new catholic movements compared to old - nothing changes
Reading Time: 8 minutes Exaltation of the Cross by Juan de Valdés Leal, done about 1680.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! File this one under News That’ll Surprise Nobody Who Hangs Out Here: a Catholic lady just wrote a book about ‘new movements’ in Catholicism. And it turns out that dozens of those movements have been exposed as abusive. That discovery didn’t come close to surprising me. Today, I’ll show you why.

new catholic movements compared to old - nothing changes
Exaltation of the Cross by Juan de Valdés Leal, done about 1680. (More info.)

Captain Cassidy Discovers “New Catholic Movements.”

First, set your Wayback Machines for the mid-late 1970s. At the time, I was around 8 years old.

One dreary Baltimore afternoon, I ran across one of my grandma’s Catholic magazines. Well, by “ran across” I mean I doggedly dug it out from under her bed because I was absolutely jonesing for new stuff to read. But you get the idea.

Anyway, its cover mentioned “Charismatic Catholics.” I’d never heard this phrase before. I don’t think I even knew what “Charismatic” meant, much less in the Christian use of the term.

Being the inquisitive little scamp I was/am, I promptly ran downstairs to ask Grandma what that term meant. She’d know!

She stared at the magazine, pursing her lips in that way that maybe only German grandmas do. I got the impression she didn’t approve of these “Charismatic Catholics” much at all.

Finally, after a pregnant pause Grandma said, “They’re not like us.” She faintly shook her head.

And that was all she had to say on that subject.

I know now that that magazine was probably talking about “new Catholic movements.” I just wish I could remember what it said about them! All I can remember is coming away from the article thinking I hadn’t actually learned all that much about these strange-sounding Catholics.

I wouldn’t find out what they actually were, though, for about another decade.

What Are New Catholic Movements?

Starting around the 1970s, a bunch of strange new groups got started in Catholicism. These groups practiced the religion differently than the norm. Many were charismatic in nature. That term means that they did stuff sorta like evangelicals do — like speaking in tongues, prophesying, and even getting slightly rowdier during church. (Technical def: charismatics use the “gifts of the Spirit,” often called charism. See this description.)

Though small, these groups were generally quite fervent and active. They almost all took on lots of additional tasks. And many reached audiences that traditional Catholicism had shut out — especially gay people and women seeking leadership roles.

People called these groups “new movements.” Many hoped they’d inject a little life into the old girl of Catholicism. Some Catholic authorities (like whoever ran that magazine I mentioned above) seemed cautiously hopeful about the matter. After all, they must already have suspected they were heading into a decline.

However, a lot of other Catholic leaders weren’t happy at all with these groups. They viewed “new movements” as a response to excessive liberalization in the Church.

Nowadays, there are lots of these groups. Here’s some of them.

And as we’ve learned lately, quite a few of them have turned out to have abusive founders.

“Plague of Abuse” in New Catholic Movements.

This completely unsurprising story comes to us recently from Crux Now, a Catholic news site. In it, Céline Hoyeau, a Catholic journalist in France, talks about a book she just published called La Trahison des pères (The Betrayal of the Fathers). It’s about new Catholic movements and how their founders keep turning out to be abusive predators.

Hoyeau told Crux Now that “a certain context” allowed these predators to reach high-level leadership roles:

A context of crisis, of great expectations of renewal for Catholics, and of absence of control.

Once they achieved those roles, Catholic abusers flew free of all potential oversight and checks on their power. And once they achieved that kind of power, they began using it — to its very fullest extent. These leaders knew exactly how to reach Catholics who were aching to feel a little something extra in their religious devotions, who ached for something consuming and real. And these abusers knew also exactly how to convince those Catholic followers that realness came with a price that had to be paid.

Gee, y’all, where have we seen before what happens when religious leaders get unchecked power with zero accountability and oversight?

Oh, yeah, that’s right: everywhere.

“Strong Psychological Conditioning” in New Catholic Movements.

Back in 2017, Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, the Prefect of the Congregation at the Vatican, made a stunning announcement (captured by Deviens ce que tu es):

“We have been looking at about 70 new religious families. We have made visits and some of them are of grave concern, with personality problems of the founders and the phenomenon of bondage (Fr. l’emprise), strong psychological conditioning of the members.”

His announcement didn’t get nearly the attention that it should have, in my opinion. That linked article discusses a book that’d recently come out regarding 14 new Catholic movements that its author felt were harmful to members (five had already been investigated by intervening authorities).

At any rate, that cardinal’s shocking announcement is what got Céline Hoyeau moving on her book. She wrote for a Catholic site called La Croix, so she was well-placed for the investigation.

Since 2013 or so, she’d already been covering predatory and abusive Catholic leaders. But I guess she hadn’t really stepped back to look at the big picture of just how many of these leaders were turning out that way.

A Catholic Reporter Walks Into a Convent…

In her interview with Crux Now, Céline Hoyeau talks about the most stunning of the betrayals she encountered.

Remember, she’s Catholic herself, and she really looked up to a lot of the leaders of these new Catholic movements. She describes herself as “part of the ‘[Pope] John Paul II generation.'” He was a big deal in the 1980s and 1990s. I very vividly remember my aunt the nun talking about him with reverence; she’s got photos of herself with him even. People regarded him very highly. I can’t overstate his importance to Catholic culture at the time.

Most especially, Hoyeau looked up to a Canadian dude called Jean Vanier. He set up a humanitarian charity group called L’Arche in France. It mostly helps disabled people and has 154 centers worldwide.

Vanier died in 2019 at 90 after being venerated by just about everyone. He was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

But then, the BBC tells us, outside investigators checked into his behavior and his group. What they found was shocking — at least, to Catholics and people who revered the guy.

Absolute Betrayal From a So-Called Saint.

As the BBC relates it, those investigators discovered that this “devout” Catholic leader had had “manipulative and emotionally abusive” sexual relationships with six women in France. He’d carried on these abusive relationships for decades. His victims believed that he was giving them spiritual guidance, but really he was just perving all over them. He preyed upon his assistants and the nuns who worked around him.

Apparently, Vanier was also part of what sounds like a bizarre sex-ritual group run by another disgraced priest, Thomas Philippe. Vanier regarded Philippe (who died in 1993) as his “spiritual father,” but always denied knowing anything about what Philippe was doing. In 2015, Céline Hoyeau told Crux Now, he denied it again when she asked him about it. She describes how he looked so “uncomfortable” about the question that she clearly felt pressured to drop the matter.

Alas for Vanier, that outside investigation discovered that yes, he had actually known all about what his mentor was doing — and had known at least since the 1950s. More than that, Vanier had participated to the hilt (sorry for that mental image) in this group’s rituals.

When she discovered the truth, Hoyeau said she felt “a sense of betrayal.” I’d like to suggest that maybe it shouldn’t have been such a huge shock.

There’s No Mystery Here.

To an extent, I sympathize with Céline Hoyeau. It can’t be easy to discover that one’s idols are horrible people. She sounds genuinely wounded by what she discovered in her own journalistic investigation.

And she’s struggling hard with her discoveries, or at least it seems so from this quote:

These founders had luminous intuitions, good passed through these people whose abuses we are discovering today. This is the paradox and mystery that this book cannot exhaust, nor solve. But it seemed to me necessary to understand these mechanisms that made us admire, let our guards down — even lose all critical sense — in front of these men without any oversight, who tipped over into a certain omnipotence, and serious drifting, in order to draw lessons from it.

But did these abusive leaders really have “luminous intuitions?” Or were they just a bunch of grabby conjobs telling followers what they wanted to hear? It’s super-easy to make up stuff in religious organizations. The Problem of Wingnuts ensures that followers will accept it — especially if they’re kinda extremist anyway and wanting to push their throttles a bit harder than the norm.

And why is it a “paradox and mystery” that abusers would do something good while pursuing predatory behavior? It’s not a paradox or a mystery to me. Of course abusers would do exactly that. Awful people can’t be completely up-front with what they want to do to their followers. Running a religious group with a very high charity profile sure sounds like a perfect cover for a predator.

And why can’t Catholics find people to pass “good” through who aren’t predatory abusers? They seem as incapable as evangelicals of finding good leaders and mascots.

Really, it’s just the weirdest thing. (/s)

The Most Unsurprising Story Ever.

All in all, this story only expands our deepening understanding of the corruption in Christian organizations.

We should always be perking up our ears for potential overreach and abuse any time we encounter high-control groups — especially if they’re religious groups, and especially religious groups that push hard on euphoric experiences and divine revelation as central processes.

The central processes of Christianity do not work the way almost all Christians imagine they do. There’s no god in the middle of them making anything happen. So everything these groups do is purely human, purely psychological, purely man-made. The harder these groups lean on divinities as animators of their processes, the less members trust their own senses, boundaries, and perceptions of reality — and the more they rely on their leaders for wisdom and instructions. That’s a heady amount of trust to put in anybody.

(See also: “duh mode“)

When people work themselves up into states where they think they’re experiencing divinely-sourced euphoria and receiving divine input, they seem like they get a lot more controllable. And their leaders need all the controllable-ness they can get. They tend to demand a lot of their members — much more than more mainstream groups do. Members give everything they have to these groups because they think this is what a god wants them to do.

And all the while, their leaders only push them harder to be extra-obedient and extra-submissive. You know. Cuz Jesus said so. And strangely, Jesus never tips anyone off regarding abuse in his leadership.

A Strange Lack of Discernment.

If the leader of such a group is a good person anyway, then gaining that kind of power won’t become a problem.

But for some strange reason, that’s rarely the case. The people who achieve leadership in these high-control groups always want more. To them, cultivating a legion of extra-obedient, extra-submissive followers means nothing if power is not flexed over them.

And so it is.

Power becomes its own goal in groups like these. Leaders who seek power bend themselves toward growing it, flexing it, and protecting it. Everything they do is geared toward those three functions, one way or another.

Thus, I’m never surprised by abuse stories coming out of any of these sorts of groups.

We see this situation over and over again in evangelical churches of all sizes, and we see it too in Catholicism — especially in these new Catholic movements. For some reason, the biggest-name leaders of both branches of Christianity seem absolutely helpless to stop any of it. 

NEXT UP: We’ll look at the weirdest reason imaginable for anyone to buy Brett McCracken’s product: his ignorant attempt to slam what he calls ‘bespoke religion’ to make his toxic flavor of Christianity sound better. See you tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...