THE PHENOMENON OF SECTS:

*Ivo da Conceição Souza

Introduction:

In the last three decades, there has been a tremendous mushrooming of movements in the world and in the Church. The Charismatic Movement brought its ‘enthusiasm’ (‘divine fire’) and warmth, a deeper love for the Word of God and for prayer. People had to witness a new way of loving and proclaiming the Christian faith, and modify or abandon the conventional ways of thinking and doing things. They experienced more spontaneity and warmth, which had a deep impact on their lives. But some of them may have gone to the extreme, thinking that only they were “baptized in the Spirit”, that they had the monopoly of God’s Spirit, that they are “the Church”, that they are privileged people because they “speak in tongues”, that they are holier than the others (‘holier-than-thou-attitude’), who are regarded as “second-rate Christians”. Then there arose the Neo-Catechumenal Way, with the same feeling that they are “the Church”, that they have the genuine way of worshipping, that they show more enthusiasm in the worship and proclamation of faith, that their liturgy is livelier and has a better flavour and glamour. Recently, we have been hearing of the mass deaths (including suicides) of sect members in Texas, Guyana and Switzerland. Other sects, especially in Latin America, bring people into a dream world, cut off from reality. These sects are also sprouting in India. Still others, based on the cult of Satan, appear particu¬larly evil. There is today the phenomenon of sects, the so-called “believers”. It is the spirit-pheonomenon, Neo-Pentecostalism, as presented by the sectarian groups. It has its “package of emo¬tional satisfactions for the common folk”. It is a kind of “spiritual narcissism”. It gives a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible and tries to criticise the Church in every way for the sake of ‘sheep-stealing’. It is too emotional and fundamen¬talist. It does not show concern for the socio-economic situa¬tion. It enslaves rather than liberate them. The “healing ses¬sions” are a kind of opium for the people, rather than prophetic enhancers. The “born-again” slogan is rather an emotional gimmick of ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude. Ecstatic forms of spiritu¬ality, with ‘gifts of tongue and healings’, are an outlet for the difficult situations of oppression and psychological stress. These movements sprout easily in this kind of environment. With this elitist attitude and self-righteous pride, the members of these movements have become a factor of division, instead of cementing unity. Revivalism has led to fundamentalism and fanaticism. This destructive criticism is a factor and sign of deviation. Golden Criterion: A Christian movement will sprout and grow properly within the local cultural context only when it is in communion with the local Bishop and the local Church, granting that there is proper discernment in the Spirit on the part of the local authorities and members. If these movements remain hermetically closed and aloof from other members of the Church, they may recruit most of the dis¬gruntled elements. This is precisely the “problem” of the new phenomenon of sects and cults. They have the “black or white attitude”, they are “all or nothing”, they are not able to share their gifts of joy and life to the members of the Church. We should not forget that amidst all the vicissitudes of the modern life, God is present with us. “I am with you” should be in our minds. It is God who guides us with his light and life. Therefore, we require an existential, humble, open, sincere, trusting, loving attitude. We can apply a golden criterion to know whether these movements are genuine or not by remembering the Lord’s saying: “You will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:20) (cf.”Each tree is known by its own fruit”: Lk 6:44; Mt 12:33). If a movement or institu¬tion comes from God, it will remain alive; otherwise, it will destroy itself (cf.Gamaliel’s statement in Ac 5:38f: “If this undertaking comes from men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found to fight against God [theomakhoi]). Difference between a Sect and a Community: We have to bear in mind the distinction between a sect and a community. What is a sect and what are its characteristics? A sect is defined or at least described by the following characteristics: i)A wise, all-powerful Guru dominates the mem¬bers. He is considered as the uniquely inspired prophet and saviour. Only his teaching is true. Other authorities are not tolerated. Sometimes even other thought patterns or life styles are strictly forbidden. ii) The sect is considered as the harbinger of a new salvific message to be spread throughout the world. It motivates the members for large recruitment. iii)According to the sectarian mentality, the world is divided into saved and damned. They are specialists in the “black-or-white attitude”. Due to fear syndrome, the members accept everything blindly, without further questions or resist¬ance. They are not encouraged to have relations with friends or relatives. It is a process of slow, gradual brainwashing. v) They are fed with feelings of worthlessness and meaning¬lessness. They remain without a safe direction, so that if they decide to leave the group, anguish, emptiness and loneliness overwhelm them. Some of these elements can be found in a Christian communi¬ty, but there is a growth in maturity. ´ a) In the Christian community, each person has value and dignity. The person is encouraged to grow in freedom, responsibility and maturity. More im¬portant than the numerical growth or institutional survival, the vocation of each member is a vital issue, so that the candidate is given time for probation and self-examination. b) The Christian community is not a closed group. It grows in contact with other members and outsiders. In times of conflict solutions can be found through dialogue. Whether a community/movement grows in the path of the Spirit or not can be judged through a few signs. The community deepens its charism and at the same time discovers the beauty of other movements, always in dialogue/communion with the local bishop. It recognizes that it is a part of the Church, not the whole Church. It needs some time for its insertion/inculturation in the fabric of the local Church. It should cooperate with the local bishop and with other movements or communities. b) If the Spirit is active in the movement and the members are attentive to the Spirit, they should realise their shortcomings and mistakes. They may misinterpret the vision of the Found¬er or distort the way of life. They should examine whether the power has been used or abused. They should be open to criticism and self-questioning, and be honest in correcting or changing certain aspects, which were necessary at the initial stage of their movement, but have become outmoded/obsolete, even a sign of death. c) A Christian movement has to evolve continually in the Spirit, remain faithful to the Church, without losing its identi¬ty. It has to continue its openness and preserve its identity. While working for unity of the Churches and dialogue with other religions, the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II follows carefully the two guidelines, firm identity and sincere openness. If a new movement is announcing Good News to the poor and allowing them to evangelise it in return, then here again is a sign of the Spirit. To eat at the same table as the poor, to be committed to them in bonds of friendship, is, humanly speaking, repugnant, demanding and disturbing. The presence of the poor and the weak prevents it from closing it upon itself. The poor oblige it to evolve and to deepen. If the disciples of Jesus are to proclaim successfully the Good News to the poor and downtrodden, they have to get down to their platform–follow their style–, in order to bring them up to a better human dignity (folk 6:20-23; Mt 5:3-12). God has promised us to be “with us”, our Immanuel, “God-with-us” (Mt 1:23; 28:20), with tender loving care for each one of us. d) The community should give witness to the love of the weaker members, in situations of conflict, doubt or psychological distress. The community should not try to destroy the person. e) The community should radiate joy, which has its source in the Risen Lord, being conscious that Jesus guides the Church towards growth, whereas the members are just instruments of love. The Church has to be continually pruned and purified so as to remain faithful to the Spirit. The reason why some of the members leave the Church and join the sectarian groups, called “believers”, seems to be as follows: They find more warmth, freedom and the sense of belonging and fellowship. Quite often, they escape from all rules and regula¬tions. They are pleased with their new structures. Satanic Cults: Prof.Eugenio Fizzoti, teaching Psychology at the Pontifical Salesian University, Rome, refers to a psychologic behaviour, which is often attributed to demonic forces (people think imme¬diately of demonic possession) (Eugenio FIZZOTI, “Sects and Satanic Cults-3”, in: L’Osservatore Romano, n.7, February 12, 1997, p.10). We have to admit here the reality of Satan, which can “manifest itself in forms which are often extravagant, unfor¬eseeable and disturbing”, as well as the “multiplicity of human behaviour which cannot always be deciphered with the normal interpretive categories”. We find it difficult to interpret some of the phenomena, which we saw or heard. Merely denying the facts smacks of unsci¬entific attitude or pedantry. For example, there are physical disturbances; local “hauntings”/infestations of houses, objects, or animals; obsession and personal impulses up to the point of attempting suicide; vexations which cause loss of consciousness and lead to deplorable actions of muscle twitching or to pronounc¬ing phrases of hatred towards God, the sacred persons or cruci¬fix. Psychological or Demonic?: These are some of the expressions which raise the question as to whether the person is possessed/oppressed by Satan or suffers instead from psychological dissociation or hysteria. Frequently, behaviour attributed to demonic influence can be interpreted, without any shadow of doubt, as situations with a pathological background. There is also the phenomenon of “polter¬geist”, whereby some persons can influence the environment, like magnetic glance. The clothes are burnt, the chairs are over¬thrown, and the doors are open, without any other explanation. Other cases, however, present a clear antithesis to God’s saving plan. Therefore, the sole use of psychological/psychiatric tools fails to provide a sufficient and convincing explanation of these phenomena. It is difficult to identify the border between psychotic situations and true demonic influence. Moreover, the information often suffers manipulation and distortion. Thus, it does not do justice to the phenomena in their totality and complexity. For this reason, what is really only the expression of profound psychological disturbances too often is turned into a diabolical possession. Frequently, the membership statistics of Satanic groups are swollen to create a sort of reverential fear or a “witch hunt”. Criteria: Pio Scilligo, Professor of Psychology at the Salesian University, in Rome, remarks that each one of us experi¬ences our own talking to ourselves. These are “signs of small doubling of the personality, more visible when the ‘you’ form is used, and less evident when one uses the ‘I” form”. After having finished a job, for example, we say: “Well done, you did that just right!”, or, after having done something inappropriate , we say:: “I’m a fool; I must go right away and apologize!”. Experi¬ences of this type can be explained without necessarily having recourse to “talking spirits”. It is sufficient to speak of relatively autonomous “thought patterns”, “introjections” or “ego states” which the normal person can make use of, because such automatisms represent little “demons”, good or evil, which each of us carries within the complex structure of his own psychology. According to Scilligo, however, there exist much tougher defence mechanisms created by the person, stemming from traumatic experiences or from relational behaviours, prolonged over time and assimilated from the outside with distorted interpretations of reality, which produce behavioural islands which seem to be alter egos. In such cases, it can happen that some manifestations (such as the expression of anger, speaking in tongues, grasping in a surprising way the internal experience of the exorcist), can find a natural explanation in the psychic processes of withdrawal and projection, technically defined as borderline behaviour, or at the edge of normality. At the same time, it is possible that sometimes we find ourselves faced with manifestations that elude the metaphorical explanations of a psychological/psychiatric nature, and cannot be explained on the basis of what is known in the scientific world. In this case, it would make sense to have recourse to the hypothesis of “forces external to the subject”, which exert a destructive influence on him. The correct distinction between pathological behaviour of a psychic nature and demonic invasion/possession has not been yet clearly established by science. Professor E.Fizzoti states: “It is my absolute conviction, contrary to what is bandied about, that only in two or three cases out of a thousand are we faced with true diabolical possession. In this perspective, clearly, only a serious scientist with an open mind, able to transcend his limited field of expertise, can recognize the possibility of diabolical possession”. It is more difficult to analyse the behavioral motivation of those who declare themselves in favour of Satanism and express their convictions in criminal behaviour, frequently with legal consequences (for example, by desecrating graves, by performing macabre rituals with the killing of animals, by committing rape of more or less consenting virgins, and by procedures causing loss of self-control in psychologically vulnerable subjects). In this case, we could have recourse, as interpretive cri¬teria, to a few concepts developed by the psychologist Erich FROMM. Investigating the human relationship to various types of religion, Fromm shows that some people manifest towards the divinity an attitude of absolute dependence, of blind and irrational obedience and passive acceptance of any norm. As a re¬sult, they think of themselves as inept, wretched creatures, capable of acquiring a certain strength only to the extent that a supreme and unchallenged power reaches out to them. Such an authoritarian, inhuman vision of one’s relationship with the divinity and, in the case of Satanism, with evil beings, although encouraging the loss of independence and moral integri¬ty, offers them the advantage of feeling protected by a formid¬able power. Furthermore, this helps create the image of a despot¬ic and terrible supreme being, jealous of his supremacy, arrogant and opposed to any relationship based on solidarity and on the promotion of values. Characteristics: What are the personality characteristics of those who are devoted to divinities with Satanic features? i)There is a clearly masochistic tendency, manifested by a weak temperament, by the inclination to self-deprivation, by the need to feel weak and impotent, by the voluntary renunciation of all sense of freedom and personal responsibility. The basic tendency, then, is one of self-destruction or damage to oneself for the sake of preventing hostility on the part of others or leading others to pity towards oneself. In this regard, one need only think of the passive, irrational acceptance of “unquestioned leaders”, whose orders are blindly obeyed. ii)A profound sense of guilt, due to the difficulty in becoming aware of the ambiguity of the human situation. Quite explicitly, From maintains that “in the authoritarian sphere, recognition of one’s own sins produces fear above all, because one knows one has disobeyed a powerful authority which…will spare no punishment. Moral failure is an act of rebellion, and the only way to make reparation is an orgy of self-humiliation. The sinner feels himself depraved and impotent; he entrusts himself to the mercy of the authority and in that way hopes for forgiveness. To repent means to tremble”. He yields without any resistance to the healers. III)The introjections in strong, imposing terms, of the de¬mands of one’s surroundings, which leads one to perceive the society, with its law and culture and family, as tyrannical. On the one hand, these lead to the fear of destruction; on the other hand, paradoxically, to the relentless drive to act in negative and self-destructive ways. iv)The orientation towards death and dead objects, which is an expression of a longing for a continual transformation of self, society and the surrounding world into a cemetery or an automated factory. The use of black funeral curtains in the meeting hall, the presence of skulls and terrifying images, the wearing of hoods during ritual actions, the sacrifice of animals and, unfortunately, sometimes also of humans, are the more vivid proofs of this “necrophilic tendency”. According to a psychologist, the worshipper of Satan repre¬sents a pressing and often tragic “warning bell”. He is in no way oriented towards personal growth, towards a sincere and authentic relationship with others, towards a commitment of service to others. Rather, he betrays strong, worrisome self-destructive tendencies, further manifested by hiding and flight, and by the voluntary renunciation, to some extent, of his own will in favour of a despotic authority, demanding only blind obedience and rigid behaviour with obsessive involvement in formulas and magical rites. This is frequently observed in the so-called “healing sessions”. Conclusion: We have to be on guard against the abuses that are taking places in our parishes. In the name of healing, there are many vested interests: personal enhancement, greed, name and fame, megalomania, jealousy, sense of insecurity. The Church in Goa needs to be revitalized through the Word of God, through prayer and discernment on the part of the Church authorities, leaders and the people at large.

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