The Challenge of New Religious Movements

Authored By: Cardinal Francis Arinze


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 follows.

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.


Complex Reality

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.

Other Names

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) cults.

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.


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 religious traditions.

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 magical movements."

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 sense.

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. 4:1).


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 psychological healing.

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 with God.

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 conscience sufficiently.

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.

Worldwide Phenomenon

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 Philippines.

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 problems.

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.


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 service.


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 this context.

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 devil worship.

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.


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 times.

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 local churches.

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 point.

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 approach.

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.


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 minority.

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 lived.

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 levels.

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.

Living Communities

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 activity.


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 faithful?


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.

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