In Hinduism, a guru is a “wise master” who helps someone achieve true enlightenment. In modern, Western contexts a guru tends to be someone treated like a mystical all-knowing “answer man.”
In the 90’s the gurus were the self-help coaches whose flawless smiles graced the covers of those books that could make you a “highly effective person”. In the Internet age, it’s that person who makes soothing YouTube monologues interspersed with high quality stock footage before the backdrop of a well-lit home studio. In either case, there is a temptation to just sit at the guru’s feet and absorb their “wisdom” on a subject instead of thinking through it yourself.
And in the Catholic world, it’s easy to for a skilled Catholic apologist to become a “Catholic guru” people listen to not just for advice on how to find purgatory in the Bible, but for advice on anything related to the Catholic faith.
Here’s what happens:
A Catholic public figure, maybe an apologist, or a theologian, or a priest, or just an excellent public speaker, grows a sizable audience. This notable Catholic gets a reputation for giving great answers on specific subject matter. But then the audience wants the speaker’s opinion on other matters beyond his area of expertise. This can be things like political issues of the day or advice on a particular difficulty in a person’s life. Because this figure is very smart or winsome, some of his audience assume he (or she) must be correct on whatever he chooses to pontificate about.
But if he’s not an actual expert in those fields, then he could be leading people into error. Or he could cause scrupulosity if his personal spiritual preferences are seen as the standard for what the “good Catholics” do. This can turn especially dangerous if this public figure becomes an overhyped guru who (supposedly) knows more about the Church than anyone else.
For example, at a parish I used to attend, there was an incredibly charismatic and popular pastor. He was so popular that, after he was excommunicated for hosting his own ecumenical church on Sunday afternoons, a third of the parish staff went with him and left the Catholic faith. He had become not just a guru, but an idol. People trusted him over the shepherds with actual God-given magisterial authority, and they did so to their own destruction.
It reminds me of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely men? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each” (1 Cor. 3:4-5).
Now, this doesn’t mean apologists can’t have public opinions about non-Catholic subjects. I’ve shared plenty. It just means their opinions should be measured against reason and what the Church teaches. An apologist must resist the temptation to become a kind of idol people look to for spiritual sustenance, however well-meaning their praise of him may be.
For example, when I’m at public events people sometimes tell me, “Thank you for your books and everything you did to lead me back to the Church.” I then politely reply: “Praise be to God! I’m so grateful God used those books and that he blessed you in this way.”
I’m not perfect when it comes to avoiding pontification that can tread into “guru territory”. But I know the ship of my life will always be heading in the right direction if I take praise given to me as an opportunity to praise almighty God from whom all blessings flow.