Teaching to Die to Self… Or Grooming for Cult Sacrifice?

Teaching to Die to Self… Or Grooming for Cult Sacrifice? September 24, 2018

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”

— Mark 8:34b-35 (Gospel for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

“Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)… you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices…. As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

— Colossians 3:5, 8-9, 12-14

Matthias Stom – Le sacrifice d’Abraham / Public Domain

Is the Catholic Church teaching its members to die to self, as Jesus and St. Paul teach us to do, or is it grooming sacrificial lambs for a religious cult? I do not in any way believe that the authentic teaching of the Church does the latter. Yet I have seen too many indications that certain priests, Church leaders, teachers—and even parents and other laity—spin ambiguities and cultural factors in Catholicism to groom rank-and-file Catholics to be self-effacing in ways that do not serve the Gospel. These distorted interpretations of self-sacrifice cause needless suffering and even make Catholics more vulnerable to abuse, not only by Church officials but also within the family and community.

Jesus does not teach us to suffer simply for the sake of suffering. We are told to lose ourselves for the sake of the Gospel, and in order to replace the evil deeds of the flesh with spiritual goods. If someone is threatening or hurting us, we should try to get away from that harm to the extent reasonably possible; deliberately staying enables them to sin even more seriously. (This is not, of course, to shame victims who freeze up when threatened or attacked, for this response is in no way deliberate.) Forgiveness requires seeking and praying for the good of those who hurt us, not enabling them to continue to do so. When we sacrifice our desires, it should be those with negative consequences that we sacrifice, not beneficial desires such as generous friendship and love.

It is a problem when teachers of the Catholic faith demonize “attachments,” rather than focusing on objective sins such as slander, wrath, fornication, and greed. Attachments to people, to beauty, to interests, etc. can be very good things that facilitate love and joy and human development. As long as they do not bring us into opposition to God’s law or will for us, they need not be feared or avoided. But Catholic messaging about “detachment” sometimes slips into isolating the devout person from friends and loved ones, a classic step in grooming for abuse. We need to be crystal clear that detachment from healthy interpersonal relationships is never God’s plan for us—quite the opposite, He commands us to love one another! Neither are we called to detachment from people just because they are not part of our faith-based community or “domestic church.” People who lack meaningful connections outside of close-knit communities, whether they be family, a religious order, or lay religious community, will have an extremely difficult time reporting or escaping abuse. “Outside” friendships are not only an opportunity for evangelization; they can also serve a preventative function against brainwashing and exploitation.

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