Book Review - Catholic Orders and Movements Accused of Being Cult-Like

ICSA Today 12.2, 2021, pg. 24-25

Book Review - Catholic Orders and Movements Accused of Being Cult-Like: Intra-Ecclesial Sects?

By J. Paul Lennon

Reviewed by Wm. Kent Burtner

Many who are not familiar with the Catholic Church tend to view the institution as monolithic and, at least in its pre-Vatican Council II (1962–1965) manifestation, autocratic. One might be tempted to think that, with a tightly constructed hierarchy and a strong Roman bureaucracy (the Roman Curia), “everything is under control” at all times and places; and in some things this has been true. But as an institution with more than a billion members whose day-to-day activity is mostly seen and governed at the local level, there are lots of interstices for movements involving many people to arise and thrive. These openings are considered by some as where the “wind of the Spirit” blows, where innovation, adaptation, and change develop and move from minority-held ideas and practices into the majority.

One such example of this is the Liturgical Movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. A renewed interest in the forms of official Church worship led to study and reflection on its history and development, and in particular the use of the language of the people in worship. And the central form of worship in the Church, the Mass, is now almost universally celebrated in the vernacular.

Not all new movements in the Church are so easily understood. Some of them bring a new juridical style, involve lifestyle changes, such as living in intentional communities, where members are to be obedient to persons who exercise new roles in the Church and require frequent interaction with like-minded members. Although not all such groups are problematic, some have manifested regrettable qualities in varying degrees, even to the point of making the extreme coercive control over individuals we have seen in modern cults look like child’s play.

The challenge that these groups present to the Church is that many of them seek or have obtained the formal sanction of the Church’s officialdom. One such example is Opus Dei, which obtained under Pope John Paul II the status of “personal prelature,” which in one effect means that a person may be recruited into this group without ever having studied with or enrolled in a typical Catholic parish. Some groups acquire official status under the authority of a local bishop or archbishop. And the behaviors of some problematic groups have become so egregious that their status has been revoked. The difficulty is that there exist opportunities for a narcissistic sociopath to establish a group that, to the outside world, looks virtuous and energetic, and stands for good theological teaching. And, as J. Paul Lennon presents to us in his book, Catholic Orders & Movements Accused of Being Cult-Like: Intra-Ecclesial Sects?, such groups are alive and well; and some of their behaviors have too long avoided the notice of Church authorities.

Lennon makes clear that, when questions of abuse come to light, Church authorities generally make the mistake of choosing experts to make an investigation who are specialists in theology, not those educated about coercive control and manipulation. Thus, asking the wrong questions, they often miss the essential problem within the group being investigated. (A significant exception to this was the “pastoral visitation” conducted in 1991 by Bishop Albert Ottenweller of the Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio into the structure and operation of the charismatic covenant community there. Bishop Ottenweller’s team included, among others, Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer, an internationally known expert on cults; Fr. James Lebar, principal author of Cults, Sects and the New Age, and this reviewer.1) Lennon aptly notes that the majority of these new groups adopt a more traditional theological position, much to the chagrin of more traditionally minded Catholics, and thus they are much more likely to deflect the inquiring eyes of theologically oriented investigators.

Lennon gives us a series of case studies, concisely written, with notes and references to ICSA’s list of cultic qualities,2 which leave us to wonder about some groups, and to breathe a sigh of relief that others are gone. Lennon’s notes and references are well selected and valuable. He also gives references and quotes from appropriate Church documents and a section on help for concerned family members and friends of people getting involved in questionable groups. But the strong value of Lennon’s book is that it sounds an alarm that Catholic authorities need to heed to protect their flock from the harmful effects of intraecclesial sects.

This book is a must-read for several groups of people: Catholics who are concerned about the influence of groups such as Opus Dei and the Neo-Catechumenate, or those who know someone coming under the influence of one of a variety of new movements within the Catholic Church; and Catholic bishops and pastors who are approached by members of new movements within the church who want to operate within their jurisdictions, or who are approached by concerned family members or friends about the involvement of people in such groups. Members of other church communities who see new movements within their ranks will also find this book compelling because there are similar organizations in other church communions. Those who find the evolution of high-control groups an interesting study will find much that is familiar here, too.

A reading of Catholic Orders & Movements Accused of Being Cult-Like: Intra-Ecclesial Sects? will leave the reader hopeful that Lennon’s research will lead to an increasing awareness of the diversity of malignant narcissists and the depth of their range within the Church. Indeed, this book is an important step toward that end.


[1] The Bishop Ottenweller Report: Report on the Pastoral Visitation of the Covenant Community, The Servants of Christ the King, requested by The Most Reverend Albert H. Ottenweller, D.D., Bishop of Steubenville.


[2] Langone, M. (2015). Characteristics associated with cultic groups. ICSA Today, Vol. 6, No 3, 10.

About the Reviewer

Kent Burtner, M. Div., M.A., served as a Roman Catholic priest of the Dominican Order for 20 years, resigning from the priesthood in 1994. He subsequently served as program manager for an interfaith social-services agency, director of the agency’s Cult Resource Center, public-information officer for a local county public-health department, and parish business manager. A published author, Kent has also lectured extensively in the United States, Canada, and Spain. In 1983, he received the Leo J. Ryan Award from the Cult Awareness Network for his work educating the public about cults and thought-reform programs. Kent makes his home in Portland, Oregon and as a pastoral counselor has consulted with more than a thousand individuals or families about the cult affiliations of their loved ones and about adjusting to life after leaving a cult or other high-control group.