Dealing with the cults

by John Wijngaards in The Tablet, 17 May 1986

The pastoral challenge posed by the new sects and cults has just been outlined in a Vatican report. The director of Housetop Centre in London has experience of meeting it, and has drawn his own conclusions.

Any centre which provides information to pastors and parents about the new religious movements resembles a small dispensary where wounds are bandaged and medicine prescribed. We meet perplexed youngsters, indignant parents, inquisitive teachers and pastors. We cannot help but notice that harmful courtships with oriental or esoteric wisdom could so easily have been prevented; not by damning the gurus but by extending a Christian hand of leadership. These new religious movements have proliferated in the last decade. Why today? What features do they have in common? Do they manifest a breakdown of traditional values or just the opposite? How can we protect people against the unfair recruitment and indoctrination which they sometimes employ? The Vatican report that was published last week covers all such questions, but for me one needs to be singled out: the pastoral challenge. What can we as a Church learn from these movements?

At first sight it would seem preposterous that we need to learn at all. With 2,000 years of pastoral experience behind us, we may well imagine we know all there is to know and much more. But the Vatican Council, and more recently last year’s Extraordinary Synod, have reminded us that the Church finds itself constantly in new situations, that it cannot afford to be complacent, that it has carefully to study the signs of the times. St Thomas Aquinas put scholastic theology on a firm footing by learning method from Arab philosophers. Pope Leo XIII and his successors reformulated the principles of social justice in the light of workers’ rights promulgated by labour unions. In various parts of the world the Church is learning from Marxist critical analysis to recognise new economic and social realities. In all these cases the learning process involves a sifting out of unwanted elements in the search for genuine values. This applies to the new religious movements as well.

We have all the more reason to be anxious to learn when some of the sects and cults offer and achieve spiritual growth, succeeding where the Church seems to fail. We should obviously beware of generalisation in making such a statement, and yet it is supported by facts. In the last few years quite a number of Catholics who joined a variety of sects told me that one of the chief benefits they gained was that they can now pray. “I studied in a well-known Catholic high school. We attended Mass, of course, and other religious functions but no one taught me how to pray. My guru has. I now spend a long period every day emptying my mind of useless thoughts and meditating in God’s presence. I can’t tell you what a difference it makes to my life.” I can hear sighs of despair all around: from the religious in charge of the school. the parents, the local priest or the religious education teacher. The question is not who is at fault but what goes wrong.

In my view two main factors seem responsible for our failure to help people discover prayer. Our practice is too pat and our guidance too impersonal. Real prayer ebbs and flows like life itself. It affects the whole person. Reflecting as it does a living relationship with God, it requires feeling as much as thought, just like any other relationship. In some true way God’s presence envelops the person who prays. ‘The world will not see me but you will,” Jesus said. “I will make you know my love and reveal myself to you.”

In our teaching on prayer we usually shy away from holding out the possibility of such a direct, experiential, face-to-face meeting with Christ. We speak of fidelity to practice, of patience during times of aridity, of not seeking spiritual comfort, thus stressing performance rather than experience. And how many among us, parish clergy, chaplains, teachers or parents, offer a personal course of instruction on prayer? I know some but far too few. We take for granted that people pick up the skill by themselves. Sometimes we feel incompetent to face seekers or mystics. The Vatican report notes that young people often find it difficult to get teachers or clergy to discuss, let alone answer, their most important and ultimate questions.

I wonder whether this reluctance to get involved stems from another weakness in our structures: the danger of dispensing religion in huge church buildings designed for (pardon the pun) mass production. The new religious movements thrive on small family-size loving communities where everyone knows everybody else, where facilities are shared and work undertaken on a team basis. I realise that the Church is becoming aware of this problem, that the search is on for workable smaller pastoral units that can satisfy people’s need for integration and belonging. The problem is urgent for, judging by our own experience at Housetop, many Catholics opt out because they feel as much at home in their parish church as an Eskimo in Victoria Station.

Talking about Eskimos reminds me of the saying that they can survive any Arctic winter as long as they can dream of plenty of caribou in the spring. Have we forgotten the power of dreams. of visions? The new religious movements certainly have not. The members of these groups are sometimes described as cradle clingers, hankering for the security provided by a fixed ritual, a dogmatic creed. a precise code and an authoritarian leader. Some are; not unlike a good number of Christians. Many others, however. are visionaries, inspired by great hopes of a better future and dedicated to programmes of world reform.

One small cult that worships the mother goddess under the Welsh name Rhianne aims at restoring paradise. Here is a quotation from its Book of Rhianne in which “maids” stands for human beings in general, “men” for materialists: “When the world was fresh with the dew of the dawn of time, there walked a young race proud upon the earth. A race that saw with eyes more clear than our eyes; with eyes that were not deceived by the shifting shows of earthly things, but saw within to their eternal and changeless Reality. A race whose light was lighter and whose dark was deeper’ and whose voices sang the music of eternity. And the maids of this race were tall and fair and awesome to look upon . . . It was only in the last senility of that race that the rule of men took hold, and the darkened mind was plunged in the mire of matter.”

We may laugh at this and think it naive. I know people who left a well-paid job and sold their property to dedicate their lives to that vision. People are ready to make sacrifices if they have a purpose to live for.


Jesus Christ too was a visionary. He dreamed of his Father’s Kingdom where the poor would be happy, where hunger would be stilled and the sorrowful consoled, where joy would spring from proclaiming a prophetic message in the face of persecution. It remains a stunning challenge, no less exciting and inspiring than 20 centuries ago. But our enthusiasm so often lies buried under the dead wood of repeated predictable practice with sermons that give no witness, rituals that are monotonous and flat, and a pygmy view of lay commitment.

Whether we are ready to admit it or not, we find ourselves, as far as religion is concerned, in a free market. The Christian Churches can no longer presume that customers remain loyal out of convention or social pressure. Many sincere seekers will turn to the new peddlers of happiness for spiritual values to satisfy their needs. Assailing the competition will not really help the Church. Rather. as good scribes of the Kingdom, let Christians open up their storerooms and make available what Jesus so aptly described as “things new and old”. And they need not fear. In the end it is the quality of the product that will count in the market place, not tantrics.