The Church, the Council and the Unconscious:

How Hidden Forces Shaped the Catholic Church

by James Arraj

Part 2


Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 4

The Great Exodus


Religious life just before the Second Vatican Council can viewed as an experiment in which we see the intense effects of a particular kind of spirituality that read: The way to perfection is to do the will of God at every moment. How do we know the will of God? We know it through the church, and more concretely through the rules and customs of our religious order, especially the will of our superiors. We need to steep ourselves in the language and practical consequences of this spirituality, for that is one of the most efficacious ways to understand the upheavals that transformed the postconciliar church.


The Will of the Superior is the Will of God


Karen Armstrong in Through the Narrow Gate paints an intimate portrait of this kind of religious life. In 1962, just before Vatican II began, she entered the Sisters of Charity at the age of 17 and remained for 7 years. When her mentor in religious life discussed her entrance with her parents, this sister said: “…the fundamental question here is not whether you or I want Karen to become a nun next year, but whether God wants it? We’ve all got to empty ourselves of our own limited, human responses. It’s what God wants that matters.”1 Fair enough. Clearly we want to follow the will of God and not oppose it, but we are immediately faced with the question of how we know the will of God, and her mentor’s response was a typical one: “There is only one way of being absolutely sure whether a girl has a true vocation. She has to be accepted by the religious order she wants to join; that is the only criterion that the church accepts as proof. Feelings, prayers, thoughts, ideals – none of these counts for anything beside that. If the Provincial Superior … accepts Karen, then her decision has the whole force of the church behind it. And the church, we know, is empowered by Christ.”2 The validity of this kind of reasoning is much less self-evident than following the will of God, and it is here that problems arise.

To a postulant like Karen, the route to holiness, however, seemed obvious. “The way to sanctity, Mother told us, lay through strict observance of the rule. As easy as that. If I tried – really tried – to obey every single one of these rules I would find God… All I had to do was to push myself toward God, never giving in to myself for a moment. Push myself further than I thought I could reasonably go, and finally God would fill me – infinite perfection, infinite love, fulfilling me as no human person could. With His help I could break through the limitations of myself and know real freedom, real peace.”3 Well-intentioned young people, burning with a desire to serve God, and eager to be taught how to go about this, uncritically accepted this kind of reasoning which did, indeed, appear to have the whole weight of the church behind it. But it is one thing to enunciate the general principle of the necessity of doing God’s will, another to claim that it is manifest through the rule and the superior, and still another to place the fulfillment of the rule in opposition to the human personality and the development of its feelings and thoughts, hopes and aspirations. Then religious formation becomes a war against the human. One of her superiors tells Karen: “You have to learn to lay aside your whole will and all your own desires and preferences. Your own self has to be broken, you know, before God can work through you.”4 More graphically put in the language of the spirituality of St. Ignatius, this becomes internalized by the young religious:

“One of the things that had to die was my mind. We were being trained in Ignatian obedience, which aims at breaking down the will and the judgment of a religious so that he unquestioningly accepts the will of God as it is presented to him through his superior. It is the obedience of the professional soldier Ignatius was himself before his conversion: when your commanding officer gives you an order, yours is not to wonder why but to do and die. The superior represents God to a religious: his commands, his orders – “the least sign of his will,” as the rule says – are to be taken as a direct message from God. Ignatius says that “all should give themselves up entirely to their superior as a dead body allows itself to be treated in any manner whatever.” I had to make myself into that dead body.

“And it was so hard. It is not enough for a nun simply to perform her superior’s command, while thinking all the time that it is absurd. She must empty her mind of her own judgment and tell herself that this – whatever it is – is the best thing she could possibly be doing. But the mind dies hard. To think and judge is a reflex. How do you ever manage to embrace the absurd? During my first year in the Noviceship I had to learn how…”5 

We might be inclined to reply that none of this was meant to be taken literally, but in actual fact it had a very literal impact and was implemented in a very literal way. The young religious were being told to act in a certain fashion, and not to reflect about this behavior. The potential for harm when this is taken as a practical program of behavior is enormous. It goes beyond the kind of events that Karen describes, for example, practicing sewing without a needle because the superior forgot to give her one, or scrubbing the stairs with a nail brush that had worn-out bristles, and it sinks into the depths of the psyche and puts these young people at odds with themselves, all under the powerful motivating force of trying to draw closer to God. Effectively it says to eradicate the human so the divine could take its place, but the human spirit cannot really be put aside. When cleaning the stairs failed, Karen thought, “It was like saying that black was white. And yet, I kept saying firmly, if Mother says it is, then it is white in the eyes of God.

But it isn’t! I thought suddenly. And this is a stupid waste of time!

“I sat back on my heels and sank my head into my hands. Why had God given me a brain if He didn’t want me to use it?”6

“To let myself see with God’s eyes I had to be prepared to lay aside my own common sense. It was common sense. I had to go above that and let my intelligence die. But while I could see this so clearly, there was another part of me clamoring to be heard. I didn’t want to kill my mind… All right. God wanted me to waste my time like this for His own inscrutable purposes. But again something inside me exploded. Can you really believe, it said scornfully, that that Infinite Being can think of nothing better than nailbrushes and faulty alarm clocks? Is He that petty? … I had to choose. Me and my mind. Or God and that complete fulfillment that somewhere I knew He offered.”7

She was pitted against herself, and alternated between her mind rebelling, and her heroic efforts to overcome self. It is not just her superiors who are forcing her into this dilemma, but they are turning her highest aspirations against herself, and making her tear herself apart. And despite the torments she suffered, she would still find herself saying, “If I let myself be guided all my life by my superiors then I’d always be sure of doing His will. Who would prefer his own limited vision if he could have God’s instead? Nothing else mattered. It was so simple, really. Why hadn’t I seen it before?”8

This kind of struggle led to physical and psychological illnesses in religious life which were often ignored until they entered their acute stages, that is, the symptoms of physical illness could no longer be hidden, and sometimes even became life-threatening, or the poor sister ended up having a screaming fit in public. The Second Vatican Council had the effect – and quite rapidly – of almost unintentionally taking aim at the heart of this problem because the council fathers had granted themselves permission, as it were, to think about things rather than passively accept them. The question became, could young religious be allowed to use common sense and think critically? A period of confusion ensued. Once religious could think, they could hardly be expected not to keep on thinking about more and more aspects of religious life, and the larger life of the Church, and even about the binding power of the rule, itself, when it harms rather than helps. Soon things like the norms against particular friendships that had led in the direction of no friendships at all, or how physical and psychological pathologies were simply the result of a lack of will power could no longer go unexamined.

Leaving this preconciliar kind of religious community can be difficult. Its members are not accustomed to using their minds and making decisions for themselves. Further, the choices they face are not particularly palatable, for on the one hand they have the old repressive religious community which, despite its problems, still preserves some sense of being a sure path to God, and on the other hand, they face what appears to be a loss of vocation and a life in the world.  It is hard to shake the feeling that if one had only tried harder, or if things had been just a little different, the adventure of fully and totally trying to serve God would have worked out, and now what one is left with is oneself and the world where God is no longer visible in the same way, or even the feeling of being in opposition to God because she has betrayed her initial commitment. It seems there is little in between, and that is one reason why religious in the wake of the council formed experimental communities which, de facto, served as halfway houses between the order and the secular society.

One of the most detrimental effects of this over-institutionalized religious life was that when its members left, they often ended up feeling that they were leaving the life of faith, itself, for faith had been so tied up with obeying all the rules and customs. Thus, to cease obeying could feel like leaving the faith, or losing it despite oneself, and in any number of cases religious who had intensely devoted themselves to the practice of their Christian faith ceased that outer practice, and even felt a certain antipathy for the basic formulations of Christian doctrine.

This distorted spirituality afflicted some individuals more than others, and some communities more than others, and women probably more than men, since men usually had more freedom. And it did not prevent many people from living a life dedicated to God and the service of others, still less negate the very idea of religious life. But Karen Armstrong was in no way an exception.

Mary Gilligan Wong in Nun paints a similar picture. In 1961, as a postulant in the Sisters of Blessing, she reflects, at the beginning of her training, on “how fortunate I am not to have to make even these small decisions, with whom I will sit or to whom I will talk: everything is decided for me by superiors who know God’s Will better than I… the most minute details and decisions will be handled for me so that my mind can attend to higher things.”9 She sums this spirituality up later: “Obedience is practiced by observing all the rules, customs, and practices of the order and by making the will of superiors our own.”10 But beneath the surface of a life ostensibly given over to God, great pressure develops. One novice goes about with a beatific smile, devoting herself to prayer and mortification. Then one day, “she started screaming obscenities in the refectory and had to be carried out, strapped to a stretcher. From that point on, her name would never be mentioned again.”11

But even extreme cases aside, this pressure afflicts many with a sense that true perfection means the destruction of human affections and common sense. “Expressions of anger and hurt and discouragement have not been tolerated, so we have learned to shut down on negative feelings. Expressions of friendship and affection have been discouraged, so we have learned to shut down on positive feelings. Many of us have learned to shut down on all feelings. Alive, happy girls have been transformed into sexless, emotionless robots – surely this isn’t what holiness is all about! Didn’t I read somewhere that holiness really means wholeness? I know that I don’t feel very whole!”12


The Reaction


The advent of the council brings welcome changes. The young sisters turn from “the musty old spiritual reading books” to the work of the liberal theologians, for example, Cardinal Suenen’s The Nun in the World. They start thinking of themselves as the “New Breed,” and rethinking the meaning of their vows. They experiment with new forms of ministry, like those to the inner city. Such idealism, however, faces a long bumpy road both for individuals and the community as a whole. The council makes these steps in renewal possible by lessening the pressure from above that held everything rigidly in place, but the interior work of renewal has to take place, as well. The past repression that had twisted and distorted minds and hearts did not automatically go away. The pain of being treated in an inhuman fashion takes a long time to heal. From thinking that it is a blessing to have someone else decide what we are to do, to taking genuine responsibility for our lives is a big step. The new spirit of renewal becomes infused with a very understandable spirit of reaction that moves from being forced to reject the human to an uncritical embrace of it. Sisters and priests go off to summer school and explore their new freedom, and Mary wrote: “I am not alone in all of this: long-repressed sexuality is beginning to seep out uncontrollably all over the place. No wonder mother generals and father generals lose sleep over the young nuns and priests they send away to study, knowing that the risks of a lost vocation are high! And it isn’t just with our group: Flirtations and romances and secret affairs are cropping up everywhere. In classes and at department parties the electricity of emerging sexuality seems to bounce off the very walls. Smoldering looks, covert touches, suggestive conversations ripe with double meanings – a lot is churning right beneath the surface, ready to break forth at any moment.”13

Another sister articulates this spirit of reaction quite graphically as well: “And it’s not just men. We couldn’t drink in the convent, so I drink like a fish. We couldn’t smoke, so I smoke over a pack a day. Our lives were routined and regimented down to the last detail: my life is so free-flowing, so unscheduled now, that it’s hard to get anything done. I know deep down that someday the pendulum will swing back to the center, but for now it’s anything goes. Sometimes my life looks like I live by only one rule: ‘Nothing in moderation!’ ”14

The same process of reaction affects faith, itself. If in the past it was embodied and embedded in the traditional structures of religious life, as these structures are left behind it can feel as if faith, itself, is being left behind, as well. The equation that ran, the will of God is found in the will of the superior, is central to the kind of dynamics we are seeing here. Barbara Ferraro, another of these last of the preconciliar nuns, picked up this message immediately upon entering: “I learned the first and most important lesson of convent life. If I was going to make it I needed to be obedient to every rule and regulation. I needed to keep the letter of the law under all circumstances… (Her superior) had an advantage the Marines would have envied. She spoke for God. God was speaking to me through her as my superior. When she taught me the Rule she was teaching God’s will for me.”15

The very fact that the council fathers said that the church could and should change meant that the religious community could and should change, and this, alone, was enough to undermine the old paradigm, or as Barbara reasoned: “Apparently the old ways had not been an immutable demonstration of the will of God after all.”16 As we saw before, as the hold of the system loosened, the sisters struggled to rediscover their humanity that they had tried to negate in the guise of emptying themselves to be filled with God, but on the emotional level, this ushered in a reaction in which it was hard to maintain balance. Barbara writes of going to summer school in 1973 where the most important course could have been described as: “Socializing 101: a make-up requirement for those who missed out on group interaction in high school and college. Course will include field trips to restaurants and bars, college dances, late-night bull sessions on the meaning of life, heterosexual encounters. For students willing to move ahead rapidly, course offers the possibility of experiencing a broken heart for extra credit.”17


The Exodus


It has been estimated that the number of religious women in the United States peaked at 181,421 in 1966.18 And it was to be depleted by a great exodus that was eventually to roughly total 100,000 women. Along with this exodus the number of recruits dwindled, leaving many religious orders today with an increasingly elderly population and an uncertain future. How can we explain a change of this magnitude? To advance the idea that it was largely a matter of disloyalty to the church in which the women who left became infected with a worldly spirit is less an explanation than a failure to really look at the issue. It amounts to saying the institutional structure of religious life was sound, and individual weakness was the culprit. To claim, on the other hand, that religious life is inherently defective, along with the church that gives birth to it, is to err in the opposite direction.

There are undoubtedly a whole variety of reasons why religious left, but at the heart of the matter are the structural problems that we have been seeing that took the form of a deficient spirituality in which faith in God was confused with conformity to a human organization. We can liken the preconciliar religious to divers who, upon entering religious life, were sent deep under the water, and subjected to the great pressures, and were told that learning to live in those depths was a privileged road to perfection. But such deep internal pressures are injurious to physical and psychological health, for the body and mind naturally seek the daylight of the surface where they can enjoy their proper activities. The opening of the Vatican Council allowed the council fathers themselves, to begin to surface from an top-heavy and centralized church structure, and this new spirit of freedom quickly spread out through the church. Once it was felt by religious, they, too, wanted to ascend to the surface, but to do this from these depths is a difficult and dangerous process. If they go too slowly they will run out of air and become immobilized and imprisoned in their unnatural way of living, but if they ascend too quickly, in an uncontrolled manner, they risk getting the bends. In the immediate postconciliar period we are examining we have just seen various symptoms of an uncontrolled decompression. An unnatural seclusion from the world, for example, gives birth to a burning desire to be out in the world. The secluded summer camp gives way to coed summer school. The cloisters lead to the inner city. The strict segregation of men and women gives way to flirtation and romantic relationships, and the old community structures give rise to a whole range of new experiments in community.

We have been looking at some of these manifestations in the lives of individual religious, but they affected whole communities, as well. The kind of group dynamics at stake are illustrated by the Glenmary sisters who were still a young American community when the council began. They gained a reputation for being in the avant garde of the renewal of religious life in the first years of the council, but by 1967 the community broke apart. 87 of the 102 members sought dispensation from their vows, and 44 of these women created a community called The Federation of Communities and Service (FOCUS).19 

Certainly the community had suffered from the same kind of narrow formulas that we have been seeing: “Part of our formation was to learn to act like children – to obey blindly, to do dumb things,” or “Some described it as a process of mortification, humiliation, and demolition of sense of self,”20 but two aspects of this attempt to renew community are worth paying particular attention to. The first – almost amusing if it was not the cause of so much harm and symptomatic of deeper problems – was how much energy the order had to expend to try to get permission to alter their habit. Men in the higher reaches of the Congregation of Religious in Rome attempted to micromanage how the sisters could dress, telling them, for example, that in regard to their proposed new habit the skirt should be longer, and judging from the shadow cast in a photograph, the bosom was too noticeable.21 Their own archbishop in the United States insisted they should go to bed by 10 P.M. and avoid particular friendships with lay people.22 Clearly none of this made the road to renewal any easier.

But it is the evolution of the newly formed FOCUS community that holds a deeper lesson. In a few years it went by stages from being a religious community, now “free of the patriarchal, authoritarian control of the church,”23 to a much more amorphous group. As one woman put it, “Obedience went first, then chastity, then poverty.”24 Some sisters found jobs in the community and continued the original inspiration of the Glenmary Sisters to work in Appalachia. Finances became separate. Community members began to date and then marry, with their husbands sometimes becoming part of the community, and some of the sisters changed their affiliation to various Protestant groups. In short, the well-defined identity of the past became a much more diffuse one that began to resemble a group of friends living separately in the world, seeking meaningful work, and supporting each other when they could.

This process of attenuation extended to Christian doctrine, as well: “What I really learned through FOCUS is that faith is not a sense of doctrine, it’s not a sense of religious beliefs – it’s that willingness to risk and step out…”25 And from a priest affiliated with the community, “Through our experiences, we can show concrete expressions of what it means to be church. And that will bleed across denominational lines. And that will bleed across wonderfully, nicely worded theological statements. And the institutions (would be) free not to have a wonderful, pure, defined dogma.”26 Another person summed up the impetus behind this anti-institutional reaction: “Most of us were against organized anything that would hamper the spirit.”27 One observer comments: “The original God-centered religious experience, rooted in traditional Catholicism, became, for many, less important than the expressions of self-determination, feminism and liberation – their own and that of others.”28

It is certainly legitimate to ask whether there are certain non-negotiable principles, beliefs and practices for being a religious community, and more importantly, for being part of the Catholic Christian community. This transformation of the Glenmary Sisters is but one example of a wider phenomenon in those years that led to the formation of many experimental Christian communities which we will now turn to.



Chapter 5

Experimental Christian Communities




Another response to the Second Vatican Council intertwined with the changes in religious life was an explosion of experimental Christian communities in the U.S., Europe and South America. Clearly this experimentation went far beyond the Catholic community and drew on more than the council for its inspiration, but it is worth examining it to complete the picture of the changes wrought in religious life.

This movement was already visible by 1965-1966, and a few years later had developed to the point that it was being catalogued and studied. Among the organizations that were analyzing it was I-DOC based in Rome whose mission was to collect and disseminate documents on the contemporary Church. It had begun in 1962 as DOC, a Dutch group providing information for participants in the Second Vatican Council, and in the wake of the council had become more ecumenical and international. Under the direction of Leo Alting von Geusau, it collaborated with Pro Mundi Vita and others to sponsor a conference at Leuven Sept. 9-13, 1971 on “New Community Models” which was directed at theologians, sociologists and others studying this phenomenon. I-DOC also hosted another meeting in Rome on Nov. 6-13, 1971 for participants in these new communities.

I worked for I-DOC in 1969 in Rome, and then my wife and I did a survey of U.S. experimental communities in 1970, and attended both of these conferences. My final unpublished report for I-DOC, lightly edited, gives the flavor of those times, and is followed by some reflections on these communities from the point of view of the psychological dynamics that we are pursuing here.


Report of Spontaneous Groups

in the United States, 1971


Spontaneous groups, or the so-called underground church, has received a great deal of comment in the past four or five years, but unfortunately, many of these formulations were hampered by a lack of factual material and the strong emotions generated by the movement. Recently, however, there has been a considerable increase in the amount of material available, and a lull in the storm, so that it is time to try to examine this phenomenon more closely.

First an attempt must be made to describe the different types of groups that fall under the generic heading of underground or spontaneous movement, and then the interpretive tools that must be created in order to assess properly what is happening.


A Typology of Experiments


Basic factual information about who and where these spontaneous groups are is now accessible through a number of listing services, which have sprung up around the country. By far the best organized and more comprehensive source is the directory published by the Free Church of Berkeley entitled, “A Directory of the Liberated Church in America.” Its October, 1970 edition contained over 400 entries. More specialized cataloguing is done by the Sisters for Christian Community listing new religious communities, True House of Notre Dame, with its collection of Pentecostal groups, and the Office of Experimental Ministries and the Joint Strategy and Action Committee of the National Council of Churches. In addition, various churches have special publications dealing with their own work, and the spontaneous groups, themselves, produce a fluctuating tide of newsletters and mimeographed bulletins.

The initial sorting of this material is a problem, for nowhere else in the church are things so fluid, and a name and address with a supposed list of activities is very little to go on in order to evaluate what the groups are actually doing. In final analysis, there is no adequate substitute for personal contact and observation, and even better, participation.

There are four or five general categories, admittedly somewhat arbitrary, that we can use to gain some idea of the scope and nature of the movement.

A good place as any to begin is with liturgical groups and their offspring, the floating parishes, for they are among the most common type and perhaps the oldest. There is no need to go into detail concerning the forms and innovations that are practiced here, for they are becoming more and more universal in ordinary parishes. Liturgical groups are everywhere, and floating parishes are to be found in California, Oklahoma, Connecticut, New York, etc. Perhaps the most significant fact about these groups is the growing disinterest in them. Small liturgical gatherings are no longer in vogue, and their more permanent brothers have fallen upon hard times. This poses a serious question for the established churches, for the floating communities supposedly had all the advantages which the big churches were counting on to bolster them up in the future. They have small memberships where everyone can get acquainted and fully participate, as well as no serious financial problems, and the most progressive clergy. We will touch on some of the reasons for their demise later on.

The groups in the second category are the ones that first come to mind when we think in terms of the underground and radical innovation; these are communes with a small but intensely active core membership. They are politically aware and turned-on to the Movement and probe the sensitive areas of race and war and ecology. Here we have Emmaus House in East Harlem with its work in non-violence, the Free Church in Berkeley, and the Submarine Church with its loose network of hippie-style protesters who gather at major Protestant Church conferences. Most major cities across the nation have at least one such organization, from Project place in Boston to the Umbrella in Kansas City and St. Andrews in Denver, which minister to the street people with switchboard and crashing operations; they serve as the meeting ground for the Church and the counter-culture.

Despite their notoriety, they are understaffed and under-supported with a considerable portion of their funds coming from the established churches in one form or another. As conservative pressure on the mainline churches increases, there is a real danger that these more radical and controversial experiments will be the first casualties in budget cutbacks.

The radical communes are also threatened from within by the question of how to present the message of the Gospel in a contemporary way without it being lost in the rhetoric of the movement and the jargon of revolution.

Closely allied and overlapping with the communes are the urban and special ministries which form a third general type in the spontaneous movement. They share the small numbers and the political sensitivity of the communes but they are more strongly mission oriented. They are the new styles of ministry which form the bridge between the standard church activities and the priorities and challenges of modern urban America. In this category can be included the Guadalupe Center in Salt Lake City, with a state-wide focus for Mexican-American activities, the Joseph House in the westside ghetto of Baltimore with its Discovery School for young children, the Methodist Inner-City parish in Kansas City with a Montessori school staffed by neighborhood people, and the Logos urban training center in Colorado Springs, among many others.

The concrete service programs that are found here are some of the most worthwhile and most easily verifiable fruits of the spontaneous movement. They are a healthy blend of creativity and professional competence and the pressing demands of the work to be done makes them leave the burden of the ideological pondering to the communes, though this is not always the case.

The area of religious life and monasticism forms a fourth area of experimentation. There are scarcely any religious groups in the country which have not given birth either voluntarily or involuntarily, to at least one experiment of this type. Here, again, the range is very large, covering everything from the hundreds of former Immaculate Heart sisters on the west coast, to the little groups of three or four ex-religious living anonymously. The major monastic orders have produced a series of experiments in simple monasticism attempting to recapture their original spirit and adapt to the modern world.

The attrition rate in this fourth area is very high as it is among the liturgical groups, and we hope to focus on some of the reasons for this later on.

The final grouping proposed are the experiments going on in the field of prayer and spirituality. Among these are numerous Catholic Pentecostal groups like the houses in Ann Arbor and Notre Dame, the house of prayer movement among religious orders, the Spiritual Life Institute in the Arizona desert, the Thomas Merton Center in Quebec and the Center for Spiritual Studies in New York. They represent positive attempts to bring back the relevance of prayer and to open up a dialogue with the world's major spiritual traditions, and in this way resurrect basic questions which have tended to become lost in recent years. They feature a return to silence and nature, and inner questing.

From our summary two important facts emerge about the nature of the spontaneous movement. First of all, there is a wide current of reform in the churches which is attempting to create viable alternatives to the ministry of the established churches. Therefore, it strives for a certain identity by developing its own language and modes of communication and sense of community which defies existing denominational boundaries. In this way the various types of groups in the movement embody enough common values and attitudes to merit a distinctive name.

On the other hand, our image of the underground church is misleading if it depicts a movement which exists independently of the established churches. The spontaneous movement is by and large composed of people who have been formed in the churches and often retain active membership in them even in a ministerial capacity.

The experimental groups draw recruits and monetary support from the churches even for supposedly anti-establishment activities and exist physically, morally and structurally in a love-hate relationship with their parent churches. The movement is spontaneous inasmuch as it has little regard for the official channels of authority, but the whole matrix in which it lives is conditioned by the established churches.

There are, of course, individuals at work in the movement who have a more radical stance of separation, but they are exceptions, at least for the time being. In order to find a movement which is independent of the churches we have to look to the so-called counter-culture, but here we are in a very different world. It is a very long step from even the more radical church groups to the lifestyle and ideological motivations of the hip commune or the weathermen, and a serious question whether a lot more is lost than gained in making it.


Interpretative Tools and Analysis


The preceding description brings us to the difficult question of how to approach the interpretation of these groups. Undoubtedly they are prophetic for the rest of the church, though the precise import of their message is not yet clear, for we are lacking the hermeneutics to understand it.

There are two broad alternatives in approach that we would like to touch on here. The first emphasizes the motivations of the individuals involved in the movement, while the second deals with the vitality and momentum of the communities themselves.

For an example of the first more psychological mode of operating we will look at the modern churchman in light his mythologizing capacity, and of the second, some of the sociological ground rules necessary for the successful formation of new religious communities.

We have a deep and incurable need to create myths, and this remains true even if we call ourselves modern, and have all the technologies and philosophies to prove it. Myth-making is a vital and health-giving inner activity, for by it we attempt to frame an answer about who we are, but when myths are not recognized for what they are, they can be projected outward and become deadly.

The modern Churchman is no exception to this inexhaustible capacity to mythologize, and in the past few years he has given himself over to a whole new series of mythical images. These he refuses to see within, but rather, he is determined to find them living independently without. The myth we have in mind is the great hope that is put in the movement of spontaneous groups, the so-called “underground church” and its multitude of experimental forms. This is a dangerous state of affairs, for if we confuse a process of inner transformation with organizations, we have relinquished most of our ability to plan and act effectively. Naturally, the Churchmen we have in mind are the liberals and progressives, and perhaps even the radicals, rather than the conservatives. The conservatives retain their old myths, and have no inclination to leave that security.

When the liberals suffered the shock of renewal, they lost the objects they had formerly put their hope in. Religious and monastic life had their old aura destroyed, and this vacuum could not long go unfilled. There was a need for something to pin the hopes of the future on, and this choice fell squarely on the new experimental communities.

Five years ago there was endless talk about liturgical groups, floating parishes, inner city ministries, and new religious communities, and even today the tide of enthusiasm is just abating. In fact, there are signs that not only is enthusiasm lessening, but a large number of these groups are in deep trouble. This trouble, as we hope to show, is the result of projecting and objectifying inner needs and hopes. It would be worth our while, then, to examine this process of birth and death at work in order to get a better idea of the dynamics involved and, hopefully, to understand what it means.

For example, when members of religious communities suddenly found themselves ex-religious, or at least “enlightened” religious, and got together as little groups of exiles to compare notes, they came up with a common diagnosis. Religious life had been depicted as a perfect world where the will of God could be exhaustively known at almost every moment. Once the insight came that the whole system had not descended fully armed from Heaven, then everyone began to get ideas on how to do things better, and perhaps this was not too difficult to do. But what was left to hope in once the tradition of communities had been dealt such a serious blow? Obviously, it had to be a new renewed community, and so a myth was born. I have to call it a myth because it was an interior feeling and aspiration which, for not being properly recognized for what it was, was projected outward in the form of small and simply-structured communities. Scores and scores of groups sprang up, and late shoots are still sprouting. We need no more convincing or cogent proof that many of them were seeking a chimera than to look at what has become of them. Perhaps the majority have already died, leaving the positive contribution of easing the shock of transition for a great number of people leaving religious and priestly life. On the negative side, their collapse brought a deadening of faith to many who had put their hope in them. The myth died hard, leaving a bitter after-taste and, unfortunately, there were still too many people who have yet to realize that it was a myth to begin with.

We see a somewhat similar process in the ministry to the inner city, when the cloisters and seminaries revealed their dehumanizing routine. The inner city shined as the promised land where life could be lived in all its beauty and misery. The very middle-class Church people were ripe for a replay of the myth of the noble savage, and marched off to run-down flats in the ghettoes and barrios of the nation. It didn't take more than a few years to strip away this veneer of magic and deplete the ranks of the clergy in the slums. Today contact on the streets and fighting the city power structure has turned to talk of working in the suburbs with “one's own kind,” but the underlying projection is basically untouched.

A final example of this process can be found in the floating parish, the elder daughter of the numerous ad-hoc liturgical groups. There seemed to be no way the floating parish could fail to be the trail blazer for the rest of the Church. The fact is that most of them are in serious trouble, paralyzed by internal dissentions with no unanimity of where they want to go, themselves, still less lead anyone else.

We could continue to see this same painful development throughout the whole range of current experimentation. This criticism, however, is not intended to deny that the spontaneous movement is the most promising aspect of Church renewal today. What the movement has been lacking, though, is a thorough exercise in introspective self-awareness. In good typical American fashion, we have externalized our hopes, and are trying to build and organize our way into the future without ever taking time to find out what is going on inside ourselves. This is at the root of many false starts and the high mortality rate among new communities. All our wonderful constructs dance before our eyes while we are unconscious of what God is trying to do within us. Perhaps the only thing that has gone underground is the Spirit, and we don't know how to reach Him yet.

The process of de-mythologizing that we have just suggested necessarily has a somewhat negative aspect to it. A look at the dynamics of new communities will produce converging results, but hopefully wearing a happier face.

Religious life in the United States is in very serious if not fatal trouble, and as I have tried to point out before, new religious communities have problems of almost equal magnitude. What they need among other things is a well-developed understanding of how communities tend to form and grow, but unfortunately, it is sadly lacking.

The new groups cling to a mystique of originality as if they were heading into completely virgin territory. This prevents them from putting their attempts in a historical perspective, and so the lessons of the past have to be painfully relearned anew. Religious history, especially that of religious reform, is a virtually untouched storehouse filled with significant parallels for modern communities.

This ahistorical sense would be easier to correct if it were not fostered by an even more deeply rooted difficulty. The new creators of community have been pursued and badgered most of their lives by the organizational church, and this relentless pressure has polarized them in an anti-institutional manner. This anti-institutionalization does not allow them to relate to even the minimum of rules and guidelines that are necessary in order that their new community function adequately; they would rather believe in a fictional non-organization.

Anti-institutionalization wears many faces today. It is found at the heart of the difficulty in organizing coalitions of ex-priests, and in the pronounced look of battle fatigue on the faces of religious who are destined to leave their communities no matter what reforms are carried out.

Another legacy that has been brought over into the new communities is the idea that just about everybody normal fits. Religious communities in the past have had remarkably amorphous and flexible qualifications for admission. The theological dictum that God wills all men to be saved was the rationalization for a laissez-faire attitude of admissions that allowed the most diverse types to co-habit under one roof, with destructive effects that are well-illustrated by the history of many religious orders. This policy of open admissions is still in vogue, but the underlying rationalizations have been changed into “respect for individual conscience” or “everybody doing their own thing.” The end result is still the same with people of all different temperaments and ideological convictions at each other's throats. This might be more acceptable in a situation where endless discussion is considered a prime objective, but in groups which have many practical concerns for sustenance, as well as distinctive work goals, there is a limit to the amount of diversity that is feasible. Naturally, groups that engage in a concrete work like social service can afford a greater diversity than a group that conceives itself as having an ideological mission.

The tactics necessary for forming a reform party within a large religious community is another area where the children of this world are wiser than the children of light, for at least the former have their handbooks for homemade guerrilla wars and coup-d'etats. Small communities of priests and religious living in apartments is one type of experiment that is being carried out, with the members maintaining their ties with the parent community. We have seen some of the reasons for their high mortality rate in terms of mythologizing, anti-institutionalization and faulty admission policies, and all of these syndromes are intensified by living “in the world.” What remains to be seen is how this type of community tends to interact with the mother community.

Such reform groups always have a perfectionist quality to them, for at root they are an attempt to live a more relevant or prayerful or simple existence, etc., depending upon what their motivations are. At the same time, they entertain no conscious intention, at least initially, of breaking with the parent community. A few years ago there was a matricidal taboo connected with this thought, but now it is much less strong. Then, too, the reformers often cherish the idea of somehow being the leaven of the whole community, and this binds them to the parent group.

The justification for reform is easy to come by, both ideologically as a return to the sources and relevance, and factually in the poor state of the Church. The theoretical need of reform is often accepted by the parent community, and the initial permission for the experiment is given with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation. The experiment is usually conceived as one involving a certain few for a definite period of time, at the end of which there will be an evaluation and a determination whether the experiment should continue or not. On this level everything appears well-ordered and rational, but beneath a storm is brewing.

The reformers, in fact, are saying by their actions that the community is in need of deep renewal, and there are very few mothers who can really believe that their own children can teach them how to live. In short, the very existence of a reform experiment has to be a reproach to certain elements of the parent community. The experiment becomes the symbol of a more far-reaching controversy, which at heart centers on the question of which faction is living the better kind of life. The innovators are accused of breaking the rule and illicitly extending the original permission it received, while the parent community is accused of engineering a suppression on trumped-up charges. In reality, there is very little real communication going on, for the two parties are speaking different languages, and each one feels that it is fighting for its life. The charges and counter charges have little to do with the actual state of affairs, for a community can limp onward despite all sorts of rule-breaking, but what he cannot tolerate is a deep ideological diversity.

There are a number of ways in which the scenario can end. The parent can reabsorb the experiment by transferring the members involved or refusing to renew the lease. This simply does not work much any more. On the other hand, the majority of the members of the new group can disperse, having had quite enough of the whole business, and the third is the formation of a new community.

On the supposition that a new community is born, it still has a difficult road to travel. The bonds of a common struggle against an arch enemy have allowed the group to maintain some sort of coherence during the birth pangs, but once the group is independent, it loses this factor of unity. The innate diversity of its members now starts to make itself felt, and since the mechanics of new community formation is known, and the fear of killing the mother is overcome, the new community can soon find itself in a struggle with its own offspring. This process is hastened by over-anxious recruiting policies, and the ease with which goods are stock-piled and bureaucratic systems are constructed.

If at the outset of a planned reform the innovators were acquainted with the basic moves of the game, they could plan ahead much more effectively and increase the odds for their survival. The first question would be to determine the feasibility of remaining in the parent community. If it is feasible, granted certain conditions, how is it possible to bring these conditions about? If it is not feasible, then what is necessary in order to break successfully? In most cases, the odds will be weighted towards a complete break. However, any premature disclosure of this intention by the reformers will result in their expulsion before they are ready. The political realities of life, even religious life, must be faced if one wants to succeed. In large communities the most apt members for a renewed branch of the community have often been silently forced out one by one before they could get together to act, while the experiments that are started are usually too small to prosper on their own. On the other hand, a carefully planned move on the part of a coalition of twenty or thirty reform members could break successfully for suitable conditions or even take control of the community.

Naturally, there are many variations on this composite picture, depending on the type of religious community that is to be formed, the origin of the new members, the degree of anarchy existing in the parent community, etc. What remains, though, is the possibility of isolating the various factors and the basic steps in the formation of new communities, whether they are religious or a commune or liturgical groups. This involves the detailed study of a good number of these attempts, and a comparison of the common factors involved. It also calls for the construction of sociological tools that are sufficiently sensitized to the specific questions and values of religious reform. Hopefully, a coherent picture would finally emerge of how to go about creating alternative forms of community. The name spontaneous groups has a pleasant ring to the ear, for we have had our fill of authoritarian structures. On the other hand, the only hope for the spontaneous movement lies in its growing ability to discover the laws which govern its life and to use them to build anew the Christian community.




Today from the perspective of some 30 years later I would still agree with this analysis, and it seems clear that most of these communities did not survive. Their members were much less attempting to carry out a rational plan than being carried along by their reactions both conscious and unconscious to their parent communities. Among those reactions it is worth emphasizing the degree to which these groups were polarized against the institutionalization their members had suffered in the traditional communities. Ann Ryan, for example, had written a letter to the National Catholic Reporter proposing the creation of a booklet listing new communities of women, and by February 1969 her New Communities for Men and Women was in its second edition. The language of its introduction, as well as the self-descriptions of some of the groups, are revealing:

“These new groups believe that only in by-passing antiquated rules and customs can they live in this spirit (spirit of Vatican II).” They have “broken the rigid bars of restrictive rules to live this new freedom of the spirit…” “Many who have formed new groups have found they didn’t work out…”1

The same anti-institutionalization can be found in the self-description of the groups:

“We are just three women and one cat living in community and trying to do whatever good we can and letting God be the judge to say whether we are dedicated or not.”

“They take private vows; are not “under” the Bishop except as all Christians are under their Bishop. There is no superior.”

“The community avoids institutionalism of any kind…”

“It requires women of maturity with capacities for functioning to a great extent on their own.”

A community of two ex-seminarians and one ex-nun taking promises of charity and poverty wrote: “We have no written rule as such. We are completely dictated to and governed by the spirit.” “We formed to live the Christian commitment which was talked about in the seminary and convent.”

An unnamed community of six teachers in the inner city put it this way: “We choose not to have an official name, superior of any kind, or formal structure. We did not want to hamper the direction in which our new community might grow.”

It is difficult in the best of circumstances to create a new community, and it is doubly difficult if we have already been harmed by oppressive community structures. Put in another way the members of these communities did not start out with a handbook called, How to Start a New Community in one hand and a clear sense of the interior forces that were shaping their own behavior.2

The reasons behind the great exodus of women religious – not to mention the similar exoduses of men religious and diocesan clergy – have not been fully grasped either by those who stayed in religious life or by those who left. Gerelyn Hollingsworth, for example, called this exodus of religious women the elephant in the living room that those who remained are still unable to come to terms with.3

The upheavals of religious life, however, were the early tremors of an earthquake that was to convulse the entire church, and continues to do so, and a more comprehensive explanation for this earthquake is still wanting. The old equation that said that the will of God was to be found in the will of the superior, despite these upheavals, continued to live on, and even to take a particularly acute form in the so-called new movements that play such a prominent role in today’s church.




Chapter 6

New Movements, Old Wine Skins



In the midst of the postconciliar turmoil that we have been examining, some religious communities, for the most part firmly rooted in the preconciliar past, elevated the old driving principle of the will of the superior is the will of God to new heights, almost as if in response to the fragmentation in traditional religious life.


Sword of the Spirit Communities


  The Word of God community, founded by Steve Clark and Ralph Martin, grew out of the Catholic charismatic movement. From a small group in November 1967, it expanded rapidly and was eventually to become the head community of a whole federation of Sword of the Spirit communities. In September 1970 Clark and Martin began to restructure the community so that the members became more and more under the control of coordinators, and by 1972 a hierarchical system of authority called shepherding was in place. This kind of control reached the point in which the shepherds would judge for their subordinates everything from what friendships should be kept or broken, all the way down to whether it was permissible to hold hands or kiss on a date. They didn’t shrink, either, from helping to arrange marriages and imposing gender roles of the sort of whether a father should help in the care of his child.1 In short, somewhere along the line, The Word of God had moved from being a Christian community to thinking and acting like a cult.

With excessive control went: “esoteric language and titles; secrecy; exclusivity; declarations of war on some vague enemy; personal messages from a higher source.”2 Secrecy extended even to keeping secret the promise of secrecy. God spoke to the leaders, and the leaders spoke to the members, and these divine messages made them all a special people: “I am going to give you my Spirit in a way I have never given my Spirit to any people.”3 The members were given preparation for the baptism of the Spirit, and an extensive ministry of deliverance from demons was carried out among them. These demons included not only lust and greed, but “independence, rebellion, feminism, isolation, etc.,”4 as well as problems of self-image and guilt. Eventually local bishops took a closer look at these communities, and then took action. The Word of God community split, and one part of it issued apologies, regretting “spiritual pride and arrogance, elitism, legalism and an overbearing exercise of pastoral authority.”5 

One of these Sword of the Spirit communities was in Steubenville, Ohio, associated with the Third Order Franciscans and the noted charismatic leader, Thomas Scanlan. An investigation instigated by the local bishop in 1991 found evidence of “excessive control over child rearing, dating practices, finances, buying and selling real estate, the location of homes and even the sexual lives of married couples. The report also faulted the communities for fostering elitism, excessive secrecy, fundamentalism and a lack of compassion – including the shunning of members who left.”6  While Scanlan denied knowing the scope of this abuse, one member of the investigating team commented: “With the way information is funneled up to the people you are submitted to, it is to be expected that he would be fully aware of what was going on.”7 Another investigator was worried that Scanlan had received “pats on the back from some of the highest churchmen in the country.” With the Sword of the Spirit communities, we have reentered a world in which charismatic spirituality creates a potent mixture with demonic deliverance, a fascination with Marian apparitions, and the prediction of dire events of the fast-arriving end times.


Regina Laudis


The Benedictine monastery of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, founded by Mother Benedict Duss, enjoyed a sterling reputation for liturgy, monastic life and the creativity of its members both before and after the Vatican Council. By the mid-1980s, however, another picture began to emerge based on accusations of cult-like behavior. By then the monastery had made common cause with a breakaway faction of the Sisters of Mercy, and another splinter group of Franciscan sisters. These sisters, together with lay people, formed communities similar to the shepherding communities found among the Catholic charismatics. The members were urged to divulge their most intimate secrets, and “challenged” to carry out various tasks and make donations. One member, for example, was challenged to shun his brother who had decided on marriage instead of a religious vocation. He was also urged to beat up another community member, and he finally broke with the community when they challenged him and his wife to give up their yet to be born child. One sister told him a week before the child’s birth that “she had received a message from the Holy Spirit, indicating that the couple should give their child up for adoption.”8 In another case, a child was given up for adoption so the father could become a priest, and the mother a nun.9

The sisters became involved in acrimonious disputes with the residents of Shaw Island, Washington, where they pressured people to make gifts of property to them, and then hauled them to court to try to insure that these promises were kept. They sometimes spoke of potential donors as suckers.10 This kind of fanatical behavior apparently had its origins in the changes that had come about in the communities when Mother Duss, who styled herself as “Lady Abbess,” and was described by the theologian Robley Whitson as an “extremely self-willed, strong person,” joined forces with the Jesuit, Francis Prokes. Prokes, in his turn, described as everything from brilliant to psychotic, developed a theology of community that some found incomprehensible. Whitson described it as, “Anything and everything is interpreted in terms of female sexuality – not just sexuality, female sexuality… such things as plotting menstrual cycles – at the most fecund time of the woman’s menstrual cycle, that’s when her prayers are most powerful.” Whitson “read a transcript of a tape, shown him by a Regina Laudis nun, in which Prokes admonished the nuns that their fervor after holy communion should be such that they might expect to experience orgasm, as, he said, he himself sometimes did. The reason for this, he said, was that they were receiving into their bodies their spouse, Christ.”11

What we have before us appears to be a clear case where psycho-sexual issues, instead of being dealt with directly and psychologically, lead a more or less veiled life under a misused spiritual language. With these kinds of changes underway, about one-third of the sisters left, or were forced to leave, between 1969 and 1971, and others left later. One pre-postulant of the Benedictines on Shaw Island was told by Duss when she was determined to leave: “Jesus Christ tells you to stay… You will not find salvation outside the monastery. Be obedient for the first time in your life and unpack your bags.”12 Another person was told by the superior of the Sisters of Mercy that if she left, “her husband would leave her, her four-year-old daughter would be taken away from her, and she herself would be committed to a mental institution.”13

And where were the local bishops when all this was happening? Apparently procrastinating and temporizing by claiming that they had no jurisdiction. And where was Rome? True to form, high Vatican officials defended and praised the group. Finally, in 1994 Prokes was ousted, Duss was retired, and a Benedictine was appointed to oversee the abbey. But the shepherding communities and Regina Laudis are but small examples of a much larger, more powerful and dangerous phenomenon.




Chiara Lubich started Focolare in Trent, northern Italy in 1943, and it has spread around the world, claiming some 80,000 core members in 190 countries. One day she was crossing a bridge, and she received a light from on high, “The Ideal,” and both her spirituality and personality became central to the movement. Gordon Urquhart, who was a member of Focolare for years, described the effect it had on his self-image and development: “Old affections dried up and, now that the movement had taken over my mind and heart completely, I could no longer communicate even with close friends… I had ceased to think and feel like other people… What I could not grasp, of course, was that along with everything else that I had held dear I had also ‘lost’ my self, my personality.”14

Personal growth was replaced by stereotypical behavior, down to a certain way of laughing and smiling, and making contact with people, not out of a genuine interest in what they were like, but to recruit them into the movement. For the focolarini, Chiara was the Mamma, the fountain of their spiritual and personal lives. Her presence was ubiquitous through audio and video tapes, and a chief work of the interior life was “living whatever Chiara was living in her spiritual life at that time.”15 Her thoughts and feelings were rushed to members all over the world so they could meditate upon them and make them their own. She was pictured in a way analogous to the Blessed Virgin as the channel of graces for the movement, and Focolare, likened to the mystical body of Mary. Urquhart even claimed that several focolarini had told him, “it doesn’t matter whether you believe in God; it’s enough to believe in Chiara.”16 Some of Chiara’s teaching were wreathed in secrecy and only available to an elite. An anti-intellectualism permeated the atmosphere. There was “a total ban on thought.” “Don’t think… Cut off your head.”17 Urquhart recounts that community spirit, or “unity,” sometimes even took on the rather ridiculous character of members trying to get in the closest physical proximity to the leader of the Focolare village where he lived. “Ten people would pack themselves in his Audi to drive a hundred yards with him.”18 One person went so far as to hide in the leader’s bedroom closet so as to have a moment of contact with him. How things should be done was spelled out down to the smallest details which included how one ought to wash dishes like the Blessed Virgin, that is, cleaning each pot or pan immediately after its use when preparing food. A beginner, taking this mystical housecleaning to a new level, spent the whole afternoon cleaning one shelf of a cupboard.19

The interior component of this sort of behavior was even more harmful. “Before our superior we had to be empty, nothing, completely unquestioning; we had to fulfill every whim… The only permitted interior life is internalizing and regurgitating the teaching of Chiara Lubich.”20 Her exhortations were to “destroy our ego,” “die to ourselves,” “annihilate,” and “offer Jesus the complete void” of our minds.21 One was being asked to sacrifice not just the disorders of sin, but his or her very self. But the human self and its normal development and creativity cannot be sacrificed in the ontological sense it was being understood by the focolarini, which included putting aside family and friends, personal inclinations and gifts. To do so is to violate the very gifts that God has given us. This emptying of the self creates a vacuum which is then filled by Chiara and her thoughts, and the successes of the movement. This “impersonality,” Urquhart speculates, led to a “mass megalomania” in which the members “participate in the incredibly inflated mass-ego of the movement.”22


The Neocatechumenal Way


The Neocatechumenal Way was started in Spain in 1964 by the Spanish layman, Kiko Argüello, and the ex-nun Carmen Hernández. It has 17,000 communities in 6,000 parishes in 900 dioceses, as well as 1,000 priests and 1,500 men preparing for the priesthood in more than 50 Redemptoris Mater seminaries.23 It also has its own distinctive theology and spirituality with Kiko as its “apostle.” The pope can be wrong, some of his followers are reported to have said, but not Kiko because he has the charism. For the Way normal Catholicism won’t do, for its practitioners are in an undeveloped and sinful state. What is needed is an intensive, new catechesis that involves revealing one’s sins to the group, a catechesis that unfolds in stages, and is enfolded in secrecy, and lasts an astonishing 20 years. So distinctive are these stages that participants in different levels attend separate liturgies. In some parishes this requires the offices of 25 priests.24

Fundamental to the whole process is that the Neocatechumenal Way knows best. Kiko writes, “During the catechumenate, you cannot yet show the signs of adult faith. It is the apostle, the catechist, … who must watch over the Way, like a big brother… He is certainly the brother who knows (if the Spirit of Jesus is present).”25 Kiko also has his own version of Christian history in which there is a gap that stretches from the Emperor Constantine to the Second Vatican Council because the catechumenate was no longer present and the church was in the doldrums of “natural religion.” It is the Way which brings the work of the council into the parish, and the catechist tells the new members, “Jesus is passing and maybe He will not pass again… WITH US COMES JESUS. And who does Jesus heal? THOSE WHO RECOGNIZE THE FACT THAT THEY ARE BLIND. JESUS IS PASSING BECAUSE HE COMES WITH US.” (emphasis in the original).26 And where does this conviction come from? Apparently from Kiko himself: “I have seen the Lord… I have seen the Madonna… I have seen miracles.”27 His knowledge apparently extends both to heaven and to earth. “The Way,” he tells us, “that our Lord Jesus Christ opened through his Exodus, destroying death and leading mankind to heaven, is closed once again.28 Whatever this might mean, it is something that no one else in the church would presume to say. As far as the things of the earth are concerned, his views on parenting are equally strange, especially given his reported dislike of priests who have “studied a lot of psychology and read a lot.”29 Children are idols that must be renounced. Parents spoil their children. Why? “We are anxious about our children because we are constantly thinking of death. I would ask this question: Why are we thinking of our child’s death? I would say: BECAUSE IN YOUR SUBCONSCIOUS YOU DESIRE IT.”30

And did John Paul II and the curia hear all this with dismay? Apparently not. In fact, they seem to embrace Kiko and the movement as a way to fulfill their own dreams and solve the problems that the church faces. What can be done, for example, about the exodus of priests and religious and the dirth of new vocations? Who is going to be left to carry on the new evangelization? It would certainly be painful and difficult work to examine the roots of this vocational crisis. It is much easier to turn to what appear like miraculous God-given answers like the Focolare and the Neocatechumenal Way which are teeming with vocations and proclaim their absolute obedience to the pope. Therefore, John Paul II said that they are “indispensable and coessential (with the hierarchy).”31 

This kind of hyperbolic praise reached a new height when a Vatican official said: “We have realized that something is happening in the Church which is completely beyond us and cannot be evaluated in human terms, but can only be attributed to a direct intervention of the Holy Spirit.”32 We hardly need note that this is the same kind of direct intervention that we saw before in places like the charismatic movement. When early in his pontificate John Paul II was visiting the parishes of his diocese of Rome he was pleasantly surprised to see not the urban abandonment of the church to be found elsewhere, but to be greeted by enthusiastic –  Neocatechumenal Way – parishioners. In 1993 when he conducted the first ordination exclusively for the diocese of Rome, there were 29 candidates, 16 of whom turned out to be from the Way. At the World Youth Day in Denver it was estimated that over one-fifth, that is, some 40,000 of the excited participants, were Neocatechumenal Way members flown in from various parts of the world. And in 1986 young people of the Way filled the Vatican audience hall, and Kiko called for young men and women who felt they had a vocation to step forward and kneel before the pope. Sixty-five came forward. It is hard not to be dazzled. And when it comes to the modern touchstone of loyalty to the papacy of John Paul II, which is, adhering to the official teaching on birth control, the Neocatechumenal Way does the loyalists one better by rejecting natural family planning, as well.

The statutes of the Neocatechumenal Way were approved in 2002, but the practices of the movement were still under examination by the various Vatican congregations. While the texts that are used in the intensive training of the members have been kept secret, a synthesis of them was finally published in 2004. The practice of excluding outsiders from the Neocatechumenal Way Masses was outlawed, but is said to still continue, and a Mass is said in the style of Kiko who dictates how it is carried out down to the physical details of baking a huge loaf of bread, as well as the design of the décor and utensils that serve the Mass.33

Bishops in other parts of the world are less sanguine than Rome. Álvaro Ramazzini of San Marcos, Guatemala, thinks that the Neocatechumenal Way has some positive qualities like calling attention to the value of the liturgy, and using the word of God in community prayer: “Yet I also have found in El Camino people who are very closed, people for whom there is no possibility of salvation outside the movement. That doesn’t seem Christian to me. I’ve also found fanatical people who’ve formed a personality cult around Kiko Argüello. At times Kiko seems more important than the bishop. They haven’t properly understood the mediating role of a founder of a movement like this, and so at times it seems as if the word of Kiko Argüello is more important then the Gospel.”34


Legionaires of Christ


Jason Berry and Gerald Renner in Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II paint a picture of the Legionaires of Christ founder, Marcial Maciel Degollado that make him appear much like the other movement leaders we have been meeting, except in his case he has been accused of molesting some of his young seminarians. Maciel founded the Legionaires of Christ in Mexico in the 1940s, and it has expanded to some 480 priests and 2,500 seminarians in 20 countries. The Legionaires address Maciel as “Nuestro Padre.” “We had this adoration for Fr. Marcial,” one of his accusers later said. “We were not allowed ever to even think that our superior was wrong, and, certainly, never question any order from the superior.”35 To leave was unthinkable: “Lost vocation, sure damnation.” The Legionaires even have a fourth vow in addition to the usual three of poverty, chastity and obedience, which runs: “Never to speak ill of Nuestro Padre and to inform on anyone who did.”36 

One former Legion priest described the order as having many of the characteristics of a cult: the emphasis on recruiting, the control which included confession and spiritual direction, absolute secrecy, separation from family and the wider church, dissenters isolated or banished, etc.37 It was in this kind of setting that Maciel’s accusers say that he abused them, telling them that he had a dispensation from Pope Pius XII so he could act out sexually, and that they had committed no wrong and would not have to go to confession. They also claim that at one point in his life he was addicted to pain killers. The first known allegations of abuse were sent to the Vatican in 1978 and surfaced in the Hartford Courant in 1997. Whatever Rome did to investigate during this time is unknown, but the Vatican continued to show favor to Maciel despite the detailed and credible charges brought against him, and prominent conservative figures in the U.S. after the publicity in 1997 rallied to his support. Important curia officials attended elaborate dinners at the Legionaires’ Roman univeristy, Regina Apostolorum. After one dinner for Cardinal Ratzinger, “the Legion orchestra played Mexican and German songs… As he rose to leave, the Legionaries left by the back door, ran around the building, and formed two lines in the driveway, applauding as Ratzinger entered his car, clapping until he was gone.”38

As late as January 4, 2001 on the sixtieth anniversary of the Legion, the pope “received Maciel and praised him before 20,000 Legion members in Rome.” He said: “With special affection I greet your beloved founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel… I especially appreciated his confirmation of your characteristic fidelity to the successor of Peter.”39 On November 30, 2004 in celebration of Maciel’s sixtieth anniversary of ordination the pope praised him in front of 4,000 priests and seminarians of the Legionaires of Christ and members of the Legion’s lay arm, Regnum Christi, saying that Maciel’s ministry had been “full of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” The pope also gave into the Legion’s care the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem. All this was rather remarkable given the fact that by this time Maciel had been under investigation for years, having been accused by alleged victims who “exuded credibility” as a National Catholic Reporter editorial put it.40 Just days later these men were sent a letter stating that the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith had agreed to reopen their case. On January 20, Maciel stepped down as the head of the Legionaries of Christ, but the long saga was not nearly over. The Congregation for the Defense of the Faith began to interview witnesses and new accusers stepped forward, and a growing collection of books and documentaries attested to the fact that the problem was not going to disappear. One of the men who testified against Maciel in this latest inquiry was Alejandro Espinosa, author of a book about his alleged abuse at Maciel’s hands, El Legionario. In an interview Espinosa said, “I was told by Maciel not to tell the truth. I didn’t know whether to be obedient to my superiors or the Vatican…”41

Just when it seemed, however, that Maciel was going to have his day in court, an unsigned press release appeared that said there was no ongoing case against Maciel. It turned out that it had been issued by the Vatican’s Secretary of State at whose head was Angelo Sodano, an admirer of Maciel, rather than coming from the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith, which was in charge of the case. All these events, taken together, not only demonstrate a lack of coordination in the Vatican, but its continued inability to deal with the situation in any straightforward manner.


Opus Dei


Opus Dei was founded in Spain in 1928 by Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, and has grown, according to a recent tally, to 82,700 lay people, 1,819 priests, and 16 bishops in 60 countries.42 Opus Dei is accused of a now familiar litany of cult-like abuses: high pressure and highly organized recruitment of new members which is seen as the chief work of the organization, the cult of the founder, an aura of secrecy about its affairs, tight control of its members, the typical rigid pyramidal structure with the founder at the top, somehow inspired and illuminated by God, the perfect system that cannot be criticized, leaving is equivalent to damnation, the weaning of new members from their families, and the claim that they cannot be a cult because they are approved by Rome, and so forth.

Despite the Vatican’s rush to canonize Escrivá, his critics paint him as a man with deep flaws, a person of “monumental vanity” with pretensions to belonging to the aristocracy. They claim that he was self-indulgent, or perhaps self-important, having special foods flown to South America for one of his trips there, and he was given to outbursts of temper and obscenity. He wanted his life minutely documented, but these outbursts omitted. He also had close ties with the Franco regime. Kenneth Woodward has written that Opus Dei members “resemble the Mormons in their penchant for private rites and secret societies, in their meticulous preoccupation with proper dress and circumspect manners, and – above all – in their cocksure attitude that they alone have found the form that Catholicism must take.”43

Not only does Opus Dei enjoy favor with the Vatican, but Pope John Paul II in 1982 in an unprecedented move made it a personal prelature, thus taking it out of the control of the bishops, and putting it under the supervision of the pope, himself. This did not always sit well. Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras said, “I don’t understand how a prelature that’s international in nature can be present in a diocese but not participate in diocesan life.”44 

John Roche, an English Opus Dei numerary, or full member, from 1959 to 1973 gradually discovered that the organization he belonged to was “entirely self-centred, sectarian and totalitarian,” and he copied Opus Dei documents before he left.45 In 1979 when he heard that Opus Dei was trying to become a personal prelature, he was a source for an article that eventually appeared in The Times, and the resultant controversy caused Cardinal Hume to later publish guidelines for Opus Dei in his diocese instructing it to cease secretly recruiting members under 18, to inform parents when young people join,  and to stop preventing its members from getting outside spiritual direction and hindering people from leaving.

Roche describes the god-like qualities given to Opus Dei. For Escrivá, “the Work” had been divinely revealed to him, and it was “absolutely perfect.” And he, himself, was infallible in matters of interpreting “the spirit of the Work.” Thus, Opus Dei was “everlasting,” “the predilect of God,” “the mystical body.” The 1950 constitution of Opus Dei was “eternal,”46 and in the restricted magazine of the order, Crónica, in which Escrivá and the leaders of the order communicated the spirit of Opus Dei to its male members – there was a separate magazine for women – we read that silence in the face of outside criticism of the Work would be complicity in that criticism. “This silence would be equivalent to denying the Work is divine.”47 Elsewhere in Crónica we find that the spirit of Opus Dei goes beyond all boundaries of history, geography and so forth, and “as long as there are men on earth, there will be Opus Dei.” “… (our internal law) by the will of God contains everything necessary for our sanctification and our effectiveness. This is why it is holy, unchangeable and everlasting…”48 “God directly appointed Escrivá to be the earthly father of all Opus Dei members.”49 And again in Crónica we read that Christ at the Last Supper prayed: “to seal this strong indestructible unity of Opus Dei with a spirit of filiation to the Father (Escrivá)…”50

María del Carmen Tapia, a long-time Opus Dei member and secretary to Escrivá, who eventually left, describes this attitude in Opus Dei as follows: “One facet of Opus Dei’s brainwashing was to make its members believe that Opus Dei is perfect because it came from God, and that every pronouncement by its Founder was by God’s divine inspiration… The indoctrination we received did not allow us to reflect analytically on anything that we were unable to understand. Any critical thought was an indication of lack of unity and lack of “good spirit,” which we had to report in our weekly chat as a negative moment in our spiritual life. As women who had requested admission into Opus Dei, were we fools or so naïve as to be manipulated like puppets? No! We had simply entered Opus Dei with the intention of doing God’s will.”51 

What was of supreme importance was “unity.” There was no dialogue about what should be done. Everything had to be done “just so.” ““Just so” means that everything is carried out according to rescripts, notes, and instructions sent by the Father. No one with “good spirit” dares to deviate a fraction of an inch when the Father gives suggestions… One could never criticize, must less contradict, Monsignor Escrivá, because that would have meant lack of unity… There was a halo of sainthood around Monsignor Escrivá. All his old articles of clothing from handkerchiefs to underwear were kept, and it was “an enormous piece of luck” for one of us to get anything that the Founder had used.”52 

When María del Carmen was about to leave, she thought: “… I realized that I was an Opus Dei numerary more than a normal person… I was ready for anything as long as it fulfilled not just God’s will, but “the Father’s will.” … It is as if the adoration of God is exchanged for “the will of Monsignor Escrivá” in whom “the good spirit of Opus Dei” is acquired. The Father is turned into the likeness of God. This cult to the Founder is so ingrained in the numeraries with “good spirit” so as to form the essence of their interior life. To please the Father, pleases God, and not the reverse.”53  

Once such a viewpoint is accepted, it becomes easy to understand how recruitment to Opus Dei could be seen as the primary work of the members, and how secrecy, “holy coercion,” and all the outer works of teaching and publishing of Opus Dei are means to that end. Membership in Opus Dei is of such importance in this world view that it justifies recruiting young teenagers with high-pressure tactics, and instructing them not to tell their parents, and as a devastating consequence of this outlook, telling people who want to leave that they are in peril of their souls. The organization takes precedence over the member’s own family, and even over their personal sense of self. Restricting spiritual direction and confession to members of the group flows naturally. In this context it is also possible to understand how in 1973 “there was some discussion in Opus Dei of the possibility of a schism, since the Founder intensely disliked Pope Paul VI and the effects on the Church of the Vatican Council.”54 That same year a senior member of Opus Dei told Roche “that if a choice had to be made he would follow the Father rather than the Pope, since the Founder himself at that time frequently stated that the ‘Church was rotten’ and that ‘he no longer believed in Popes or Bishops’.”55

Secrecy enveloped the organization to the point that members were ordinarily forbidden by their constitution to reveal to outsiders that they belonged to Opus Dei, and they, themselves, were forbidden to see the constitution. In Crónica  they could read: “We do not have any other aim than the corporate one: proselytism, winning vocations;”56  “…blind obedience to your superiors, the way of sanctity;”57 “..If (my sons) have given in (to their directors) to what in their consciences seems an error and they offer it generously to our Lord, he will… bring good out of the error… it will strengthen our personality.”58 And going once again to the heart of the matter Escrivá would write: “…as Jesus received his doctrine from the Father, so my doctrine is not mine but comes from God and so not a jot or tittle shall ever be changed.”59 Father Escrivá’s will became confused with the will of God the Father.

Opus Dei, supposedly a lay organization, was in fact directed by clerics, and strangely enough, unless we see it as another kind of materialization of faith, clerical members could not have been baptized as adults, and at least on one side of their family had to have Catholic ancestors stretching back three generations.60 Even in Opus Dei devoted to lay people, the numeraries, or full members, had to be of good appearance, that is, without physical disfigurements, and a certain level of social background, and of university education, whether before or after they joined. They also had to be unmarried and take vows and remain unmarried. ““Marriage,” said Escrivá, “is for the rank and file, not for the officers of Christ’s army. For, unlike food, which is necessary for every individual, procreation is necessary only for the species, and individuals can dispense with it.” Álvaro Portillo, the second head of Opus Dei, thought that the self-flagellation practiced by the Opus Dei members was a “little” matter compared to the “much worse (things) the husband does to the wife, and the wife to the husband.”61

While Opus Dei’s dream of becoming a personal prelature had been on hold during the pontificate of Paul VI, things took a turn for the better under John Paul II. Opus Dei had cultivated Wojtyla when he was the archbishop of Kraków. When he had visited Rome he had stayed at the Opus Dei house, and when he arrived for the funeral of John Paul I he had prayed at the tomb of El Padre. He was said to have had a great interest in learning about the catastrophic turn the church had taken after the Vatican Council, and Opus Dei was there to provide him with information through their world-wide network of contacts.62

In 1972, Pietro Palazzini, a friend of Escrivá’s and Opus Dei, and the head of the Congregation for the Clergy, had been removed from his post by Pope Paul for scolding the Spanish bishops for their anti-Franco sentiments, and at the same time in a typical Roman move, made a cardinal. Under John Paul II he was rehabilitated and made the head of the Congregation for the Cause of the Saints in time to preside over the process for beatification of Escrivá with the help of the Opus Dei leader, Álvaro Portillo. In February, 1984, Palazzini sent a letter to the tribunal in Madrid that was collecting evidence for Escrivá’s process, telling it to exclude unfavorable evidence.63

Just as in the case of the preconciliar religious, these psychological dynamics do not negate the good qualities and actions of the movement members, but these often unconscious tendencies should certainly not be exalted as if they were somehow divine gifts. The so-called new movements are not new at all, but they represent in concentrated form dynamics that were common in the preconciliar church, centering on the axial principle that the will of the superior is the will of God. Many of their particular characteristics are not new, either, but are to be found in a wide variety of cult-like groups: a penchant for secrecy, an obsession with recruitment even to the point of making it the primary goal of the organization, a cozying up to money and power, whether political or ecclesiastical, a sense of being the chosen ones, the true remnant, the privilege of having a leader especially illuminated by God, and the conviction that they really don’t need dialogue, for they already have the answers.

The new movements are definitely not yesterday’s news, either. For example, given the question marks that hover over the Neocatechumenal Way, what are we to think when Bishop Charles Grahmann of Dallas allowed the Neocatechumenal Way  to establish one of their Redemptoris Mater seminaries in his diocese – making it the fourth such seminary in the U.S. – which will not only serve the diocese, but send out missionaries?64 Other bishops are less willing to have the movements in their dioceses. The Legionaries of Christ, for example, have been banned from the St. Paul, Minnesota diocese, as well as from that of Columbus, Ohio, and their activities have been circumscribed in Los Angeles.

In 1998 for the vigil of Pentecost, the pope invited the movements to Rome to celebrate their “ecclesial maturity.” 500,000 came, and while mentioning the “presumptions and excesses” in the movements, the pope told them it was “as though what happened in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago were being repeated this evening in this square… The Holy Spirit is here with us! It is he who is the soul of this marvelous event of ecclesial communion.”65

In May, 2003, Pope John Paul II visited Spain, a country in which, like most of Europe, Mass attendance had plummeted to alarming levels, yet he drew cheering crowds of young people. This paradox is quickly resolved when we discover that the crowds were full of people from the movements and an Opus Dei priest, José Carlos De la Hoz said that 40% of the people who regularly attend Mass are movement members, and that this percentage is rising. “The future of the Church in Spain runs through the movements,” he stated.66

Are the movements the future of the church? No. They have confused genuine faith with its all too human and materialized counterparts, and have sacrificed an adult faith that demands serious reflection and freedom of judgment and conscience to that imitation of faith. Therefore, their members will always be caught between this materialized faith and the interior urge of genuine faith to go beyond these counterfeits, and their leaders, driven from below by doubt, will tend to overreach themselves by insisting that their way is the way of God.

But the critical question for us here is why John Paul II and other people high in the Vatican look on the movements with such favor? Why were they blind to their dubious psychological underside? Up until now we have examined the interplay between faith and psychological forces in extraordinary phenomena, and then in religious communities. Now we are faced with the even more delicate and difficult challenge to look at these dynamics within the papacy, itself.


How to Order

A Complete List of Books, DVDs and CDs


Part 1

Part 3

Part 4