Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sects

How would you like to go to bed one night as a Catholic in good standing and wake the following morning to find you belong to a dangerous sect? In some circles of German-speaking countries, notorious for a widespread “anti-Rome complex,” holding orthodox positions on abortion, extramarital sex, divorce, or faithfulness to the Pope and bishops, is now sufficient to have one branded as sectarian.

The latest issue of the Swiss newspaper Zeit-Fragen devotes front-page coverage to a new series of junior high school textbooks offered by Klett Publishers, one of the largest producers of textbooks in the German-speaking world. One of the texts bears the provocative title “Sects: New Ways to Salvation,” and offers preventive medicine to keep students from being duped by peddlers of religious snake oil, while alerting parents to the perils of cults that pose as authentic religion. Chapter by chapter the text launches surgical strikes to take out all the usual targets: Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unification Church (Moonies), the Church of Scientology, and so forth. Up to here, all is well. But Klett reserves its heavy firepower for Chapter 7, where it carpet bombs a new breed of sect: those within the Church.

In this chapter, entitled “Fundamentalism: Sectarian Tendencies in Christianity,” the authors broaden their definition of sect to include practically anyone outside the liberal Christian mainstream. Among “typical characteristics of Catholic and Evangelical Fundamentalism,” we find the following:

• conservative politics

• radical anti-Communism

• adherence to outmoded moral positions

• opposition to the liberalization of abortion laws

• rejection of modern Biblical exegesis such as the symbolic interpretation of miracle stories

• belief in the personal existence and power of Satan

• clear differentiation between good and evil

Going into still greater detail, the text describes traits of fundamentalist Christians within the Catholic Church, beginning with a “traditional interpretation of the Bible and Church doctrine.” These closet fundamentalists, the text informs readers, can be spotted by their “uncritical relationship” to the Church hierarchy (the worst possible insult to free-thinking German intellectuals), as well as their “unquestioning acceptance of outdated moral principles such as the rejection of premarital sex and contraception.” The Klett text lumps together these fundamentalists with “sectarian tendencies” under the classification “traditionalists.”

To make sure that students have caught on, the next section of the textbook provides an exercise, where one must place an “F” (fundamentalists—the bad guys) or an “L” (liberal Christians— the good guys) after a series of phrases. For example, every good student will immediately recognize that the first statement: “Abortion is murder and should always be severely punished” reflects a narrow-minded, fundamentalist attitude. On the other hand, statement 5, “The Church nowadays must become more democratic since God's spirit is at work in all Christians,” merits an approving “L.” Questions of divorce, respect for authority, and the role of women in the Church receive similar treatment. Thus all possible opinions fit perfectly into these two tidy categories (remember, however, that “fundamental-ists” are the ones who see everything as black or white).

Language is one of the key battlefields where culture wars are fought, and words constitute fair game for those who seek to influence society's course. As a recent essay in the Economist put it, “what persuades is not the facts & but the emotive resonance of the words they're dressed up in.”

Even so, labeling orthodox Catholics as sectarian borders on the surreal. Vienna's Cardinal Christoph Schönborn takes up this question in a recently published article where he explores a “theological understanding of sects.”

According to Schönborn, the term “infra-ecclesial sects” is inherently contradictory. By definition, a “sect” refers to a group that has broken communion with the body, deviating from a particular religious tradition. Sects, therefore, exist only outside the Church, as isolated groups that admit no examination by Church authorities. Groups approved by ecclesial authority can never fall into this category. Schönborn sees the intentional abuse of terms like “sects” and “fundamentalism” as an attempt to marginalize conservative groups within the Church and limit their influence—much as the expression “radical Christian right” is used in the U.S.

In Germany, bad-mouthing orthodox Catholics can have more serious consequences than alienating young people and capturing the moral high ground in the public eye, as grave as these ills may be. Sects are illegal in Germany — recall the heavily publicized case of Scientology two years ago. To reposition orthodoxy as sectarian casts doubt on loyal Catholics' civic standing and could jeopardize their freedom of activity. The Kulturkampf presses on.

Fr. Thomas Williams is rector of the general directorate of the Legionaries of Christ in Rome.