Page 3, 2nd August 1996

2nd August 1996
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Page 3, 2nd August 1996 — When does a group turn into a sect?
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Organisations: Neocatechumenuate, Opus Dei

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When does a group turn into a sect?

GORDON URQUHART finds no easy answer and no one's making it any easier

FR FLAVIO CAPUCC1, a leading member of Opus Dei, was the postulator in the controversial beatification process of the founder, Josemaria Escriva. He once confessed to me how terrified he had been when ex-members of the Prelature offered evidence against Escriva. "Don't worry," they said, "we always ignore the testimony of exmembers of religious orders and associations."

A similar a priori sifting of evidence appears to hold sway in the current enquiry into the activities of the Neocatechumenuate movement in the Clifton Diocese. Panel members accepted gifts of Neocatechumenate literature presented to them by the leaders of the Way, yet have refused to read my book, The

Pope's Armada (Corgi, £6.99), on the grounds that it is "not objective".

The Pope's Armada examines the three most powerful of the so-called ecclesial movements Focolare, Communion and Liberation, and the Neocatechumenate, which was showcased by the Vatican at the 1987 Synod on the Laity.

Traditionalist critics highlighted the fact that I had been a prominent member of Focolare in this country for nine years from 1967-1976, implying that I had an axe to g rind. But far from being dashed off in a fit of pique, The Pope's Armada was not written until almost 12 years after my departure from Focolare.

The more I studied all three movements, the more convinced I became that each possessed the classic profile of a sect: a personality cult around the founders, indoctrination, secrecy, exclusivity, an initial vagueness about teachings and aims, and extreme demands on members.

Then there were the claims to direct illumination from God, an identification of the movement with the Church and even with God Himself, a milennial dimension which sees the movement singlehandedly saving the Church and the entire world.

More disturbing still is the deep-seated pessimism underlying the philosophies of these bodies. The movements take a profoundly bleak view of human nature: the despairing cry of Ecclesi

astes, "Sheer futility... sheer futility; everything is futile" (Ecc 1:2), is quoted in official accounts of the origins of Focolare. Only the activities of the movement are worthwhile. Neocatechumenate and Focolare talk openly about ego-destruction, the annihilation of the individual.

The dismissal of the evidence of ex-members shown by Church traditionalists and official bodies like the Clifton inquiry must come as a huge relief to the leaders of these organisations. They regard ex-members as apostates; in Focolare lore, any association between exmembers is considered "unity of the Devil".

They have been extraordinarily lucky that to date so few ex-members have spilled the beans. The fact is that former members tend to disappear into outer darkness. I could not contact a key exleader of Focolare because her father, still a member, obstructed all attempts. Many, even those who were devout Catholics before joining, abandon the Church and even belief in God.

I wanted to give a voice to these victims. Unlike exmembers of other cults like the Moonies and Scientology, who can receive counselling from a number of bodies, ex-members of these Catholic organisations, which have the blessing of Church authorities, believe themselves to be failures and have no one to turn to.

The publication of my book sent shockwaves through the movements. Chiara Lubich, founder of Focolare, claimed that she didn't have time to read it. Yet all the passages relating to Focolare were secretly translated for her.

The fact that The Pope's Armada could be taken seriously by the objects of its criticism gives strong support to its charges. But chances of reform from within are slim.

Recently, a member of Focolare wrote a letter to Lubich in which he suggested that the movement should focus less on the Cross and more on the Risen Christ.

In reply, a Focolare psychiatrist rang the member's wife to inform her that her husband needed urgent psychiatric treatment. Plainly, If you're "bad", you're mad...




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