The bishop of Clifton announced this week that he will investigate the NeoCatechumenates in his diocese. Gordon Urquhart examines the secretive group. "You MUST OBEY and that's that! Whether you like it or not, we are God!" These were the words of a Neocatechumenate (NC) catechist (leader) to a young Italian widow who had attempted to leave the movement.
He had invited her back for what she was led to believe would be a private chat. To her astonishment, she found herself lined up against a wall with five other "defendants", facing a kangaroo court. Aghast at the catechist's declaration she fled, this time for good.
In the course of researching my book, The Pope's Armada, an attempt to give an unauthorised inside view of the socalled new ecclesial movements, I gathered similar reports.on the NC from many different countries.
Unlike other movements such as Opus Dei, Focolare and Communion and Liberation which are criticised for creating their own parallel structures, NC works in parishes and therefore tends to create head-on collisions with other Catholics.
Although the Pope himself has hailed the new movements as "among the finest fruits of the Second Vatican Council" and Cardinal Ratzinger has declared them to be the only good ailing to come out of the Council, examples like the one quoted above suggests a return to the worst excesses of the preconciliar years especially the concept of a submissive, unthinking laity.
The secrecy and exclusivity of NC seem to me to be in total contrast with the openness and dialogue introduced by the Council.
NC teachings, for instance, are unavailable in written form and so cannot be scrutinised even by local bishops: "It is too early to write anything down," members
In reality, extensive typed and photoCopied transcriptions of the founders' lectures circulate internally. In these, catechists are encouraged to hide disturbing teachings from new members.
Neophytes are unaware, for instance, that they are embarking on a 20-year course of initiation. They are not told that after some years they will be asked to sell all their goods and dispose of their savings.
Only later is a ban enforced not only on artificial birth control but also the natural birth control permitted by the Church, often resulting in families of 11 and more children.
Members are encouraged to marry not only within the movement but within their own community of 40 or 50 members; seek among the daughters of Israel, the young men are instructed.
On the other hand, in cases where only one spouse is a member, annulments have been sought allowing the member to remarry within the movement.
As a British mother with a young family commented after she had left the movement, "Don't tell me they don't know what they're doing when first they create a sense of dependency on the group and then let you have it with their disturbing ideas and practices ...(and) finally they are revealed as a fringe group and fanatics."
The same woman describes the "scrutinies" in which members are encouraged to reveal their worst sins before the community.
An Italian ex-member recalls how at Eucharistic celebrations "there are always people who confess out loud in public, saying, for example that they have masturbated all night, or they have raped their lover's daughter, or that they have taken drugs and given themselves up to sexual pleasure."
Such confessions achieve
the stated aim that members should recognise their; own sinfulness in the starkest possible terms. As Kiko Arguello urges his followers to say: "Today I am really disgusting, I am a traitor, I am a monster."
Although there have been occasional leaks of NC teachings, clashes at the parish level have generally been provoked by the practice of separate masses behind closed doors, presided over by the parish priest, on Saturday evenings, and similarly closed all-night Easter vigils.
Non-NC members feel that a two-tier system is being established in the parish, with NC members as the elite around "their" parish priest, while the other parishioners are second-class citizens.
Indeed, as the NC founder points out, non-members are not really Christians at all: before they joined the movement, members are reminded, "(we) had never placed ourselves before the Word of Christ, we had never received a new spirit from heaven and because of this we did not give fruit and our Christianity was enough to make you sick."
The opposition faced by the movement all over the world appears to be a self-fulfilling prophecy in the light of the strong emphasis the founder places on the importance of persecution, almost amounting to paranoia.
The parish is visualised as three concentric circles: the core members, those who are influenced by them and a third circle of opponents. These are cast in the role of Judas: "Judas has a very active part in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus: his task is to kill Jesus." In most cases the role of "Judas" is played by other Catholics, even bishops and priests, who do not share members' enthusiasm for the Way. Faced with criticism, NC members invariably invoke the support of the Pope with local bishops. But in reality their attitude to Church authority is ambivalent and manipulative. When a young woman who attended the introductory catechesis at St Nicholas' Church in Bristol wrote to the NC catechist of her misgivings, he assured her that the teachings had the backing of Bishop Alexander Clifton.
In fact, neither the bishop nor any competent diocesan authorities have ever examined the catechesis which officially does not exist in written form.
Hugh Lindsay, while Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, was visited by two NC catechists. When he refused to give them his mandate, they ostentatiously took off their shoes, brushed the dust from the soles, refusing to shake hands with him before they left. In NC terms, he was a "Pharaoh", one who opposes the Way.
When the Archbishop of Perugia died of a heart attack a few hours after an altercation with NC catechists, it was whispered within the movement that his death was God's punishment.
Obduracy in the face of Church authority has been demonstrated dramatically on more than one occasion.
At a private audience between members of the NC communities and Pope John Paul II, Carmen Hernandez interrupted the Pontiff's speech every time he referred to NC as a movement. "It is not a movement, Father," she piped up on no less than three occasions. Experienced at dealing with hecklers, the Pope finally rounded on her : "It moves doesn't it? So it's a movement."
Informed as it is by such a closed philosophy it is hardly surprising that the movement has caused division and will continue to cause division wherever it establishes itself.
The Pope's Armada is published by Bantam, 415.99.