by Raffaella Di Marzio

The phenomenon of joining New Religious Movements (hereafter referred to as NRMs) and various other cults has been subject for some years now to investigations by Church Authorities, who have issued some interesting and meaningful pastoral documents.

For our considerations we will make reference to two particular documents: "The phenomenon of cults or new religious movements: a pastoral challenge"(1) and the Pastoral Memorandum " The church’s pastoral commitment in facing new religious movements and cults"(2). The latter document, which is particularly balanced and exhaustive, will be quoted often and will be our "mentor". It is particularly important because it illustrates the position of the whole Italian Episcopal Conference and not that of a single Bishop.

In the challenge launched by these movements, the Church has seen a manifestation of the "sign of the times", which is knocking at the door of the whole church community. The need for religiosity, which per se cannot but please the faithful and their Ministers, is to be carefully analyzed to avoid that some pseudo-religious group or some charismatic leader takes advantage of it for morally and humanly unacceptable purposes.

One of the first difficulties encountered in facing these issues regards the terminology to be used. For those who affirm that the use of the word "cult" should be excluded actually, the pastoral Memorandum explains: "The nature of this Memorandum requires that general terms and the most frequently used names be adopted to highlight the global nature of this phenomenon. The word "cult" is being used for practical reasons, genuinely respecting people and without attaching any negative implication as occurs at times" (3). We too will adopt this explanation each time we use the word "cult".

The document’s preface highlights the presence of this phenomenon in our Country and considers it as an expression of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism asserts that all religious beliefs have the same meaning and nature and it reaches the point of affirming that they are all equal in substance. Another aspect of this phenomenon is that of syncretism, i.e. the attempt to conciliate irreconcilable spiritual beliefs (4).

The first part discussing the "Factors and reasons for a growing diffusion of cults and new religious movements" emphasizes the way in which in this misty and uncertain scenario cults satisfy the need for security and certainty felt by a number of people. Indeed, these groups offer absolute certainties and a community atmosphere reassuring weaker people or those who are experiencing critical moments in their lives.

In facing the complex issue of the reasons why a person is led to join such movements, the interim Report "The phenomenon of cults and new religious movements: a pastoral challenge" had already suggested some of the most common motives which will be briefly commented.

Many people are looking for a strong and involving religion capable of giving a meaning to their whole life. But this need, which per se is positive and meaningful, often opens the way to atypical religious forms. They may be the fruit of cultures different from ours, like those from the east which for the mere fact of being "oriental" come to assume a special appeal and attract people looking for something different at all costs. It seems to be a way to escape from everyday monotony and to discover different and enriching values, which are supposed to "change their lives".

If it is true that the Orient is a fascinating world, rich of human and spiritual values, it is also true that many aspects of oriental spirituality are actually present already in some way in what is called Western culture and expressed in a variety of ways by Christianity. Yet the Gospel, the spirituality of the Fathers of the Church and the teachings of the saints are put aside and discarded because they are less appealing than these new fashions. This is the result of the fact that people do not know Christian spirituality and values of the Gospels very well and, if they do have knowledge of them, these teachings and values are not absorbed and lived out.

Too often our church communities do not have the "human warmth" and the receptiveness found in many NRMs and cults. Indeed, people who have joined these groups say that their first impression upon entering the group was really positive. New followers feel to be lovingly welcomed as if they had always been part of the group. Everyone is ready to help, they try to understand new members and to put them at their ease. Technically, this behavior is called "love bombing" and it is practiced by all these groups in different ways and to different extents.

Another characteristic of the people joining cults is that they are seeking the ultimate answers to the fundamental questions of life. Many people are attracted by the fact of receiving from the group or its leader absolute orders and the guarantee of being successful in any activity they undertake. Therefore, they come to the conclusion that the group, and only the group, is the key to eternal happiness in this life or even to happiness in their next lives (in those groups believing in reincarnation). People joining these movements feel to be appreciated, to be part of a "great mission", of being chosen people belonging to an "elite". For example, we learnt of people who joined a cult because they had been persuaded that they would "save the planet" from catastrophe, "make the world a better place", save billions souls from "eternal damnation", etc. The pursuit of these "goals" even leads them to the point of completely annulling their will and handing it over to another human being. In this case people spontaneously choose to abdicate. They are aware of having given their minds and will over to someone else, but that does not mean they do it freely, i.e. knowing everything they had the right to know before actually deciding to become an affiliate of the group.

Paradoxically, it seems to be easier to give up thinking and to blindly obey than to accept to live according to values requiring a deep change of life which cannot be reached all at once, but which needs to be built day after day, failure after failure, and sometimes disillusionment after disillusionment, while seeking continuously to communicate with a God who is not a despot and who expects to be loved totally and, above all, freely.

Some "new" forms of religiosity perfectly meet this "demand" since they present themselves as an alternative to established faiths. They are like a recipe book providing the right answer to any question and, at times, they even transform the Holy Bible into a catalogue of behaviors and commandments.

Then, there are those who leave the Church and join one of these groups because they think that the Church is only a human institution corrupted by power. But people refusing the Catholic Church for this reason do not know that often the organization they joined has its own "skeletons " to hide (and which it is wary to not reveal). (5)

Another aspect, which must not be underestimated in the process of affiliation with a cult group, is the fact that the "recruiting" mechanisms are not always "transparent". In fact, there are groups that attract people by using healing techniques which "do miracles", with the appealing offer of free foreign language courses or biblical studies at home, through exhibitions and conferences on peace and human rights, or by offering ecological and healthy lifestyles, by offering training courses aimed at helping to find a job, etc. In these cases, the people approaching these groups are totally unaware of the real purposes pursued by these groups. The interim Report also illustrates some recruiting tecniques: "Some recruiting and training techniques and some indoctrination procedures used by many sects and cults, are often very sophisticated and are at the base of their success. In most cases cults, by means of these techniques, lure individuals who in the first place are unaware of the fact that such an approach is often a trick and, in the second place, are unaware of the nature of the plot aimed at converting them and of the training methods (social and psychological manipulation) they will undergo. Cults impose their particular way of thinking, of feeling and behaving, unlike the Church’s approach which implies aware and responsible consent". (6)

Heed this warning! Whoever receives a "service offer" should not accept it without searching for information on the organization offering that "service", no matter what it is.

One last consideration regards another phenomenon affecting the Catholic Church as well: i.e. what is known as "double belonging". In this case, people joining a pseudo-religious, oriental-like or New Age movement or school of thought or who contact a reiki healer believe that they are not behaving inconsistently with regard to the teachings of the Catholic Church and continue, at least at the beginning, to practice their faith and to take part in the sacraments. Experience teaches that this approach unavoidably leads to the abandonment of the Catholic faith.

Today this syncretic behavior is quite widespread and it is evidence of a certain degree of ignorance of both the teachings of the Catholic Church as well as those of the guru or the movement in question. As regards this aspect, the Pastoral Memorandum states that the temptation posed by "syncretism and gnosticism" has always accompanied the life of the Christian community. "In nuce, it consists in misunderstanding the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the Word of God made man, who died and resurrected, and the need for the grace of the Holy Spirit for salvation. Jesus Christ is thus reduced to being one of the many prophets of a salvation coming from the heart of man". (7) This confusion leads to the idea of a single universal religion guiding everyone to salvation.

This threat is extremely dangerous and it is seeping also into Catholic communities. It needs to be detected and corrected at its first appearance by dispelling doubt and error with the Word of God interpreted by the Church and announced by its Ministers and lay members who are spiritually and culturally trained to meet the challenge posed by new forms of religiosity. Young people are especially vulnerable to these luring "spiritual fashions". Very often, they adhere to currents of thought incompatible with the Christian faith without seeing their irreconcilable nature.

Truly free or unaware "slaves"?

The Pastoral memorandum being examined includes also psychological movements when discussing the complex issue of the reasons leading to affiliation with cults: "At times disciples of a cult are bound by forms of emotive and psychological coercion, control and vigilance, up to the point that their personal freedom too is limited. These are cases in which success is imposed and guarded". (8)

Without generalizing (each group has characteristics different from those of another group and not all groups use these mental control techniques), it is advisable to emphasize that the pastoral approach envisages that these guidelines be followed up by an analysis of the group being dealt with and of the person involved. The person’s own characteristics greatly influence his or her eventual conditioning by the group and its leader.

Even though it is true that any environment conditions an individual to some extent, it is also true that conditioning assumes specific characteristics in NRMs. Some experts have defined it as "brain washing", "thought reform" or " mental control". The latter term is the one we prefer because it seems to be quite exemplificative (9).

"Mental control" can be defined by likening it to a series of methods used inside the group to eliminate the beliefs and the values of a person before joining the NRM and to replace them with other beliefs and values, i.e. those of the group and its leader.

These issues were already discussed in the Interim Report where "recruiting and training techniques and indoctrination procedures " are discussed. After affirming that young people and the elderly are "easy preys" of these techniques and methods which are often a combination of affection and of disappointment...(10), it lists a number of elements such as "love-bombing", "flattery", "distribution of money", "need of unconditioned abandonment into the arms of the founder and leader ", "isolation: the control of the rational process of thought, the elimination of any external information or influence ... which could break the spell ...", "canceling of those met during their past life ...", "conscience alteration methods leading to knowledge disturbance ...", "closed logical systems ...", "keeping recruits always busy...", "great concentration on the leader ...", and so on. (11)

Differently from what is affirmed by some, these are not the same elements of a normal conversion to a religion, in which a person decides to change life by adopting the values of the new creed. In some NRMs the process of change is not carried out in the full respect of a person’s free will, but persuasion techniques which are capable of limiting a person’s free critical thought are used. This process is called by some experts "coercive persuasion".

For example, a person decides to convert, to become a Roman Catholic and to consecrate his life by spending the rest of his or her life in a monastery. Before making this decision, this person will need preliminary training during which the person will be taught not only the Roman Catholic doctrine, but also the spiritual elements needed to understand his or her future life in the monastery. During preparatory phase, nothing regarding the doctrine and the rule to be followed in the chosen religious order will be kept secret. Furthermore, once the decision is made, the person will have to undergo a "test" period, the novitiate, at the end of which the person will take orders or renounce. Once the decision is made, no one will exert on that person pressure of any kind or, worse, resort to blackmail to stop him or her from leaving the convent. After having reflected, it is up to the person to decide whether to leave the convent and the religious order. No bishop or parish priest can ban him from the Church community. Those who come into contact and join a cult often encounter a different reality: important information is kept secret from the disciple, the disciple is threatened with expulsion, should he or she have doubts or a moment of crisis, etc. When similar strategies and means are used, it means that "coercive persuasion" is being adopted: it is a way to convince others by means of morally unacceptable means without respecting that person and interfering with his free will.

There are many different ways to condition individuals and there is no one in the world who has never been influenced to some extent by society, family, school, friends, etc. What parents do with their children by using rewards and punishments is condition them, or, better yet, educate them to good by correcting their negative behaviors. If this educational task is carried out in a balanced and respectful manner, the result of this process is an individual who is fit to live in society, responsible and also creative and free in his or her choices. An extremely important aspect of this educational process is that it is carried out in an atmosphere of love and understanding: a child must always know that his parents love him and are sure of his capacity to change, even when he makes mistakes and is punished or scolded.

On the contrary, if these conditioning techniques are used in a group without this positive emotive framework, they can be extremely dangerous for a person, even if he or she is not a child, but an adult. A person can be seriously damaged from an emotive, affective, cognitive point of view, etc.

In the light of this dismal situation, the Pastoral Memorandum in the part calling believers to assume a balanced approach towards NRMs "Beyond irenics and sectarianism", states: "There are sound reasons to affirm that cults and new religious movements are generally closed to dialogue and concentrate on announcing their message by means of propaganda exerting psychological pressure. They tend to take control of their interlocutor until uncritical and total acceptance is obtained and in some cases moral subjugation is reached". (12)

These "methods" are to be offset by the respectful method targeted to obtain the convinced and responsible acceptance of the believer, who does not renounce his intelligence and critical powers in embracing a faith, whichever it may be, and who has the right and the duty to pose all the questions he may have and "to justify his faith" before non-believers.

Said "subjugation of personality" can reach the point of making the abandonment of the group extremely difficult. Indeed, it may occur that the "phobia" generated in the members of the group to greater or lesser degree depending on the intensity of the conditioning and on the person’s individual characteristics leads to panic at the mere thought of leaving the group because the individual is not capable of conceiving a life outside the group. This is the reason why even after discovering lies, inconsistencies and maltreatment suffered in the group, many fail to abandon it. Should a member decide to leave, his or her very right to exist would be eliminated and he or she would be declared "dead".

People still in the group are often heard saying the following words on a relative or friend who has left the group: "From the moment he left, it is as if he is dead ". These words help us understand that what is being said is no exaggeration, but, unfortunately, a dismal reality occurring before our eyes and which too often sees us watch powerless. Then there are those who left the group they joined after a painful process. Many still bear the "signs" of a spiritually "ambiguous" experience even after many years." Experience gathered by talking to and staying close to these people leads us to affirm that the "free and easy" approach which considers entering and leaving one of these groups just like entering and leaving a supermarket is extremely superficial. Many think that you can have a look, "buy" something, and, once you have tried the "product", you can change it with another if you do not like it. Unfortunately, if it were so easy, we would not be here discussing this problem, there would be no need for the many organizations set up all over the world, for the initiatives of many National Parliaments, Law enforcement agencies. There would be no need for the efforts of the Catholic Church in many meetings, conferences, consistories, pastoral documents and the approval of the statute of an Association set up specifically for the prevention, information and research for this part of the pastoral document (the GRIS Research and Information Group on Cults).

We are sure that those adhering to new forms of religiosity are people who are genuinely seeking God or something which can quench their thirst for spirituality. Many NRM leaders too are convinced that they can provide others the right answers to their fundamental questions. Excluding cases of fraud, which do exist, people involved in cults deserve the utmost respect, like any other person who is profoundly convinced that his or her beliefs are authentic. No one can decide which is the path the Lord will follow to lead people to salvation.

What really matters is to shed light instead on that underground world of wickedness, exploitation and pettiness which unfortunately characterizes a number of pseudo-religious groups. Therefore, we do not intend to generalize, but to provide some information to detect immediately the "symptoms" to diagnose the "illness". Our goal is to prevent this phenomenon which calls us, as Christians, to preserve the purity of our faith, but also, as human beings respecting Christ’s commandment to love our neighbor, to protect our neighbors from threats of which they are not fully aware.

What needs to be always safeguarded at any cost is the freedom of our brothers and sisters who, once they have been warned, can choose according to conscience. Our hope is that their choice is truly free and aware. What is to be done then?

The Pastoral Memorandum answers this question in an exhaustive manner in a document which is at the same time clear, true and deeply respectful of people belonging to these groups.

"Indeed, the phenomenon needs to be faced with the spirit of faithfulness to the truth and of Christian charity: this is the main effort to be made and our pastoral considerations pursue this end ".(13)

Despite those denying the existence of the problem even in the Church, the Pastoral Memorandum, on the contrary, states, faithful to its spirit and honesty: "It must also be stated that the ‘sectarian spirit’, i.e. the intolerant behavior united to aggressive proselytism, is not necessarily the constitutive element of a ‘cult’ and is not sufficient to characterize it. A spirit of this kind can also be found in groups of believers belonging to churches or church communities " (14).This threat was already stigmatized in the interim Report where it suggests that "These Christian groups with sectarian spirit can evolve thanks to the enrichment of their cultural background and by establishing contacts with other Christians, hence assuming a more ‘ecclesiastical’ behavior." (15)

Should the group in question continue with its sectarian and intolerant behavior and eventually come to border on heresy, it may come to assume over time all the negative characteristics outlined above. Unfortunately, this phenomenon has occurred in the past and still occurs today. These groups are generally called "pseudo-Catholic cults" and many local Bishops have already issued official statements on the phenomenon. This situation requires that the Catholic community commit itself to seeking the necessary means to prevent it.

It being understood that the Church is committed to sift out those who freely choose to abandon the Church communion, it does not exempt us however from respecting those who freely decide to leave the Church and embrace another form of "spirituality" or join a NRM.

The criteria set by the Vatican II Council for religious freedom (16) hold true also for cults and NRMs, "... as long as freedom of conscience is not violated within them ... However, those spreading these new religious forms are called upon to respect other’s freedom of conscience and to be open to a sincere dialogue" (17). According to this document, it is clear that freedom of religion is not to be understood as an "absolute" value, but it must be proportional to and assessed on the basis of other’s "freedom of religion" which must not violate the inalienable rights and the dignity of every human being. Unfortunately, this appeal to the leaders of these movements to open a dialogue often goes unheeded. It is quite interesting to note here that, while many NRMs are active in rallying for the safeguarding of the freedom of religion, which they say to be in danger, actually are resentful of and opposed to all those who do not belong to the group and who are critical of their group. Any form of criticism, be it documented, respectful and impartial, is always rejected because the cult is perfect and no one can dare question the validity of their teachings, their conduct, etc. Therefore, despite this firm stance in favor of tolerance and freedom of religion shown to the outside world, they carry out instead inside the group (as can be seen from the publications of the group) an on-going, obstinate and planned hate campaign against others. This fact fuels great doubts on the sincerity of their desire to truly safeguard freedom of religion.

As regards the pastoral guidelines to face this particular "demand for spirituality" marking our times, some "pastoral action criteria" are listed below, amongst which:

1) Know your brothers and sisters: it is important that the phenomenon of new religious forms be adequately studied and understood also by means of the contribution of modern science and of scientific research carried out without prejudice. This study "...may lead us to obtain a deeper understanding of the motives of our own faith".(18)

2) From knowledge to discernment : knowledge must bring fruits in the sense that it must produce effective behaviors in pursuing the construction of the Kingdom of God. Discernment helps to distinguish between good and evil, truth and falsehood in the light of the Holy Spirit and by following St. Peter’s teaching. No one is authorized to give credit to private revelations without referring to the Scriptures and teachings of the Church.

3) Prophetic denouncement of error and deception: discernment also leads to the proclamation of truth. This task is assigned above all to the clergy who must guard the integrity of faith and point out those religions and doctrines in Italy whose theories contrast with Biblical Revelation.

4) In truth and charity : this is the conduct to be assumed towards disciples and propagandists of these groups as envisaged by the commandment to love also one’s own enemies. For this reason any religious dispute and contrast, which could scandalize the world as occurred in the past, must be avoided. Truth can only be protected with charity, otherwise the risk is that of lapsing into fundamentalism. "This is the ‘sectarian’ truth which puts one group against another, which fuels the denigration of those considered as opponents; a truth that judges and separates and is destined to divide ...". (19) Acting with charity also means giving a brotherly warning to those who have fallen into error, praying for their repentance, discussing, and giving advice when possible. This warning must be "… aimed at awakening the conscience of the interlocutor respectfully, yet firmly and explicitly...". (20) "Even when denouncing the existence of an objective evil and a blatant error, never fall into the temptation of judging people …. by bearing always in mind the distinction between the error and the person in error."(21)

Besides general criteria, concrete lines of action are also provided. They can be summarized as follows.

Catholics are called to testify and announce consistently their faith in Christ, the world’s only Savior, to return to a careful study of the Holy Scriptures and of the Church’s teachings, to experience liturgy and personal prayer with renewed faith, to give their contribution in building church communities ready to give solidarity to anyone, etc.

Then more detailed initiatives to face the problems posed by new religious forms are illustrated:

a) The creation of specialized diocesan groups studying the phenomenon in the territory of competence and making suggestions on how to face them. A note indicates some specialized centers "for the study of the phenomenon and for stepping up community awareness" such as the Study Center for New Religions (CESNUR) and the Cult Information Research Group (GRIS)".(22)

These are two associations studying the phenomenon of NRMs for different reasons and from different points of view. The CESNUR is an international network of associations specialized in NRMs, and it is completely independent from any religious group, movement, body or association. The GRIS is a cultural and religious association which requested and obtained the approval of its Statute by the CEI (the Italian Bishops Conference) on September 25, 1990. It is now operating in many Italian dioceses. It was promoted by Catholics, but it is open to anyone who can provide scientifically serious contributions regarding NRMs.

b) Help to believers in facing the proselytism of NRMs and cults in a manner which is not contentious, but founded on authentic doctrinal teachings. This guideline is often difficult to comply with because many members of these groups refuse dialogue and interpret any attempt of giving life to a frank and calm debate as an attack and persecution. For this reason, in some cases, all that can be done is pray for these brothers and sisters of ours.

c) Preparing to welcome those who after joining these movements decide to return to the Roman Catholic Church. This is a complex problem. There is no specific pastoral yet on these people whose return to the Church is different from that of a non-believer or an agnostic. To this end some diocesan groups belonging to the GRIS have set up listening centers and others are setting up structures to help the relatives of members of various movements.

d) The use of means of social communication in a constructive manner, i.e. as instruments to spread impartial and clear information to keep alive the critical powers of believers so that they are ready to cope with these new forms religion. We are fully aware of the great importance of information in this field and we are also struck to see how partial and misleading some extreme forms of defense (paraded in the mass media and, recently, especially in the Internet) of a "freedom of religion" which is more like a "license" for some "religions", which only cover up violations of human dignity for "earthly" purposes. The protection of the freedom of religion as envisaged by the spirit of the Vatican II Council is the commitment to safeguard those, who, in good faith and conscience, profess their creed and who practice and spread it in society with legitimate and respectful means. Freedom of religion cannot be called upon as a "cover-up" for organizations which are religious only in name and which exploit religion to pursue goals which have nothing to do with it.

In conclusion, we hope that we have succeeded in part to reach our goal: i.e. to open everyone’s eyes (irrespective of creed and religious faith) on a phenomenon which affects many families and which often is the cause of great suffering, divisions, and dramas. Since people and their lives are at stake, no Christian can believe that the problem does not touch him, even though he is not directly affected. Everyone ought to take interest in it and do something for those suffering because of these "religious" deviations. This is not a matter regarding only experts, specialists and people working in the field, but also every person of good faith willing to humbly listen to their brothers and sisters and to share their anguish.

Let us now close with the words of the Pastoral Memorandum, which in its Conclusion recommends: "With the humility leading us to mutually open ourselves to the call of conversion, we must shoulder the responsibility of saving others. Everyone is called to live this service to truth with love and understanding and, above all, with the awareness that being in truth does not lead us to be its arrogant possessors: truth – which definitively revealed itself to us in the person of Jesus Christ – shall always remain beyond our knowledge and commits each one of us to search for it continuously". (23)


[2] SECRETARIAT FOR ECUMENISM AND DIALOGUE OF THE CEI, Pastoral memorandum The Church’s pastoral commitment in facing new religious movements and cults, May 30, 1993.
[3] Ibid. n. 4.
[4] cf. Ibid. Foreword
[6] Ibid. n. 2.2.
[8] Ibid. n. 10
[9] In this part some aspects regarding the theories of "mental manipulation" or "thought reform" will be briefly outlined. Their in-depth analysis is not one of the purposes of this article. The most prominent figures elaborating these theories are: R. Lifton, M. Singer, S. Hassan, et altera. We suggest the recent article by B. Zablocki
"The Blacklisting of a Concept. The Strange History of the Brainwashing Conjecture in the Sociology of Religion", Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, vol. 1, n. 1 (October 1997), pp. 96-121 (p. 98). Published in the magazine "Nova Religio".
[11] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., n. 13.
[16] Cf. VATICAN II ECUMENICAL COUNCIL, Declaration on religious freedom Dignitatis humanae, n. 2-8.
[18] Ibid., n. 29.
[19] Ibid., n. 35.
[20] Ibid., n. 36.
[21] Ibid., n. 37.
[22] Ibid., Note 66.
[23] Ibid., n. 45

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