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The Challenge of the Sects or New Religious Movements: A Pastoral Approach

General Report of Francis Cardinal Arinze to the Extraordinary Consistory of Cardinals, The Vatican, April 5, 1991


1. The rise and spread of the sects or new religious movements is a marked phenomenon in the religious history of our times. Neo-religious, quasi-religious and pseudo-religious groups seem to be born or imported overnight. They operate with considerable vitality. Some of them are of an esoteric nature. Others originate from their own interpretation of the Bible. And many have roots in Asian or African religions, or they combine in a syncretistic way elements from these religions and Christianity.

Some Bishops have used the word: "alarming" to refer to the activities of these sects or movements. What is more alarming is the fact that a growing number of Catholics are attracted by these groups. Moreover the aggressive stance adopted by some of them against the Catholic Church or other Churches or Ecclesial Communities makes relationship with them rather difficult. On the other hand, not less disturbing is the quiet penetration by non-Christian movements that favour double belonging among Christians. These movements gain ground beyond their own frontiers by spreading beliefs and practices which are contrary to essential truths of the faith.

Bishops are often besieged with requests for information and guidance, or they are asked to take some action regarding this disturbing phenomenon. But in many cases the lack of adequate information can lead either to no pastoral action or to overreaction.

I therefore thank the Holy Father for bringing this pastoral problem before this august assembly. To stimulate reflection and pastoral planning, may I put before you, Venerable Fathers, reflections on:


I. Terminology

II. Typology of the New Religious Movements

III. Origin of the NRMs and Reasons for their Spread

IV. Problems Posed by the NRMs

V. Pastoral Response: General

VI. Pastoral Response: Specific.


I. Terminology

2. Complex Reality

There is a problem in what terminology to use with reference to the groups under discussion. The reason is that the reality is in itself complex. The groups vary greatly in origin, beliefs, size, means of recruitment, behaviour pattern, and attitude towards the Church, other religious groups and society. It is therefore no surprise that there is as yet no agreed name for them all. Here are some terms in use.

3. Sects

The word "sect" would seem to refer more directly to small groups that broke away from a major religious group, generally Christian, and that hold deviating beliefs or practices. The word is less exact when applied to groups which result from interactions between Christianity and Oriental or African religions, or to groups that have backgrounds of a rather psychological or gnostic type.

The word "sect" is not used in the same sense everywhere. In Latin America, for example, there is a tendency to apply the term to all non-Catholic groups, even when these are families of traditional Protestant Churches. But even in Latin America, in circles that are more sensitive to ecumenism, the word "sect" is reserved for the more extremist or aggressive groups. In Western Europe the word has a negative connotation, while in Japan the new religions of Shinto or Buddhist origin are freely called sects in a non-derogatory sense.

4. New Religious Movements

The term "new religious movements" is more neutral than that of "sects" when referring to these groups. They are called "new" not only because they showed themselves in their present form after the Second World War, but also because they present themselves as alternatives to the institutional official religions and the prevailing culture. They are called "religious" because they profess to offer a vision of the religious or sacred world, or means to reach other objectives such as transcendental knowledge, spiritual illumination or self realization, or because they offer to members their answers to fundamental questions, such as the meaning of life or of one's place in the universe.

5. Other Names

These movements or groups are sometimes also called new religions, fringe religions, free religious movements, alternative religious movements, marginal religious groups or (particularly in English-speaking areas) cults.

It is to be noted that most of these groups are not happy to be given a name which indicates that they are opposed to the established Churches or religious groups. They understandably call themselves "Churches".

6. What Terminology Should be Adopted?

Since there is no universally accepted terminology, effort should be made to adopt a term which is as fair and precise as possible. Such a term should treat these movements with truth and respect and therefore avoid attributing to all of them in a collective way the more negative aspects to be found only in some of them.

It is not acceptable to apply the word "sects" to all religious groups which do not agree with a mainline Church or religious family. Therefore Protestant Ecclesial Communities which broke away from the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century are not called sects. There can however be disagreement on what to call some neo–pentecostal and evangelical fundamentalist groups, especially those that adopt sectarian postures.

In this presentation, therefore, I shall generally keep to the term "New Religious Movements" (abbreviated NRMs) because it is neutral and general enough to include the new movements of Protestant origin, the sects of Christian background, new Oriental or African movements and those of the gnostic or esoteric type.

II. Typology of the New Religious Movements

In an effort to understand the NRMs better, it may be useful to attempt to classify them according to their various types.

7. Types with reference to Christianity

With reference to Christianity we can distinguish new movements coming from the Protestant reform, sects with Christian roots but with considerable doctrinal differences, movements derived from other religions and movements stemming from humanitarian or so-called "human potential" backgrounds (such as New Age and religious therapeutic groups), or from "divine potential" movements found particularly in oriental religious traditions (for analysis of the complex nature of New Age and its dangers, see Card. G. Danneels: Le Christ ou le Verseau?, in La Doc. Cath. n. 2021, 3/2/91).

Different are new religious movements which are born through contact between universal religions and primal religious cultures. Experts give as examples the African Independent Churches and the messianic or prophetic movements in Africa. While the distinction is not always clear cut, these movements are not as aggressive towards the Church as are some of the others.

8. Types with Reference to Background Knowledge System

With reference to the background knowledge system which seems to explain a NRM, four types can be distinguished.

There are movements based on Holy Scripture. These are therefore Christian or they are derived from Christianity. They form the majority of movements or sects which cause grave pastoral concern to Church pastors especially in traditionally Catholic countries as in Latin America or the Philippines.

A second group of NRMs are those derived from other religions such as hinduism, buddhism or traditional religions. Some of them assume in a syncretistic way elements coming from Christianity.

A third group of sects show signs of a decomposition of the genuine idea of religion and of a return of paganism. Obscure in their ideas of God the Creator, they have elements of magic, superstition, astrology, spiritism, witchcraft, polytheism and even devil worship. They show signs of a culture that is getting spiritually lazy or tired in front of the exaggerated rationalism of modern technological civilization.

A fourth set of sects are gnostic. In their naturalistic claims, they seem to offer to free people from the weight of freedom and responsibility, and launch them on a road that does not demand moral decisions from them but only offers them "illumination".

9. Is there a Common Denominator among these NRMs?

Literature on the NRMs is full of generalizations. It is understandable that there is a tendency to project on all of them the small part of the reality that a person observes.

In an effort to find a common denominator, the sects have been defined as "religious groups with a distinctive world-view of their own derived from, but not identical with, the teachings of a major world religion". This definition, of a phenomenological type, is only partially correct. It does not seem to include movements that derive from humanistic, paganizing or gnostic backgrounds, movements which some sociologists prefer to call "new magical movements".

Moreover, such a definition leaves out any value judgment on the teachings, on the moral behaviour of the NRMs' founders and their followers, and on their relationship with society. The Church, however, cannot refrain from all such value judgments, because she has to help the faithful to appreciate the abundance of life which Christ offers them through the Church (cf. Jn. 10:10; I Tim 3:15), and thus enable them to assess the value of the alternative offers made by the NRMs.

From the doctrinal point of view, the NRMs which operate in traditionally Christian regions can be located in four categories in so far as they distance themselves from the Christian vision of the world: those that reject the Church, those that reject Christ, those that reject the role of God (and yet maintain a generic sense of "religion"), and those that reject the role of religion (and maintain a sense of the sacred, but manipulated by man to acquire power over others or the cosmos).                                                

Social reaction against the NRMs is based in general not so much on their doctrine as on their behaviour pattern and their relationship with society. Some of these movements, particularly those of Oriental or psychological background, have been accused of being authoritarian, of exercising undue pressure on adherents, of pursuing a proselytism that hides their true objectives, of isolating their members from society, and of having purposes that are economic and political rather than religious. These are serious problems that pastors of the Church have to face. Information has to be gathered. Verifications and assessments have to be made. One, however, should not engage in a blanket condemnation or generalization, by applying to all the NRMs the more negative attitudes of some. Nor should the NRMs be judged incapable of evolution in the positive sense.

NRMs of Protestant origin provoke diverse reactions because of their aggressive proselytism which denigrates the Catholic Church, or because of their expansionistic programmes and their use of the mass media in a way that looks like commercialization of religion.

In spite of the diversity of the NRMs, and of local situations, they all raise one main pastoral problem which is the vulnerability of the faithful to proposals which are contrary to the formation they have received. Sadly enough, in many cases the faithful have received very little formation in Holy Scripture and because of this they are all the more vulnerable to the pressures of the fundamentalist evangelical groups. This is an indication of the line that an eventual pastoral response may have to follow.

The phenomenon of the sects poses a serious problem of discernment for the pastors of the Church. "It is not every spirit, my dear people, that you can trust", says the beloved Apostle John. "Test them, to see if they come from God, there are many false prophets, now, in the world" (I Jn 4:1).

III. Origin of the NRMs and Reasons for their Spread

What encourages the rise of the NRMs? Why are they spreading fast? Among the many reasons that can be given, the following can be selected,

10. Existence of Spiritual Needs

The NRMs indicate that there are spiritual needs which have not been identified, or which the Church and other religious institutions have either not perceived or not succeeded in meeting. They are a symptom of a state of crisis, especially with fragile people such as young people in search of the absolute or of ideals, or adults who are in crisis with their religion or with society.

11. Cultural Identity Search

The NRMs can arise or attract because people are searching for meaning when they are feeling lost in a period of cultural change. It may be because, as in most of the Western world, they are caught between a cultural uniformism promoted by the mass media and the break-up of hitherto commonly accepted religious or philosophical assumptions. It may be because, as in most of the so-called third world, the traditional society has been disrupted and the individual is confused and alienated in the encounter with the modern world of urbanization, technology and the major world religions.

12. Filling a Void

Many Christians join the sects or NRMs because they feel that in them there is an answer to their thirst for Scripture reading, singing, dancing, emotional satisfaction, and concrete and clear answers. The NRMs offer to fulfill people's intense desire for biblical and spiritual nourishment. The nominal Catholic who is out of touch with Church practice and is poorly fed on the Word of God can be an easy target for the evangelical proselytism of the sects. It must however be added that many sects simply condemn the wicked world and do not believe in constructing a just society.

13. Seeking Answers to Vital Questions

There are people, for example in Africa, who seek in religion an answer to, and a protection against witchcraft, failure, suffering, sickness and death. The NRMs seem to them to confront these existential problems openly and to promise instant remedies, especially physical and psychological healing. We can speak of a state of religious credulity, or even religious pathology, or of attempts to evade life's problems through religion. But what cannot be doubted is that there are millions of people, including Christians, over whom the NRMs exercise attraction under this heading.

14. Cashing in on our Pastoral weak points

There are some weak points in the pastoral ministry and the life of Christian communities which the NRMs exploit. Where priests are few and scarce these movements supply many forceful leaders and "evangelists" who are trained in a relatively short time. Where the Catholic people are rather ignorant in Catholic doctrine they bring aggressive biblical fundamentalism. Where there is "lukewarmness and indifference of the sons and daughters of the Church who are not up to the level of the evangelizing mission, with the weak witness they bear to consistent Christian living" (John Paul II: Address to Mexican Bishops, 6, on 12 May 1990, in L'Osserv. Rom. Weekly Engl. Ed., 14 May 1990, p. 2), the sects bring infectious dynamism and remarkable commitment. Where genuine Catholic teachings on salvation only in the name of Christ, on the necessity of the Church and on the urgency of missionary work and conversion are obscured, the sects make alternative offers.

Where parishes are too large and impersonal, they install small communities in which the individual feels known, appreciated, loved and given a meaningful role. Where lay people or women feel marginalized, they assign leadership roles to them. Where the sacred liturgy is celebrated in a cold and routine manner, they celebrate religious services marked by crowd participation, punctuated with shouts of "alleluia" and "Jesus is the Lord", and interspersed with scriptural phrases. Where inculturation is still in its hesitating stages, the NRMs give an appearance of indigenous religious groups which seem to the people as locally rooted. Where homilies are intellectually above the heads of the people, the NRMs urge personal commitment to Jesus Christ and strict and literal adherence to the Bible. Where the Church seems presented too much as an institution marked by structures and hierarchy, the NRMs stress personal relationship with God. No one can doubt that the NRMs show palpable dynamism.

15. Political and Economic Reasons

There are some countries, as in parts of Latin America, where some sects oppose the social doctrine of the Church, especially in what regards the defence of the poor and efforts at integral human promotion.

Financial considerations are also not excluded from the reasons for the birth of some sects. In parts of Africa and Latin America the founders of sects have found themselves enriched in a rather short time.

It is clear that funds contribute much to the diffusion of the movements born in the U.S.A. and from there propagated to other lands according to a rather ambitious expansion programme. This is particularly evident, in these last years, in the many projects of the currents called "New Age" that is becoming a big economic and cultural affair.

16. Methods used by the NRMs

The foregoing makes it necessary to consider carefully the methods used by the NRMs. Not all such methods deserve to be frowned upon. The dynamism of their missionary drive, the evangelistic responsibility assigned to the new "converts", their use of the mass media and their setting of the objectives to be attained, should make us ask ourselves questions as to how to make more dynamic the missionary activity of the Church. It is however necessary that Church pastors guide Christians to distinguish between carrying out evangelization in Christ's way, and preaching a gospel of prosperity and success, exalting the sensational or even the irrational and promoting antagonism.

There are methods used by some NRMs which are contrary to the spirit of the Gospel, because these methods do not respect human freedom of conscience sufficiently. Some movements, for example, employ questionable or downright unfair recruitment and training techniques, indoctrination procedures, distribution of money, psychological separation of recruits from their families, and over-emphasis on the person of the leader.

Of course it is not enough to condemn these methods. It is also necessary to prepare pastoral groups which are to inform and form the faithful and also to help the young people and the families that find themselves caught up in these tragic situations.

17. Action of the Devil

We should not exclude, among explanations of the rise and spread of the sects or NRMs, the action of the devil, even if this action is unknown to the people involved. The devil is the enemy who sows darnel among the wheat when the people are asleep. "Some enemy has done this", said the master to his servants in the parable of the darnel (Mt. 13:28).

18. Worldwide Phenomenon

The above brief analysis helps to explain why the NRMs have now become a worldwide phenomenon.

In the United States of America they have flourished as from the last century and especially in the last forty years. They come mostly from Protestantism, but also from oriental religions and from fusion of religious and psychological elements. From the U.S.A. they are exported to Latin America, South Africa, the Philippines and Europe.

In Latin America the NRMs are largely of Christian origin and are generally aggressive and negative towards the Catholic Church whose apostolate they often denigrate. The same remarks can be made about the Philippines.

In Africa the rise of the NRMs has more to do with the post-colonial political, cultural and social crisis, and with questions of inculturation and the African desire for healing and help to face life's problems.

In Asia the NRMs of local origin do not seem to be a major menace in countries where Christian are a minority (e.g. Japan), except that they are exported to Europe and the Americas where they attract people, including intellectuals, with their syncretistic and esoteric offers of relaxation, peace, and illumination. It should, however, be added that in Japan damage is done to the image of Christianity through the activities of aggressive Christian groups. This happens because the average non-Christian in Japan does not easily distinguish the mainline Churches from these fringe sects.

In Europe the crisis of a highly secularized technological society that suffers the fragmentation of a culture that no longer has widely shared values and beliefs, favours the sects or NRMs that come from the U.S.A. or the East. The New Age movement is particularly active.

I leave to others a more detailed analysis of the presence and activity of the NRMs in each of the continents and how these movements reflect the specific religious and cultural contours of the regions where they are found.

IV. Problems and Challenges posed by the NRMs

The foregoing considerations help us to appreciate that the problems and challenges posed by the NRMs are neither few in number nor light in weight. Let us summarise some of them.

19. Unity of the Church

The NRMs pull Catholics away from the unity and communion of the Church. This communion is based on the unity of faith, hope and love received in Baptism. It is nourished by the sacraments, the Word of God and Christian service. Christ the Redeemer and Founder of the Church prayed that all who believe in Him may be one in the unity of the Most Blessed Trinity (cf Jn 17:21). The sects or NRMs entice Christians away from this communion.

20. Ecumenism

It is important to keep clearly in view the distinction between sects and new religious movements on the one hand, and Churches and Ecclesial Communities on the other. The tendency in some parts of the world to use the word "sect" for all non-Catholic groups is evidence of serious misunderstanding. The Catholic Church is engaged in theological dialogue with eleven other Christian World Communions. The basis and justification of these dialogues is the fact that "men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptised are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church" (Unitatis Red., 3). The Catholic Church recognises in these Churches and Ecclesial Communities varying degrees of affinity with herself based on the extent to which they share in those gifts which are constitutive of the Church of Christ. This affinity grounds that sense of belonging and of mutual commitment which fuels the ecumenical movement. One of the principal characteristics of a sect is precisely an exclusivity and lack of any sense of belonging to a shared reality: this makes dialogue impossible or at least difficult.

The distinction between ecumenical relations and dealings between the Catholic Church and the sects must therefore be carefully considered in this context. It has to be acknowledged that sectarian attitudes could exist in any Church or Ecclesial Community including the Catholic Church. In some parts of the world the activities of members of some of the Christian World Communions, with whom the Catholic Church is in theological dialogue are indistinguishable from those of the sects. On the other hand, the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities often feel the threat of the sects more keenly than the Catholic Church, especially where their numbers are small. This is noted in the Holy Father's recent encyclical Redemptoris Missio: "The expansion of these sects represents a threat for the Catholic Church and for all the Ecclesial Communities with which she is engaged in dialogue. Wherever possible, and in the light of local circumstances, the response of Christians can itself be an ecumenical one" (Redemptoris Missio, 50).

21. Undermining and Denial of the Faith

Some sects or NRMs either undermine major articles of the Catholic faith or practically deny them. They propose a manmade religious community rather than the Church instituted by the Son of God. They want people to build their religious belief and rule of conduct on the ideas or "visions" of the founder of the movement rather than on divine revelation made manifest in Jesus Christ, the one and only Saviour of all humanity (cf Acts 4:12). Reincarnation is proposed by some sects instead of the teaching on the four last things and the resurrection. Self realization is extolled rather than the life of grace and knowledge of the one true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent (cf Jn 17:3).

22. Abandonment of the Faith

In more extreme cases, Christians can be led to abandon their faith through the activity of the NRMs. Some movements promote a type of neo-paganism, a putting of self instead of God at the centre of worship, and a claim to extraordinary knowledge which regards itself as above all religions. Other NRMs engage in occultism, magic, spiritism and even devil worship.

23. Atheism and Non-Belief

Some NRMs, especially those that put heavy pressure on the human person, can pave the way for atheism. For some people in crisis, a meeting with these movements could be a final effort to meet God. If such enrolment in a sect ends in disaster or psychological shattering, disillusionment towards all religion could be the result. Such shattered people can begin to regard all religion as a deceit. While many NRMs do not reach these limits, there are some which tend dangerously in that direction.

24. Proselytism

Many NRMs use methods that violate the rights of other believers or religious bodies to religious freedom. They say things which are not true of others. They entice vulnerable people like young people, the poor and the ignorant with money, or other material goods, or with heavy bombardments of psychological and other pressures.

25. Combativeness towards the Catholic Church

Some NRMs are particularly aggressive towards the Catholic Church. They seem to concentrate on particularly traditional Catholic regions such as Latin America and the Philippines. They strive to pull away as many Catholics as they can from the Church. They do not seem to be as zealous in launching missionary efforts towards people who do not yet believe in Christ. They even misinterpret Catholic efforts to identify with the poor as communism or state subversion.

26. Psychological harm to Individuals

There are some NRMs which have done psychological harm to individuals through their methods of recruitment and training and through the harsh measures they adopt to prevent their members from leaving. We hear of such terms as psychological manipulation, combination of affection and deception, mind control, overpowering techniques, consciousness-altering methods, programming, etc. Some members have either broken up due relationship with their natural families or had such relationship seriously strained. There is also the question of control over the salaries or savings of the members.

27. Relationship with Society

Some NRMs have created problems for society or the government because of their social posture, their failure to teach their members to be concerned citizens who discharge their duties to others, and their social disorientation of their followers. There is even the case of a sect leader who brought his group to commit mass suicide. This is an extreme case, but it shows what can happen.

28. Phenomenon to be taken seriously

All this shows that the problems and challenges thrown up by the new religious movements should be taken seriously. There are some Catholics who think and hope that the phenomenon of the sects will fizzle out after a few years and that the Christians who have joined them will return to the Church. Others are not so optimistic. They note that while one sect may die out, two or three more seem to arise in its place.

Whether, however, one be an optimist or a pessimist, one thing is agreed: the Church has to make a pastoral approach and response to the phenomenon. This is the subject of the last part of this presentation.

V. Pastoral Response: General

29. Not a Negative Response

In examining what pastoral posture the Church should adopt towards the NRMs, let us begin by saying what this pastoral approach should not be. It should not be an attack. It should not be negative against their members, although the Church might have to defend herself against the NRMs that attack her unjustly. It should rather be based on light and love.

God "wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth" (I Tim. 2:4). Christ came "to gather together in unity the scattered children of God" (Jn. 11:52). He sent His Church to "make disciples of all the nations" (Mt. 28:19). The Church is conscious of her role as "a kind of sacrament or sign of intimate union with God, and of the unity of all mankind" (Lumen Gentium, 1). And "man is the way for the Church" (Redemptor Hominis, 14).

The Church, therefore, sees the persons belonging to the NRMs, not as enemies to be attacked, but as people redeemed by Christ who are now in error and with whom the Church wants to share the light and love of Christ. The phenomenon of the NRMs is looked upon by the Church as a sign of the times. The Church is striving to see "what the Spirit is saying to the churches" (Apoc. 2:7) through this situation. These movements are challenges to the Church. The Church, while aware that the NRMs affect only a minority, cannot avoid asking herself such questions as the following. What makes people join the NRMs? What are the legitimate needs of people which these movements promise to answer and which the Church should be meeting? Are there other causes of the rise and spread of these movements? What does God want of the Church in this situation?

Let us now examine some pastoral action by the Church, first in a general way, then in a more specific manner.

30. Action by Roman Curia

Because individual Bishops and many Bishops' Conferences expressed to the Holy See their pastoral concern over the activities of the sects or NRMs in their dioceses, a questionnaire was sent to the Bishops' Conferences in 1983 by four dicasteries of the Roman Curia (the Pontifical Councils for Promoting Christian Unity, for Interreligious Dialogue, for Dialogue with Non-Believers and for Culture). The replies received from 75 Bishops' Conferences were analysed, synthesized and published by these four dicasteries in May 1986 under the title: Sects or New Religious Movements: Pastoral Challenge.

The document strove to answer two questions: Why do these movements spread and attract Christians? And what should be the constructive pastoral response of the Church to such a challenge? Questions needing further research were also mentioned.

The document was positively welcomed by both Catholics and other Christians. Within the Catholic Church, it promoted greater communication on the matter between dioceses, Bishops' Conferences and the Holy See. It encouraged Bishops' pastoral letters and more study at the level of the local Churches. Among other Christians, both the World Lutheran Federation and the World Council of Churches organised a conference on NRMs in Amsterdam in 1986, whereby the document was discussed and a similar approach adopted. Catholic and Protestant Bishops and pastors of Latin America and the Antilles met in Cuenca, Ecuador, in November 1986 for a similar study. The Anglican Communion adopted a parallel platform.

The Holy See has encouraged the International Federation of Catholic Universities to mount a major research project on the NRMs, and this is being carried out. The 1986 document is regarded only as a starting point. The four dicasteries are actively involved in the study and permanent cooperation about this question.

30. Action at the Level of the Local Church

At the level of dioceses and bishops' conferences, study centers, and commissions on the new religious movements have increased. Books are coming out. Many bishops' conferences are issuing pastoral letters on the phenomenon. Pastoral workers are being informed and trained in an effort to analyze this reality and find adequate answers.

Regional and continental associations of bishops' conferences are also actively involved as far as sects are concerned. For example, the Symposium of Bishops' Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) asked the Meeting for African Cooperation (a Commission including representatives of the Superiors General of congregations active in Africa and of the SECAM’s Permanent Committee) to study the question of the presence of influence of both sects and African Independent Churches. The first fruit of this research has been presented to the Bishops of Africa and Madagascar during the July 1990 SECAM meeting in Lomé, Togo. A book is being prepared in order to help African young people to reply to the challenge of the fundamentalist sects.

Worthy of mention is the Centre for the Study of New Religions (Centro Studi delle Nuove Religioni, CESNUR) of which the president is the Archbishop of Foggia-Bovino. It is made up of an international scientific and ecumenical committee which organizes a convention on religious sociology each year. The colloquium which it organized at Lugano in April 1990 on the new religious movements in Europe was rich in information.

32. The International Federation of Catholic Universities

As mentioned earlier, four Roman Curia dicasteries requested the International Federation of Catholic Universities (FIUC), to undertake research on the sects or new religious movements. The Centre for Coordination of Research of the FIUC launched the project in 1988. The first project director was Father Remi Hoeckman, O.P. Now it is Father Michael Fuss, professor in the Pont. Gregorian University. More than 50 experts in the five continents are working on the complex project, each in his own discipline, under theological, sociological, psychological and other aspects.

The fruit of their work will be discussed at two international seminars projected for this year: one in May 1991 in Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, for experts coming from the U.S.A. and Canada and some representatives of Latin America, and the other seminar in October 1991 at Vienna for experts from Europe, with some representatives from other continents. The Holy See will participate. For 1992, seminars are foreseen to be held in Manila and in Bogotá. A documentation centre is being planned in Rome.

The results of the FIUC research will no doubt be very useful for the pastoral work of the Church. The question of the NRMs does not admit of any quick or easy solution. Scientific and interdisciplinary research and analysis are necessary elements of a well founded and lasting pastoral approach.

33. Is Dialogue possible with the NRMs?

Some people have asked if dialogue with the NRMs is possible. Certainty the nature and the mission of the Church make dialogue with every human being and with religious and cultural groups part of the style of the Church's apostolate. And the Second Vatican Council has called for dialogue with other Christians and with other believers.

The theological principles that underpin ecumenical dialogue were mentioned above in n. 20. With reference to the followers of other religions, "the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions... The Church, therefore, urges her sons to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions" (Nostra Aetate, 2).

The difficulty lies in how to conduct dialogue with the NRMs with due prudence and discernment. The mandate of the Church to bring the Good News of Christ to every human being should never be forgotten. The nature of many NRMs and their manner of operation make dialogue with them particularly problematic for the Church. The duty of pastors of the Church to defend the Catholic faithful from erroneous or dangerous associations is a serious one.

Dialogue is easier for pastors and persons well trained theologically, but might be useless or harmful for the faithful not well prepared to confront the forceful proselytizing of some NRMs.

Dialogue is not naiveté. Pastors of the Church should not be ashamed of the Gospel (cf Rm. 1:16; II Tim. 1:8). Catholic openness to dialogue should not be exploited at the expense of the unity of the Church and the building up of the Catholic community in faith and love.

There should be no blanket condemnation of the new religious movements. Catholics should always be ready to study and identify elements or tendencies that are in themselves good or noble and where some collaboration is possible. They should also keep up study and observation of movements that so far present an unclear image.

While most sects or new religious movements do not want dialogue with the Catholic Church, there are a few which do want such dialogue. But even here, discernment is necessary. The willingness of such sects to establish dialogue with the Catholic Church may not be unconnected with their desire to obtain credibility on the world stage. This may explain why some of them organize expensive international conferences, cover the expenses of participants and make sure to invite Catholic Bishops and theologians. Or it may be that the new religious movements in a certain country are very anxious to establish constant contact with Roman Curia offices but not with the local Church. Care will be needed and collaboration between the local Churches and the Holy See will be found useful and even necessary.

There remains the problem of the NRMs which pursue an aggressive strategy against the Church, sometimes with foreign economic and political support. Without refusing to discuss with such groups, the Church has to consider how to defend herself with legitimate means. St John the Evangelist, St Paul the Apostle, and Fathers of the Church were up and doing in defending the Church against errors. Of course the person who is in error should always find in the Church comprehension and readiness to dialogue, while with the error itself there is no compromise.

VI. Pastoral Response: Specific

The pastoral response of the Church in a more specific and detailed way can take the following forms.

34. Doctrinal Orientation by Bishops

Many NRMs attract Catholics in places where there is doctrinal disorientation or confusion in the Catholic community. Such confusion can in part to be due to doubts sown by some Catholic theologians and others who contest some teachings of the magisterium, or because of poor religious instruction, or because of attacks by the sects.

Whatever the cause, the Bishops have to remind themselves that they are "preachers of the faith who lead new disciples to Christ. They are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice" (Lumen Gentium, 25). Every Bishop has to discharge this duty personally and to insist on it "welcome or unwelcome" (II Tim. 4:1), even when he risks losing the gratitude of the disoriented majority or provoking the attack of the active and agitating minority. The individual Bishop should not delegate this ministry to a commission or to an expert, although the Bishops' Conference as a collegial body also has its role and the theologians are needed for the scientific elaboration of the faith.

The Holy Father, speaking to U.S.A. Archbishops on 8 and 11 March 1989, recalled the importance of the mission of Bishops as "authentic teachers of the faith", and as "guardians of something given, and given to the Church universal" (cf Address in: L'Osserv. Rom., Weekly Engl. Ed., 13 March 1989, p. 4; 20 March 1989, p. 4). He said the same thing to 250 Italian Bishops in the Vatican Synod Hall on 18 May 1989, and added that in the light of Christ's plan for His Church there could be no "legitimate place for open or stealthy forms of a 'parallel and alternative magisterium'" (L'Osserv. Rom., Weekly Engl. Ed., 5 June 1989, p. 16, n. 7). The June 1990 Instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Ecclesial Role of the Theologian returns to the same theme.

Among other articles of Catholic faith, it is particularly important that the Catholic community receive clear teaching on salvation only in the name of Christ, the Saviour of the world (cf Jn 4:42), on the necessity of the Church as the ordinary way of salvation, and on the urgency of missionary work, proclamation of the name of Jesus Christ and conversion. The Holy Father's recent encyclical Redemptoris Missio, if studied and reflected upon in a systematic way in each diocese and nation, will be of great help as authoritative guide.

35. Adequate Catechesis and Bible Initiation

Experience shows that the NRMs exploit situations of religious ignorance among Christians. Adequate catechesis should therefore be attended to as one of the ways to arm the Catholic community against such infections. Such initiation in the faith should give special importance to the Bible. The thirst of the people for the Word of God should be satisfied. The Bible should be made available to the people in a language accessible to them. The guidance of the Church's tradition and teaching authority will be needed for proper interpretation. The Church in the Philippines, for example, celebrated 1989 as Bible Year at parish, diocesan, regional and national levels. The Catholic Biblical Federation can be of great help in the promotion of the biblical apostolate.

Catholics should be so schooled in their faith that they always have an answer ready for people who ask them the reason for the hope that they have (cf I Pet. 3:15). Short tracts should be prepared in each country to equip Catholics to reply to arguments raised by the sects in their propaganda. Such booklets should not be polemical, otherwise they could be counter-productive.

But it is not enough to produce tracts. Teams of trained lay and religious people should also be set up to disseminate them at the popular level. Such people should be open to genuine ecumenism.

36. Prayer and Devotional Life

Some NRMs attract people because they promise to offer them satisfying prayer and worship. The Church at the level of the parish should be convinced that her liturgical and devotional traditions adequately respond to the needs of the human soul if properly understood, carried out and lived. Liturgical celebrations should be devout, well prepared, participated in by the congregation and inculturated as far as possible. Individual and group prayer can be deepened through biblical and liturgical formation, the personal example of a priest who prays, and the charismatic renewal where this is properly integrated into the pastoral programme of the Church.

37. Mysticism. Peace. Harmony.

The new religious movements promise people wisdom, peace, harmony and self realization. Our presentation of Christianity should be that of good news, of divine wisdom, of unity and harmony with God and all creation, of happiness which is the earthly preparation for heavenly bliss, and of that peace which the world cannot give (cf Jn. 14:27). The Christian life is life of union with God (cf Jn. 15: 1-6), life of initiation into the mysteries of Christ (cf Gaudium et Spes, 22). Church history is full of Saints who exemplify this life of union with God according to the character of each. The saints are admirable examples of unity of faith and life, of self knowledge and of knowledge of God, of union with God and of service to one's neighbour, of peace in oneself and peace with other people and indeed all creation.

The dimension of religious experience should not be forgotten in our presentation of Christianity. It is not enough to supply people with intellectual information. Christianity is neither a set of doctrines nor an ethical system. It is life in Christ which can be lived at ever deeper levels.

38. Due Evaluation of Gestures and Symbols

Many new religious movements put the emphasis on the emotional rather than the notional. Without reaching that excess, it will be of help in many parishes and places of worship to take more notice of the body, of gestures and of material things in liturgical celebrations and popular devotions. Water, light, fire, incense, bread, salt, statues and processions are symbols that speak to the whole human person. Cultures that love song, dance and joyful community celebrations can feel rather dry and deprived when not much effort is made at inculturation even in paraliturgical and popular celebrations. It is interesting that in some African countries people not only procure the medicines prescribed by the doctor, but also bring the medicines to the priest to bless before they take them. And people love to wear medals and scapulars and to eat bread and drink water blessed by the priest. This wholistic approach to the human being, together with its accompanying appreciation of material things in worship, needs to be accepted, purified and ennobled by Christianity.

39. Living Communities

The NRMs often attract Christians because they offer them warm community life. Very large parishes can create problems in this direction unless a deliberate effort is made to seek ways to help each individual to know that he/she is appreciated, loved and given a role to play. Basic ecclesial communities, when properly guided and not hijacked to serve political or social causes, can be of great help. The Church should be seen and personally experienced as a community of love and service which celebrates and lives the Holy Eucharist. Particular attention should be paid to vulnerable groups such as young people, people in family or other crisis, ex-drug addicts, the poor and the marginalized.

40. Build up Lay Leadership and Participation

It is true that the Church absolutely needs priests to perform their indispensable ministry. Indeed the sects or NRMs flourish more where effective priestly activity is absent or sporadic. But it is also true that the Church needs dynamic lay leadership. Accentuated clericalism can marginalize the lay faithful and make them look on the Church as an institution run by ordained bureaucratic functionaries. The NRMs, on the other hand, display much lay activity. In the Catholic Church, doctrine, documents, organizations, associations, movements and sodalities on the lay apostolate and lay leadership are not lacking (cf. Christifideles Laici, 29, 30, 31; Redemptoris Missio, 71-74). What is needed perhaps is a more participatory apostolate, more opportunities for the lay faithful to hold responsibilities, more sharing between priests and lay people and greater leadership by the laity in bringing the spirit of Christ into the earthly society.

41. Discernment

The NRMs often attract people who are hungry for something deeper in their religious lives. The danger is that they offer short-term good but long-term confusion. Thus people can lose their Catholic roots and in spite of temporary growth be left in a worse spiritual situation eventually. This is an important area about which to offer guidelines to pastors and people alike. There is no denying some positive effects on merely nominal believers who discover the gospels through an evangelical group. There is no denying the help some of the oriental movements have been to young people drifting in lives of alcoholism, or drugs or sex. But this initial helpful stage often does not last.

"You will be able to tell them by their fruits", said Jesus (Mt. 7:20). The fruits of the Spirit are unmistakable, said St Paul, adding a verifiable list: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal. 5:22). In this sense discernment might be described as the art of judging roots in terms of lasting fruits.

42. Importance of a Diocesan Programme

Every diocese or group of dioceses should ask itself searching questions such as the following. What are the sects or new religious movements actually present in its territory? What are their methods of operation? What are the weak points in Catholic life in the area which the NRMs exploit? What practical helps do the lay faithful receive in spirituality and offering of personal prayer? How does the Church in the diocese and its parishes contribute to the building up of genuine support for Christians in material, social or other diffículty? Do the Catholics in the diocese live the Gospel in a socially committed way?

What kind of material do the people of the diocese receive from the local or national radio, press or television and what is the local Church's pastoral social communications answer? Does the activity of the NRMs in the area indicate that it would be useful if the Bishop issued a document for the guidance of the faithful? (An example is the Christmas 1990 Pastoral Letter of Card. Godfried Danneels on the NRMs, especially New Age. The Letter is titled Le Christ ou le Verseau?). What is the diocesan plan and strategy for catechesis and liturgy and also contact with those who have left the Church?


43. In front of the dynamic activity of the NRMs, the pastors of the Church cannot just go on with "business as usual". The phenomenon of the new religious movements is a challenge and an opportunity. The Church should be confident that she has the resources to rise up to the occasion. As the Holy Father said to the Bishops of Mexico on 12 May 1990, "the presence of the so-called 'sects' is a more than sufficient reason to make a deep examination of the local Church's ministerial life, along with a simultaneous search for answers and unified guidelines which allow for preserving and strengthening the unity of God's people. Faced with this challenge, you have opportunely set up Pastoral Options. These Options go beyond a mere response to the present challenge and seek to be channels as well for the new evangelization, so much more pressing in that they are concrete ways to deepen the faith and Christian life of your communities" (Addresses in L'Osserv. Rom., Weekly Engl. Ed., 14 May 1990, p. 2).

This is the pastoral approach to adopt in order to meet the challenge of the new religious movements. The Church does not need to be afraid.

The most Blessed Virgin Mary is Help of Christians. At crossroads in history when the Church was threatened by heresy, persecution or schism, she has shown herself a mother. The Church should earnestly pray to her for an adequate pastoral approach to the phenomenon of the NRMs.

Francis Card. Arinze
5 April 1991

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