2006-05-03 12:11:00

Paper of Werner Freistetter, Consultant to the Pontifical Council for Culture, read at the international Orthodox-Catholic Conference “Give a Soul to Europe. The Mission and Responsibility of the Churches”

Accepting the Challenge of the Sects in Europe


The proliferation of sects and of New Religious Movements is a widespread, even global phenomenon. We can observe such a proliferation all over the world, in different societies and cultural areas. The origin of this phemomenon must certainly be seen in the far-reaching social developments and the profound cultural changes we are facing today. Cultures and societies are changing, and these developments often happen so rapidly and in such a profound way that people feel disoriented. Traditional values and guidelines often seem obsolete and outdated, families and traditional communities lose their place in society, new models of life penetrate traditional cultures due to the impact of mass media and the increasing process of economic and social globalization. Certainly, this potential of change can provide opportunities for more freedom, for more communication between peoples, for education and for cultural progress, even for a growing awareness of common responsibilities in our more and more interdependent world. Often we concentrate only on the negative and threatening aspects of these developments, and this is undestandable because of the many and profound cultural challenges we are facing. As Christians who believe in the victory of Christ over evil, sin and death, our task is threefold: developing criteria of spiritual and moral discernment, contributing to shape the processes of change in such a way that they can incorporate christian and authentic human values and empowering people spiritually and religiously so that they are able to live as authentic witnesses of Christ in our contemporary societies and cultures.

The central point of my presentation is the following: I would like to put the phenomenon of the proliferation of sects and other New Religious Movements into the perspective of a pastoral approach to contemporary culture. For doing so I shall rely primarily upon a document published 1999 by the Pontifical Council for Culture: “Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture”. Also very helpful for understanding and confronting the phenomenon of the so called New Age is the document “Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life. A Christian Reflection on the New Age” (2003), published by the Pontifical Council for Culture together with the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue. And I shall limit myself to observations concerning the situation in Western Europe. The document “Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture”, n. 24, states: “People are searching once again for spirituality - more than religion - in a whole variety of ways, in a society which is reminiscent of the Areopagus in Athens, the scene of some of Saint Paul's great debates (cf. Acts 17:22-32). There is a need to recover a spiritual dimension which will also give meaning to life, and a deep desire to rebuild the framework of affective and social relationships which, in some countries, has been dismantled by the increasing instability of family life. This can be seen in revivalist groups within Christianity, or in forms of syncretism which are part of a ‘globalizing’ tendency, a search for unity beyond particular religions.” Several important points are mentioned here: We see a new quest for “spirituality” in European societies. And this constitutes something like the Areopagus in Athens, where St. Paul proclaimed the Gospel of Christ taking as starting point the “Unknown God” to whom an altar was dedicated there. It reminds us also of the fact that proclaiming the Gospel on this Areopagus does not mean immediate success: St. Paul could win only some disciples while the others did not want to listen to him when he spoke about the ressurection. But important is that the Gospel is proclaimed and that people are invited to believe in Christ. And there is a great variety of ways in which people try to find meaning, relationship and community. The document continues: “Many very different groups may be classified under the polysemous heading of sects. Some are of gnostic or esoteric inspiration, some are Christian in appearance, and others, in some cases, are hostile to Christ and the Church. These groups succeed quite clearly because they respond to frustrated aspirations. Many of our contemporaries can communicate easily in such groups and experience a feeling of belonging; they find affection, brotherhood, even apparent protection and security. This feeling stems mostly from the simple answers and apparently clear but, in reality, illusory solutions like the Gospel of success which sects appear to offer to the most complex questions, and a pragmatic theology which exalts the self society has treated so badly. In some cases people are psychologically wounded or suffer rejection or total isolation in the anonymity so prevalent in urban life; they readily accept a spiritual vision which restores lost harmony and even offers a feeling of physical or spiritual healing. This shows the complexity and the transversal nature of the problem of sects, which combines the existential ailment with rejection of the institutional dimension of the religions, and is expressed in heterogeneous forms and expressions of religion.”

Variety and heterogeneity are certainly basic features characterizing the reality of sects and religious movements today. However, looking more closely, basically two main types of communities can be identified. The first type consists of well structured groups, often with one or several charismatic leaders exercising strong authority within the group, a clearly defined doctrine, emphasizing strong commitments and stressing the boundaries between those inside and those outside the group. Often the basis of such groups is “christian” in a wide sense, combined with aggressive methods of proclaiming their message. The other type is based on esoteric and gnostic syncretisms including many elements of Eastern religions, shamanistic traditions, magical practices etc. This type is centered around the individual and his or her needs. Often there is no organization at all, sometimes we can find loose networks. Regarding certain common doctrines we can identify some elements that point in the direction of metaphysical monism, forms of pantheism, a cosmic spirituality and a quest for wholeness. The document “Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life” is very helpful in trying to identify some basic elements of this infinite variety and variation of so many different religious, spiritual, esoteric and magical elements. Of course, these two types are a kind of “ideal models”, there can also be movements and groups combining elements of these different types.

Here we note a certain paradox. Our contemporary modern or even post-modern culture, often widely secularized, characterized by individualism, pluralism and by often hedonistic forms of behaviour, gives rise to needs that seem to contradict one another: on the one side a search for unlimited and unrestrained individual freedom where everything is based on inividual preferences and a very weak attachment to social groups, on the other side a need for clear structures, well defined messages , strong commitments and group harmony. It seems that this is a basic feature of contemporary culture, the tension between individual freedom and the need for social commitment and harmony. Important factors for understanding this imbalance can be found in the weakening of the family, the crisis of the educational system and the isolation experienced by so many persons in our western societies. In this same line our document states in n. 24 that “the proliferation of sects is also a reaction against secularised culture and a consequence of social and cultural upheavals which have uprooted traditional religion.” The document underlines the importance of secularization regarding sects and religious movements (n. 23). For a long time it was accepted widely in sociological theories that an increasing marginalization and privatization of religion would be decisive and permanent elements of modernity. During the last decades, however, this picture has changed dramatically. The new quest for “spirituality” and the growth of sects and religious movements are basic elements in this wider picture. “On the eve of the third millennium, the questions of truth, values, existence and meaning with regard to human nature, reveal the limits of a secularization which, in spite of itself, gives rise to a quest for the spiritual dimension of life is being sought after as an antidote to dehumanization. This phenomenon the so-called ‘religious revival’ is not without ambiguity, but it also represents an opportunity... Here too there is an Areopagus to be evangelized” (n. 23). Dealing with the world of sects and new religious movements we find ourselves, as Christians, in a demanding and complex situation, characterized by both ambiguity and opportunity. If we want to accept the challenge in bearing witness to our faith and in evangelizing this new Areopagus we first need the virtue of discernment. “The ‘return’ or ‘reawakening’ of the religious dimension in the West certainly calls for rigorous discernment. It is often more a question of religious feeling than of a demanding personal commitment to God, in a communion of faith with the Church.” (n. 26) But there is also a great opportunity not to be missed by the Church: “Still, none could deny that a growing number of men and women are turning once again to a dimension of human existence which they call spiritual, religious or sacred, as the case may be. It is worth noting, by the way, that this is largely something which affects young or poor people - which is all the more reason to pay careful attention to it - and brings them back to Christianity, which had left them quite disillusioned. Some of them will have turned to other religions, and others will have been enticed into sects, or turned to the occult.” Of course, the challenge is demanding. Discernment certainly has nothing to do with vagueness or syncretism, and it does not mean that we should avoid necessary confrontations for the sake of a wrong peace. But we should always be conscious not to miss any opportunity to proclaim the Gospel of Christ to people of our time, and to do this also in new and creative ways: “All over the world, a whole new range of possibilities is opening up for a pastoral approach to culture to bring the light of Christ's Gospel to the hearts of men. On many points there needs to be a re-formulation of Christian faith which is more accessible to dominant cultures, because of the competition caused by the profusion on all sides of diffuse forms of religiosity.”

A search for dialogue is necessary. I am fully aware of the difficulties implied in the attempt to establish fruitful relationships to certain sects or to some adherents e.g. of New Age. Sometimes prejudice and hostility towards Christianity in general and the Church in particular are too strong. It may be almost impossible to establish a fruitful dialogue with such persons, but there are others, people who are simply searching for meaning and community on this Areopagus. Maybe they have a preference for alternative spiritualities and world views, but they can be sufficiently open-minded to be interested in the answers given by the Christian faith. Sometimes it is not only a question of rational proposals or clear-cut explanations. People are often more fascinated by an authentic Christian way of living, but also attracted by the emotional aspect of the faith as expressed in symbols, signs and the sacraments and by the experience of belonging and community in the Church. All these elements are part of our answer to the challenge of the sects and the spiritual movements. But there is, of course, also the need to be very clear about the essentials concerning the doctrine of faith. “A search for dialogue and its necessary correlative - a clearer identification of what is specific to Christianity - are an increasingly significant area of reflection and action in the proclamation of faith in our cultures.” This does not contradict the attitude of respect for the other person, for his or her conscience and freedom. Fundamental human rights, such as freedom of conscience and belief, constitute the common legal basis for all of us living in democratic and pluralistic societies. But to exclude the question of truth from dialogue and public discussions can only lead to misunderstanding and confusion, and certainly does not help to establish fruitful relationships between different religious groups, as recent experiences in Europe have clearly shown. To meet this challenge, there is also the need of a better formation and of increasing the authenticity of our lives as Christians: “Priests and lay people must, of course, be better trained to be competent discerners of sects and the reasons for their success, but we should never lose sight of the fact that the best weapon in the fight against sects is the quality of ecclesial life.” Let me conclude with a personal experience. There is a hot debate going on about the book “The Da Vinci Code”, and soon there will be the movie. We all know the negative aspects of the book, the often aggressive distortions of the truth about Jesus Christ, the Early Church, the Holy Scripture etc. All this must be criticized and corrected, it simply cannot go unanswered. But seldom during my life as a priest I have had so many discussions about these questions with so many people. To use this opportunity to present the truth of the Christian faith to a wider public is a necessary answer. It should be an essential element of a common project of ours: a pastoral approach to culture, designed to meet the challenges presented by sects and alternative religious movements in Europe.


Vienna, May 3-5, 2006