Stop the New Movements, I Wanna Get off!

Let me begin by sayingt that, if Fruit of the Loom put John Allen, Jr.’s face on Underoos, I’d be first in line for a pair — and where I live, nighttime temperatures get up into the nineties, so that’s really saying something. The man is the Man, the undisputed mack daddy, prince and heavyweight champeen of all Catholic journalists.

In National Catholic Reporter, he advises us to “keep an eye on” Cardinal Angelo Scola who is currently presiding as Patriarch of Venice.

First, he has enormous influence with Benedict XVI. Scola is a veteran member of the “Communio” school in Catholic theology co-founded by the current pope decades ago, and he shares Benedict’s passion for the late Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Scola also comes out of the Communion and Liberation movement, which is Benedict’s favorite among the “new movements” in the Catholic Church. To illustrate Scola’s pull, it’s enough to recall that it was Scola who suggested several months ago that Benedict consider creating a Vatican department dedicated to “New Evangelization,” which he promptly did.

The “new movements” Allen’s referring to are Focolare, Neocatechumenal Way and Communion and Liberation. Like them or not — and there are plenty of reasons do do either, as we’ll see — the role they’ve played in the new evangelization is impossible to overstate.

To sketch them in brief, Neocatechumenal Way was founded in 1964, in Spain, by Carmen Hernansez and Kiko Arguello, a guitar player. NC Way operates from the premise that catechesis and conversion should involve an intense, lifelong committment. According to its statutes:

The Neocatechumenal Way is at the service of the bishops and parish priests as an itinerary for the rediscovery of Baptism and an ongoing education in the faith, offered to the faithful who want to revive in their lives the riches of Christian initiation by travelling this path of conversion and catechesis.

Toward this end, NC Way organizes members into communities ranging in number from 20 to 50. Each community moves through eight stages of “instroduction” — a process, according to Manchester Guardian’s Madeline Bunting, that can take over 20 years.

Bunting estimates its overall membership at “somewhere between 500,000 and a million.” It operates Redemptoris Mater seminaries all over the world, and has been noted for its impressive turnouts on World Youth Day.

Communion and Liberation is the brainchild of Msgr. Luigi Giussani, who founded the group in 1954, originally under the name of Gioventu Studentesca, or “student youth.” Its purpose, a CL friend tells me, was to present future members of Italy’s intelligentsia with a compelling alternative to Marxism and neo-fascism. “The communists and the fascists fought each other,” says my friend, who joined in the 1970s, as a university student. “And they both fought us.”

CL sends its members through Schools of Community, or SOCs, where they study Giussani’s works, including The Religious Sense, At The Origin Of The Christian Claim, Why The Church?, and Is It Possible To Live This Way? The intended takeaway, acording to Wiki:

CL describes its purpose as “the education to Christian maturity of its adherents and collaboration in the mission of the Church in all the spheres of contemporary life.” It aims to communicate the awareness that Christ is the one true response to the deepest needs of people in every moment of history. CL says that it requires only that Christ be recognized as immediately present. The person who encounters and welcomes the presence of Christ undergoes a conversion that affects not only the individual but also the surrounding environment.

Unlike the other groups, CL does not maintain very precise records on its membership, though Wiki reports that over 100,000 people attend SOC meetings in Italy alone.

Focolare — which, to me, has always sounded like the title of a Jerry Vale song — was founded in 1943 by an elementary-school teacher named Silvia Lubich, who later changed her name to “Chiara” after Clare of Assisi. (It may also have occurred to her that “Silvia Lubich” sounded a little too, you know, Five Towns for the leader of a Catholic ecclesial movement.) Its rather ambitious charism is to promote unity — within the Church, among the various Christian denominations, between different faiths, and ultimately, throughout the world. Currently, Focolare claims “140,000 core members and some two million affiliates in 182 nations:”

Focolare is unique among the three not only in that its founder and longtime president was a woman, but because Lubich decreed that only women should succeed her to the presidency. It may, in fact, be largest fully fuctional co-ed matriarchy in the entire Catholic Church. As Maria Voce, Lubich’s successor, explains to Maestro Allen:

The logic comes from the inspiration of Chiara. Remember that she gave Focolare the name ‘The Work of Mary.’ It’s the work of Mary not in the sense of a devotion to Mary, but in the sense of bringing Jesus to the world, and Chiara wanted the Focolare to have the same objective – to carry, through the experience of reciprocal love, the living presence of Jesus. It’s an essentially Marian work. As such, Chiara felt the president should be a woman, even if she didn’t always feel that so clearly. It was an idea that grew within her, based on the Marian function of the work. It was John Paul II who confirmed it

All three of these groups have been attacked for secrecy, brainwashnig, and venerating their leaders to an unhealthy, not to mention un-Christian, degree. In 1995, Gordon Urquhart, a former member of Focolare, published The Pope’s Armada, imputing to the movements:

Many of their main characteristics reflect those of Mao’s Red Guards—the fanaticism, the blind obedience, the sloganeering, the personality cult around the Pope, manipulation of the media, anti-intellectualism, denunciations, the formulation of rigid ideology, a younger generation mobilized in the struggle against their elders . . .

Madeline Bunting reports that Msgr. Joseph Buckley, vicar-general of the diocese of Clifton, England:

likened the methods of the NC to the totalitarianism of fascism and communism. He claimed that it used brainwashing techniques of repetitive music and phrases and made demands on members, in time and commitment, that threatened family life. He said it attracted the mentally weak and emotionally unstable with ‘tragic consequences’, while the commitment of adherents is ‘properly named fanaticism’.

All of this is a little too hyperbolic to take seriously. I’ve lived in China, and spoken with people who survived the Cultural Revolution — Focolare to Red Guards is no comparison to make lightly. But at the least — the very least — it seems fair to say that these groups, at least some of the time, adopt a high-intensity style and demand an unusual amount of committment from their members. What I find remarkable is not that intelligent critics are deeply disturbed by their style, and find their demands excessive beyond reason, but that hundreds of thousands of people find them agreeable. They can’t all be lemmings.

The reason should be pretty obvious. The old concept of Catholic community, centered on the parish, worked fine in pre-industrial times, where people lived cheek-by-jowl in cozy little villages (if they were lucky, cozy little villages with terra-cotta roofs). It survived in America until World War Two, where European immigrants, their children, and sometimes their children’s children, lived as “urban villagers,” in enclaves just as tightly knit as that nameless hamlet near Foggia that Pop and Nona left behind them.

Now? Thanks to the freeway and the suburb, we’re all islands unto ourselves. The Internet is the bottle in which we leave our notes. The parish church is just a building. Anyone who wants community has to seek consciously to build one. And, as often happens when we try deliberately to re-create something that once occurred naturally, we overdo it; the actual result ends up looking like a distortion of the intended result. Think of bottle blondes and you’ll get the basic idea.

If groups like this really are the future of the Church, I’m in bad shape. De gustibus non disputandum est, but I’ve never been a joiner. The idea of staking so much of my time, my spirituality, and when you get down to it, my very sanity on, well, other people, scares me senseless. That’s not to say I’m a misanthrope; I like people just fine, as long as I have a say in the terms on which we relate. That’s why I’ve gotten some of my most satisfying experiences of Christian fellowship over the Internet, where associations are at their most voluntary. As I wrote in “I Got My Religion Online”:

Life on the board both primed me for life in the Church and spoiled me for it. Whenever a parish busybody inquires about my life in a way that feels invasive, I wish I could ignore him as easily as I can an uninvited PM. Once on retreat, when I saw two women nearly come to blows over pride of place in the kitchen, I felt like saying, “Cool off. Take a vacation. Go post in another thread for a while.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I spent a few months going to CL School of Community meetings. I found nothing coercive or cultlike about them. For example, to this day, I wouldn’t know Msgr. Giussani if he sneaked up behind me in church and kicked me in the apse; his picture was not hanging, Castro-style, on the walls of the places where we held our meetings. When I left — mainly because I’ve had more fun in dentists’ chairs than I had reading Giussani’s Is It Possible to Live This Way?* — nobody went to any unseemly lengths to coax me back.

I know what you’re thinking. Ha, ha. Very funny. But you know, coming off like a headstrong jerk has its advantages. If CL has some equivalent of the Regnum Christi come-on, “In the beginning, God saw you as a member of this group,” only a fool would have pulled it on me without a starvation bunker and Jane Fonda handy.

*It didn’t especially help that by far the best eye candy in our cell, or whatever they’re called, was a Memora Domine. That’s right, she was from Italy, and in looks a cross between Keira Knightley and Irene Pappas. And she was a consecrated celibate. As St. Sebastian once said, somebody shoot me.

  • kenneth

    The “neocatechumenal way”! A piece of non-sectarian advice: Never join any movement that you can’t pronounce without sounding like you just flunked a field sobriety test!

  • Max Lindenman

    Amen. One time I tried to pronounce “catechetical,” and ended up doing a Porky Pig: “Cateche-catecheti-cateche-religious formation.”

  • kenneth

    And if you’d have kept trying to pronounce it for too long, some well-meaning whitecoat would have sent you down for an MRI!

  • Eka

    Excellent article! I am not a “joiner” either, but I must say that CL puts on excellent events, with fine speakers and beautiful performances. THey are fun to attend because they make me feel like I am in Europe, with all the chicness … and chain smoking. The people are interesting and far from being “mentally weak and emotionally unstable”…quite the opposite.

    Your admission that you’ve “had more fun in dentists’ chairs than … reading Giussani’s Is It Possible to Live This Way?” is hilarious!

    Love John Allen too…but I wish he would get off the “I wonder who’s going to succeed Benedict?” riff. B16 needs to be around for a while!

  • Max Lindenman

    The very nice Sardiian who recruited me into CL once said its members were famous for having potty mouths. At least in that respect, I fit in just fine.

    I agree with you on Benedict. He reminds me of my Aunt Betty’s father-in-law, who moved in with her and his son around the time he turned ninety, and stuck around for the next six years. My great-grandmother used to mutter, “He’ll be the last man on earth.” It was as close to snark as I’ve ever heard her come.

  • Eka

    Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, the US national director says that CL is Opus Dei for bad Catholics…

  • Max Lindenman

    Booya! He almost talked me into re-joining.

    (Actually, since there are no very formal standards on who’s in and who’s out — nobody has to whistle, hoot, holler, or whatever the OD term is — I might still technically belong.

  • Bertha

    This is Bertha’s husband…whatever the movement, it ought to combine personal conversion with prayer, doctrine, devotions, community, and baptismal mission. Right now in TX, there is a movement called ACTS retreats, yet another variation on Cursillo but for parish renewal. Lots to commend them, as they are 1.5 days longer than Christ Renews His Parish (35 + years founded in Cleveland), and I think better designed. But my experience with many of these is that cult like responses occur (T-shirts, haranguing parishioners to attend, lots of public hugging, etc.) and often instead of strengthening parishes, divides them into who’s been and who hasn’t instead of providing leaven into parish ministries and organizations.

    The worst thing is that team formation often lacks sufficient pastor involvement and differentiated leaders who can keep talk preparation from devolving into embarrassing confessional material. ACTS is a great opportunity for non-sentimental evangelization, catechesis and community formation of adults. But if its not lead properly, its just another annoying “thing” that tires out pastor and parishioner alike. Then again, as CHesterton says, “Anything worth doing, is worth doing badly.”

  • Joe

    “The man is the Man, the undisputed mack daddy, prince and heavyweight champeen of all Catholic journalists.”

    Sad state of affairs, given his original bio of the Pope was so bad he had to issue an apology of sorts. And he is the Prince…

    Which means what about the rest of the pack?

    I find Allen helpful, but biased and also on the take with the NCReporter. An employee so outrageously against the Pope I’d think you’d mute your love for the individual reporter in question. But your lines are good soundbites, I confess, even if wildly problematic. In an agae where he beatify saints in short order, I guess its all good. Critical thinking… very negative!!

  • Walt

    Max: You omitted one of the key movements that’s always invited to have a speaker make a presentation at those convocations of movements and communities: the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (or Renewal in the Spirit, as it is known in Italy). The CCR is often overlooked because it’s something of an anomaly, as it has no founder (except the Holy Spirit). Also, it began in the USA. Don’t feel bad, though. Despite the millions of people worldwide whose faith has been renewed through the CCR, and despite great volume of affirmation the CCR received from JP2, there are still many priests and bishops who don’t quite know how to handle the CCR! It helps us to stay humble.

  • Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    “…a little too Five Towns…” Oh Max, you scandalize and delight me with your words, truly you do. Of course we “met” through a choice of your words and I am not complaining about that!

    I know very little of these groups for the most part. I will say that a good blog/online Catholic friend of mine is a devoted member of CL. I wonder what he would say about all this, who knows.

    As for Focolare, it has looked attractive to me because of its desire for unity and that is something I myself am devoted to. (Although I often stink at it!)

    However, I am struck by your remarks about not being a joiner. Now, so many of us – especially many of us in these online faith communities – would often say the same thing. That is my own big joke (haha the joke has been on me) about having returned to Church after a LONG absence. (For the record, gone for 18 years and back for over 20 now.)I used to say I could never go back, I am not a joiner.

    However, if we are not joiners of some sort, we wouldn’t be here, would we?

    And that is why – and we see it even in this thread – the whole issue of being Church is complicated. It is never about me or you and it is certainly not about the ideologically motivated issues of who is “in” or “out” – it is about restoring the broken Body of Christ.

    Which is of course – us.

    And that brings me back to being a joiner – we are members of that One Body.

    Members. Joining. Oh this whole Body of Christ business is a real challenge, isn’t it?

    Thanks for a thoughtful and well written post. You clearly are a joiner after all – you bring people together with your words. Even if you do scandalize – but also delight – me and others with them.

  • Max Lindenman

    Joe: I won’t say Allen’s perfect, but he’s one of very few Catholic writers who does traditional journalistic leg-work of gathering facts from all sides. He’s also able — or so it seems to me – to write about the Vatican, and from the Vatican, without writing for, or for that matter against, the Vatican. That’s pretty impressive.

    What does that say? It says there’s very little money in writing about religion or spirituality. I think the last person to get rich off it was L. Ron Hubbard.

    Walt: I ommitted plenty of groups, including the Sant’Egidio Society, which has always fascinated me. But, given space constraints, I had to cull somewhere. Because my goal was to sketch the so-called future of the Church, I chose the three largest groups.

    I may, however, write about CCR in the future. I have a natural “in.” Paul Schreck, the guy who sponsored me for RCIA, grew up charismatic Catholic. His father, Professor Alan Schreck, teaches theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and has written Your Life in the Holy Spirit. Both will make great sources.

    Fran: Scandalizing with a wink is my stock in trade. Actually, I was afraid that line might be dated. I’m told Great Neck is now full of Iranians.

    Lately I’ve become fascinated by the whole notion of community, and how elusive it can be. I’ve always longed for the generic parish life — you know, where you sort of know everyone, but aren’t claustrophobically close to anyone. In my next column, due out tomorrow, I relate how I saw that realized, if briefly, in the oddest way.

  • Judith

    Thanks Max, for the enlightening post! Several years ago, a priest of our religious order gave us a retreat, most of it filled with quotes from Msgr. Giussani (none of which seemed particularly inspiring or relevant to any of us sisters). It reached such a level that, unknown to each other, we began tallying the quotes! What was particularly troubling to us was that this priest apparently felt that our own Order’s rich spirituality was so lacking that he had to look elsewhere for guidance. Although it may be true that these communities may not corporately promote a personality cult of the founder, there is always a danger that individual members may become so entranced with him/her, that they do so.

  • Joshua Garcia

    “That’s why I’ve gotten some of my most satisfying experiences of Christian fellowship over the Internet…” Does no one else see the problem in that?

  • Young Canadian RC Male

    Hey Max, can you clarify that line about Regnum Christi in your post? I can’t tell whether that’s negative or positive.

  • Sherry

    I have a friend who spoke glowingly of the Neocatecuminate way but never articulated what it was or why it was and so I was not interested. There is much to recommend the ACTS as it is not a you must join to understand mentality.

    Subsets within Catholicism must necessarily be less than Catholicism, as Catholicism is the universal, the totality of truth. As the Body of Christ, we have to be able to take all commers, and their individual paths to holiness may be shorter or longer than ours.

  • Gail F

    Thanks for explaining all these! I have heard of them many times but, as there are none around here, I had no idea what any of them were.

    Groups like this have always sprung up among the laity, answering some unanswered need in the church at the time. Sometimes they flourished for a while, but faded away. Sometimes they became a long-standing (if not necessarily permanent) feature of Catholicism in a certain area. And sometimes they spawned heretical sects. Usually, as is the case with the Church, whatever was good in them was synthesized into the whole.

    Time will tell with these. But in my opinion, if the Church were not generating groups like these it would be strange and possibly a bad sign.

  • Bernadette

    Personally, I’ve always found the Communion & Liberation people a little creepy, but I think that might be just the people in our local group.

    I grew up in the CCR, and watched the drama as various CCR Communities went through their growing pains, and in some instances, eventually disintegrated. In reflecting on this, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a grace in having a place under the umbrella of the Catholic hierarchical Church. When we try to reinvent the wheel, recreating church outside of that umbrella, things inevitably turn weird, and then eventually fall apart. Not that groups within the Church can’t turn weird too, but I think it can be a little harder when you have competent supervision.

  • Barbara Peters

    I hate to correct you in a public way on a totally tangential issue but Great Neck is not one of the Five Towns. Those areas are on Long Island’s South Shore while Great Neck is on the North Shore.

  • jkm

    Bertha’s husband, your triumvirate of T-shirts, haranguing people to join, and lots of public hugging is (besides making me guffaw in a public place) the perfect set of criteria for determining when a movement tilts over into (at least potential) cultishness. Kind of the spiritual equivalent of jumping the shark.

    CL is the only one of these (and others) I’ve ever thought about exploring, and thanks to Eka this bad Catholic now knows why.

    And Bernadette, I do love the umbrella reference, and the astute analysis about how much easier it gets to turn weird the farther the branches get from the Vine.

    Good food for thought, all, as I go off whistling “Fo-co-LA-re, oh, oh, oh, oh . . .”

  • Kim Luisi

    Max, as a member of CL, I got a kick out what you wrote here. Although I have one question to ask: “Do you really want John Allen, Jr. on your ass?”

    Having worked with Albacete, I can tell you that YES! CL is Opus Dei for bad Catholics.

    And YES, CL people are creepy…..this is because we are bad Catholics, curse and attracts all sorts around us……

    And we really do put on some cool events.

    And yes, it is hard to tell the numbers who participate in weekly School of Community because there is no official registration. People can come and go as they please…and they do. The charism of CL may not speak to someone, just as the Dominican charism may not speak to an individual. So long as someone is free in Christ and walks with Christ, then how they do it counts for very little. We simply have to be true to who we are as human beings. Test everything. Retain what is good.

  • Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    Can’t wait to see the next post Max. And yes – Iranians. And yes, Barbara Peters is correct!

  • thomas tucker

    I agree with my priest friend who says that it’s really very simple- say your prayers, receive the Sacraments, and do good deeds. You don’t really need to join any special groups.

  • kate

    Sherry says:”…..Subsets within Catholicism must necessarily be less than Catholicism, as Catholicism is the universal, the totality of truth.”

    Hmmm. Well, the church has always had renewal and reform – first the desert fathers/mothers, later monasteries in various iterations, then orders – Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, and so forth. In the modern day, lay movements have been recognized by both Blessed JPII and Pope Benedict as an authentic action of the Holy Spirit. Movements have specific charisms that speak to one and not another. And NONE of us encounter the totality of the Church – no matter where we build our lives – simply not possible.

  • kate

    And another thing….Max, you note: ” All three of these groups have been attacked for secrecy, brainwashnig, and venerating their leaders to an unhealthy, not to mention un-Christian, degree.” I am aware of issues with NCW but not with FOcolare and certainly not CL. My son is in CL and it appears to be very loosely organized and relies on friendship as its entry point. I don’t detect any pressure or secrecy.

  • Max Lindenman

    Kate: Urquart includes CL in the general indictment. As you’ll see, I treat that indictment skeptically — especially where CL is concerned.

  • Max Lindenman

    Urquart is the one who made the allegations, not me. As you’ll note, I cite them skeptically — especially where CL is concerned.