Sent to me by Robert A. Hutchison .....................

From ........... THE TABLET

July 8, 1995

page 864

By Michael Walsh [ author of Opus Dei ]


The new lay movements within the [Roman] Catholic Church have the support of Pope John Paul II. Some in Rome compare their rise to that of the friars in the thirteenth century. But they are highly controversial. The librarian of Heythrop College considers the criticisms made in a new book by a former member.

One has to read to the end of Gordon Urquhart's book before realising that the title is a misnomer. The Pope's Armada [Bantam Press, £16.99] suggests a combined, coordinated assault by a group of new religious movements [NRMs, popularly called "sects"] within the Church upon the unsuspecting Roman Catholic faithful.

In the final chapter the author reveals what many already know, that these movements [in this book the Neo-Catechumenate, Focolare and Comunione e Liberazione, with a brief nod in the direction of Opus Dei] are mutually antagonistic.

Despite occasional attempts by Comunione e Liberazione (CL) to unite them, each goes its own way. They have to. It is not just that their styles of life and their spiritualities are so distinct. Each claims to be not simply a way but 'the' way to appropriate and to live out the Catholic faith in the modern world. Although, paradoxically, they represent themselves to their adherents as spiritual elites, they aim to be mass movements, competing for members in the same market place.

This book bears witness to the hostility which they have aroused within Catholicism. Perhaps it is this conviction that its members have a form of privileged access to the higher mansions of the Kingdom that so irritates other Catholics. They are often referred to, as Urquhart refers to them, as "sects", and nothing could be more calculated to incite their ire, notwithstanding the curious story which the Neo-Catechumenate [NC] apparently repeats with pride, that Pope John Paul referred to it as a sect [cf. the last page of this book]. They vehemently assert their orthodoxy, but this is to some extent to miss the point.

Because within a church context the term "sect" is clearly derogatory, "new religious movement" is frequently used in its place. But etymologically the word is more closely related to "following" than to "sectional" in the sense of cut-off, and one of the most obvious aspects of these movements is that they each clearly have their own "guru" who reinterprets for them the Christian message. He, or she in the case of the Focolare, provides the members of their organisations with a clear-cut Catholic identity in a way in which the Church as a whole nowadays fails to do. It is, perhaps, a matter of regret that the movements achieve this identity through a banal spirituality and a highly traditional theology. Like the Pope himself [as I have argued elsewhere], while making considerable use of the latest technology in their efforts to promote themselves, they are fundamentally anti-modern.

That is, to my mind, a pity, but it is not a reason to suggest that people joining them are doing themselves a disservice. Mr Urquhart suggests, however, that recruits are subjected to brainwashing. From a study of the School of Economic Science he takes eight characteristics of what he calls "a brainwashing environment", elaborated by two 'Evening Standard' journalists from a book by the psychiatrist Dr Robert J. Lifton, 'Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: a study of "brainwashing" in China.' Dr Lifton's career had been shaped by his contact with Americans taken prisoner by the Chinese in the Korean War. I would not wish for a moment to deny that the Chinese attempted "thought reform" on GIs. Their success in permanently altering their prisoners' outlook was, however, relatively small, despite the extreme measures to which they resorted. Mr Urquhart does not suggest that the same methods are used on members of the movements he is describing, but through what he calls the "total immersion experiences" employed by the Focolare, or the frenetic rallies of CL or the intense liturgies of the NC, he clearly believes that members have been brainwashed.

I read the eight characteristics cited with considerable amusement. For 20 years I was a member of the Society of Jesus. The characteristics which he denounces were typical in varying degrees of the period of noviceship in particular, and of some of the early years after the noviceship. In arguing, as he appears to do, that members of the Focolare - to which he belonged - are brainwashed, he is proving too much, unless he wishes to demonstrate that all members of religious orders are treated likewise Since he regularly contrasts the behaviour of the religious orders favourably with that of the movements he is describing, I imagine he would not want to propound the theory that Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans and so on are all brainwashed.

Espousal of the brainwashing theory puts Mr Urquhart firmly in the "anti-cult" lobby and opposed, as he explicitly says, to the approach taken by Inform, a research and information service on new religious movements set up with government funding and based at the London School of Economics. Until very recently my wife [who, by a strange quirk of fate, had been pursued as a potential recruit by the Liverpool Focolare when Mr Urquhart was in charge of it] worked for Inform as its research and information officer. I may therefore be accused of having a personal stake in taking Inform's line in opposition to the author's. Yet long before my wife's involvement with Inform I published a study of Opus Dei. Despite my hostility to that institution, I never suggested, in spite of the irritation of a distinguished Irish interviewer who pressed me to do so, that Opus was guilty of brainwashing.

To someone who has left a movement it is of course, an attractive theory in which to believe. It removes responsibility for a decision to join, and more especially to remain with, a new religious movement. It also absolves those concerned from the actions they took while members. Likewise it accounts for the acceptance of what may seem, to outsiders, bizarre religious ideas. But no more bizarre than Christianity already appears to an atheist.

Urquhart makes the point that Focolare and the NC are un-, if not positively antiintellectual. In my very limited experience of the latter [and I have had no contact with the former], that may be a fair comment. It is, however, not true of CL, though CL manages to think up some fairly bizarre ideas of its own such that even the remarkable Jesuit Joseph Fessio, once the English-language publisher of CL's flagship journal '30 Giorni,' found difficult to accept [a story which Mr Urquhart relates with considerable verve]. Urquhart's credentials as a defender of Vatican II against the movements would have been the more credible had he not allied himself with anti-cult campaigners [as vehemently anti-Catholic as they are antiMoonie], the ultra-conservative Fessio or the extraordinary Fr Enrico Zoffoli CP.

These movements are conservative not only in their theology but also commonly in their politics, in their "world-denying" stance combined with an acceptance of the status quo in society - in the eyes of some, the equivalent of a conservative political philosophy. Visiting Latin America in the mid-Eighties, I was astonished to find the Focolare included among the forces of conservatism by progressive clergy and laity, whereas my knowledge of it in Britain was of a harmlessly pious group of people, not dissimilar from the Legion of Mary.

That these basically illiberal organisations will come to dominate the life of the Catholic Church seems unlikely. Despite efforts to present them as a powerful force within Catholicism, they represent a tiny proportion even of active Catholics. Admittedly there is a special problem about the NC. Their theory of the concentric circles of parish membership, with themselves at the centre, seems destined systematically to cause antagonism within the parishes in which they are present. This is an issue about which the NC and the bishops have to come to an understanding. The guidelines which, in December 1981, Cardinal Hume laid down for Opus Dei in the diocese of Westminster would make an excellent basis for discussion between the hierarchy and all of these new religious movements.

These guidelines are for the most part concerned with recruitment. This clearly causes considerable anxiety, and produces tensions within families. It is also frequently asserted, and certainly it is strongly urged by Mr Urquhart in his own case, that membership is bad for the psychological health of adherents. Part of this allegation is the accusation of "mind control" or "brainwashing", a charge addressed above, but I have no doubt that some recruits are psychologically damaged by their membership. It has to be proved, however, that they would not have suffered some form of psychological disorientation whatever life-choice they had made. Membership of the NC or Focolare or CL or Opus Dei may be harmful for some people - but then so, often enough, is family life.

Some time after I had published my book on Opus Dei, I read 'Radical Departures' by Saul Levine. Professor Levine argues that members of NRMs have often chosen this form of life as a means of escaping from their parents. They have substituted one kind of family life, that in an NRM, for their natural family as a detour in the process of gaining maturity. Some stay for long periods in their new families, perhaps for a lifetime, but vast numbers pass through as stages on a journey. It could be argued that those who feel the need to take this route to growing up are more psychologically vulnerable, more open to being hurt, than the majority of humankind. I was struck by how much Levine's study related to what I knew of Opus Dei.

I closed Mr Urquhart's book somewhat better informed about Focolare, the NC and CL. I also closed it convinced that what the Catholic Church needs is an objective sociological analysis of the new phenomenon of sectarianism within its ranks. It might reveal in passing the answer to another question that has long puzzled me: why these movements, purported to be of the laity, are so clerically dominated.

IN SIDEBOX- "That these basically illiberal organisations will come to dominate the life of the [Roman] Catholic Church is unlikely, despite efforts to present them as a powerful force."