LONDON—“What has the Neo-Catechumenate done for you and your parish?” That question, posed to parishioners at three English parishes where the Neo-Catechumenal Way has established communities, has led to a report sharply criticizing the 33-year-old lay movement.

Issued late last year by a panel from the Clifton diocese in southwest England, the report concluded that the Neo-Catechumenate's activities should be restricted because the group divides parishioners. The panel, appointed by Clifton's Bishop Mervyn Alexander, has recommended that a temporary ban imposed on Neo-Catechumenate Sunday Masses and Easter vigils remain in place permanently, and that the movement should cease recruiting efforts in the diocese.

The study, friends of the movement say, is flawed. In fact, say supporters, most parishioners are satisfied with the move-ment's activities. They also note that it enjoys papal approval, and that its teachings are in agreement with Catholic doctrine. Opposition to the movement, they say, was orchestrated by a small but vociferous group led by a catechist who objects to the unabashed orthodoxy of the Neo-Catechumenate.

Bishop Alexander has not yet acted on the recommendations of the report. He said that he will study the findings and consult with the diocesan council of priests before taking action. Still, the report's apparent bias has led many to wonder why the diocese gave it at least tacit approval by publishing it at all.

The Neo-Catechumenal Way was born in the slums of Madrid, Spain, in 1964. It was the brainchild of Kiko Arguello, an artist, who wanted to serve local communities through parish-based renewal of baptismal commitments and intensive “re-catechizing” efforts including public confessions. In the past 32 years, the movement has spread to 87 countries and now boasts 200,000 members. Members form communities within parishes, and often hold their own Masses. At the end of a process that can last many years, Arguello can award members a “white tunic” to signify that they have completed “the Way.”

Speaking of the group in 1974, Pope Paul VI said it would “renew in today's Christian communities those effects of maturity and deepening that, in the primitive Church, were realized by the period of preparation for baptism.” Members describe the Neo-Catechumenal Way—often simply referred to as “the Way”—as a charism that manifests itself at the grassroots level rather than as a highly organized structure. Members who have received extensive formation may demonstrate their commitment to the movement by relocating with their family to form the nucleus of a new community.

Lorenzo Lees, a successful advertising photographer from Milan, Italy, told the Register that he moved his family to inner-city London to begin a fledgling Neo-Catechumenal community. The community has brought back a number of people to the Church who had ceased practicing their faith, he said.

Pope John Paul II officially recognized “the Way” in 1990, saying that the movement has an approach to the “new evangelization” that was “valid for our society and for our times.” But last year, a group of 12 individuals from three parishes in the Clifton diocese organized a campaign against the movement. The group, which calls itself Parishioners Against a Secret Church (PASCH), is headed by Ronald Haynes, a coordinator for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). PASCH contends that “the Way” divides parishes. An open letter by Haynes on the PASCH Internet site sets out to explain this criticism in detail. Criticizing the movement's theology, it says: “I am sure you have heard from many people that there is something a bit extreme about your understanding of sin and nature, and thereby of God.”

Haynes expresses fear that the process of renewal proclaimed by Vatican II “is being held back by reactionary and overly conservative groups;” he targets the Neo-Catechumenate as a key example. Another open letter from a Karen Anderson, of St. Nicholas of Tolentino, one of the three parishes at the center of the controversy, was more specific. Anderson criticized “the Way's” emphasis on personal sin at the alleged expense of highlighting God's capacity for love and forgiveness. The letter failed to provide evidence to back up the assertions.

More than a year ago, the movement's critics approached Bishop Alexander, who subsequently set up a panel to investigate the claims on grounds that the Neo-Catechumenate's activities were adversely affecting parish life. The panel's study said the movement wished to impose a pastoral plan that is at variance with the bishop's. Their conclusions, they said, were based on official Neo-Catechumenate literature, material that read in part: “We don't come to form a movement. We are opening a way of adult Christian initiation in the parish. Have we opened a way? Has a nucleus been constituted here, has this become a community of communities? Has the parish been transformed? Then we have finished our mission and we can go. There you have the communities for your parish and for your bishop; now you can follow the pastoral plan of the bishop, not that of Kiko.”

It was soon revealed, however, that the passage was not taken from the group's official literature, but had been drawn out of context from an unofficial transcript of a talk by the movement's founder.

The use of statistics is another point of contention with critics of the study. The report said that Church attendance at St. Peter's, Gloucester, England, had decreased by 34 percent in 10 years, and implied that Neo-Catechumenal activity was to blame. But census reports for the region—not mentioned in the report—show a 34 percent decrease in population during the same time period.

The panel also reportedly was skeptical about testimony given by Neo-Catechumenate members without stating grounds for their attitude. In contrast, statements from the movement's opponents—including assertions that “adverse effects, in varying degrees” have been “attributed directly to membership in the Neo-Catechumenal Way”—were accepted uncritically.

The accusations made against the Neo-Catechumenal Way by Haynes's group center on a suspicion that teaching about sin and the need for personal conversion may cause distress to the emotionally fragile, according to observers. The contentious doctrinal points are precisely those that RCIA teachers are often accused of soft-pedaling: the need to acknowledge and make contrition for personal sins, the continuing validity of sacramental confession and an unyielding attitude on conjugal morality. Neo-Catechumenal teaching stresses all these points along with teaching that all people—even those in a state of sin—are loved by God.

Even taken out of context, supporters of the Neo-Catechumenal Way say the writings of founder Arguello are orthodox—the panel admits as much at one point—and only by casting doubt on their sincerity was it possible for the panel to put them in an unfavorable light. This story is to be continued.

Ben Kobus is based in London.