What is a Cult? – In Modern Terms

“Cult” is not a useful term in modern terms. It does not have a specific meaning but is usually used in a pejorative sense. A cult, in modern terms, is a particular religious group that is centered around a strange belief. A cult is usually short-lived and features rituals and practices from other religions, usually of the foreign and exotic kind.

So, in modern terms, a cult is a bad thing. There are some warning signs to determine whether you are in a cult. The bloggers “Sam & Tanner”, two millennial ex-Mormons, provide an excellent listing of these warning signs on their blog on Medium.

Sam & Tanner list the following 10 specific patterns to recognize:

1)    “The leader is the ultimate authority…

2)    The group suppresses skepticism…

3)    The group delegitimizes former members…

4)    The group is paranoid about the outside world…

5)    The group relies on shame cycles…

6)    The leader is above the law…

7)    The group uses “thought reform” methods…

8)    The group is elitist…

9)    There is no financial transparency…

10) The group performs secret rites…”

As I said at the beginning, the modern use of the word “cult” has no set definition. This list is the opinion of the bloggers, but I think it encapsulates the modern notion of the word “cult” well.

What is a Cult? – In Catholic Terms

In Catholic terms, what is a cult? Well, it is not what the modern world calls a “cult.” Culture is connected intimately to worship. The root word is “cultus,” from which arises the English word “cult.” Cultus comes from the Latin verb colare which means “to till.” Therefore, we have the word agriculture (agri – field, cultus – till). In the Middle Ages, cultus came to mean adoration or veneration specifically. The prime act of worship is sacrifice. It is getting outside of oneself to show that worth is found outside of the self. Worship could thus be seen as “giving worth.” 

In the Church, the word “cult” is also employed to mean the veneration (not worship) of a person who has died. The foundation of a cult around a person is a banal word which just means venerable devotion. The person will then be titled “Venerable” by the Church; this is the first step on the way to “Blessed” (Beatification) and “Saint” (Canonization). This “cult” or special devotion and veneration also applies to each of the saints, including the greatest veneration owed to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Is the Catholic Church a Cult?

Now that we have our definitions straight: is the Catholic Church a cult? Let’s go back to Sam & Tanner’s list and I will remark on each of the ten points. I will be focusing on the Catholic Church, as it is officially instantiated (Canon Law, Catechism, and Faith and Moral teachings). An individual could bring up a specific case of abuse to fit any one of these ten points. But the Church rightly admonishes and seeks to correct such abuses. The question is: is the Catholic Church a cult, per se?

The leader is the ultimate authority

Yes, He is. His name is Jesus Christ. If you ask Siri on the iPhone “Who founded the Catholic Church?” She will rightly respond: “Jesus Christ.” The difference between a cult leader and Jesus is that Jesus is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. He is God. Of course, He is the ultimate authority. 

The Pope and any of the bishops, priests, or deacons do not have ultimate authority. They are all dependent on the kingship of Jesus Christ. Abuses of power do happen because of fallen human nature and sin, but this is not from Holy Mother Church.

The group suppresses skepticism

Put succinctly, the Catholic Church supports asking questions. St. John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio

“Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?… They are questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives. The Church is no stranger to this journey of discovery, nor could she ever be (FR, 1,2).”

The group delegitimizes former members

If this happens to lapsed-Catholics, it is a great injustice and uncharitable. The Church works tirelessly to call baptized Catholics who have left the practice of the Faith back home. 

The group is paranoid about the outside world

In calling the Second Vatican Council, Pope St. John XXIII wished to open wide the windows of the Church to show the beauty of the Church to the world. We believe that we are not destined for this world but for Heaven. However, we believe that we are in the world. There is no distinction between the Church and the “outside world” because Jesus Christ is King of all.

In another sense, however, we can make the distinction of the “fallen world” which is a source of sin. We should not be paranoid about the fallen world but must understand that worldly desires will lead us away from true human flourishing.

The group relies on shame cycles

Sin is bad. It leads us away from God. It hurts us. We choose sin because we wrongly see what we are choosing as a good thing. The feeling of shame that comes after sin is useful insofar as it leads us to contrition and repentance. An overdose of shame from the Church is unhelpful. Unfortunately, this was the state of the Church under the heresy of Jansenism, especially characterizing the 1950s and just before. 

However, this “fire and brimstone” approach has been tempered by the Church. The phrase that I like is: “A lion in the pulpit and a lamb in the confessional.” There ought to be a strength to preaching the entire Gospel, but there should be overwhelming mercy in the pastoral care of souls. 

The leader is above the law

The Church officially teaches that all Catholics, including the Pope and bishops, be obedient to the legitimate secular authority to which they are beholden. The outrageous sex abuse scandals show us the need for great transparency. But, at least in the United States, the practice of reporting abuse is to go directly to the local authorities before reporting to the diocese. 

The group uses “thought reform” methods

There is a proper indoctrination (being led into the doctrines of the Church), but this type of false indoctrination is characterized, according to Sam & Tanner, by “follow your leader” and “doubt your doubts.” The Church welcomes questions and instructs the faithful to believe but not without evidence and strong apologetic answers. 

The group is elitist

The Catholic Church is open to prince and pauper alike and always has been. Jesus Christ came for sinners, not the righteous. And all of us are sinners in need of grace. Elitism, of any kind, is the result of sin, not the instruction or organization of the Catholic Church.

There is no financial transparency

Canon Law, the official law of the Church, requires a radical financial transparency. The tithes of the people are put in sacred trust and the local parish, diocese, bishops’ conference, or Vatican have an obligation to use that money well. And the people have a right to know how it is being used. Therefore, there is scandal when money is not handled well. Because the truth always comes out, because of the culture of transparency.

The group performs secret rites

The secret rites, according to Sam & Tanner, are “confusing, bizarre, or even offensive.” They are there to test loyalty and entrench the shame-cycle. In the History of the Church, many of the initiatory rites (like Baptism and Liturgy of the Eucharist) were secret. They were closed to the public because the early Church was being killed for their beliefs. 

Once Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire, the secrecy remained because of the sacredness of the Sacraments. If one wished to access them, they need only enter the catechumenate! The Sacraments are freely offered, but there is path to access to them to ensure that the person knows what they are asking for. 

More recently, groups like the Knights of Columbus had some secret initiatory rites (they are no longer secret as of this writing), but they were not confusing, bizarre, or offensive. They were geared towards charity, unity, and fraternity. The air of secrecy existed as something fun and interesting to share between brothers. 

Bottom Line

In the modern sense of the word, is the Catholic Church a “cult”? – No, we are not. In the ancient usage of the term, is the Catholic Church a cult(us)? – Absolutely, in terms of a definite form of worship and religious observance.

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