Neocats and religious life

Is the Neo-Catechumenate Way Compatible with Religious Life?

Updated version of an article first published in Religious Life Review, Ireland, Jan-Feb 1994 , Vol.33, No.164 by Gerald A. Arbuckle, sm

Gerald Arbuckle, sm, Ph.D., is a graduate in social anthropology from Cambridge University, a former assistant-general of the Marist Fathers, Rome, and professor of pastoral anthropology at the East Asian Pastoral Institute, University of Manila, Philippines. He is currently a co-director of the Refounding and Pastoral Development Research Unit, Sydney. Of his ten published books, four have received awards from the Catholic Press Association of the United States. He has been appointed consultant theologian by the Union of Superiors General, Rome, for the Congress on the Future of Religious Life, 2004.

Some time back a temporarily professed religious asked his superiors for permission to join the Neo-Catechumenate movement (or The Way, as it is sometimes called). He said: ‘This organization really impresses me with its evangelical zeal, strong sense of community and faith in the Lord. By being with them I can only become a better religious’. The superiors agreed, but after a few months they found that the religious was increasingly unavailable for community projects and less interested in the spirituality and formation requirements of the congregation. At the same time he became intolerant of those who questioned the Way’s methods of evangelization. When these issues were pointed out to him, he replied: ‘To be true to the movements goals I must give all that I have. After all that is what commitment to the Lord means in religious life. I am just fulfilling what the Lord wants of all Christians and especially religious.’

This incident raises a serious question for superiors and formation staffs. Is the joining of movements like the Neo-Catechumenate compatible with the commitment demanded of religious? I believe that a religious cannot belong fully to both because he/she cannot be totally committed to two distinct groups whose primary goals are in opposition to each other. Second, the primary task of the Way in practice is to downplay the importance of inculturation, but a religious must unconditionally support evangelization through inculturation. Consequently, religious superiors have an obligation to set limits to the involvement by members of their communities in the Way in order to safeguard the charisms of religious life and the congregation.

In this article I explain the reasons for my conclusions. I argue that the manner in which the Way acts, according to the experience of people in England, United States, Australia and in the South Pacific, marks it out as a sect-like movement. I believe that no authentic religious can belong to a sect. My reservations about the Way’s organization and pastoral methods could be used by readers as a case study to assess other contemporary new religious movements within the Church.


Particularly over the last two to three decades a wide variety of new religious movements (NRMs for short) have emerged both within and outside the mainline Churches. History shows that movements of this kind arise at times of socio-economic/political upheaval or chaos. They emerge as an initial and inevitably simplistic effort to provide a new social integration, as a response to conditions of acute social anomie or normlessness. During the 1960s the Western world went through one of the greatest cultural revolutions in recorded history affecting every aspect of life; no political, religious, social or artistic institution remained unaffected by the revolution’s radical evaluations. The revolution, which is sometimes referred to as the Revolution of Expressive Disorder , left many people emotionally and culturally exhausted, without a sense of identity and belonging, because the old securities had disintegrated under the speed and depth of its attack. The NRMs, such as the Unification Church (Moonies), Scientology offered disoriented people ready-made, clear cut meaning systems and direction in life.

Vatican II’s demolition of the Church’s ghetto culture coincided with the countercultural chaos, so many Catholics were left struggling to cope with the aftershocks of two revolutions at the same time, namely the cultural and the conciliar revolutions. Little wonder that NRMs within the Church, such as the charismatic movement, the Neo-Catechumenate, Opus Dei and Communione e Liberazione, developed such an immediate appeal. Many Catholics craved for the certitudes and boundaries of a pre-Vatican II Church and these movements offered them a response to these needs. Like most fundamentalist movements adherents actively look to the central authority, in this case Rome, to use its coercive power ‘to put things right’ in the Church. Rome, however, while continuing to support these movements, has at times expressed reservations about them: Pope John Paul II spoke of ‘questions, uneasiness and tensions’ at the level of local churches because of ‘presumptions and excesses’ of members.

From history we see that, when movements begin to form by way of reaction to revolutionary change, they run the risk of developing sect-like qualities. A sect sociologically is a grouping formed in protest against, and sometimes separating from, the parent organization. Its followers believe that the members of parent grouping have lost, or compromised, traditional orthodoxy, so they seek a return to the earlier and purer teachings and practices. Sects, therefore, commonly have the following qualities. They are elitist, claiming to have the total truth, so that salvation is possible only by belonging to the sect. Individuals must earn their membership of a sect by performing acceptable actions or by undergoing a dramatic conversion or re-birthing experience.

Sects may accept at least in theory a democratic form of government, but in fact the power of the group to control individuals, directly or through its leaders (commonly men), becomes authoritarian. Total loyalty is demanded of adherents to the group; errant members can be harshly dealt with, even through formal expulsion, if rules are broken.

Sects generally are fundamentalist in orientation that is, they angrily reject dialogue with the contemporary world or non-believers. For example, when fundamentalists react to the ‘polluting evils’ of modernity, they assert that the world and/or members of the parent organisation have absorbed the evil around them and their task is to bring the organisation back to the assumed golden age of a former period. Sect members, believing they have the fullness of the truth, are intolerant of people who dare to think differently; they indignantly condemn anyone daring to question their assumptions of righteousness. Dialogue can only endanger the commitment of sect members to orthodoxy. In the Church these movements tend to be lay organisations. Priests, however, may be accepted as having a necessary function, but they must submit to the lay authority in matters other than the priest’s sacrificial role.

Cults technically are milder forms of sects. Throughout this article I use the word sect strictly as described above. In contemporary popular language, what are today called ‘the cults’, such as the Moonies, are sociologically sects.


The Way originated in the early 1970s, emerging out of the personal religious conversion of an artist and musician, Kiko Arguello, and a small group of companions in the Palomeras slums of Madrid. Theoretically, the movement aims to re-create the lengthy period of training and teaching that catechumens underwent in the early Church. This necessitates an intimate knowledge of biblical texts, a powerful experience of the Church as a small accepting community, the revitalization of the Easter Vigil as the central Christian feast, and participation in Sunday evening Eucharist and sacraments with a degree of commitment exceeding what is expected in the average parish. It sees the Church ideally as consisting of small communities with members being held together by strong communitarian bonds; lay catechists have a central position and members are expected to be generous in giving of their time and income to the group’s activities. They may be required to go as missionaries of the Way to any part of the world at any time decided by the Way’s authorities.

The Way is not concerned with any particular social or political programs. Their task, they claim, is verbally to proclaim the Word of God. Little or no cultural knowledge of the area to be evangelized is necessary; all that is needed is zeal and dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit.


There is no doubting the sincerity of members of the Way nor that many people may experience profound conversion to Jesus Christ through this movement. However, I and many others in the field have strong reservations about the theology and pastoral methods of the Way. First, the Way in practice commonly exemplifies many of the qualities listed above for sects. For example, it requires an unquestioning commitment from its members and submission to the authority of its organizers. It is elitist in the sense described above and frequently divisive within parishes. It demands an excessive time involvement from priests/religious and/or it commonly acts without reference to existing parish structures.

Second, in practice the Way rejects the Gospel commitment to inculturation. Inculturation is the dynamic and evaluative interchange between the Gospel and cultures, ‘an ongoing process of reciprocal and critical interaction and assimilation between them.’ As evangelizers we are not free to choose or reject inculturation. It is a Gospel imperative. As John Paul II says: ‘the Church’s dialogue with the cultures of our time (is) a vital area, one in which the destiny of the world…is at stake, and ‘the synthesis between culture and faith is not just a demand of culture, but also of faith.’

Inculturation is a complex and difficult process for it ‘presupposes’, writes the Pope, ‘a long and courageous (effort) … in order that the Gospel may penetrate the soul of living cultures.’ This is so because inter alia inculturation assumes:

a) that the interaction is between two cultures. It is not a simple encounter between the Gospel and a culture, because the Gospel comes to our times as already embedded in a particular culture of the time of the evangelists. There must be an ongoing discernment to discover what is at the heart of Christ’s message, and what belongs to Hebrew/Greek cultures of his time and that of the evangelists.

b) that the Gospel message is also further encased in the centuries-old culture of the evangeliser; the Gospel can be adequately proclaimed only if the evangelizer can remove this cultural baggage and present only what pertains to Gospel faith.

c) that the Holy Spirit is already acting within cultures even before evangelization begins; evangelizers are to recognize this presence through acknowledging values that conform to the Gospel. Hence, the need to approach cultures with a critical respect, even a sense of awe in the presence of the Holy.

d) that there is to be a dialogue, sponsored by evangelizers, between the Gospel and cultures. Vatican II speaks of a living exchange between the Church and the diverse cultures of people’. I have highlighted the two words ‘living exchange’ to emphasize the remarkable theological boldness of the Council Fathers. Through a process of dialogue and exchange between the Gospel and cultures, local expressions of worship and theology should emerge.

But dialogue is impossible, if evangelizers are not prepared to be open to the culture of the people being evangelized by learning as much about their way of life as is possible – the language, for example. As Paul VI significantly writes: ‘what matters is to evangelise human culture and cultures (not in a purely decorative way as it were by applying a thin veneer, but in a vital way, in depth and right to their very roots). The transposition has to be done with discernment, seriousness, respect and competence.’ To act otherwise is to insult the people one wishes to help. There is no shortcut to this process, unless the Holy Spirit works miracles and they are not the normal way of evangelization!

No doubt the Way is adapted to its culture of origin, but it does not at all translate constructively to other cultures. As measured by the demands of inculturation outlined above, the Way falls gravely short. In their enthusiasm to preach the Good News the Way’s followers remain uncritical of the distinction between the message of Christ and the ways it is expressed in the cultural language of the apostolic times. This is precisely the oppressive situation that Peter and Paul condemned at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35). Gordon Urquhart, who has studied the organization, writes of the Way’s lack of concern for inculturation – with its justice imperative and the need to respect the presence of the Holy Spirit in other cultures – in this way. He says that the Way’s ‘world-rejecting stance is so extreme that little interaction with the wider society is possible. The emphasis is on the spiritual life and detachment from all worldly cares. All attempts to change or influence society are actively discouraged as presumptuous.’

The rituals and catechetical material of the Way’s evangelizers are pre-packaged in Europe and they are then imposed on other cultures, with no dialogue considered necessary or advisable. This inhibits the inculturation process. Culturally insensitive methods to express community bonding are encouraged. Thus the hugging that may be characteristic of, and acceptable in, contemporary charismatic Western communities is markedly offensive in other cultures. For example, in Melanesian countries within the South Pacific, this form of public ‘joyful’ expression is taboo outside very narrowly defined social boundaries. Furthermore, I see no concerted attempts among the Way’s evangelizers to prepare themselves for work in cultures so different from their own. Simple trust in the Holy Spirit is no substitute for the serious cultural openness and respect for diversity, discernment and pastoral competence that Paul VI considers essential for inculturation. The Way also exemplifies fundamentalist qualities. Its followers are not prepared to dialogue with people questioning their pastoral assumptions and methods; they have the truth, so dialogue is unnecessary.


A religious is one who is called by God for a mission of faith/justice service. He/she is to respond freely and totally to the Gospel by witnessing within a Church-approved community that is constantly striving to be formed by Christ and in his vision. By ‘Church-approved community’ we mean that the Church acknowledges the gospel authenticity of the founding insight; members commit themselves exclusively to live out that insight under the legitimate authority of the group, not that of another congregation or group. And that authority must be used collaboratively, that is, individuals need to be consulted and, as far as is possible, to be encouraged to participate in all decision-making processes. Anything that interferes with this exclusive commitment to the charisms of religious life and the congregation, no matter how good it might be in itself – such as, for example, a particular form of spirituality, a type of community life – is contrary to the original offering made by the religious to the Lord and his Church.

Should a religious become a fulltime member of the Way without restrictions, I believe that he/she has equivalently opted out of the congregation, because the Way demands unconditional loyalty to its vision and authority structure. The fact is that a religious cannot be committed to two organizations simultaneously, each demanding of its followers total commitment. It would be equivalent to attempting to be a Marist and a Jesuit at the same time!

From the standpoint of mission and spirituality religious must struggle to be prophetically at the cutting edge of the Gospel and cultures. That is their primary task. They cannot escape the mission of faith/justice to the world. They exist to challenge the world and the Church to be true to the values and vision of Christ. Religious, if they are to be prophetic, must, however, be specialists in inculturating the Gospel. But, since the catechetical methods and assumptions of the Way fundamentally conflict with the requirements of inculturation, religious cannot be unconditionally involved with the Way. Religious life, contrary to the sect-like qualities of the Way, stands for universality and a critical openness to the world.


In brief, a religious congregation, if it is to be true to the charism of religious life, must not become a sect, nor can it support sect-like activities in other groups. Neither can a congregation be acting authentically if it is not committed to the faith/justice mission of Christ. Inculturation is integral to that mission. The Neo-Catechumenate in practice does not accept this apostolic vision and openness, as clarified by Vatican II and further insisted on by subsequent ecclesial social teaching. Therefore, congregational leaders to safeguard the integrity of the charisms of their community, and to support prophetically the integral vision of Christ to the world, cannot allow their religious to be uncritically involved in the Way movement.

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