The Movements and Their Enemies

For all their successes, the various movements have been subject to charges of bizarre and cult-like behavior that press the limits of Catholic orthodoxy. These charges have been thoroughly presented in Gordon Urquhart's exposé titled The Pope's Armada. Urquhart, himself a disaffected Focolare member, describes a subculture of "fanatical personality cults surrounding the charismatic leaders; demands of blind obedience on members; a rigid and highly secretive internal hierarchy; the use of mind control techniques and unscrupulous methods of recruitment." Its enemies attack Opus Dei for religious practices that include self-mortification, and a requirement for celibacy among fully committed adherents. As they tried to win over the Italian working class, Communion and Liberation attracted the title "Stalinists of God," and members were criticized for excessive political dabbling. The Czech hierarchy ultimately suspended Fr. Mikulica for his supposedly manipulative tendencies.41

The movements are also accused of presenting themselves as churches within the church, and of exalting their structure and founders above the mainstream hierarchy: the charismatic Chiara Lubich claims the stature of a spiritual Mother. The most spectacular scandal has undoubtedly been that of Regnum Christi, founded by the Mexican Fr. Marcial Maciel, and influential among southern European Catholics. Fr. Maciel was, however, the subject for many years of charges of pederasty and sexual abuse. Though the Vatican under John Paul was reluctant to listen to these mounting allegations, his successor Benedict did acknowledge them, disciplining Maciel in 2006.

In many ways, Urquhart and other critics make a plausible case, but as with all anti-cult movements, we have to be careful about accepting the stereotype that followers are slavish or robotic. Usually, people follow such committed and enthusiastic movements because they want to, and for just as long as they find spiritual rewards there. Nor do the charges against Focolare and the rest differ significantly from claims against other Christian movements of bygone eras, including the Methodists on the Protestant side of the equation. What makes today's new movements so noteworthy is their adaptation of Catholic practice and belief to a society in which Christianity as an institution can no longer hope to reach the vast majority of people, and in which churches must reorganize on the basis of voluntary minorities encouraging each other in devotion and the Christian life. While remaining Catholic, they are moving beyond a historic structure of territorial parishes and dioceses, of a Christianity rooted in well-defined communities and hierarchies. The Focolares, for instance, found their voluntary and autonomous pattern very useful in promoting Catholic survival behind the Iron Curtain. Other followers feel that this precedent might soon be valuable in operating within a secularized Europe that is itself deeply hostile to Christian belief.

The Catholic movements also have a special appeal to the groups who are most disaffected from traditional structures and clerical hierarchies. Women founded or co-founded several of the groupings, including the Focolare, the Emmanuel Community, and the Neocate-chumenate, and two-thirds of Focolare members are female. Women are also central to the organization of the charismatic movements. In the Italian RnS, women make up half the membership of the national coordinating committee, as well as 40 percent of the regional coordinators. The Neocatechumenate also faces charges of exalting lay power above clerical, and lay people play a much more active role in services than they would in a conventional Catholic liturgy.42

Repeatedly, we note the resemblances of the new movements to transnational sects within European Islam, an analogy that is guaranteed to offend both sides equally. I do not intend to suggest that groups like the Neocatechumenate serve as fronts for terrorism or subversion. Yet we see similar trends on both sides of the interfaith divide, as religious practice can no longer be assumed to be a familiar part of everyday communal life. In a period of rapid transition and social disruption, new evangelistic orders and groupings appear, usually organized from the grass roots. Both demonstrate a thorough disregard of conventional frontiers and hierarchies that allows them to reach potential believers wherever they may be found, and often to follow paths of migration. Both Christian and Muslim "sects," commonly, are rigidly conservative in tone and speak the language of traditionalism, although both in values and structures, they are in fact much more innovative than they care to admit. And both—whether the Neocatechumenate or the Tablighi Jamaat—tend to regard ordinary moderate believers as virtual infidels: only total commitment to the faith is valued.

At their worst, both types of movement, Christian and Muslim, have the potential to become authoritarian and cultish; more positively, each offers plausible responses to preserving faith in the fluid and dynamic societies of postmodern Europe.

The new Catholic movements sponsored several innovations in church life. In the mid-1970s, the Focolares organized mass youth events called Genfest, which were imitated by the mainstream church a decade later as World Youth Day. These events have subsequently attracted mass followings and have become legendary for their rock concert atmosphere. Critics denounce their "manipulated mass hysteria," and older and staider believers complain of the heated fervor on exhibit. In Germany in 2005, for instance, critics of World Youth Day denounced "a well-nigh feverish and frenetic cult of the personality . . . it has nothing to do with the collected, simple life of Jesus of Nazareth, who would have had nothing to do with this ruckus." While the "cultish" origins of the event can be conceded, it is striking that it can so successfully mobilize many young people who would at best be lukewarm cultural Christians and who have no direct connection whatever with the various new ecclesial movements: a million attended the events in Cologne in 2005. Though the organizers and leaders are indeed connected to the movements, the ordinary followers are there because they find the event fills their spiritual needs, whoever is supplying the opportunities. And after all the denunciations of Europe's spiritual torpor, it is refreshing just once in a while to find young Christians denounced for their religious excesses.43

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