Monday, November 19, 2012

Do Catholics have a cult-mentality?

How do Roman Catholics know that they aren’t cult members? That’s not a facetious question.

How do we usually decide that a professedly Christian movement is a cult?

Sometimes we apply a moral test. One characteristic of cults, especially among personality cults, is the double standard of the cult leader or religious founder. He exempts himself from the moral demands his makes on his followers. Or he makes exceptions for his own family. Practices favoritism.

A stock example is that cult leaders frequently treat the women as their personal harem. This is despite the fact that the cult leader may impose a strict sexual code on everyone under him. Or they indulge themselves in conspicuous consumption while they require their followers to be frugal.

However, when we point out that the Roman Catholic hierarchy is guilty of systematic sexual abuse by protecting sexually predatory priests from legal accountability, loyal Catholics assure us that that’s no way to judge the claims of Rome.

But how does that attitude differ from the way loyal cult members defend their “prophet,” even if he exploits women and children sexually?

Likewise, we frequently apply a doctrinal test. If the teachings of the cult leader seriously contradict the Bible, then he’s a false teacher.

By the same token, we sometimes apply a factual test. If the cult leader makes erroneous predictions, then we deem him to be a false prophet.

However, when we apply that test to Rome, loyal Catholics remind us that only “the Church” can interpret the Bible. So, by definition, Catholic dogma is consistent with Scripture inasmuch as Scripture means whatever the Magisterium says it means. Meaning is unilaterally assigned by the Magisterium.

By the same token, if Rome reverses itself on geocentrism or evolution, that doesn’t make a dent.

But how does that attitude differ from the way loyal cult members defend their “prophet”? When a countercult apologist presents an exegetical critique of the cult-leader’s idiosyncratic teachings, they defend him by claiming that only the “prophet” can interpret Scripture. Likewise, only he can interpret his own prophecies. By definition, his prophecies were fulfilled, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.

Faith in the pope, just like faith in the cult-leader, is unfalsifiable. It’s equally impervious to a moral test, doctrinal test, or factual test. For every objection, be it ethical, exegetical, or factual, is deflected by a circular appeal to the definitional consistency of the religious superior, regardless of the evidence. No type of evidence ever counts against the claim.

Roman Catholics have a cult-mentality. I don’t say that hyperbolically. That’s their modus operandi.


  1. Faithful Catholics would respond that cults are a shadowy reflection of the One True Church. A cult's "prophet" is a shadowy reflection of the Pope. The cult is sub-consciously mimicking the One True Church; the cult is a counterfeit copy of the "Real Church".

  2. Steve,
    May the peace of Christ be with you. A friend of mine referred me to this blog, and I have enjoyed reading a number of its posts. However, as a Catholic, I find the argument in this essay to be misguided. While I would generally agree with your characterization of cults, I don't think you succeed in establishing that the Catholic Church as a whole (both in time and space) fits the bill. I think this is the first mistake: treating Catholicism as something much smaller and historically localized than it actually is. But on to your claims: to accuse the Roman Catholic hierarchy in general of facilitating the abuse of children is overblown, and thus does nothing to help your argument or to correct the problems that actually did occur. Certainly, there were many priests and some bishops who sinned grievously, and in doing so, failed to live up to the teachings of the Catholic Church. But it is a big stretch to then accuse the hierarchy in general of the devious motive of teaching a high view of human sexuality for the express purpose of protecting or legitimizing their own deviant behaviors. Let's not forget that while the media went into a frenzy over the sins of bishops and priests, planting these sins deeply in our minds (while doing nothing to point out the documented false accusations being made by liars and thieves), the fact is, the general frequency of abuse was very low, and not much higher--if higher at all--than the rates of abuse found in other non-Catholic communities. To turn the tables a bit, I feel much safer spiritually in a church who has not compromised its moral teachings (even if some of her members fail to live up to them) than in a church that no longer teaches that some sinful behaviors (contraception, divorce and remarriage, etc.) are in fact sinful. I have no idea what you believe or practice in regard to these issues, but I think in general it is far better to find sin in one church than a denial (and normalization) of sin in another. And for the record, you'll be happy to know that the Catholic Church has addressed the problems of abuse and is now very likely the safest institution (religious or secular) you could leave your kids. Regarding your second claim, that Catholics think that only the Church can interpret the Bible, could I kindly ask you to cite an official document of the Catholic Church where that claim is asserted? Perhaps what you take issue with is the authority that the Catholic Church claims for herself, but surely you realize that the Church doesn't wield authority in such a way that it would demand that Catholics shut down the natural function of their brains when reading a text, which is to interpret it. That doesn't mean that the Church doesn't step in when interpreters go beyond the limits of orthodox belief, but within those limits, we as Catholics interpret the Bible freely, all the more freely knowing that we are safeguarded by the family Traditions carefully maintained and protected for two millennia by the Magisterium. It is quite possible that you haven't ever experienced the interpretive freedom to which I refer, and if so, I invite you to consider playing in the wide open fields of apostolic teaching, where you are not in danger of falling off the cliff of heresy (and where you know it if you do).

  3. part II -
    Regarding the factual test, you know very well that Rome doesn't claim to be an infallible teacher on geocentrism or evolution, and thus, it doesn't make a dent if she learns a thing or two from science every once in a while. Might I suggest strengthening your argument by pointing to a change in her teachings in an area that she does claim to speak infallibly? That would be of interest to me, and perhaps your other readers as well. Also, you suggest that the Popes' teachings contradict the Bible, but doesn't that assertion contain a presumption that you hold the very type of authority that you think makes the Pope into a cult leader? Are you trying to rob the Pope of the freedom to interpret the Bible as he wills? Would you rather he follow your own interpretation, yielding in obedience to your presumed hermeneutical authority? And if so, how have you avoided styling yourself as a cult leader in the same stroke that you paint the Pope as one?

    1. I've answered you here: