Sunday, November 21, 2010

Is the Catholic Church a cult?

A recent news item on ABC 24 about religious resurgence in Russia caught my attention, because the more orthodox Russian church has expressed concern about the growth of unorthodox 'cult' versions of Christianity. The news report took the line that many of these 'cults' would not be so regarded in Australia and the US, and that this was really about orthodox forces trying to impose their will.
It all raises interesting questions about what a cult actually is, and whether a so-called mainstream or traditional religion can still be regarded as a cult.
Without even reaching for wiki definitions, I think it's safe to say that the term cult is usually associated with new religions or new variations on established religions, as well as being associated with extreme behaviour, ritual and attitudes. So that, if we take the Catholic Church, its belief that, through ritual, you can partake of the actual blood and body of the central, foundational figure of the religion can't be considered cultic because, though extreme enough, surely, it's sanctioned by tradition, as well as by the agreement of church leaders throughout its history [most notably at the Council of Trent in 1551].
Basically this way of looking at things says that any 'orthodox' belief system can't be a cult, and that's the end of the story. The problem with this is that one person's orthodoxy is another person's weirdness. The opening line of the wikipedia definition of a cult, for what it's worth, says this:
The word cult pejoratively refers to a group whose beliefs or practices are considered strange.
That puts the Catholic Church well and truly in the cult category in my book, and many skeptics and scientists would surely agree, but of course there's more to it than that, otherwise flat-earthers and young earth creationists would be considered cult members, and that's going too far. Interestingly, the above quote has a note attached, saying it comes from the OED, and that note adds this, from the American Journal of Sociology, to the definition:
"Cults[...], like other deviant social movements, tend to recruit people with a grievance, people who suffer from some variety of deprivation."
Clearly this doesn't apply to Catholics, the majority of whom just find themselves in the religion for family and societal reasons. The common run of Catholics don't really look to the hierarchy for guidance in their everyday lives, especially not in developed countries. The Catholic commentator Paul Collins said exactly this in an interview this morning. In this respect you could say that the Catholic Church is a failed cult. One of the characteristics of cults, after all, is a slavish obedience to the dictates of the cult leadership. And didn't the Catholic cardinals 'make' the Pope infallible back in the nineteenth century precisely to encourage this slavish obedience? Infallibility is a supernatural category. Cults always endow their leaders with some supernatural quality or other.
When a Papal Bull or encyclical is issued from the Vatican, it's usually about directing the followers, like a shepherd directing his sheep. I've read one or two of these documents, and one of the features I've noticed in them is a tendency to declare Truths. Capitals are always used. It's a simple device to impart a supernatural flavour - truths are for commoners, Truths are declared by the Infallible. It's here that the cultish state of this very hierarchical church is most evident, but luckily for the followers [and the leaders too perhaps], it's undermined on every lower rung of the ladder by the pragmatic, the sensible, the perverse and the indifferent.
We shouldn't get too complacent about this wannabe cult though - yes, in the west it is seen as having more show than substance, but in Africa, in the Pacific Islands, in nearby Papua, where supernatural beliefs often saturate the atmosphere, just begging to be exploited, the Catholic Church is a very real and very dangerous force. We must continue to monitor it and combat it.

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