Sifting the Wheat from the Tares: 20 Signs of Trouble in a New Religious Group

Since the closing of the Second Vatican Council, a number of new groups have arisen within the Church. Whereas many new groups start off on the right foot and maintain solid footing, others fall by the wayside. This may be due to poor doctrine or questionable practices.

As a canon lawyer, I am often asked what the Church looks for when assessing new groups forming within the Church. While the following is by no means exhaustive, it presents a pretty good list of red flags and warning signs that would give any canonist pause when examining a new association.

Red Flags and Warning Signs

Fr. Francis G. Morrisey, OMI is well-known to every student of religious law. As a lifelong member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Fr. Morrisey possesses much experience living in religious community. He is also a professor of canon law at Saint Paul University and a former consultor to the Congregation for Religious — the curial dicastery in Rome that oversees various forms of consecrated life within the Church. This has given him much experience examining and assessing numerous religious orders and new groups within the Church.

Several years ago, Fr. Morrisey proposed 15 criteria, or warning signs, when evaluating new associations within the Church. While these warning signs are not law per se – that is, law in the sense of legislation – most canonists accept these criteria as a solid guide when examining and assessing new associations within the Church. For those with access to a good ecclesiastical library, Fr. Morrisey presents and explains these fifteen criteria in his article “Canonical Associations…” published in Informationes, vol. 26, (2000), pp 88-109.

For those without access to an ecclesiastical library, or for those looking for an explanation more accessible to the average layperson, here are Fr. Morrisey’s 15 criteria along with my personal explanation of what they mean.

Fr. Morrisey’s 15 Warning Signs

1. “Total” obedience to the pope

Many will find this first warning sign surprising. As Catholics, are we not all called to obey the Holy Father? Indeed, we are. When a new association sincerely seeks to obey and follow the teachings of the Holy Father, canonists are for the most part satisfied the group is doing what Catholic groups ought to do.

Nevertheless, some new associations abuse Catholic sensibility in this regard. These groups cite “total obedience to the Holy Father” when what they really mean is partial obedience to selected teachings of the Holy Father, without embracing the entire papal message. Additionally, when challenged over their partial obedience, these groups will appeal to their “total” reliance upon the Holy Father in an attempt to bypass the authority of the diocesan bishop. This brings us to Fr. Morrisey’s second warning sign.

2. No sense of belonging to the local church

As Catholics, we belong to the universal Church. Yet we also belong to the local church community, meaning a local parish and a local diocese. Even the Holy Father is not exempt in this regard; he is, after all, the Bishop of Rome and thus belongs to local Roman Church. Thus the ministry and apostolate of any association should focus on the local church. If a new association or religious order has no sense of belonging to the local church, then this becomes cause for concern.

3. Lack of true cooperation with diocesan authorities

To belong to the local church, one must cooperate with local diocesan authorities. After all, Christ instituted His Church as a hierarchy. Within this hierarchy, our Lord instituted the office of bishop to oversee a portion of Christ’s faithful. Thus the local bishop, and not a particular religious group or association, bears ultimate responsibility for the care of souls within a particular geographical location. If a new association refuses or impedes cooperation between itself and the local diocesan authorities, then its fidelity to the Church is questionable.

4. Making use of lies and falsehoods to obtain approval

As Catholics, we concern ourselves with speaking the truth. After all, our Lord denounces Satan as the “Father of Lies.” So any new association should be truthful in how it presents itself to its members, Church authorities, and the outside world. This is not just a matter of basic honesty; any group or association that resorts to falsehoods to gain approval is likely concealing a deeper problem.

The Church understands that every association, particularly when the association is new, makes mistakes when engaging in ministry or apostolate. When an association is honest, however, these problems are easily identified and quickly corrected. This in turn increases the likelihood of the new association succeeding within the Church.

5. Too soon an insistence on placing all goods in common

While the Church has a history of associations and religious orders in which members place all their goods in common, the decision to do so should come after a reasonable period of careful discernment. Placing one’s goods in common in not for everyone, and the consequences of such a decision are lifelong. Additionally, the potential for abuse by those who administer the common goods is great. Therefore, canonists frown upon any insistence by an association that its new or potential members place their goods in common.

Due to the fact that modern times see less stability in common life, with members sometimes opting to leave after a number of years, the most prudent handling of goods in common is to place them in trust until a member dies. That way, if the member leaves, the goods are available to meet his or her needs outside of the community.

6. Claiming special revelations or messages leading to the founding of the group

Although this represents a warning sign, it is not absolute. The Church recognizes the presence of many legitimate apparitions and private revelations throughout her history. Yet not all alleged apparitions or special revelations turn out to be true. Therefore, the Church must further investigate any claims of special revelations or messages – particularly when they become the catalyst for founding a new association. If, however, a new association refuses to divulge or submit its alleged revelations or special messages to the Church, then this immediately calls into question the authenticity of both the association and the alleged apparition.

7. Special status of the founder, or foundress

Of course, the founder or foundress will always enjoy a special role in the founding of a new association or community. Nevertheless, in all other respects he or she should be a member just like everyone else. This means that he or she is similarly bound to the customs, disciplines and constitutions of the community. If the founder or foundress demands special meals, special living quarters, special dispensations from the rules imposed upon other members of the community, or any other special treatment, then this is a clear warning sign. It is of special concern if the founder or foundress claims exemption from the requirements of Christian morality due to his or her status (see point 15 below).

8. Special and severe penances imposed

As St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, virtue is found in the middle, between two extremes. Therefore, any penances imposed upon members of the community should be both moderate and reasonable. Special and severe penances are not signs of virtue – rather, they are signs of extremism.

9. Multiplicity of devotions, without any doctrinal unity among them

The purpose of sacramentals and other devotions is to bring us closer to Christ and the sacraments. Hence sacramentals are not superstitions. A new association or community should insure that any special devotions or sacramentals unite its members to Christ, the sacraments and the mission of the association. For example, praying three Hail Marys in front of the statue of St. Joseph while the Blessed Sacrament is exposed does not offer such unity. Eucharistic Adoration, Marian devotion and devotion to St. Joseph are all good in themselves, however, they should be offered either individually or collectively as devotion to the Holy Family. They should not be offered simultaneously.

10. Promotion of “fringe” elements in the life of the Church

As previously mentioned, every association or organization within the Church should exist to serve the needs of Christ’s faithful. Therefore, canonists view any association that exists solely to serve fringe elements — whether these elements be special apparitions, private revelations, or extreme social or political agendas, etc. — with suspicion.

This is not to deny that extraordinary events may sometimes become the catalyst for a new association or religious order. For example, St. Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscans after receiving a locution from our Lord to “Rebuild My Church.” Nevertheless, St. Francis did not found the Franciscans with the intention of promoting his internal locution. Rather, the internal locution inspired St. Francis to found an order that would serve the Church.

11. Special vows

Within the Church, one finds the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Additional or special vows present numerous problems. Often, special vows are reduced to means through which superiors unduly control members of the community or association. The danger is particularly pointed where a special vow cannot be externally verified. Take “joy” for example; one can usually appeal to objective evidence that someone is not living a life of poverty, chastity and/or obedience, but as a feeling, “joy” is too subjective to be judged in an objective manner.

12. Absolute secrecy imposed on members

While some discretion and privacy is necessary within any Church community or association, secrecy should never be absolute unless one is a confessor preserving the seal of confession. Therefore, any association or organization that imposes absolute secrecy upon its members should be approached with the utmost caution. Members should always be free to approach diocesan officials and the Holy See if certain problems arise within the community that are not dealt with in an adequate fashion. Similarly, since these associations exist to serve the Church, all members should be allowed to converse freely and honestly with members of the Church hierarchy when requested.

13. Control over the choice of confessors and spiritual directors

Confession and spiritual direction concern the internal forum – that is, those things that are private to a person’s conscience. Within reasonable limits, a person should be free to choose his or her confessor and spiritual director. On the other hand, obedience to one’s superiors in carrying out an association’s apostolate or ministry concerns the external forum. In other words, the latter are public actions that can be externally verified.

The roles of confessor and spiritual director should never be confused with the role of superior. Nor should there even be the appearance of confusion. Of particular concern to canonists is when a superior imposes himself as confessor and/or spiritual director of a member under his charge. After all, a superior will have to make decisions about a member’s future – and in so doing there exists a strong temptation to make use of information gathered under the seal of confession.

14. Serious discontent with the previous institute of which certain members were part

Like some of the other red flags presented, this warning sign is not absolute. Sometimes, a very good reason exists for a member’s discontent with his or her previous institute. Nevertheless, serious discontent with a previous institute should be carefully examined. In most cases, such discontent points to some deeper problems with the individual, particularly if he or she has a history of “conflict of personalities.”

15. Any form of sexual misconduct as a basis

This warning sign is fairly self-explanatory. The Church’s teaching is clear when it comes to sexual morality. If sexual immorality is the basis for a new group or association, then the association ought to be avoided. Additionally, one should immediately report this to the competent Church authority.

In addition to the fifteen warning signs presented by Fr. Morrisey, Dr. Michael Langone has assembled a list of thirteen criteria by which many cult experts judge a group to be a cult. Dr. Langone is a counseling psychologist and the Executive Director of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). He has spent nearly 30 years researching and writing about cults, and for 20 years has been the editor of the Cultic Studies Journal. The following five criteria have been adapted from Dr. Langone’s thirteen criteria and applied to the context of Catholic associations. Some canon lawyers find them useful when evaluating the legitimacy of a new association within the Church.

1. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members

Of course every new association, if it wishes to grow, will seek to increase its membership. Such growth, however, should come because potential members identify with the mission or apostolate of the association. Additionally, members should only join after a reasonable period of discernment. Thus any association whose main focus is to bring in new members, to the exclusion of other acts of apostolate or ministry, should be carefully examined.

2. The group is preoccupied with making money

Like the previous criterion, there is nothing wrong per se with raising money for one’s association or apostolate. After all, even Christ and the Apostles used money. Nevertheless, money should be a means of carrying out legitimate ministry and apostolic work. Raising money should never be an end in itself. Additionally, the means employed in raising money should be honest and transparent.

3. Elitism

The Catholic Church recognizes that by virtue of their baptism, a certain equality exists among Christ’s faithful, regardless of whether one belongs to the lay, religious or clerical state. Additionally, among religious orders and newer forms of consecrated life, the Church recognizes different types of charisms. Some are active, in that they tend heavily toward active ministry and apostolic work. Others are contemplative, in that they tend more toward prayer and contemplation. Of course, you find everything in between. Therefore, any Church association that only recognizes vocations to its association is not thinking with the mind of the Church. Nor are those associations with a polarized mentality that divide their vocations from those of the rest of the Church.

4. The leadership induces feeling of guilt in members to control them

One’s vocation within the Church should be freely chosen. Similarly, obedience is something a superior should inspire among those under his or her charge. While it sometimes happens that a superior must impose his or her will upon a particular member, obedience should never be coerced through illicit or improper means. Additionally, if a superior must constantly impose his will upon the majority of the membership through coercive means, then this proves problematical to the long-term health of the specific association or religious group.

5. The group completely severs its members from the outside world

Granted, one must be careful here. After all, the Church has a long and honored tradition of cloistered and contemplative orders that sever themselves from the day-to-day activities of the outside world. Nevertheless, even those orders of the most strict observance encourage some forms of outside communication with friends, family and the world. Therefore, it is cause for concern when an association, particularly if the association is lay-based, encourages its members to completely sever ties with friends, family, and the outside world. Additionally, one should beware those associations that encourage or require their members to live and/or socialize only with other members of the same group or association. One should also beware if association or friendships with people outside of the group are encouraged only when they are used to further the goals of the group.

Concluding Thoughts

Each new association within the Church has its own unique charism. Nevertheless, the goal of every new association should be to fulfill a particular need within the Church. An association becomes dangerous if allowed to place its own interests, or those of its founder and/or leader, before the common good of the Church — both local and universal.

If more than a couple of the above warning signs are found to be present while assessing a particular association, then Catholics ought to be wary about becoming involved with the group in question. Such an association is likely to encounter several difficulties with legitimate Church authorities and possibly even degenerate into a cult — a destructive group that does psychological harm and poses a spiritual danger to its members.

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