Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

On Cult Thinking…And Catholicism

Over at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher devotes an entire post to a “cautionary tale” from a reader about the dangers of soft totalitarianism in unexpected places.

The writer shares a good deal, and their whole story is worth reading, but their ultimate warning is different than the one their story prompted in me. Allow me to excerpt at some length:

At the same time I lost my Catholic faith.  It was the late 60s and the Mass suddenly changed and became a guitar hootenanny and holding of hands (shudder).  The “new Mass” had completely obliterated the transcendence and reverence of the Holy Sacrifice.  I was left without a mooring.

Irony of ironies, I wandered until I found my way to a Hindu meditation group at age 18.  I was a misfit but a seeker after truth and God, and I needed to be part of something that was “bigger than myself.”  I stayed in that monastery for 28 years.  I loved the monastic life part of it, but as the years went by and I finally matured, there were increasing signs of unhealthy attitudes by the hierarchy, loss of morale among the “worker bees” (sometimes we worked round the clock on senseless and unthought-out projects), and just plain nutty pronouncements to keep us in line, such as:   if someone left the organization after taking final vows, their families would be negatively affected for 7 generations in the past and 7 generations into the future.  (Karma and reincarnation were, of course, core beliefs.). I remember thinking when I first heard this gem, “What the heck?!  Who made that up?”).  This was how we were controlled to not leave, or we would bring shame (and some kind of retribution) on ourselves and, obviously, our ghostly dead relatives.  We were infantilized. There were unspoken rules and regulations, secrecy about generally everything, and when bad things happened, the truth was rarely spoken, and we all knew it.  We received explanations that the Chinese government would be proud of.

There I was — living in soft totalitarianism.

As I read this, the first thing I thought of was the mode of operation of the Legionaries of Christ. You could swap out that group for “Hindu” in the above story and almost nothing would change. (There are undoubtedly other religious groups that might also fit the bill. You may be thinking of another, but the Legion is my point of reference, so I’ll use them here.)

No, the Legionaries didn’t talk about karma, but they did practice vocational pressure techniques, then say things like if God is calling you to the priesthood and you don’t follow your vocation, you’ll be miserable.

Another variation of that I’ve heard about from guys who spent more time on the inside than I did is that they were told they’d actually go to hell if they didn’t live the supposed vocation that they were being “called” to. And while some likely were being called, many others were not. That’s what groups like this do – convince people who don’t have vocations that they actually do, for ultimately self-serving reasons. It’s a horrible thing to do to a man. I have a book — a very old, very rare, independently produced book made by a parish priest back in the 1800s — in which the author well-describes just how wrong this is:

In the decision of a student to devote himself to God’s service, he should be left entirely untrammelled by external influences; it is a matter between the soul and its Creator. Oftentimes injudicious parents, with tears and imprecations, endeavor to urge a child to the clerical state against the wise judgment of his superiors; against the promptings of his own soul, which tell him that the ministry is not tor him; that another course in life is more in conformity with his nature than the priesthood. Such an entreaty is a crime against Heaven and earth; when successful, it produces the most wretched thing in life: an unnatural priest. It is a reckless ambition, a sacrifice made of the child from selfish motives; it is a madness, and in nature there is nothing like it except the disgusting propensity of some unnatural female beasts to devour their own young. Such a disposition in parents is an injustice to their children: a blight on their life: a curse that will follow the victim and his abettor beyond the grave. Injury always comes to religion from his ministry; oftentimes scandal, despair, or a future athwart which no glint of light or happiness breaks. The awful fate of Cain, a wanderer upon the face of the earth, awaits the clerical vagabond: this should counsel parents to pursue a more humane course towards their children and the Church. It is not a fault in any child that the gift of God, to enter the clerical ranks, is withheld from him. God chooses His own, as He declared to the apostles: “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you;” and, if man proposes, God disposes for the welfare of His Church. In the ministry of God to man, selection of the members of His priesthood is the only right He has reserved, the only privilege which was not granted to the Church.

In the trades and professions of life, it is unjust and unnatural to urge a child to a distasteful state, to a position for which he has neither desire nor aptitude. How much more wrong is it to force him into the Church! Against it the shuddering angels cry out, Back, this is no place for you, you are not wanted here!

I was made to feel enormous vocational pressure when I was living and working with the Legion — which began for me when I, too, was 18 years old. More than one priest told me that they knew I had a vocation; one did so using very spiritual terms, as though he’d been given a Divine insight. They played on my desire to please God in order to achieve an outcome: more fodder for the ranks. What it did to me internally became a form of torture that lasted years, as my natural desire for the love and companionship of a spouse and to have a family went to war against my fear of displeasing God. My anxiety over it all became crippling. I began seeking, mostly in vain, for any spiritual insight that would give me permission to pursue what I believed was the right path for me instead of the one I was told was my destiny.

It didn’t help that the internal guidance from Legionary superiors tended to follow a paradoxical theme: “If you don’t want a vocation, that’s actually a good sign that you have one.” My search outside of Legionary influence fared little better. Because of the reverence with which the Church has always esteemed the priesthood above the married life, it seemed difficult to find anything that could disabuse me of my fear. Everything pointed to the priesthood as a higher state, and much to be desired; everything made me believe that if I loved God and wanted to serve him, that could well be a sign. One thing I remember reading said that choosing the wrong vocation would lead to a kind of suffering that “only the cold hand of death could wipe away.”

And so I tormented myself. Not just while I was with the Legion, but long after I left. This continued through four years of college, and really, up until the point when I eventually got married. Even then, the doubt lingered a while, but at least I could rest assured that the die had been cast, and there was no turning back.

Dreher’s reader continues his tale:

I remember feeling irked, when visiting my mother and sister once a year, that they’d ask my opinion on certain social issues, and I’d always say something like, “Well, Master (what we called the dead but “ever-living” guru) said that……”.  Finally, they’d look at me and ask, “But what do YOU think?”  They felt I was brainwashed and they would be right, really.

The longer I was there, I was asked to be a spiritual counselor to younger ones and to interview potential new nuns.  The more I listened to their stories, the more I realized that this religion was attracting a surprisingly large number of people who were emotionally dysfunctional.  They would either want to join because they were escaping a failed life “in the world”; or they had some significant issues that spilled over into their everyday relationships with other people, making things really difficult.  And this group was no place for them to work out their deep-seated issues.  Most were deeply sincere, but many were not going to succeed and cause endless disruptions because no one there was qualified as a therapist to help them.

This, too, seems familiar. The idolization of Fr. Maciel existed at this level, right up until (and in some case even after) he was revealed to be a demonic sexual predator, not a living saint. “Nuestro Padre says” — “Nuestro Padre” being the term members of the Legion and Regnum Christi appropriated from the Our Father in Spanish and laid at the feet of their founder — was the way so many sentences began. I found a letter, not so long ago, that I had written to the man, hoping that his vast spiritual insight could illumine my path and help me recognize whether or not I truly had a vocation. I wanted to be put out of my discernment misery; little did I know I was begging for scraps from the table of a monster. (Fortunately, he never deigned to respond, but I was terribly embarrassed re-reading the sickeningly obsequious letter as an actual adult.)

Some of the religious brothers in the Legion told stories of finding their vocations after disordered lives pursuing pleasure or money, who then sublimated such desires by transferring them to success in the religious life. Some, like me, were desperate for paternal guidance and approval, and found an ersatz version in the praise received from revered superiors for doing good work “for the movement.”

The story of the Hindu monk continues:

Because of the constant over-work (I had an ultra perfectionist work supervisor) and emotional tension, I developed an aggressive cancer.  I had to apply for chemo agents as an indigent because the organization didn’t have health insurance for its own members at that time.  But I was given time off to recuperate.  Boy, did I do a lot of thinking!  That was the beginning of the end for me there.  I began speaking up and no longer used “Ketman.”  That did not go over well with my superiors.  Still, it took another 2 years to leave, but when I did, I was given the courage – don’t ask me how, but it was Divine Grace – to be totally open and vocal to everyone about why I was leaving – contrary to the modus operandi of leaving at midnight without anyone knowing.  The last week I was there was a living hell and I was accused by the hierarchy of leaving because I was in “delusion.”

I saw similar things happen. Someone I knew had a brother in the seminary who kept working through a serious injury – as I recall, it was a broken arm – because he felt he had an obligation to “offer it up.”

A priest I knew, who was kept constantly busy, was stalled on moving to his new assignment because of a visa issue in the country where he was being sent. With time on his hands at last, he came to the conclusion that he did not belong in the priesthood. I do not know what internal deliberations he went through to arrive at this conclusion, but I had long known his vocation story: he had been engaged to be married when the Legionaries had convinced him, while on a retreat, that he was meant for the priesthood. Seen as a victory for God in the telling, I’ve wondered since if decades of life spent with a religious order that took him from the arms of his beloved ultimately fomented insurmountable resentment; he was a good man, one of the best of their priests, but I could hardly begrudge him a return to normal life when he came, perhaps, to recognize the depth of this deceit, and how they had convinced him to abandon a woman that he loved.

A young seminarian I knew who wanted to leave the novitiate asked his brother to come get him in the dead of night so he would not face the opprobrium of his superiors — and got cold feet, out of fear, after his brother made the multi-hour drive.

I, too, spoke up when my conscience could no longer be kept silent. I, too, like the writer of the story quoted above, faced a scoffing accusation from a superior before I left of failing to be “integrated” — all because I had the audacity to question how things were being done. When I finally could take no more anxiety over the question of the priesthood and left my own work in the apostolate, which I was repeatedly told was itself a “vocation” that could never be revoked, I was accused of leaving because I lacked “generosity” – and that smear was used to try to turn everyone I knew within the movement against me.

The writer of the story about the sojourn through Hinduism says he eventually made his way “full circle to Catholicism and the Latin Mass.”

As, of course, did I.

But not without a great deal of interior suffering along the way. Truthfully, the betrayals I felt at the hands of the same religious institution that saved my faith at the age of 14 turned into severe temptations to abandon my faith later on. Intellectually, I knew that the Legion was not synonymous with God or even the Church, but to me it had felt that way for years. And I could not shake the personal angle: God, when I joined this thing I entrusted myself to you. I believed it was you who called me to it, and yet here I am, betrayed, confused, anxious, and now, unable to trust.

I was lied to and manipulated by priests, not just in general, but within the confines of spiritual direction. I’ve been unable to find a true spiritual director ever since. I cannot allow myself to be vulnerable in that way. I cannot allow a man to ever again tell me he knows the will of God for my life, knowing that he may only be feeding me convenient deceptions. I cannot cede that much control. I was a fool to do it then.

When I left the Legion, I thought what had gone wrong was my fault. When I saw what they did to my relationships and reputation after I left, when I saw how they turned on me and excluded me after treating me for years like an MVP, I came to realize that yes, I was dealing with a cult. (This did little to mitigate my own religious guilt, unfortunately.) The more time I spent looking at this organization I had come to trust, the more I saw the corruption within. I had overlooked it, I had rejected it when it was presented to me by those more observant than I was, because it was something I simply did not want to see.

But I consoled myself with the understanding that the Legion, though it was fast-growing and powerful, was a religious order, not THE Church. The Legion was non-essential. The Church herself was not.

And so it disturbs me to realize that when I look at the Catholic Church these days, I feel much the same way I came to feel about the Legion. When I take in the big picture view, almost all I can see is corruption. When I examine my relationship with Catholicism — this cause which I have been devoted to my entire life — I feel similarly betrayed.

I no longer trust the Catholicism that has formed the core of my identity since I was old enough to think. I do not know how to have a functional relationship with a Church that seems to have only malice towards those who wish to be faithful, or that teaches those who are faithful to keep their heads down in fear so that they are allowed to continue to exist. I do not respect a Church that takes all her treasures from her children and then tells them they should be grateful for scraps from the table. I do not have patience for the people who tell me not to see the foulness that has permeated root and branch with the platitude, “The men who run the Church are not the Church.”

Of course they are the Church. They are the way all of us experience the Church. I do not have locutions. I do not have the privilege of enjoying two-way conversations with Our Lord. I share my deepest needs and fears with Him, and He responds with an inscrutable, stony silence. My experience of Catholicism — most people’s experience of our faith — is entirely rooted in the tangible, the empirical, the very real. It is encountered only by means of the very human, fallible men who wear the Roman Collar, or worse, hold episcopal sees. The understanding that the Church belongs to God is little consolation when He chooses to allow it to fall into the hands of and remain under the control of men like those we have as “shepherds.”

I am bothered by the fact that the cult thinking I encountered in my days with the Legion isn’t found only there. It exists within the dogmatized opinions traditional Catholicism is bristling with. It exists within the grotesque papal positivism of Francis apologists, or the scoldings I inevitably receive if I say something snarky about this chastisement of a pope — because you just have to respect him, even if he doesn’t deserve it! It exists in the mouth of everyone who calls me an apostate, a schismatic, or a fraud, because I say the wrong thing, ask the wrong question, or in some other way my version of Catholicism doesn’t match up with their own, romanticized, idealized version of Catholicism. It exists every time someone replies to a difficult inquiry with “well, the Church teaches…” instead of offering an actual explanation.

I think of my father, at 16 years old, asking prickly questions about theology in school and being chastised for impertinence. I think of how he left, thinking it wasn’t a religion he could take seriously after all if it couldn’t even explain itself to a child. I think, too, of his return, one he owes to a “miraculous conversion,” something real and true and utterly outside of his ability to explain, and therefore, for me to understand. And I wonder sometimes if the only way to have real faith in times like these is to have God do an end run around the normal means. Which makes me wonder, too, about everyone who is left relying only on the normal means.

I hate cults, because cults rob you of your autonomy, teach you to suppress your own curiosity and independent thoughts, distrust your instincts and abandon your free will, and simply fall in line. Cults gaslight you and use your desire to do good and be good as a way of controlling you to do what they want whether it’s good for you or not. And through all of that, if you’re lucky enough to survive with your brain in tact, they teach you not to trust anything that makes promises too good to be true, or anybody who says you’re not allowed to criticize or question. That can turn you into a straight-up contrarian, which is itself not always a good thing.

There is a way, I think, to be Catholic and not think like the member of a cult, but it’s a challenging, arduous path, especially right now. To pull it off, it seems one has to sacrifice the security of ever being part of any in-group. Along with the loss of the sense of belonging, it means challenging anything that isn’t dogma, no matter how piously held, if it doesn’t pass the smell test, no matter how uncomfortable that can be. (Sometimes, it even means poking around at the edges of dogma, too, if it appears to run afoul of reason or sense.) It means not partaking in the comforting tribal ritual of policing the purity of others, ensuring they’re observing all the correct “Thou shalts,” and, more importantly, the pertinent “Thou shalt nots,” like a good little soldier — all of which, by extension, convinces a man of his own place among the righteous, which is really the true purpose of such an exercise. It means, instead, making sure that we are more invested in truth, understanding, and growth than we are in checking all the boxes that certify our membership status, even if doing so makes us into outcasts.

That’s how I feel these days, looking at everything that’s happening and trying to process it. Like a man without a tribe. I see no choice but to try to separate the (self-imposed?) soft-totalitarianism of being a card carrying member of [insert label here] Catholicism from the things God actually wants us to do, think, and believe. It all feels so unbelievably out of whack, the Church herself appears so unrecognizable somehow, and the self-soothing mechanisms that used to help overcome (or at least shout down) this overwhelming sense of displacement aren’t working anymore.

I know that some of you will find what I relate here odd or off-putting, while others will identify with my current state of discombobulation. I can only speak about the things I see and sense, and hope that in so doing, I make some sense of them. With Christmas just around the corner, I recognize that these aren’t the kind of joyful reflections that should characterize the season, but nevertheless, they weigh heavy on my heart and mind. God willing, the coming of the Christ Child will shed some much-needed light. (Experience tells me, though, to hope for miracles, not to count on them.)

I’ve believed for a while that something has to give, but that doesn’t mean it will, at least not any time soon. I also believe that the only way out is through, and that’s true enough, but I have no idea how far we will have to travel down this strange road before reaching our destination.

The path is rugged and the fog is thick. I just keep hoping and praying we can find our way home.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...