Thursday, May 23, 2013

Cults And Common Sense - Part I : 4 Warning Signs

Our Sister blog SSVM Abuse recently blogged on a column by well known Catholic priest, convert, and columnist, Fr. Longenecker.  The piece, entitled "Cults and Common Sense" focuses on the tendency for new religious groups to exhibit cult-like behavior.  He offers up 4 warnings signs to recognize these cults along with ways to steer clear of them.  

We believe Fr. Longenecker's points could be useful to readers of this blog, so in Part I below we'll cover his warning signs with an eye toward the IVE.  We'll cover his recommendations on how to avoid these problems in Part II.

4 Warnings Signs of a Cult

1. The “too good to be true” public relations operation

"This is the first sign of a cult: everything is too wonderful and everyone is ready to tell you how wonderful it all is." - Fr. Longenecker.

Indeed, the IVE always describe themselves as "joyful", "faithful", "young" and "growing".  Their websites, while short on spiritual or intellectual substance, are filled with photos of young smiling faces attending mass, working at missions, or having dinner to celebrate a feast day.  Members are told to be joyful - even in their own constitution.  To be openly melancholic would be equivalent to disloyalty.

"The cult will invariably have an amazingly good public relations operation. They will present a good and glossy front with 100% participation of all involved." - Fr. Longenecker.

Despite their small size, the IVE have the best web presence of any catholic congregation we have ever seen.  They have an online marketing engine equivalent to a medium size company: numerous blogs with giant banner advertising, regular updates with event photos, smiling group photos ad naseum.

Any seminarian with an education is assigned to some form of IVE promotion, whether it's working on their web presence, editing books for Fr. Buela, or working on ads and flyers in photoshop.  There is also the full-time seminarian photographer constantly snapping away - even at private seminary events.

This public image is their priority.  You only have to google them to see how many different web URL's they have purchased and set up (follow the link and flip through the search results to see all their pages.)  

SSVM Abuse says it best: "don’t get me wrong, joy is great, but perpetual smiles and no seeming hardships from the outside are red flags. No, really. And the IVE’s various social media, websites, and publications speak for themselves."

Why is this such a warning sign?  Fr Longenecker explains: "because group cult behavior conspires to cover up and hide away anything that tarnishes the glossy image of that 'wonderful community' that all the members want so much to believe in."    

Perhaps that is the reason they fail to mention their troubled history or their sky-high drop-out rate on any of their sites?  

2. Non-transparent leadership

One can't expect to be privy to every decision or how it was made. Yet when perpetual vows of obedience are required, one would at least expect to know who is in charge.  Unfortunately, with the IVE that is often difficult to ascertain.  

Their founder, Fr. Buela, had to step down once in 1994.  A Fr Solari (who has since not only resigned, but left the order altogether) was unanimously elected Superior General.  Most believe that Solari was only a puppet and that Buela remained in charge of the Institute in disobedience to the Argentine Bishops that forced him to resign. 

Fast forward to 2010 and Buela (having retaken his previous post as Superior General in 2002 - after Solari's resignation) again steps down for reasons that are not entirely clear.  Fr. Carlos Walker is then unanimously elected to take his place. 

What is strange about all this is that many in the Institute aren't aware of any of it at all.  Many aren't aware Fr. Buela has ever stepped down.  Even those the priests that are aware of his resignation, still say that he is "the boss" and continues to make all the decisions.  Even stranger is that - though Fr. Solari led the order for 6 years - he is never mentioned within his former order.  Fr. Solari's tenure and departure are kept as a secret from all members who joined afterwards.  

With the IVE not only is the decision making non-transparent. It is never even clear who exactly is making those decisions.  

3. "A third trait of a cult is that complete loyalty is demanded of the followers. Dissent and criticism are not permitted."

Like the Legion of Christ before them, the IVE believe and teach that their vow of obedience requires near-absolute and blind obedience to their superiors - yet this is absolutely not what the religious vow of obedience or St. Ignatius "obedience of the intellect" is supposed to mean

This is no minor point.  The IVE share the Legion of Christ's approach to obedience.  That's exactly what allowed the Legion and Maciel's scandals to continue for so many decades.   Insiders lied and covered up abuse due to an unconditional sense of obedience.  They have been trained since the novitiate never to question their superior.  This is the same with the IVE.

"Those who dissent will be marginalized, excluded from decision making and demonized... The disloyal and rebellious ones will be deemed 'unspiritual' or 'difficult'."

Relating this line to the IVE is a full blog-post on it's own.  You don't get to a 40-50% attrition rate unless there is some marginalization and exclusion occurring. 

For those in formation, voicing any doubts about the IVE way of doing things will get them the wrong kind of attention.  When applicable they'll be told it's a sin against the "vow of obedience" and the "spirit of the institute."  It may even lead to them being spied on - via mail, phone, and even by their fellow brothers.

Voicing these kind of doubts can even get someone kicked out - even though considering the clericalism, the law-breaking, and the poor use of resources, doubts should be plentiful to any thinking person.

It applies to the discernment process as well:  any doubts about one's vocation are dismissed as temptation from the devil.  Continue to question your vocation and you'll be told you are being weak, lacking perseverance, not embracing the grace God is giving you, and giving into the devil.  

4. A persecution complex

The IVE have done and continue to do things that rightfully garner the attention of  Church authorities.  When that attention arrives the IVE leadership never admits any wrong-doing or makes any changes.  Any resulting discipline from Church authorities is then sold to members as "persecution by liberals."

They even wear this persecution as a badge of honor to their membership.  We get plenty of emails and you can find plenty of blog comments from those close to the IVE to the effect that "persecution is a good thing" or "all good orders are persecuted."  Yet that's just not the case.  When you are "persecuted for righteousness sake" then that is a blessing, but when you are persecuted for disobeying all of your country's bishops, for breaking the law, for manipulating children… That's not persecution, that's discipline.

Criticism from former members isn't persecution either.  We and others like us who are writing about this topic aren't liberals who disagree with orthodoxy.  Rather, we are former members who know that orthodoxy is not what the IVE is really about.  When former members publicizing their experience becomes "persecution" then there is a problem.  

How It Happens 
"The problem is that when a group is becoming cult like it does so innocently. Nobody sets out to establish a cult. Instead, unconsciously certain individuals start to behave in this manner and they support one another. The leadership starts to create an unrealistically wonderful religious atmosphere and those who want and need that sort of religious group will support it and feed the flames. The faithful will set the leader up on a pedestal and declare him to be wonderful and the leader (who needs and likes the adulation) will encourage their hero worship. Those who object or suspect what is happening will be automatically excluded or marginalized by those who wish to perpetuate the super wonderful world they are setting up for themselves." 
In Part II we'll look at some of Fr. Longenecker's recommendations for avoiding cults within the Church.