For many an internet troll on Catholic YouTube channels, “Catholicism is a cult” is a go-to comment. When in doubt, just lump the world’s largest religion in with fanatical fringe groups to win an argument.
Yeah… the internet is not always sophisticated.
But it does raise an interesting question. While we don’t have to stop for a second to actually wonder if Catholicism is a cult, what exactly is a cult? It may seem like a weird question, asking something that appears to be blatantly obvious, but just like defining what a religion is, it often eludes our grasp. With each bit of criteria, there are exceptions to the rule.
Most cults are small, and so we might look to size as a determinant. And yet, a group like Family International, largely held to be a cult, claims to have more members than the ancient religion Zoroastrianism, well over 100,000 people.
Often, cults are as much of a new religious movement with entirely new revelation as they are a reform of a previous religion. In which case, how do we distinguish between Mormons, Scientology, and Peoples Temple, all of which were founded on entirely new statements of faith?
Even the concept of “brainwashing” and self-mutilating practices, two things always associated with cults, are suspect. For one, is there really even any such thing as “brainwashing”? No one can ever force another to believe something against their will, and while misinformation plays a major role in it, it is still up to the individual’s personal agency to join in the first place. As for practices that hurt an individual, how do we separate the ascetic practices of Christianity and Buddhism from the seemingly dehumanizing practices of Heaven’s Gate? Is it just perspective?
And so on.
In asking these questions, my hope is not to relativize the issue and say that “cults” are just the same as traditional religions, nor do I want to defend some truly horrible groups; there are definitely some highly misguided people out there who will abuse others for their own gain, and they should not be grouped together with Christianity. My point in this week’s Catholicism in Focus is to show that the term “cult” is often loaded with a lot of definitions and particularly hard to define. It is important that we not think with such a black-and-white mindset in these issues, definitively declaring certain aspects to be bad, as we might find that we are condemning ourselves. What makes something a “cult” versus as religion is not necessarily one or two factors but rather an overall combination of factors.
Oh, and to show that Catholicism is not a cult. ‘Cus that’s ridiculous.