THE CHALLENGE OF NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS
Cardinal Arinze at the Cardinals Meeting, April 5, 1991 in an address to
the April 4-7 consistory at the Vatican
A translation by of Arinze's Italian-language text
1. The rise and spread of the sects or new religious movements is
a marked phenomenon in the religious history of our times. They operate
with considerable vitality. Some of them are of an esoteric nature. Others
originate from their own interpretation of the Bible. And many have roots
in Asian or African religions, or they combine in a syncretistic way
elements from these religions and Christianity.
Bishops are often besieged with requests for information and guidance, or
they are asked to take some action regarding this disturbing phenomenon.
But in many cases the lack of adequate information can lead either to no
pastoral action or to overreaction.
To stimulate reflection and pastoral planning, may I put before you,
venerable fathers, reflection on: terminology; typology of the new
religious movements; origin of the new religious movements and reasons for
their spread; problems posed by the new religious movements; pastoral
response, general; pastoral response, specific.
There is a problem in what terminology to use with reference to the groups
under discussion. The reason is that the reality is in itself complex. The
groups vary greatly in origin, beliefs, size, means of recruitment,
behavior pattern, and attitude toward the Church, other religious groups,
and society. It is therefore no surprise that there is as yet no agreed
name for them. Here are some terms in use.
The word would seem to refer more directly to small groups that broke
away from a major religious group, generally Christian, and that hold
deviating beliefs or practices.
The word is not used in the same sense everywhere. In Latin America,
for example, there is a tendency to apply the term to all non-Catholic
groups, even when these are families of traditional Protestant churches.
But even in Latin America, in circles that are more sensitive to
ecumenism, the word sect is reserved for the more extremist or aggressive
groups. In Western Europe the word has a negative connotation, while in
Japan the new religions of Shinto or Buddhist origin are freely called
sects in a non-derogatory sense.
New Religious Movements
The term is more neutral than that of sects when
referring to these groups. They are called new not only because they
showed themselves in their present form after the Second World War, but
also because they present themselves as alternatives to the institutional
official religions and the prevailing culture. They are called religious
because they profess to offer a vision of the religious or sacred world,
or means to reach other objectives such as transcendental knowledge,
spiritual illumination, or self-realization, or because they offer to
members their answers to fundamental questions.
These movements or groups are sometimes also called new religions, fringe
religions, free religious movements, alternative religious movements,
marginal religious groups, or (particularly in English-speaking areas)
What Terminology Should Be Adopted?
Since there is no universally accepted terminology, effort should be made
to adopt a term which is as fair and precise as possible.
In this presentation, therefore, I shall generally keep to the term (abbreviated NRMs) because it is neutral and general
enough to include the new movements of Protestant origin, the sects of
Christian background, new Eastern or African movements, and those of the
gnostic or esoteric type.
II. TYPOLOGY OF THE NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS
Types With Reference to Christianity
With reference to Christianity we can distinguish new movements coming
from the Protestant reform, sects with Christian roots but with
considerable doctrinal differences, movements derived from other
religions, and movements stemming from humanitarian or so-called "human
potential" backgrounds (such as New Age and religious therapeutic groups),
or from "divine potential" movements found particularly in Eastern
Different are NRMs which are born through contact between universal
religions and primal religious cultures.
Types With Reference to Background Knowledge System
Four types can be distinguished.
There are movements based on holy Scripture. These are therefore Christian
or they are derived from Christianity.
A second group of NRMs are those derived from other religions such as
Hinduism, Buddhism or traditional religions. Some of them assume in a
syncretistic way elements coming from Christianity.
A third group of sects shows signs of a decomposition of the genuine idea
of religion and of a return of paganism.
A fourth set of sects are gnostic.
Is There a Common Denominator Among These NRMs?
In an effort to find a common denominator, the sects have been defined as
"religious groups with a distinctive world view of their own derived from,
but not identical with, the teachings of a major world religion." This
definition, of a phenomenological type, is only partially correct. It does
not seem to include movements that derive from humanistic, paganizing, or
gnostic backgrounds, movements which some sociologists prefer to call "new
Moreover, such a definition leaves out any value judgment on the
teachings, on the moral behavior of the NRMs' founders and their
followers, and on their relationship with society.
From the doctrinal point of view, the NRMs which operate in traditionally
Christian regions can be located in four categories insofar as they
distance themselves from the Christian vision of the world: Those that
reject the Church, those that reject Christ, those that reject the role of
God (and yet maintain a generic sense of "religion"), and those that
reject the role of religion (and maintain a sense of the sacred, but
manipulated by man to acquire power over others or the cosmos).
Social reaction against the NRMs is based in general not so much on their
doctrine as on their behavior pattern and their relationship with society.
One, however, should not engage in a blanket condemnation or
generalization by applying to all the NRMs the more negative attitudes of
some. Nor should the NRMs be judged incapable of evolution in the positive
NRMs of Protestant origin provoke diverse reactions because of their
aggressive proselytism which denigrates the Catholic Church, or because of
their expansionistic programs and their use of the mass media in a way
that looks like commercialization of religion.
In spite of the diversity of the NRMs and of local situations, they all
raise one main pastoral problem which is the vulnerability of the faithful
to proposals which are contrary to the formation they have received.
The phenomenon of the sects poses a serious problem of discernment for the
pastors of the Church. "It is not every spirit, my dear people, that you
can trust," says the beloved apostle John. "Test them, to see if they come
from God; there are many false prophets now, in the world" (1 Jn.
III. ORIGINS OF THE NRMS AND REASONS FOR THEIR SPREAD
Existence of Spiritual Needs
The NRMs indicate that there are spiritual needs which have not been
identified, or which the Church and other religious institutions have
either not perceived or not succeeded in meeting.
Cultural Identity Search
The NRMs can arise or attract because people are searching for meaning
when they are feeling lost in a period of cultural change.
Filling a Void
Many Christians join the sects or NRMs because they feel that in them
there is an answer to their thirst for Scripture reading, singing,
dancing, emotional satisfaction, and concrete and clear answers.
Seeking Answers to Vital Questions
There are people, for example in Africa, who seek in religion an answer
to, and a protection against, witchcraft, failure, suffering, sickness,
and death. The NRMs seem to them to confront these existential problems
openly and to promise instant remedies, especially physical and
Cashing in on Our Pastoral Weak Points
There are some weak points in the pastoral ministry and the life of
Christian communities which the NRMs exploit. Where priests are few and
scarce, these movements supply many forceful leaders and "evangelists" who
are trained in a relatively short time. Where the Catholic people are
rather ignorant in Catholic doctrine, they bring aggressive biblical
fundamentalism. Where there is "lukewarmness and indifference of the sons
and daughters of the Church who are not up to the level of the
evangelizing mission, with the weak witness they bear to consistent
Christian living" (John Paul II: Address to Mexican Bishops, 6, on May 12,
1990, in , English edition, May 14, 1990, p.2), the
sects bring infectious dynamism and remarkable commitment.
Where genuine Catholic teachings on salvation only in the name of Christ,
on the necessity of the Church, and on the urgency of missionary work and
conversion are obscured, the sects make alternative offers.
Where parishes are too large and impersonal, they install small
communities in which the individual feels known, appreciated, loved and
given a meaningful role. Where lay people or women feel marginalized, they
assign leadership roles to them. Where the sacred liturgy is celebrated in
a cold and routine manner, they celebrate religious services marked by
crowd participation, punctuated with shouts of "alleluia" and "Jesus is
the Lord," and interspersed with scriptural phrases. Where inculturation
is still in its hesitating stages, the NRMs give an appearance of
indigenous religious groups which seem to the people to be locally rooted.
Where homilies are intellectually above the heads of the people, the NRMs
urge personal commitment to Jesus Christ and strict and literal adherence
to the Bible. Where the Church seems presented too much as an institution
marked by structures and hierarchy, the NRMs stress personal relationship
Not all such methods deserve to be frowned upon. The dynamism of their
missionary drive, the evangelistic responsibility assigned to the new
"converts," their use of the mass media, and their setting of the
objectives to be attained, should make us ask ourselves questions as to
how to make more dynamic the missionary activity of the Church.
There are methods used by some NRMs which are contrary to the spirit of
the Gospel because these methods do not respect human freedom of
Of course, it is not enough to condemn these methods. It is also necessary
to prepare pastoral groups which are to inform and form the faithful, and
also to help the young people and the families that find themselves caught
up in these tragic situations.
Action of the Devil
We should not exclude, among explanations of the rise and spread of the
sects or NRMs, the action of the Devil, even if this action is unknown to
the people involved. The Devil is the enemy who sows darnel among the
wheat when the people are asleep.
In the United States of America they have flourished from the last century
and especially in the last forty years. They come mostly from
Protestantism, but also from Eastern religions and from fusion of
religious and psychological elements. From the United States they are
exported to Latin America, South Africa, the Philippines, and Europe.
In Latin America the NRMs are largely of Christian origin and are
generally aggressive and negative toward the Catholic Church, whose
apostolate they often denigrate. The same remarks can be made about the
In Africa the rise of the NRMs has more to do with the post-colonial
political, cultural, and social crisis, and with questions of
inculturation and the African desire for healing and help to face life's
In Asia the NRMs of local origin do not seem to be a major menace in
countries where Christians are a minority except that they are exported to
Europe and the Americas where they attract people, including
intellectuals, with their syncretistic and esoteric offers of relaxation,
peace, and illumination.
In Europe the crisis of a highly secularized technological society that
suffers the fragmentation of a culture that no longer has widely shared
values and beliefs favors the sects or NRMs that come from the United
States or the East.
IV. PROBLEMS AND CHALLENGES POSED BY THE NRMS
Unity of the Church
The NRMs pull Catholics away from the unity and communion of the Church.
This communion is based on the unity of faith, hope, and love received in
baptism. It is nourished by the sacraments, the word of God, and Christian
It is important to keep clearly in view the distinction between sects and
new religious movements on the one hand, and churches and ecclesial
communities on the other.
The distinction between ecumenical relations and dealings between the
Catholic Church and the sects must therefore be carefully considered in
Undermining and Denial of the Faith
Some sects or NRMs either undermine major articles of the Catholic faith
or practically deny them. They propose a man-made religious community
rather than the Church instituted by the Son of God.
Abandonment of the Faith
In more extreme cases, Christians can be led to abandon their faith
through the activity of the NRMs. Some movements promote a type of
neopaganism, a putting of self instead of God at the center of worship,
and a claim to extraordinary knowledge which regards itself as above all
religions. Other NRMs engage in occultism, magic, spiritism, and even
Atheism and Non-Belief
Some NRMs, especially those that put heavy pressure on the human person,
can pave the way for atheism.
Many NRMs use methods that violate the rights of other believers or
religious bodies to religious freedom. They say things which are not true
of others. They entice vulnerable people like young people, the poor, and
the ignorant with money or other material goods, or with heavy
bombardments of psychological and other pressures.
Combativeness Toward the Catholic Church
Some NRMs are particularly aggressive toward the Catholic Church. They
seem to concentrate on particularly traditional Catholic regions such as
Latin America and the Philippines. They strive to pull away as many
Catholics as they can from the Church. They do not seem to be as zealous
in launching missionary efforts toward people who do not yet believe in
Christ. They even misinterpret Catholic efforts to identify with the poor
as communism or state subversion.
Psychological Harm to Individuals
There are some NRMS which have done psychological harm to individuals
through their methods of recruitment and training and through the harsh
measures they adopt to prevent their members from leaving.
Relationship With Society
Some NRMs have created problems for society or the government because of
their social posture, their failure to teach their members to be concerned
citizens who discharge their duties to others, and the social
disorientation of their followers.
Phenomenon to Be Taken Seriously
All this shows that the problems and challenges thrown up by the new
religious movements should be taken seriously.
V. PASTORAL RESPONSE: GENERAL
Not a Negative Response
In examining what pastoral posture the Church should adopt toward the
NRMs, let us begin by saying what this pastoral approach should not be. It
should not be an attack. It should not be negative against their members,
although the Church might have to defend herself against the NRMs that
attack her unjustly. It should rather be based on light and love.
The Church sees the persons belonging to the NRMs not as enemies to be
attacked, but as people redeemed by Christ who are now in error and with
whom the Church wants to share the light and love of Christ. The
phenomenon of the NRMs is looked upon by the Church as a sign of the
The Church, while aware that the NRMs affect only a minority, cannot avoid
asking herself such questions as the following: What makes people join the
NRMs? What are the legitimate needs of people which these movements
promise to answer and which the Church should be meeting? Are there other
causes of the rise and spread of these movements? What does God want of
the Church in this situation?
Action by Roman Curia
Because individual bishops and many bishops' conferences expressed to the
Holy See their pastoral concern over the activities of the sects or NRMs
in their dioceses, a questionnaire was sent to the bishops' conferences in
1983 by four dicasteries of the Roman Curia (the Pontifical Councils for
Promoting Christian Unity, for Interreligious Dialogue, for Dialogue With
Non-Believers and for Culture). The replies received from seventy-five
bishops' conferences were analyzed, synthesized, and published by these
four dicasteries in May 1986 under the title "Sects or New Religious
Movements: Pastoral Challenge."
The document was positively welcomed by both Catholics and other
Christians. Within the Catholic Church, it promoted greater communication
on the matter between dioceses, bishops' conferences, and the Holy See. It
encouraged bishops' pastoral letters and more study at the level of the
The Holy See has encouraged the International Federation of Catholic
Universities to mount a major research project on the NRMs, and this is
being carried out. The 1986 document is regarded only as a starting
Action at the Level of the Local Church
At the level of dioceses and bishops' conferences, study centers, and
commissions on the new religious movements have increased. Books are
coming out. Many bishops' conferences are issuing pastoral letters on the
phenomenon. Pastoral workers are being informed and trained in an effort
to analyze this reality and find adequate answers.
The International Federation of Catholic Universities
As mentioned earlier, four Roman Curia dicasteries requested the
International Federation of Catholic Universities to undertake research on
the sects, or NRMs. The Center for Coordination of Research of the
federation launched the project in 1988. The first project director was
Father Remi Hoeckman, O.P. Now it is Father Michael Fuss, professor in the
pontifical Gregorian University. More than fifty experts on the five
continents are working on the complex project, each in his own discipline,
under theological, sociological, psychological, and other aspects.
The results of the federation's research will no doubt be very useful for
the pastoral work of the Church. The question of the NRMs does not admit
of any quick or easy solution. Scientific and interdisciplinary research
and analysis are necessary elements of a well-founded and lasting pastoral
Is Dialogue Possible With the NRMs?
Some people have asked if dialogue with the NRMs is possible. Certainly
the nature and the mission of the Church make dialogue with every human
being and with religious and cultural groups part of the style of the
Church's apostolate. And the Second Vatican Council has called for
dialogue with other Christians and with other believers.
The difficulty lies in how to conduct dialogue with the NRMs with due
prudence and discernment. The nature of many NRMs and their manner of
operation make dialogue with them particularly problematic for the Church.
The duty of pastors of the Church to defend the Catholic faithful from
erroneous or dangerous associations is a serious one.
There should be no blanket condemnation of the NRMs. Catholics should
always be ready to study and identify elements or tendencies that are in
themselves good or noble and where some collaboration is possible. They
should also keep up study and observation of movements that so far present
an unclear image.
There remains the problem of the NRMs which pursue an aggressive strategy
against the Church, sometimes with foreign economic and political support.
Without refusing to discuss with such groups, the Church has to consider
how to defend herself with legitimate means.
VI. PASTORAL RESPONSE: SPECIFIC
Doctrinal Orientation by Bishops
Many NRMs attract Catholics in places where there is doctrinal
disorientation or confusion in the Catholic community. Such confusion can
in part be due to doubts sown by some Catholic theologians and others who
contest some teachings of the magisterium, or because of poor religious
instruction, or because of attacks by the sects.
Whatever the cause, the bishops have to remind themselves that they are
"preachers of the faith who lead new disciples to Christ. They are
authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of
Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must
believe and put into practice" (Lumen Gentium, 25). Every bishop has to
discharge this duty personally and to insist on it "welcome or unwelcome"
(2 Tim. 4:1), even when he risks losing the gratitude of the disoriented
majority or provoking the attack of the active and agitating
Adequate Catechesis and Bible Initiation
Experience shows that the NRMs exploit situations of religious ignorance
among Christians. Adequate catechesis should therefore be attended to as
one of the ways to arm the Catholic community against such infections.
Such initiation in the faith should give special importance to the Bible.
Catholics should be so schooled in their faith that they always have an
answer ready for people who ask them the reason for the hope that they
have (cf. 1 Pt. 3:15).
Prayer and Devotional Life
Some NRMs attract people because they promise to offer them satisfying
prayer and worship. The Church at the level of the parish should be
convinced that her liturgical and devotional tradition adequately responds
to the needs of the human soul if properly understood, carried out and
Mysticism, Peace, Harmony
The new religious movements promise people wisdom, peace, harmony, and
self-realization. Our presentation of Christianity should be that of good
news, of divine wisdom, of unity and harmony with God and all creation, of
happiness which is the earthly preparation for heavenly bliss, and of that
peace which the world cannot give (cf. Jn. 14:27).
The dimension of religious experience should not be forgotten in our
presentation of Christianity. It is not enough to supply people with
intellectual information. Christianity is neither a set of doctrines nor
an ethical system. It is life in Christ, which can be lived at ever deeper
Due Evaluation of Gestures and Symbols
Many NRMs put the emphasis on the emotional rather than the notional.
Without reaching that excess, it will be of help in many parishes and
places of worship to take more notice of the body, of gestures, and of
material things in liturgical celebrations and popular devotions.
The NRMs often attract Christians because they offer them warm community
life. Very large parishes can create problems in this direction unless a
deliberate effort is made to seek ways to help each individual to know
that he/she is appreciated, loved, and given a role to play. The Church
should be seen and personally experienced as a community of love and
service, which celebrates and lives the Holy Eucharist.
Build Up Lay Leadership and Participation
Indeed the sects or NRMs flourish more where effective priestly activity
is absent or sporadic. But it is also true that the Church needs dynamic
lay leadership. Accentuated clericalism can marginalize the lay faithful
and make them look on the Church as an institution run by ordained
bureaucratic functionaries. The NRMs, on the other hand, display much lay
The NRMs often attract people who are hungry for something deeper in their
religious lives. The danger is that they offer short-term good but
long-term confusion. Thus people can lose their Catholic roots and in
spite of temporary growth be left in a worse spiritual situation
eventually. This is an important area about which to offer guidelines to
pastors and people alike.
Importance of a Diocesan Program
Every diocese or group of dioceses should ask itself searching questions
such as the following: What sects or new religious movements actually are
present in its territory? What are their methods of operation? What are
the weak points in Catholic life in the area which NRMs exploit? What
practical helps do the lay faithful receive in spirituality and offering
of personal prayer? How does the Church in the diocese and its parishes
contribute to the building up of genuine support for Christians in
material, social, or other difficulty? Do the Catholics in the diocese
live the Gospel in a socially committed way?
What kind of material do the people of the diocese receive from the local
or national radio, press, or television, and what is the local church's
pastoral social-communications answer?
Does the activity of the NRMs in the area indicate that it would be useful
if the bishop issued a document for the guidance of the
Faced by the dynamic activity of the NRMs, the pastors of the Church
cannot just go on with "business as usual." The phenomenon of the NRMs is
a challenge and an opportunity. The Church should be confident that she
has the resources to rise to the occasion. As the Holy Father said to the
bishops of Mexico May 12, 1990, "the presence of the so-called `sects' is
a more than sufficient reason to make a deep examination of the local
Church's ministerial life, along with a simultaneous search for answers
and unified guidelines which allow for preserving and strengthening the
unity of God's people. Faced with this challenge, you have opportunely set
up pastoral options. These options go beyond a mere response to the
present challenge and seek to be channels as well for the new
evangelization, so much more pressing in that they are concrete ways to
deepen the faith and Christian life of your communities" (addresses in
English edition, May 14, 1990, p. 2)>.
This document was taken from "Todays Destructive Cults and
Movements," by Rev. Lawrence J. Gesy, available from Our Sunday
Visitor Press, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750.