Are there Sects in the Catholic Church?

Author: Christoph Schönborn, O.P.


Christoph Schönborn, O.P.
Archbishop of Vienna, Austria


For some time now the media have been reporting about "sects in the Church" or "sects within the Catholic Church". This is what a number of movements and communities are called which were founded over recent decades. Early on, some of these new groups were labeled as "conservative" or "fundamentalist"; now one tries to eliminate1 them as "sects within the Church". People are warned of them as of the classical sects or the religious youth movements which make people psychologically ill and in which they are inhumanly treated. Many faithful are aware that there have been sectarian schisms in the history of Christianity, including today. But the claim that groups approved by and acknowledged in the Church are "sects" within her, seems disturbing to many Christians.

1. Towards a theological clarification of the concept 'sect'

The notion "sect" is originally a religious term used by the Church. Recently it has been broadened into a socio-political dimension at the cost of precision and clarity. In everyday use it has become a slogan defining groups considered "dangerous", since they offend against the fundamental values of the liberal democratic society.

At present the following criteria are generally applied to a sect: formation of an elite group, sealed off from social reality and frequently in opposition to it; the development of alternative ways of life, often so; extreme that they lead to a loss of the sense of reality and to unhealthy exaggerations. Besides following an aim in life that goes against generally accepted conventions, or a spiritual idol with occasionally utopian features, the following inner characteristics are listed: renouncing today's basic values of personal freedom and tolerance; occasionally fighting for fundamentally opposed attitudes; a totalitarian way of life; oppression of the members' consciences; ostracizing outsiders, as well as the tendency to dominate society or aspects of it. If several of these characteristics are recognized in a group, it is called a sect.

According to the religious (more apt and precise) usage of the term, those groups are called sects which have broken away from the general or national Churches. Often sects hold on to particular values, religious ideas or ways of life of the original ecclesiastical community. But these particular basic principles are understood in an absolute way and are lived out in. a community life that is strictly isolated from the former body and that aims at self-preservation and self-defence. The following characteristics arise from these basic conditions: some one-sided religious ideas (e.g. holding that the end of the world is near), refusing to exchange ideas with people of different opinions; an over-enthusiastic promotion and pursuit of their own ideas; fierce proselytizing, overconfidence in their sense of mission towards an often despised world; a conception of salvation that is exclusive to a certain number of people belonging to the specific group.

According to Catholic theology, a sect is characterized by estrangement from the common biblical-apostolic truth and the central contents of faith. Therefore the Church considers sects always to be tantamount to heresy (cf. Gal 1:6-12) or schism.

Nobody needs to have studied theology to recognize the basic contradiction in the slogan "sects within the Church". Their presumed existence in the Church is an indirect reproach of the Pope and Bishops who are responsible for investigating whether ecclesiastical groups are in agreement with the faith of the Church in teaching and practice. From a theological and ecclesiastical point of view, a group is considered a sect when it is not recognized by the relevant Church authority. Sects are outside the Church (and outside ecumenical movements). They are isolated and as such do not want to be examined by Church authority. Associations approved by the Church, however, are in constant contact with and answerable to Church authority. Their statutes and ways of life are scrutinized. It is therefore wrong if communities which are approved by the Church are called sects (by institutions, individuals, or in media reports), or if a life according to the three evangelical counsels is seen as a sect-like practice.

According to canon law, the faithful have the right to found associations. It is the duty of the Bishops or the Holy See to examine new groups or movements - which St Paul calls new charisms - and to acknowledge them as genuine. The authority of the Church is obliged to promote and support the work of the Spirit of God in the Church today. The Church has to intervene and correct, if there is an unhealthy growth or a deviation in teaching and practice. This is different from a sect which does not see itself to be under such an authority and does not acknowledge any; Church groups submit consciously and freely to authority, and are ready to accept corrections if needed. Many examples show this.

Libero Gerosa summarizes the essential criteria of genuine charisms as follows: "Charisms are 'special graces' granted by the Spirit to every and any faithful. These gifts make them 'fit and ready to undertake the various tasks' for building up the Church. Some of these gifts are extraordinary, others simpler and more ordinary. Judging their genuineness and proper use is a matter for those with authority in the Church who have no right to suppress genuine charisms".2

No one needs to be uneasy if communities approved by the Church are labeled as "sects within the Church" by the public. Should there be doubts or questions, it is possible to ask the appropriate ecclesiastical authorities for information.

Some remarks on 'fundamentalism'

"Fundamentalism" was originally the name given to a religious-ideological movement that sprang up in the United States before the First World War aiming at a strictly literal understanding of the Bible (especially of Genesis), which developed into a collective Conservative Protestant movement. Typical of fundamentalism in the country of its origin today is the rejection of any historical-critical view of the biblical texts, an almost mythical orientation towards an idealized past, the refusal of any positive evaluation of modern development, a sometimes importunate moralism, aboveall directed against prevalent consumerism, now and then some tight-wing tendencies and declarations critical of democracy. In modern philosophy and sociology this American fundamentalism - though duly criticized - is seen as a phenomenon that should be taken seriously as an expression of the "American Civil Religion" in view of the problems of extreme liberalism.

Quite different from this term is the concept of a "religious fundamentalism" which spread in Europe in the '80s, a rather vague and woolly expression that is used for such distinct phenomena as an extreme Islamic fanaticism inflicting the death penalty on dissenters and for the adhering of Catholic Christians to the traditional faith of the Church. Without any discrimination, groups within the Church that are based on her teachings and especially on those of the Second Vatican Council, and followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who parted with the Church are suspected of fundamentalism.

Actually, the term "fundamentalism" is more often a slogan meant to attack someone, than to describe a definite, precise spiritual phenomenon. It is often found in connection with labels such as "dogmatism", "integralism", "traditionalism", "mistrust of people who think or live differently", or "being afraid to make one's own decision".

Criticism of fundamentalism is directed against a rigid faith marked by fear and insecurity, not acknowledging any development of dogma and of the understanding of truth, attempting to hold on to rigid forms and formulas, not daring to be exposed to the practices of changing times. This form of criticism is justified. But some critics tend to label all those communities and movements as fundamentalist who - acknowledging the changes of the times - hold on to lasting truths and binding values and do not want to swerve from "the fullness, the organized form and the beauty of the Catholic world of faith".3 These critics should ask themselves whether they do not run the risk of falling into a relativism of value and truth, while advocating, in their own way, an absolutism that makes them the only ones to decide about the valid principles of present realities of life and faith.

Asked about the significance and danger of modern fundamentalism, Cardinal Ratzinger carefully differentiates in his new book Salz der Erde: "The common element in the very differing mental attitudes and movements which are classified by us as fundamentalism is the search for security and simplicity of faith. This is not bad as such; after all, faith is meant very much for the simple and little ones - as we are told repeatedly in the New Testament. The search for security and simplicity becomes dangerous only when it leads to fanaticism and narrow-mindedness. If reason as such becomes suspect, then faith is falsified and becomes a kind of party ideology which no longer has anything to do with trust in the living God, source and creator of life and reason. Then pathological religious forms arise, such as a desire for visions, for messages from beyond, and the like. However, instead of attacking fundamentalism, the concept of which is becoming progressively more inclusive and vaguer, theologians should reflect how far they themselves are responsible, if more and more people are taking refuge in narrow and unhealthy forms of religion. If one merely questions and does not show a positive way of faith, then people will inevitably resort to distorted forms of religion".4


After this short clarification of the concepts "sect" and "fundamentalism", we now turn our attention to specific accusations against newer communities in the Church. Communities and movements approved by the Church should not be called sects, since their ecclesiastical approbation confirms their belonging to and grounding in the Church. In spite of this approbation, the charges made against the newer charisms in the Church are sometimes considerable. It must be said generally that the teaching and practices of communities approved by the Church should be distinguished from the weaknesses of individuals. We are all familiar with our imperfect human actions. Therefore it should be stressed that ecclesiastical authority must intervene in cases of unhealthy developments.

Some accusations leveled at these communities are: brainwashing as a method, isolation and alienation from the world, estrangement from the family, dependence on charismatic leaders, building up of their own structures within the Church, violation of human rights, as well as the problem of ex-members. What can be said of these accusations?


This term cannot even be applied to the often observed change of personality in sects, as brainwashing means the inhuman methods which are used in totalitarian regimes to influence people and change their personalities. It should not be used to describe the formation of members of communities in the Church. The latter is a freely accepted transformation of the personality into Christ, respecting human dignity. It refers to the call of Jesus to repentance and faith (cf. Mk 1:14f). Whoever follows the call of Christ will - in grace and freedom have an outlook of faith on all dimensions of life, St Paul, too, speaks about this transformation in one of his letters: "Do not model yourselves on the behaviour of the world around you, but let your behaviour change, modeled by your new mind. This is the only way to discover the will of God and know what is good, what it is that God wants, what is the perfect thing to do" (cf, Rom 12:2). In Christian tradition it is called "metanoia", conversion of life. The transformation of life is brought about by a call from God to follow Christ. It is a life-long process for a Christian, which has to be freely renewed, Spiritual communities in the Church must make sure that the decision to follow Christ is freely undertaken. This is safeguarded by a series of canonical regulations.

Isolation and alienation from the world

In the Gospels we read that Christians "do not belong to the world" (Jn 17:16), but that they are "sent into the world" (Jn 17:18). Turning away from the world means not turning away from people, their joys, sorrows and anxieties, but from sin. In this sense, Jesus prays for his disciples: "I am not asking you to remove them from the world, but to protect them from the evil one" (Jn 17:15). If Christians do not participate in everything and are not fully one with the trends of their times, this does not mean that they despise the world. They only turn away from what is opposed to their faith and also from goods that they no longer consider important, once they have found the "treasure hidden in a field" (Mt 13:44). Communion with Christ ought to urge them not to retreat into a world of their own, but to sanctify the world from inside, transforming it in truth, justice and love. In a society dominated by the media, where the Church should be transparent, there is the challenge, as St Peter says in his First Letter, always to "have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope you all have" (1 Pt 3:15).

This applies also to contemplative communities who live behind the walls of monasteries, and in prayer and sacrifice surrender their lives to God for the good of all, On the one hand, the Church is an alternative society,5 and, on the other, a missionary community in the midst of the world.

This was expressed by the Second Vatican Council in many texts. One of them referred to the Epistle to Diognetus from the very early Christian Church. Written in the second or third century, it stresses that Christians - as all other people - live in the world, but are opposed to the spirit of the world; striving towards a goal beyond this world. Thus they fulfil their mission as a blessing for the world.

"To put it briefly, the relation of Christians to the world is that of a soul to the body. As the soul is diffused through every part of the body, so are the Christians through all the cities of the world. The soul, too, inhabits the body, while at the same time forming no part of it: and Christians inhabit the world, but they are not part of the world. The soul, invisible herself, is immured within a visible body; so Christians can be recognized in the world, but their Christianity itself remains hidden from the eye. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against her without any provocation, because she is an obstacle to its own self-indulgence.... Christians, as they sojourn for a while in the midst of corruptibility here, look for incorruptibility in the heavens. Finally, just as to be stinted of food and drink makes for the soul's improvement, so when Christians are every day subjected to ill treatment, they increase the more in numbers. Such is the high post of duty in which God has placed them, and it is their moral duty not to shrink from it".6

Estrangement from family members

Respect and loving care for parents belong essentially to the Christian message. If, however, someone is called to a closer imitation of Christ, then Jesus asks him also to leave his family. The Apostles left their families, occupations and country. This kind of imitation of Christ has its continuance in our time. Some parents rejoice at such a decision by their children. But conflicts may arise with the members of some families. Jesus himself talks about it (cf. Mt 10:37).

It is not always easy to let a child go, not even in the case of marriage. If one leaves home for Christ's sake, freely accepting his or her call, then it is not an escape from family obligations and may not be attributed to the unjustifiable influence of a community. Criticism is only justified if a deliberate break with the family were intended, offending the other members of the family who often strive to live a faithful Christian life as well. Every member of the family is free to choose his or her own way of life. One must be tolerant and respect the decision of each conscience.

There have been difficult situations in the past, of course, and conflicts still arise today, for example when communities influence minors against the will of their parents, or when parents have difficulty in understanding and accepting the decision of a child to enter an order or a religious community. But if imitation of Christ is lived with love, determination and Christian tact, respecting everyone's free decision, then a relationship of trust can develop between the "natural" and the "spiritual" family that brings abundant graces, as many have experienced.

Dependence on charismatic leaders and personalities

Here one has to distinguish between those who use their abilities in a selfish and dishonest way in order to dominate others and make them submissive, and truly charismatic personalities as they can still be found in the Church today. In a "spirit of holiness" (2 Cor 6:6), they do their utmost for the Church and the good of mankind. Throughout the history of salvation there have been truly inspired leaders. The prototype is Jesus Christ himself, and countless men and women have found their way of life and happiness as his disciples. Great founders and charismatically-gifted men and women, such as St Benedict or St Ignatius, St Clare or St Angela Merici, have given their lives to win others for Christ. They were God's gift to his people. They did not bind others to themselves, but led them to Christ and his Church. In the freedom of God's children, they passed on the supernatural riches of their lives to others, always in obedience to the authority of the Church. Should we not thank God that he is still giving us such people who are filed with his Spirit? While necessarily holding on to historical structures, ought we not be open to the Holy Spirit, the soul of the Church?

Building up their own structures within the Church

It is often held against modern groups in the Church that they build "a Church within the Church". To counter this danger, one has to make sure that the relationship between the existing structures of the Church, above all the parish, and new groups is always well balanced. As Cardinal Ratzinger writes: "in spite of all the changes that will come about, I am convinced that the parish will remain the essential cell of the Christian community.... As at most times in history there will also be groups which are linked through a special charism, by the personality of a founder, in a specific spiritual way. For the sake of both, an exchange between them is needed: the movement needs the link with the parish, so as not to become isolated and sectarian; the parish needs groups and movements so as not to lose its vitality. Now new forms of spiritual life have already come into being in the world, If one looks around, one can discover an astonishing variety of Christian ways of life, in which the Church of tomorrow is already visible among us".7

Violation of human rights

To follow Christ in celibacy, obedience and poverty has always been part of the consecrated life. Whoever chooses this way of life and after several years of discernment and prayer binds himself to it, renounces certain rights as a free decision of his conscience: the right to marry, the right to self-determination and the right independently to manage and acquire property. The Second Vatican Council says: "The evangelical counsels of chastity dedicated to God, poverty, and obedience are based upon the words and example of the Lord. They were further commended by the Apostles and the Fathers, and other teachers and shepherds of the Church. The counsels are a divine gift, which the Church has received from her Lord and which she ever preserves with the help of his grace" (cf. Lumen gentium, n. 43). If this way of life is freely chosen, it does not go against human rights, but is the answer to a special call from Christ. Those responsible for the different communities are, however, obliged - in a pure conscience - to Support the vocation of the member for the fruitful upbuilding of the Church and the good of humanity in the spirit of a genuine "communio".


All religious communities know that their new members need a time of mutual getting-to-know-each-other, of growing into the group and of self-examination, as they prepare for a definite commitment. The superiors have the right to dismiss someone for certain serious reasons. But, unfortunately, departure or dismissal may also occur after someone has already made a final commitment. Some of those who have left a community keep in friendly contact, following their own way by mutual agreement. Of course, communities approved by the Church will - in case of conflict - offer their members and ex-members the opportunity to approach the appropriate Church authorities.

Some ex-members cannot come to terms with their negative experiences and make them known from the platform of the media. People living together will experience their limitations and weaknesses. It is, however, unjustified, to present personal difficulties within a community as if they were a general experience. On the whole, negative experiences of individuals are painful for the whole Church community.

Such experiences continue to be discussed in public. There is no interest in questions of the teaching of the faith, but in ways of behaviour and their effects. In discussion it becomes obvious that the Church in her various communities is an "alternative society" with respect to a liberal secular society, must be suspicious of anything more radical".8 Should criticism be based on real problematic developments in a group, this will be sufficient reason for the appropriate Church authority to undertake a thorough investigation. Criticism may give rise to a purification and better growth of groups. In the Vatican Interim Report of 1986: "Sects and New Religious Movements - A Challenge for the Pastoral Ministry, we read that attitudes adopted by sects (such as intolerance and aggressive proselytism) are not enough to characterize a sect, since these attitudes may be found in Church communities as well. To quote: "However, these groups may undergo a positive change by becoming more deeply absorbed in Christian formation and also through contact with other Christians around them. Thus they may continuously grow in thinking and acting with the Church".9 To think with the Church is a challenge for both sides: the group has to learn to bring its charism in as one among many (thus resisting the temptation to lay claim to an ecclesiastical absolutism); those who have no direct access to this form of life in the Church have to learn to see in such a community a gift of the life-giving Spirit, whereby many can find a new approach to faith.

In our time, a new desire is arising in different countries of the world, in spite of all human frailty, to live up to the message of Christ and to serve the Church in unity with the Holy Father and the Bishops. Many see new charisms as a sign of hope. Others experience these new awakenings as something strange; for others they are a challenge, by others again they may be experienced as an accusation, against which they vindicate themselves sometimes reacting with reproach in turn. Some promote a kind of humanism that has less and less to do with its Christian roots. But we should not forget: "If the Second Vatican Council speaks of the 'ecclesia semper reformanda', it speaks not only of the necessity to think anew about the structures of the Church, but moreover about the constant renewing of the life of the Church and about the querying of some long-established and treasured ideas which may be too much in keeping with the spirit of the age".10


1 Cf. H. Gasper, "Ein problematisches Etikett: Mit dem Sektenbegriff sollte man behutsam umgehen", Herder Korrespondenz 50 (1996), 577-580; H. Maier, "Sekten in der Kirche? Es muß Platz geben für unterschiedliche Wege", Klerusblatt 76 (1996), 208.

2 Libero Gerosa, Charisma und Recht, Trier 1989, p. 66; quotations in text from Lumen gentium, n. 12.

3 L. Scheffczyk, Katnolische Glaubenswelt: Wahrheit und Gestalt, Aschaffenburg 1977, p. 351.

4 J. Ratzinger, Salz der Erde. Christentum und katholische Kirche an der Jahrtausendwende: Ein Gespräch mit Peter Seewald, Stuttgart 1996, pp, 146f.

5 G. Lohfink, Wie hat Jesus Gemeinde gewollt?, Freiburg (Neuausgabe) 1993, pp. 142f.

6Epistle to Diognetus, 5-6; trans. by Maxwell Staniforth in: Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, Penguin Books 1968, reprinted 1987, pp. 144ff .

7 J. Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 283.

8 H. Gasper, ibid.

9 I. Kapitel, ed., Referat für Weltanschauungsfragen der Erzdiözese Wien, 1986, p. 5,

10 H. Maier, ibid.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13/20 August 1997, page 3

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