Comment on Shipwrecked in the Spirit - Duggan

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1999, Volume 16, Number 2, pages 180-184. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Comment on "Shipwrecked in the Spirit": An Urgent Pastoral Concern

Michael Duggan, Ph.D.

St. Mary’s College, Calgary Alberta


Tydings (1999) discusses the potential for abuse in new religious movements within the Catholic Church. In order to effectively pursue the noble ideals to which most such movements aspire, theyand Church authoritiesmust listen more carefully to the many stories of suffering told by former members of these movements. The hierarchical structures under which the Catholic Church has functioned for two millennia may not be appropriate for lay-centered organizations. The author hopes that Tydings's article will stimulate open discussion, which may help the new movements fulfill their missions and truly live up to their ideals.

Tydings (1999) has rendered an important service to anyone who exercises pastoral care in the Roman Catholic Church. Her review of recently published books on new Catholic movements accompanied by her personal reflections beckons all of us to take seriously the experiences of people in these movements. More specifically, she invites us to listen to the stories of the individuals who joined these movements in order to devote their whole lives to Christ and the Church and, as a result, have suffered incalculable emotional and spiritual damage.

The issues Tydings raises are important to me and, I suggest, to the whole Church. I lived for several years at the Mother of God charismatic community in Maryland. The convictions I express in this brief commentary derive, to a significant degree, from my participation in one of the new religious movements that Tydings describes.

Judith Tydings’s presentation reflects genuine appreciation for commitment to living the Gospel. She sustains the encouragement that Vatican II gave to lay initiatives within the Church. She supports the healthy desire of lay people to establish an authentic life in communion with one another that surpasses the possibilities available to them in parish life. She advocates openness to the gift of the Spirit that breaks through the oppressive loneliness in the contemporary world and allows people to develop networks of relationships that are characterized by freedom, justice, and service to all.

The post-Vatican II era has witnessed both the diminishing of religious orders of men and women and the unprecedented burgeoning of new religious movements comprised of a majority of lay people. The Neocatechumenate, Communion and Liberation, and the Catholic charismatic covenant communities all developed after Vatican II. The Focolare movement, which originated in Italy at the end of World War II, has spread across the world in the years following the Council. Opus Dei, the movement distinctive for its clerical foundation, witnessed a marked increase in lay membership in the years following the Council.

These movements share two features in common: (1) they began as grassroots initiatives (under the inspiration of one leader, with the exception of the charismatic communities); and (2) they won the favor of influential people in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, particularly in the Curia of the Vatican.

I suggest that anyone, who wants to understand the development of the Church in the last quarter century, and especially throughout the current papacy, must study the emergence of these new religious movements. Perhaps the most important feature of Tydings’s article is her highlighting of the issue. In calling attention to the new religious movements, she is focusing on a distinguishing feature of the post-Vatican II era, which, nonetheless, has been astonishingly absent from discussion among bishops, pastors, scholars, and ecclesiastical journalists.

The absence of public discussion commensurate to the extension of these movements (embracing perhaps millions of people) demands rectification on the part of leaders at every level of church life. I suggest that such discussion must begin with the stories of individuals who have suffered psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally as a result of their membership in these movements. The biblical principles of defending the oppressed (cf. Ps 72:1-4) and seeking out the lost (Matt 18:6, 10-14) suggest that a primary responsibility of Church leaders is to provide forums in which it would be safe for people to tell their stories of suffering in the movements. Such forums are all the more urgent in view of the contemporary disclosures of emotional, sexual, and spiritual abuse in church institutions and schools in previous decades of this century.

Tydings has underlined the importance of centering the conversation on the actual experience of life within the movements. The official writings of a particular new religious movement may express the distinguishing charisms and ideals of the group but they do not communicate the reality of life within the group. Nearly every totalistic group confesses high ideals that border on utopianism. These ideals that initially express the aspirations of the group can, over time, become the powers of oppression that entrap the individual aspirant in despondency. No one measures up to the ideal. Precisely because of the tendency of the group to uphold the ideal at all costs, I suggest that every religious institution or community requires infrastructures that invite both the expression of dissent from within and the voicing of criticism from without. A healthy community is one in which the authorities listen to and validate the experience of the person who suffers the most. Moreover, a healthy community will welcome the critiques of outsiders who, by virtue of their non-involvement, can express a viewpoint that may be unavailable to any of its members. Authorities in the universal and local Church exercise a necessary responsibility by welcoming the voices of healthy criticism, providing corrective guidance to the leadership, and intervening in the life of the community when justice demands it.

I propose that open discussion of the new religious movements must begin with Church authorities listening to the stories of people who have suffered in these movements and communities. The experience of “Truth Commissions” in South Africa demonstrates the healing that comes to individuals when authorities honestly validate their stories of oppression. The need to listen to the life story of individuals who suffered within a group that aspires to “holiness” is touched with a unique urgency. Such individuals must overcome not only fear, but also shame and guilt owing to their awareness that the group might condemn them as a Judas figure. These persons must have confidence that authorities outside the group, in the Church at large, will exercise the roles of protector and advocate and will provide ministries of compassion and healing. By exercising such ministries, the larger Church maintains its tradition of being a sanctuary for those who suffer injustice.

Bishops, pastors, and leaders in the Church do not betray their responsibility to nurture new initiatives of grace when they advocate for the disenfranchised. Communities, like individuals, acquire wisdom for the future by admitting to and learning from the mistakes, errors, injustices, and sins of the past. Church authorities render a service for communities when they call for the redressing of wrongs and appropriate changes in the community’s manner of functioning.

Finally, I note that Tydings suggests that the structure of authority is a foundational issue that requires thorough examination in the new religious movements. Institutional Catholicism is hierarchical in organization and instinct. The primary hierarchical structures establish a distinction between clergy and laity. These hierarchical structures function principally through a celibate leadership, for example in the chain of authority from bishop to priests in a Diocese or from a Superior to consecrated sisters, brothers, or priests in a religious order.

I believe that such hierarchical structures and attendant instincts, however appropriate they may be for celibate, clerical organizations, are unlikely to function effectively in non-celibate, non-clerical communities. A complex network of interdependent relationships provides for the uniqueness of each family. Any larger community that professes to provide the context for family living must protect the inviolability of each family from outside interference and encourage on-going reciprocal contact with each member's family of origin. The literature that is critical of the new religious movements almost invariably points to the systemic tendency of such movements to intrude upon the integrity of the family.

I suggest that Church authorities would do well to advocate that the new religious movements not mirror the hierarchical structures of the institutional church. Catholic social teaching emphasizes the “principle of subsidiarity” which insists that the most basic unit of society possess the maximum power for self-determination. The new religious movements would do well to make the principle of subsidiarity foundational to their internal structures and manner of exercising authority. Within such movements, individuals and families must experience the freedom to grow intellectually, socially, and morally according to their own best natural intuitions. Jesus’s claim, “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) bears implications for all religious institutions. The movement is for the enhancement of the person; the person is not subservient to the movement.

Tydings raises pressing issues for the Church at all levels from the universal to the local. Among these issues are matters of basic human rights that are foundational to the social teaching of the Church, including the individual’s right to dignity and respect and the family’s right to its own integrity. Her analysis of the new religious movements merits serious deliberation on the part of the Church’s hierarchy along with pastors, theologians, journalists, and anyone who exercises pastoral care. Authoritative evaluations must come from women as well as men in view of the fact that the new religious movements tend to generate totalistic environments that embrace all dimensions of living. It is my hope that Tydings’s article will encourage Church leaders to invite those who have suffered to share their experiences. May this be the beginning of an open discussion about the role of new religious movements in the life of the Church at the dawn of its third millennium.


Tydings, Judith. (1989). Shipwrecked in the spirit: Implications of some controversial Catholic movements. Cultic Studies Journal, 16(2), 82-175.

Michael Duggan, a Catholic priest, holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from the Catholic University of America, a Licentiate in Sacred Scripture (S.S.L.) from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, Italy, and a Baccalaureate in Sacred Theology (S.T.B.) from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy. He is the author of The Consuming Fire: A Christian Introduction to the Old Testament (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991). He has served as pastor of both a rural and an urban parish. He has given retreats and workshops to clergy and laity in both Canada and the United States, and has offered courses to religious in Mexico, Cuba, and Haiti. Presently, he is an assistant professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Mary’s College in Calgary, Alberta.