Your cousin, who up to now had been quite worldly, has taken a sudden interest in praying the rosary, obeying the Holy Father, and condemning contraception. You’re pleased, of course, that she’s taken interest in her faith, yet something doesn’t feel right. Her conversion seems too sudden, too much of an about-face in too short a time. And something feels wrong about the group to which she has attached herself. It keeps her quite busy; she no longer has time for family functions. She has given up swimming, an activity she has enjoyed since childhood, because the group is concerned about immodesty. Whenever you do get together, all she wants to talk about is the latest prophecy of some local seer and how it relates to the book of Revelation. Has she joined a cult?
Sadly, this scenario is not unusual in today’s Church. The Second Vatican Council gave rise to many new movements, which in turn spawned many new groups. Some start off well and remain on solid footing, but others are pulled off track by poor doctrine or questionable practices.
As a canon lawyer, I am often asked what the Church looks for when assessing new groups forming within the Church. One of the great authorities on this topic is a professor of canon law named Fr. Francis G. Morrisey. Several years ago, Morrisey proposed fifteen criteria to use when evaluating new associations. While these warning signs are not law per se, most canonists accept them when examining modern religious movements.
1. Total Obedience to the Pope
Catholics are supposed to obey St. Peter’s successor. Canonists are for the most part satisfied when a religious movement submits to the teachings of the supreme pontiff.
Yet some groups abuse Catholic sensibility in this regard. They claim “total obedience,” but it turns out they mean partial obedience to selected teachings of the Holy Father. These groups fail to embrace the entire papal message.
The Army of Mary is an example of such a group. Marie-Paul Giguere, the foundress of this organization, acted upon what she claimed was special revelation. But when the content of her alleged revelations raised some concerns among the Church hierarchy in Canada and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Giguere refused to cooperate with these lower-level authorities. She would submit only to the pope. This is related to the next criterion.
2. No Sense of Belonging to the Local Church
The word Catholic means universal. Catholics belong to a universal Church, but Christ also instituted the office of bishop. One of the bishop’s principal duties is to oversee the local church community, to which every Catholic should belong. Even Pope Benedict XVI belongs to a local church, and, as bishop of Rome, the Holy Father oversees the day-to-day spiritual needs of Catholics living in Rome.
This warning is often associated with false visionaries such as Veronica Lueken of Bayside, New York. When the bishop of Brooklyn condemned her alleged apparition, Lueken’s followers wrote numerous tracts arguing that diocesan authorities had failed to investigate the “messages” from the Blessed Mother properly. Lueken refused to submit to the bishop, claiming that the Blessed Mother had called her “a victim soul . . . to save your Vicar and My Son’s Church upon earth.” This was her excuse for setting herself apart from the local church. She also claimed that Christ came down from heaven and told her that the bishops and cardinals—but not the Pope—had come under the dominion of the Antichrist.
The pope is the head of the college of bishops, and each of this college’s members heads a local church, to which a movement should belong.
3. Lack of True Cooperation with Diocesan Authorities
To belong to the local church, a movement must cooperate with local diocesan authorities. Bishops are the successors of the apostles, and the Church entrusts each diocesan bishop to lead a portion of Christ’s faithful.
The diocesan bishop bears ultimate responsibility for each soul under his care. If a movement refuses to cooperate with the local diocesan authorities, its fidelity to the Church is questionable. Also, it is impeding the bishop from carrying out his scriptural duties. The Army of Mary might still enjoy the Church’s approval had it cooperated with the Church in Canada.
4. Using Lies and Falsehoods to Obtain Approval
As Catholics, we concern ourselves with speaking the truth. Our Lord refers to himself in Holy Scripture as “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Any Catholic movement should present itself truthfully, and any group that resorts to falsehoods is likely concealing something.
The Church understands that most movements, particularly new ones, will make mistakes. Even St. Francis of Assisi made his share, but they were quickly identified and corrected because St. Francis was always honest with others.
5. Too Soon an Insistence on Placing All Goods in Common
The consequences of making a decision to place one’s goods in common are lifelong, and the potential for abuse is great. Canonists frown when a movement pressures its members to do so. Such a decision should be freely made only after a long period of careful discernment.
6. The Founder Claims Special Revelations
The Church has recognized many legitimate apparitions and private revelations throughout its history. Far more have never been approved or have been condemned outright. The Church investigates alleged revelations—particularly when they are used to justify the founding of a new movement.
If an alleged seer refuses to submit his revelations to the Church, this immediately calls into question the authenticity of both the revelation and the movement. Giguere’s private revelations led her to a heretical understanding of the Immaculate Conception. It was upon this heretical understanding that she based the Army of Mary. Veronica Lueken’s visions included numerous wild predictions that have never come to pass.
On the other hand, both St. Francis of Assisi and Sister Lucia of Fatima submitted their private revelation to their competent Church authority. Moreover, they lived a life of obedience to these same authorities.
7. Special Status of the Founder
The founder will always enjoy a special role in a new movement, but he should be bound to the common customs, disciplines, and constitutions of the community. Canonists become suspicious when the founder demands special meals, living quarters, or exemptions from the rules imposed upon other members.
8. Special and Severe Penances
St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that virtue is found in the middle—between two extremes. Any penances imposed upon members of a community should be moderate and reasonable. Special and severe penances are not signs of virtue. They are signs of extremism.
I once worked on a case in which a superior denied emergency medical treatment to a novice as penance for a minor infraction of the community’s rules. Had a visiting priest not intervened and rushed the novice to the nearest hospital, the young man would have died. This incident served as a warning to the diocese, which subsequently suppressed the community.
9. Multiplicity of Devotions, without Any Doctrinal Unity among Them
The purpose of sacramentals and other devotions is to bring us closer to Christ and the sacraments. Every new movement has particular prayers and devotions. These should unite the members to Christ, the Church, and the movement’s work.
For example, a pro-life apostolate might pray to Our Lady of Guadalupe; a homeschooling group might have a special devotion to Our Lady Seat of Wisdom. These devotions inspire unity between the apostolate’s prayer and the apostolate’s work.
Other devotions offer no such unity and become unduly complicated and specific. An example would be if a group insisted that its members pray three Hail Marys in front of a statue of St. Joseph while the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. Each of these devotions is good in itself, but put together in this incoherent way, they risk dissipating into superstition. The particular prayers and devotions of a new movement should be focused on the object of one’s devotion and how it relates back to the work of the apostolate.
When the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, the focus should be on our Lord and his Real Presence; when praying before the statue of St. Joseph, focus should be on St. Joseph; when praying to the Blessed Mother, focus belongs on her. Ultimately, this keeps the focus on God rather than fragmenting one’s attention in several different directions.
10. Promotion of Fringe Elements in the Life of the Church
A Catholic movement should serve Christ’s faithful. Canonists take a dim view of groups that exist only to promote fringe elements within the Church such as special apparitions, private revelations, or extreme social or political agendas.
Of course, extraordinary events can inspire new movements within the Church. For example, our Lady’s apparition at Fatima inspired Fr. Robert Fox and the Fatima Family Apostolate. Fox is a priest in good standing with his bishop, the Church approves of his apostolate, and the movement carries out much good work within the Church.
The same cannot be said for Fr. Nicholas Gruner’s Fatima Crusader. Gruner is a priest whose priestly faculties have been suspended by the Church.
11. Special Vows
There are three traditional vows within the Church: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Although the Church has approved other vows throughout history, these are increasingly discouraged because a founder or superior of a new movement can use special vows to control members of the movement unduly.
This is particularly true when a special vow cannot be externally verified. For example, a person can produce external evidence that he is living a life of poverty, chastity, or obedience. Yet how can a person prove that he is living up to a vow of joy or some other subjective feeling?
12. Absolute Secrecy Imposed on Members
The Church is not a secret society. Some discretion and privacy is needed within any Church community or movement, but secrecy should never be absolute outside of the seal of confession. No movement can prohibit its members from approaching the Church hierarchy and still call itself Catholic.
13. Control over Confessors and Spiritual Directors
Confession and spiritual direction concern a person’s conscience. The role of confessor or spiritual director should never be confused with the role of a religious superior (or leader of a new movement). Within reasonable limits, a person should be free to choose his confessor and spiritual director. Canon law discourages a superior from acting as confessor or spiritual director to a member under his charge.
First, this allows the confessor and the spiritual director to remain objective in carrying out their duties. Second, it prevents a superior from violating the individual’s conscience or making public decisions based upon information he has gathered under the seal of confession.
14. Serious Discontent with a Previous Institute
It is a red flag for a canonist if the leader or leaders of a new movement have a history of falling out with other groups. It is not uncommon for a novice to discover that he joined the wrong community and to go elsewhere, and occasionally, an older member might become discontented if the order has strayed from its original purpose.
But a long history of “personality conflicts” is the sign of a deeper problem that makes the individual unsuitable to found and lead a movement.
15. Any Form of Sexual Immorality as a Basis
The popes and saints consistently teach us to flee from sexual immorality. The Church’s teaching is clear when it comes to the sixth commandment: Sexual relations are reserved to the loving confines of marriage. No movement should be based on sexual immorality. Organizations such as Dignity or Catholics for a Free Choice risk impairing your relationship with Christ. Movements that institutionalize immorality should be reported immediately to a competent Church authority, particularly if the sexual immorality involves children.
With every generation the Holy Spirit has inspired new movements to meet the challenges of the age. Since the Church is literally universal, these challenges often differ from country to country. Each new movement has its own unique charism, yet every authentic movement shares an authentic desire to serve the Church. A movement is dangerous if it places its own interests or those of its leaders before the common good of the Church and the salvation of souls