Common Wisdom—Cult: Catholic or Coercive

Of the most basic words in our language, none has suffered more misunderstanding in our time than the word cult.

Originally cult—or cultus—meant worship, a gathering together to adore and give thanks to God. And so it still means in the Catholic Catechism, in which the term “cult” is immediately cross-referenced in the index to the term “worship.”

To worship, to adore God is, according to the Catechism, “the first act of the virtue of religion.” To adore God “is to acknowledge him as God, as the Creator and Savior, the Lord and Master of everything that exists, as infinite and merciful Love.” This acknowledgment of the one God as Lord, which is worship or cult, “sets man free from turning in on himself, from the slavery of sin and the idolatry of the world.”

Obviously, then, the Church defines cult in its original meaning of worship. The Church has always understood, as well, that from cult springs culture, the response of a people to the voice of God. Culture in turn may become a civilization, perhaps a great one. In any event, there is no living culture without roots in worship. Cutting off a culture from its religious origins in the cult saps the vitality of the culture—precisely the modern problem. When culture thus becomes divorced from authentic cult, then pseudo-cults arise.

Little wonder, consequently, that we Americans are confused by the severance of cult and culture. Alarmed by reports of satanic groups capturing gullible youth and gentle folk killing themselves in the hope of leaving their container bodies so as to sail away in the tail of a comet, we take cult to mean not worship of the one true God, but worship of an evil force. Although the Church understands cult to be worship in its primary and good sense, cult in the popular mind has become sinister, even deadly. To be sure, there are strange, spooky sects afoot these days, preaching doctrines and practices to unnerve any parent. As a result of the presence of eccentric, possibly dangerous sects, and as a result of our culture becoming unglued from true cult, the popular mind has developed a fear of cults so strong that even legitimate religious orders and movements such as Opus Dei, Legionaries of Christ, Focolare, and the Charismatic Movement are under suspicion of being cults of the sinister sort.

The cult stigma becomes difficult for these orders to combat, given the very nature of religious orders, which calls for discipline as part of their freely chosen way of life. Plagued, moreover, by our modern denial of authority, even authority freely recognized, and by our consequent disdain of discipline, religious orders and movements undergo yet more suspicion that they may be coercive cults.

Faced with the real danger of odd cults on the one hand, and the discipline of legitimate religious orders and movements on the other, how does one judge whether a movement is truly worshipful or whether it is false?

Jesus himself answers our dilemma. Cults and causes may be false; therefore judge them by their fruits.

“Beware of false prophets,” he says, “who come to you disguised as sheep but underneath are ravenous wolves. You will be able to tell them by their fruits.” He could not be more clear: “A sound tree produces good fruit but a rotten tree bad fruit. A sound tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor a rotten tree bear good fruit. Any tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown on the fire. I repeat, you will be able to tell them by their fruits.”

To determine the soundness of a religious order or movement, we look for certain fruits in its members: love of Christ and his Church, expressed especially in reverence for the sacraments and in a prayer life modeled on traditional spiritual exercises; obedience to the authority of Scripture, the apostolic tradition, and the moral and doctrinal teachings of the Magisterium; absolute respect for the sacredness and freedom of the human person; and, finally, an emphasis on charity, prudence, and cheerfulness.

A further useful criterion for judging the truth of a movement is whether the members are mostly admirable and whether the order or movement seems to help or hinder their progress in all ways—spiritual, intellectual, moral, social.

As a final check on the authenticity of a movement, we look for its approval by the Vatican. To be certain, let the Church be our guide.


  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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