I know, I know, the title is not encouraging, but let me explain to you why I think it correctly responds to the reality that I want to explore. We are living in a very difficult time for the Church, a time of pain and embarrassment due to various types of scandals: sexual, economic, political, etc. I am fairly certain that each person can call to mind something bad about the Church, a priest or a community, which has affected them in a personal and spiritual way.
Mind you, I don’t want to sound overly dramatic; this, paradoxically, is also a time of great hope, full of beautiful signs that the Holy Spirit sends us and this is undeniable. However, to distinguish the wheat from the weeds, one needs to get their hands dirty. One needs to evaluate, reflect, give a name and put to prayer those things that do harm to the Church, with the hope of being able to make them change and so renew our witness as authentic disciples of Christ.
Having said this, I am interested in speaking about religious, lay and parish communities which, in various ways and for different reasons, many times without the full awareness of their members and because of the uncritical following of a charismatic leader, begin to close in on themselves to the point of losing – in practice – the wealth, wisdom, consolation and accompaniment that their belonging to the Church implies; leading them to develop, almost like a disease, characteristics of a sectarian style: fanaticism, intransigence, rigorism, institutional victimization, egocentrism, triumphalism, idealization of authorities, voluntarism… and the list could continue.
Unfortunately, the communities that are currently infected with this disease are not few and they have done great harm to the entire ecclesial community and to the people who, directly or indirectly, have lost their faith due to their poor Christian witness.
Without counting communities where investigations have already been conducted and which are now in a process of healing and accompaniment, the Church is currently investigating more than a dozen founders and evaluating the quality of the religious life of the communities they started. That’s the reality of our current situation.
Where am I going with all this? It seems as though this is not an isolated problem nor merely an unfortunate coincidence. Something is happening. I don’t know if it’s the exacerbated individualism of our societies that has also infected certain religious communities; perhaps it is the loss of a correct theology of the cross replaced by an excessive “incarnationism” or, simply, the cunningness of the devil, who finds at this time many men who are fragile and charismatic, founders of communities by the grace of God who, puffed up by their own ego and the clumsy praise of some poor, imprudent followers, become easy prey for the evil one to drag them into the burrow of pride and devour them.
What do I know?? I can’t diagnose the causes. Let’s leave these reflections to the theologians or Catholic sociologists. I want to contribute something that I do know; and, unfortunately, I know it firsthand. I am referring to the symptoms of a community that began to become sick with sectarianism.
To be completely honest, it’s not a topic that’s easy for me to talk about, but I think the reflections that will come – while very personal, of course – can shed some light so that everyone makes an examination of conscience and evaluates whether their community, parish or movement, has begun to experience some of the following symptoms.
11 Signs Your Community is Sick with Sectarianism
1. Angels are not Saints
It’s that simple: the angels are not saints. And when a human being starts, by his (or her) own initiative or by the stupidity of those around him, to fill himself with angelic attributes, then we do him no favors by believing him to be a saint. Why? Simply because he is not. He is a human being who is a sinner just as anyone else who needs the support and encouragement of grace and of his brothers.
Through a praise that doesn’t correspond to him, we do nothing but pave the way for the devil to deceive and subjugate that person. No one denies that these brothers can be highly virtuous and selfless people. The point is that no environment of constant adulation is healthy for the human being. The Pope himself tirelessly reminds us that he too is a sinner and that he needs our prayer. Why does he do this? Why are they not few, the people who get scared when the Pope says something like this? Perhaps we will not be lacking a little more Christian realism?
If in your community there are brothers or authorities treated almost like objects of devotion, whose words are like pages of the Gospel that rain from heaven, it’s important to be careful and to be very aware that the devil takes advantage of these situations in order to weave his snares. Surely this person is very good and says very certain things, nobody denies it; it’s for some reason he has an important position of service, right?
And it is not about looking for sins or mistakes from now on, but it’s about knowing that he does have them, that he needs counsel and accompaniment, and that he is just as in need for forgiveness and of God’s grace as you and I. Even if it hurts you, if you sincerely believe that he is wrong or that he is abusing his authority, correct him with humility; that is, love him.
2. The logic of black and white hides our fear of the grey
One needs to be careful with narratives of black and white, good and bad, faithful and unfaithful, healthy and sick, etc. These can be applied to politics, to the spiritual life and to many other realities occurring within our communities, even within ourselves. It’s a childish way of reading reality that makes the interpretations very comfortable. You are either here or there. You are progressive (black) or orthodox (white), this is a bishop who is faithful (white) or unfaithful (black) to the Pope, he’s the type that abandoned religious life (bad) or one who persevered (good).
Without wanting to fall into relativism or negate that there are actions and attitudes which are objectively wrong, it seems to me that this is a type of sectarian logic that fears the existence of greys. I’m sorry, but in real life I think the grey areas are the majority and they are uncomfortable because they their tones come from the complexity of reality and do not fit inside of our labeling, categorical, ideological and, many times, simplistic way of thinking. It’s something that, to my mind, Pope Francis is fighting very hard to instruct on during his pontificate.
I would even dare to say that Christ was a huge “grey area” for the expectations of the Jews who were waiting for the Messiah. Only brave men, those who managed to break with sectarianism and the logic of black and white, were able to accept the grey of Jesus; that is, a glorious Messiah, yes, but whose glory shown in humility, mercy and humiliation. Nowadays – perhaps today more than ever – is your community able to distinguish the tones of reality, or does it pass through the filter of black and white.
3. The world can be changed, but it’s the Church that changes it
It’s not important if you are part of a recognized intellectual Catholic elite, a group or movement with hundreds of vocations a year, or a parish filled with faithful every Sunday; the day they begin to feel the sting of vainglory and start to feel like the clam with the pearl in the middle of the mountain of empty mollusks, this day, for them, is the start of a spiritual schism that, if not stopped, will lead them away from the only source of grace which God has given to the world: the Church. “But, it’s just that the Church is…”
Yes! The Church is fragile and full of sinners, the bishops are far from perfect, we don’t know how to speak to young people and parishes still aren’t on Twitter…and even so God wanted her to pour out his grace in the world. The Church applauds the achievements and the good things communities do, but in her 2,000 years of history her wisdom leads her to be cautious of triumphalisms and temporal formulas of success; she knows that God’s action is mysterious and also works through the simple and humble, in apparent defeats and, above all, through prayer and through the cross. The Church is a universal sacrament of salvation, not a strategic association of conversion and channeling the Christian life. In other words, Jesus Christ founded us, not Gramsci (thank God!).
4. Integrating your own fragility
All of us have wounds. Wounds are in our past, we carry them in the present and, inevitably, we will have them in the future. When religious communities form people only to reap apostolic, human or spiritual success, then they are creating little aliens that would be better sent off on a space rocket to their home planet before they realize that they live on planet Earth and are human beings of flesh and bone. In life there are failures and frustrations, and to know Christ and to be Christians – including consecrated people – does not exempt us from having to walk the path of suffering and defeat, nor does it entitle us to suffer any less; all it means is that we carry in our hearts the security that this personal frustration and this pain are not stronger that the love of God, and that this certainty grows when we share it with those who, like ourselves, move along the path towards the “check-in” of life. Communities, whatever they may be, have to form people who yearn for and seek sanctity: this means preparing human beings – laity and consecrated – to also accept their defeats and miseries.
After years spent trying to be holy in the wrong way, I have come to sincerely believe that holiness is to allow oneself to be loved by God and to try, little by little, let God love through us. In that, and and in keeping our sin from distorting this love, but also in knowing that sometimes our wounds are privileged channels where God’s love fills us and radiates to others.
5. Integrating your own personality
One same community, charisma, spirituality or discipline doesn’t mean one same personality, ideas, rhythms, studies, expectations, hopes, desires, hairstyles, etc. St. Paul had this very clear, but, it seems, it hasn’t remained clear in many communities today. As with the logic of “black and white” (which I described above), uniformization is also a way of avoiding reality and not letting it interfere. Why? I am not a sociologist nor a psychologist, but I don’t know if you need to be one in order to realize that uniformization is easier to control than diversity.
Dealing with the diversity and richness of personalities inside a community implies a lot of trust in the Holy Spirit and in the Church that guides us on the same path even when people have opinions, feelings and ways of doing things that are different from one another. There is something of spiritual mistrust in the absolute standardization of people, some lack of faith which, little by little, when the effervescence of the foundational phase passes, becomes evident and annihilates the charismatic experience in a community.
From the point of view of a person who participates in a dynamic of uniformization and who renounces some important aspects of his or her own personality and way of being, the experience is also very powerful, and the Christian life, lay or consecrated, becomes increasingly more painful and uphill to the point of not being able to understand why the promises of God are not fulfilled in one’s life. Many of these people, disoriented and tired of struggling to fit into a singular model, end up looking for psychological help that doesn’t always assist in understanding that God can permit errors in one’s own formation and to take from it fruits of conversion and spiritual growth.
6. The charism is not primarily what distinguishes us from others
I will make my own the reflections of Fr. Rupnik in this conference to explain this point. It’s no surprise that some communities think that their received charism is what distinguishes them from ecclesial institutions. But the truth is that the charism is entirely the opposite: it’s the indelible seal of our belonging to the Church and of our condition as members of the body of Christ. Of course, it’s a special gift, of course it’s a unique gift for each community, but the reality needs to be thought of in the correct order: the charism, in first place, is a precious sign of communion and fraternity within the body of Christ and the mission of the Church. Fixating on the charism to foment thoughts of difference, separation and even superiority, is the best way to disregard the reason for which God freely gave it to us in the first place.
Consider the mosaics and frescoes of the medieval churches. None of them were complete. Each image connected in some way with another image, and all of them formed – together with the apse, the altar, the altarpieces, etc. – one single and powerful catechetical message about the unity, beauty, love and truth of God. If we thought of the many religious communities that exist today and imagined them as frescoes, altars or mosaics inside a church, we would realize that they seem very similar to modern churches: an altar dedicated to a certain saint here, an image about the life of a patron there, none integrally connected with the other and, somehow, demanding an exclusive and individualistic devotion disconnected from the unity of the church as a whole.
For this reason, when one of the communities suffers the onslaught of a scandal or a crisis, many of their faithful also abandon the Church. Can we blame them? In the end these communities were frescoes or mosaics that believed themselves autonomously complete, with no invitation to the contemplation of the whole or to any feelings of belonging to the universal Church. It’s a pity.
7. “Be perfectionists as the Father is a perfectionist.” (Huh?)
It’s essential to understand what we mean by virtue, asceticism and the pursuit of perfection. Unfortunately in many communities, especially in the years of formation for consecrated or religious life, but also in lay institutions, the search for rebuilding a fallen humanity has been mistakenly prioritized, to the exclusion of a healthy theology of grace. What do I mean? That, according to Fr. Rupnik, the individual, when he or she receives the life of God, dies. There is no human perfection that can be sustained when God visits us and shows us how fragile and small we are before Him and the mission that He has entrusted to us.
Those who prepare and then hit the wall in order to live up to God’s height probably end up beating against the psychologist’s couch cushions for having taken on a weight they couldn’t carry. And with this I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t practice virtue or live an ascetic life; but any practice of this kind must help us to gain humility, to recognize our weakness and to prepare ourselves to be defeated by God (in the manner of Jacob) and to continue trusting in Him. True asceticism leads to contrition of heart and not to its numbness as a fruit of pride and self-sufficiency.
This is the best way to prepare the perfection to which we are called. I say “prepare” intentionally, because God is the one who makes us perfect by regenerating us in His son, thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit who was promised to the Church. That’s to say, it’s not an individual perfection. Jesus told us to be perfect as God is perfect, and God is a community of love. Who doesn’t know this?
Christianity is not built on perfect individuals, but on people renewed by Christ, children of God and members of the Church. This is a grace, it lasts a lifetime, beginning with baptism and manifested in the body of Christ. Can we put it more clearly? The Saints are not self-made men; and, moreover, they simply wouldn’t exist if the Catholic Church didn’t exist.
8. When we fall in love with works
Another symptom is the unreasonable importance of “apostolic projects.” There comes a point where having groups, parishes, initiatives, schools or universities becomes the most important thing. Of course, the impetus is for apostolate and evangelization and this is very good, but there is a moment when the devil takes advantage of our activism and upsets things. Projects generate an ecclesial presence, admiration, power, etc., and if a community doesn’t make a constant examination of conscience it can begin to push people to live on the basis of such projects.
Prayer, the spiritual foundation and the apostolic origin of all of these works, begins to be lost and we start to live according to worldly and the secondary gratifications that these projects generate. It’s a shame, but these things happen and we have to be alert. Many abuses can be committed and much harm done when works occupy a more important place than people. This happens time and again.
9. Criticism of the community
No community exists that is exempt from criticism. There are laity, priests and bishops who at times don’t agree with the things a certain community does. Occasionally there are even brothers inside the community who express negative judgements. In my opinion, the way a community reacts in the face of external and internal criticism is a great thermometer to measure and regulate the level of sectarianism.
Is the community capable of self-criticism? Are disagreements, opposing opinions or objections to certain practices heard and taken into account? Or is the logic of black and white applied, branding various parties with labels: “communists,” “progressives,” “sick,” “crazy” or “complex”? It’s good to pay attention: when a critique of the community appears, is it discussed with solid arguments or dismissed based on the moral disqualification of the person who issues it?
Is the person confronted and reasons sought for their critique, or is the argument evaded? On the other hand, when it comes to an internal situation, how free do members feel (yes, feel!) to critique some practices and propose improvements to the way of doing things? How free do members feel to critique attitudes of abuse and mistreatment on the part of their superiors? All these are important questions that the entire community and its members must ask with a lot of sincerity.
10. Obedience is a treasure. Does the person in authority treat it as such?
The abusive exercise of obedience has caused serious damage in various communities. I think all of us know it. Many of the points that I have touched in this list of symptoms are factors that I believe create an inadequate climate for a healthy exercise of religious obedience. To explain myself, if a community is sick with voluntarist perfectionism, if it puts works above people, depersonalizes its members through a specific model of behavior, if it is immune to criticism and its members don’t feel free to raise their voice to critique certain inappropriate practices, then obedience is unfortunately deviant and has passed from being a gift from God to live personal detachment and loving union with His plan, to being an instrument which can be used to create and maintain dynamics of abuse, censorship and ideological closure. Unfortunately, to this frame we have to add some cases of sexual violence which, sadly, directly or indirectly occurred under the guise or misapplication of obedience.
The hard thing when we speak of the vow of obedience is that it touches the very intimate fibers of the heart of a religious or lay consecrated. When a man or woman freely accepts a vow or promise of obedience, they put themselves into the hands of God and accept the mediation and help of a superior (or community) to discern what God wants for them. They renounce directing their own life with total autonomy because a piece of this freedom has decided to put it into the hands of God, a God who cannot betray.
When a superior abuses their authority or mistreats a religious, it’s very hard not to invoke the Lord in the conflict and say: “I trusted you and you betrayed me.” Because of this, authority cannot be a prize for the best nor a militant hierarchal rank: authority, as the Pope says, is a beautiful service where the superior opens his or her hands and the religious places the precious pearl of personal trust and hope in the goodness of God. Because of this, the respectful exercise of obedience and the understanding of the enormous value of vow or promise of obedience are two keys in the experience of a healthy religious community. And on the contrary, they are two thermometers – almost mathematical – of present or latent sectarianism in a religious community.
11. How are people treated who leave the community?
A very strong symptom of sectarianism is the indifferent, resentful or contemptuous treatment of former members of the community. And this extends to harboring distrust of ongoing members who maintain relationships with people who have withdrawn from the institution. I am going to be very clear: this does not come from God, it’s a demonic attitude that does severe injury to the people who for many years gave their lives to the service of the community. Is it possible to understand this?
That from one moment to the next, for the fact of having decided to leave the movement, group or spiritual family – whatever their reasons may have been – the companions and friends you made close the doors and treat you with distance and suspicion. Do you not think this could be a blow that can do serious damage to the person? If this is happening in your community, be careful, this symptom is unmistakable. Commit yourselves to changing this situation but do not be scandalized. Many of these things are done without malice: they are simply automatisms learned over time and fueled by a serious defect of self-assessment and community discernment.
Finally, what do I do if my community, movement, or parish has one or many of these symptoms?
I apologize if I don’t delve too deeply here, but this article is already long. I think that the most important advice is as follows: it’s very healthy to talk with good, wise and well-intentioned people who are outside of the community. You can speak with your bishop or with a priest friend who can give you some insights and an impartial opinion. If the situation is serious, you have every right to have a confessor or spiritual guide outside of the community. No one can tell you who to open your conscience and inner self to. From this accompaniment or friendship they can suggest different points of view and new encouragements that will help you to look at things with more freedom and to gain confidence in order to help your community to heal those symptoms you think can lead it to infirmity.
One more tip? Do not stay silent. Measure your words, but talk, comment on what you think is wrong even though you might be wrong. Do not fight, pray a lot about what you want to say but do not shirk your duty to give evidence of the symptoms we have spoken of. If anyone judges your intentions, examine them before the Lord in prayer, but if your cause is just, continue with it. Listen to what your brothers have to say and do not lock yourself in your way of seeing things; dialogue with respect and you will see that little by little the Lord will also do His part.
These tips or any other that I can give you would be summarized as: look to the Church, breathe with the Church and seek the help of the Church. The Church is a mother, she is wise and tender. Do not ever distrust her, for in the stormy sea in which we sail, she is the only safe vessel, because despite all of her human faults, she has been built by God and her captain knows very well what He is doing.
Finally, always remember, the antidote against sectarianism is called “Catholicism.” Both are two opposite poles of reality.
I could say more, but here is where we must pause for now. If you’ve managed to read the whole article (or even if you only read part of it) I would like to hear your opinion. May God bless you.
This post was translated from the original by Elise Harris.