Is the Neo-Catechumenate Way Compatible with
Updated version of an article first published in Religious Life
Review, Ireland, Jan-Feb 1994 , Vol.33, No.164.
by Gerald A. Arbuckle, sm
Gerald Arbuckle, sm, Ph.D., is a graduate in social anthropology
from Cambridge University, a former assistant-general of the Marist
Fathers, Rome, and professor of pastoral anthropology at the East
Asian Pastoral Institute, University of Manila, Philippines. He
is currently a co-director of the Refounding and Pastoral Development
Research Unit, Sydney. Of his ten published books, four have received
awards from the Catholic Press Association of the United States.
He has been appointed consultant theologian by the Union of Superiors
General, Rome, for the Congress on the Future of Religious Life,
Some time back a temporarily professed religious asked his superiors
for permission to join the Neo-Catechumenate movement (or The Way,
as it is sometimes called). He said: 'This organization really impresses
me with its evangelical zeal, strong sense of community and faith
in the Lord. By being with them I can only become a better religious'.
The superiors agreed, but after a few months they found that the
religious was increasingly unavailable for community projects and
less interested in the spirituality and formation requirements of
the congregation. At the same time he became intolerant of those
who questioned the Way's methods of evangelization. When these issues
were pointed out to him, he replied: 'To be true to the movements
goals I must give all that I have. After all that is what commitment
to the Lord means in religious life. I am just fulfilling what the
Lord wants of all Christians and especially religious.'
This incident raises a serious question for superiors and formation
staffs. Is the joining of movements like the Neo-Catechumenate compatible
with the commitment demanded of religious? I believe that a religious
cannot belong fully to both because he/she cannot be totally committed
to two distinct groups whose primary goals are in opposition to
each other. Second, the primary task of the Way in practice is to
downplay the importance of inculturation, but a religious must unconditionally
support evangelization through inculturation. Consequently, religious
superiors have an obligation to set limits to the involvement by
members of their communities in the Way in order to safeguard the
charisms of religious life and the congregation.
In this article I explain the reasons for my conclusions. I argue
that the manner in which the Way acts, according to the experience
of people in England, United States, Australia and in the South
Pacific, marks it out as a sect-like movement. I believe that no
authentic religious can belong to a sect. My reservations about
the Way's organization and pastoral methods could be used by readers
as a case study to assess other contemporary new religious movements
within the Church.
UNDERSTANDING NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS
Particularly over the last two to three decades a wide variety
of new religious movements (NRMs for short) have emerged both within
and outside the mainline Churches. History shows that movements
of this kind arise at times of socio-economic/political upheaval
or chaos. They emerge as an initial and inevitably simplistic effort
to provide a new social integration, as a response to conditions
of acute social anomie or normlessness. During the 1960s the Western
world went through one of the greatest cultural revolutions in recorded
history affecting every aspect of life; no political, religious,
social or artistic institution remained unaffected by the revolution's
radical evaluations. The revolution, which is sometimes referred
to as the Revolution of Expressive Disorder , left many people emotionally
and culturally exhausted, without a sense of identity and belonging,
because the old securities had disintegrated under the speed and
depth of its attack. The NRMs, such as the Unification Church (Moonies),
Scientology offered disoriented people ready-made, clear cut meaning
systems and direction in life.
Vatican II's demolition of the Church's ghetto culture coincided
with the countercultural chaos, so many Catholics were left struggling
to cope with the aftershocks of two revolutions at the same time,
namely the cultural and the conciliar revolutions. Little wonder
that NRMs within the Church, such as the charismatic movement, the
Neo-Catechumenate, Opus Dei and Communione e Liberazione, developed
such an immediate appeal. Many Catholics craved for the certitudes
and boundaries of a pre-Vatican II Church and these movements offered
them a response to these needs. Like most fundamentalist movements
adherents actively look to the central authority, in this case Rome,
to use its coercive power 'to put things right' in the Church. Rome,
however, while continuing to support these movements, has at times
expressed reservations about them: Pope John Paul II spoke of 'questions,
uneasiness and tensions' at the level of local churches because
of 'presumptions and excesses' of members.
From history we see that, when movements begin to form by way of
reaction to revolutionary change, they run the risk of developing
sect-like qualities. A sect sociologically is a grouping formed
in protest against, and sometimes separating from, the parent organization.
Its followers believe that the members of parent grouping have lost,
or compromised, traditional orthodoxy, so they seek a return to
the earlier and purer teachings and practices. Sects, therefore,
commonly have the following qualities. They are elitist, claiming
to have the total truth, so that salvation is possible only by belonging
to the sect. Individuals must earn their membership of a sect by
performing acceptable actions or by undergoing a dramatic conversion
or re-birthing experience.
Sects may accept at least in theory a democratic form of government,
but in fact the power of the group to control individuals, directly
or through its leaders (commonly men), becomes authoritarian. Total
loyalty is demanded of adherents to the group; errant members can
be harshly dealt with, even through formal expulsion, if rules are
Sects generally are fundamentalist in orientation that is, they
angrily reject dialogue with the contemporary world or non-believers.
For example, when fundamentalists react to the 'polluting evils'
of modernity, they assert that the world and/or members of the parent
organisation have absorbed the evil around them and their task is
to bring the organisation back to the assumed golden age of a former
period. Sect members, believing they have the fullness of the truth,
are intolerant of people who dare to think differently; they indignantly
condemn anyone daring to question their assumptions of righteousness.
Dialogue can only endanger the commitment of sect members to orthodoxy.
In the Church these movements tend to be lay organisations. Priests,
however, may be accepted as having a necessary function, but they
must submit to the lay authority in matters other than the priest's
Cults technically are milder forms of sects. Throughout this article
I use the word sect strictly as described above. In contemporary
popular language, what are today called 'the cults', such as the
Moonies, are sociologically sects.
ORIGINS AND THEOLOGY OF THE WAY
The Way originated in the early 1970s, emerging out of the personal
religious conversion of an artist and musician, Kiko Arguello, and
a small group of companions in the Palomeras slums of Madrid. Theoretically,
the movement aims to re-create the lengthy period of training and
teaching that catechumens underwent in the early Church. This necessitates
an intimate knowledge of biblical texts, a powerful experience of
the Church as a small accepting community, the revitalization of
the Easter Vigil as the central Christian feast, and participation
in Sunday evening Eucharist and sacraments with a degree of commitment
exceeding what is expected in the average parish. It sees the Church
ideally as consisting of small communities with members being held
together by strong communitarian bonds; lay catechists have a central
position and members are expected to be generous in giving of their
time and income to the group's activities. They may be required
to go as missionaries of the Way to any part of the world at any
time decided by the Way's authorities.
The Way is not concerned with any particular social or political
programs. Their task, they claim, is verbally to proclaim the Word
of God. Little or no cultural knowledge of the area to be evangelized
is necessary; all that is needed is zeal and dependence on the power
of the Holy Spirit.
There is no doubting the sincerity of members of the Way nor that
many people may experience profound conversion to Jesus Christ through
this movement. However, I and many others in the field have strong
reservations about the theology and pastoral methods of the Way.
First, the Way in practice commonly exemplifies many of the qualities
listed above for sects. For example, it requires an unquestioning
commitment from its members and submission to the authority of its
organizers. It is elitist in the sense described above and frequently
divisive within parishes. It demands an excessive time involvement
from priests/religious and/or it commonly acts without reference
to existing parish structures.
Second, in practice the Way rejects the Gospel commitment to inculturation.
Inculturation is the dynamic and evaluative interchange between
the Gospel and cultures, 'an ongoing process of reciprocal and critical
interaction and assimilation between them.' As evangelizers we are
not free to choose or reject inculturation. It is a Gospel imperative.
As John Paul II says: 'the Church's dialogue with the cultures of
our time (is) a vital area, one in which the destiny of the world...is
at stake, and 'the synthesis between culture and faith is not just
a demand of culture, but also of faith.'
Inculturation is a complex and difficult process for it 'presupposes',
writes the Pope, 'a long and courageous (effort) ... in order that
the Gospel may penetrate the soul of living cultures.' This is so
because inter alia inculturation assumes:
a) that the interaction is between two cultures. It is not a
simple encounter between the Gospel and a culture, because the
Gospel comes to our times as already embedded in a particular
culture of the time of the evangelists. There must be an ongoing
discernment to discover what is at the heart of Christ's message,
and what belongs to Hebrew/Greek cultures of his time and that
of the evangelists.
b) that the Gospel message is also further encased in the centuries-old
culture of the evangeliser; the Gospel can be adequately proclaimed
only if the evangelizer can remove this cultural baggage and present
only what pertains to Gospel faith.
c) that the Holy Spirit is already acting within cultures even
before evangelization begins; evangelizers are to recognize this
presence through acknowledging values that conform to the Gospel.
Hence, the need to approach cultures with a critical respect,
even a sense of awe in the presence of the Holy.
d) that there is to be a dialogue, sponsored by evangelizers,
between the Gospel and cultures. Vatican II speaks of a living
exchange between the Church and the diverse cultures of people'.
I have highlighted the two words 'living exchange' to emphasize
the remarkable theological boldness of the Council Fathers. Through
a process of dialogue and exchange between the Gospel and cultures,
local expressions of worship and theology should emerge.
But dialogue is impossible, if evangelizers are not prepared to
be open to the culture of the people being evangelized by learning
as much about their way of life as is possible - the language, for
example. As Paul VI significantly writes: 'what matters is to evangelise
human culture and cultures (not in a purely decorative way as it
were by applying a thin veneer, but in a vital way, in depth and
right to their very roots). The transposition has to be done with
discernment, seriousness, respect and competence.' To act otherwise
is to insult the people one wishes to help. There is no shortcut
to this process, unless the Holy Spirit works miracles and they
are not the normal way of evangelization!
No doubt the Way is adapted to its culture of origin, but it does
not at all translate constructively to other cultures. As measured
by the demands of inculturation outlined above, the Way falls gravely
short. In their enthusiasm to preach the Good News the Way's followers
remain uncritical of the distinction between the message of Christ
and the ways it is expressed in the cultural language of the apostolic
times. This is precisely the oppressive situation that Peter and
Paul condemned at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35). Gordon
Urquhart, who has studied the organization, writes of the Way's
lack of concern for inculturation - with its justice imperative
and the need to respect the presence of the Holy Spirit in other
cultures - in this way. He says that the Way's 'world-rejecting
stance is so extreme that little interaction with the wider society
is possible. The emphasis is on the spiritual life and detachment
from all worldly cares. All attempts to change or influence society
are actively discouraged as presumptuous.'
The rituals and catechetical material of the Way's evangelizers
are pre-packaged in Europe and they are then imposed on other cultures,
with no dialogue considered necessary or advisable. This inhibits
the inculturation process. Culturally insensitive methods to express
community bonding are encouraged. Thus the hugging that may be characteristic
of, and acceptable in, contemporary charismatic Western communities
is markedly offensive in other cultures. For example, in Melanesian
countries within the South Pacific, this form of public 'joyful'
expression is taboo outside very narrowly defined social boundaries.
Furthermore, I see no concerted attempts among the Way's evangelizers
to prepare themselves for work in cultures so different from their
own. Simple trust in the Holy Spirit is no substitute for the serious
cultural openness and respect for diversity, discernment and pastoral
competence that Paul VI considers essential for inculturation. The
Way also exemplifies fundamentalist qualities. Its followers are
not prepared to dialogue with people questioning their pastoral
assumptions and methods; they have the truth, so dialogue is unnecessary.
RELIGIOUS LIFE COMMITMENT VERSUS THE WAY
A religious is one who is called by God for a mission of faith/justice
service. He/she is to respond freely and totally to the Gospel by
witnessing within a Church-approved community that is constantly
striving to be formed by Christ and in his vision. By 'Church-approved
community' we mean that the Church acknowledges the gospel authenticity
of the founding insight; members commit themselves exclusively to
live out that insight under the legitimate authority of the group,
not that of another congregation or group. And that authority must
be used collaboratively, that is, individuals need to be consulted
and, as far as is possible, to be encouraged to participate in all
decision-making processes. Anything that interferes with this exclusive
commitment to the charisms of religious life and the congregation,
no matter how good it might be in itself - such as, for example,
a particular form of spirituality, a type of community life - is
contrary to the original offering made by the religious to the Lord
and his Church.
Should a religious become a fulltime member of the Way without
restrictions, I believe that he/she has equivalently opted out of
the congregation, because the Way demands unconditional loyalty
to its vision and authority structure. The fact is that a religious
cannot be committed to two organizations simultaneously, each demanding
of its followers total commitment. It would be equivalent to attempting
to be a Marist and a Jesuit at the same time!
From the standpoint of mission and spirituality religious must
struggle to be prophetically at the cutting edge of the Gospel and
cultures. That is their primary task. They cannot escape the mission
of faith/justice to the world. They exist to challenge the world
and the Church to be true to the values and vision of Christ. Religious,
if they are to be prophetic, must, however, be specialists in inculturating
the Gospel. But, since the catechetical methods and assumptions
of the Way fundamentally conflict with the requirements of inculturation,
religious cannot be unconditionally involved with the Way. Religious
life, contrary to the sect-like qualities of the Way, stands for
universality and a critical openness to the world.
In brief, a religious congregation, if it is to be true to the
charism of religious life, must not become a sect, nor can it support
sect-like activities in other groups. Neither can a congregation
be acting authentically if it is not committed to the faith/justice
mission of Christ. Inculturation is integral to that mission. The
Neo-Catechumenate in practice does not accept this apostolic vision
and openness, as clarified by Vatican II and further insisted on
by subsequent ecclesial social teaching. Therefore, congregational
leaders to safeguard the integrity of the charisms of their community,
and to support prophetically the integral vision of Christ to the
world, cannot allow their religious to be uncritically involved
in the Way movement.