately, few of the English Catholic hierarchy would endorse the Pope's enthusiasm for the Neocatechumenate. But none is prepared to suggest that this might be the delusion of an ageing Pontiff. When pressed, Cardinal Basil Hume issued a carefully-worded statement in which he pointed out that 'new movements have often been greeted with suspicion but have gone on to make a lasting contribution to the Church', but added the significant caveat, 'providing they have been willing to change and adapt'. His conclusion betrayed his reservations: 'The movement has its own particular ethos and way of doing things. The Cardinal is unsure how easily or how well it could be integrated in a diocese like Westminster.'

According to Urquhart, the Neocatechumenal Way is to operate a form of entryist tactics. In inner-city parishes with small residential congregations, they score remarkable success. Transforming dead, empty services, they build a thriving congregation. Guardian Angels, at Mile End in east London, was one of their first parishes nearly 20 years ago. Another centre at Ogle Street, central London, has similarly flourished. Those who don't like the new style of worship move to another church.

The conflicts come, says Urquhart, when they move into parishes that are already very active. The NC communities work like a parallel parish and systematically try to take over all the traditional activities, such as marriage preparation and children's confirmation programmes, antagonising other parishioners in the process. This is what provoked a campaign in the West Country.

Father John Hanvey was a curate in the Cheltenham parish of the Sacred Heart, an NC centre. He is still deeply confused about the NC: 'I was impressed initially, but there is more to it than meets the eye. It's a reaction to blatant secularism, but there's a feeling of exclusivity. I felt I was in the shadow of a cult, but maybe I took things too personally. On the other hand, a doctor in the parish listened to some of their catechesis and said the emphasis on sin was 'psychologically damaging'.'

Mary Whyte attends mass at the Sacred Heart every day. She began campaigning to get the NC out of the diocese years ago after hearing a catechesis that horrified her. 'The first talk lasted two and half hours. A married couple insisted on telling all the details of their stormy relationship, and an Italian priest yelled at us. When we didn't join, we were told we had immature faith.' She says the NC has bitterly divided the parish. The church used to be packed but many have drifted off to other parishes.

A fellow campaigner in the Clifton diocese is Ron Haynes, a lecturer in computer studies at Bristol University, who has studied the NC closely: 'They promulgate a view that the individual is a source of evil and sin and that salvation lies in the group. It is the elitism of the damned.' What worries Haynes is that good people get drawn into the NC because they see it as an official part of the Church backed by the Pope.

Whyte, Haynes and 10 others, all dedicated Catholics, formed a committee to put pressure on the Bishop of Clifton. Finally, last summer, they succeeded in getting the NC banned from further recruitment in the diocese as long as he was bishop.

And now, after long delays, a three-person panel in Bristol appointed by Bishop Alexander has begun the delicate task of investigating the Pope's 'favourite children'. One of the most senior priests in the Clifton diocese was sufficiently concerned to undertake his own investigation several years ago. Vicar-General Monsignor Joseph Buckley came to an unequivocal conclusion. In a Catholic magazine, he likened the methods of the NC to the totalitarianism of fascism and communism. He claimed that it used brainwashing techniques of repetitive music and phrases and made demands on members, in time and commitment, that threatened family life. He said it attracted the mentally weak and emotionally unstable with 'tragic consequences', while the commitment of adherents is 'properly named fanaticism'.

Monsignor Buckley sent a report on the NC to all the bishops in England and France. For his pains, he was described as 'meddlesome' by the Papal Nuncio to England.

The NC is never going to be a mass movement - it has no ambition to be one. Like any 20th-century revolutionary movement, it is preoccupied with the quality of its membership rather the quantity. It wants completely dedicated cadres to promote its agenda in the Church. Urquhart's greatest concern was the growing number of NC priests. At large ordination ceremonies in St Peter's, Rome, a sizeable number are now NC. With vocations steeply declining in Europe, the NC's ability to deliver priests will ensure it huge power. It has established several seminaries and it is not short of money. It is only a matter of time before these priests begin moving up the hierarchy and into positions of influence over the future direction of the Church.

In the meantime, a former NC member posed the questions Bishop Alexander and his panel must grapple with: 'Just how much does the Pope know about the NC? Are they really loyal to the Catholic Church, or to the NC? Are they using the Church for their own ends? Ultimately they want to take it over. The Catholic hierarchy needs to recognise what the NC is doing, decide whether it is acceptable, and find out exactly who is controlling the NC.'

Poor Bishop Alexander.


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