Proselytism or Evangelization? (Part 2)

Maria Jose Ciaurriz on Indigenous Religions and Sects

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MADRID, Spain, JUNE 11, 2003 ( In this second part of her interview with ZENIT, María José Ciaurriz, professor of ecclesiastical law, distinguishes between the concepts of religious movement, cultural tradition and harmful sect.

Ciaurriz is the author of «The Right to Proselytize in the Framework of Religious Liberty, published by Spain’s Center of Political and Constitutional Studies. Part 1 appeared Tuesday.

Q: In what way can proselytism cause religious changes that clash with the tradition and culture of a people?

Ciaurriz: From the point of view of appreciation of the supernatural, every religion has the right to consider that membership in it is a higher good than the other cultural traditions, and that for a people the acceptance of a different religion, of what we might consider the original or native one, might imply a notable benefit.

Indeed, the whole of Europe has accepted, in the course of the centuries, the Christian religion in its different forms, which at the time of the Roman Empire and in subsequent centuries came to substitute the indigenous religions; and the Latin-Christian European tradition is regarded as a great good for the Continent. The same can be said of America, both of the North and the South, and of not a few other places of the planet.

Indeed, the idea that ancestral tradition and culture must not be subjected to religious changes that alter them has been absent from the human mentality during the greater part of the centuries.

Q: Religions are no longer in their places of origin: we are witnessing a universal expansion — one might say global — of Christianity, of Buddhism in the West, of Islam in Europe. Is it a natural effect?

Ciaurriz: In the East, although the information we have in this regard is much less, there have also been religious invasions among peoples who had different cultures and traditions.

Neither Buddhism, nor Shintoism, to give some examples, are today limited to the countries where they were born, not to speak of the phenomenon of Islam around the world, a clear phenomenon of substitution of indigenous traditions and cultures, which is notorious in India, in the Middle East, and in a good part of Africa, etc.

Q: There are those who fear that religion is contrary to primitive cultural traditions.

Ciaurriz: Of course. At present a movement has arisen, which is becoming ever more intense, to safeguard the cultural traditions of peoples, who have retained a certain primitivism.

Thus, in some countries of Latin America they have gone so far as to prohibit evangelization that might affect tribes that still retain ancestral religions, to avoid the disappearance of those cultural phenomena that are considered the heritage of the country in which they exist.

It is an altogether new phenomenon, based more than on the appreciation of indigenous religions, on a concept of archaeological conservation of the ways of being of ancient peoples. It will be interesting to see if the attempt to maintain them in their primitive religious culture also implies impeding their coming out of their primitive ways of life, thus closing to them the way of modern civilization.

Q: In Latin America, for example, can sects change the face of Catholicism?

Ciaurriz: The concept of sect is an ambiguous concept; there are aspects that are far from being sufficiently defined. Needless to say, sect is not a juridical but a sociological concept.

Many religions, consolidated today throughout the world, have come into being by splitting from others, meriting at first the label of sects.

The definition of sect generates under-valuation and, one should also add, suspicion. Any entity classified as sect becomes, automatically, suspicious before public opinion. And this burden of the term’s negativity has affected not a few perfectly worthy confessions, which are not at all sectarian.

Consequently, the classification of sect is rejected by the most responsible juridical doctrine.

One can speak of new religious movements, of atypical confessional groups, or in any other way that does not imply raising suspicion about the unworthiness or behavior of the people who make up a new religious entity.

Q: Yet, there are harmful sects.

Ciaurriz: Yes, it is no less true that there are harmful sects that are dressed up as religions to attain objectives they would not reach if they appeared for what they are. In such cases, one can call sects those groups that harm many people while seeking their own benefit — entities with economic ends, or pornographic or political ends, which adopt the dress of religion to appear nicer to public opinion, or to obtain benefits that many countries grant to religious associations.

Those sects, by their own design, are false and, on many occasions, also aim, directly or indirectly, at exploiting the naiveté of many people from whom they obtain unjust benefit.

There are also sectarian groups that capture individuals, in a line of radically illusory and harmful plans for human life. In this connection, reference must be made to collective suicides which, sadly, have taken place in different places, affecting many people, deceived by charismatic leaders who, in the majority of cases are, unfortunately, insane beings in mind and ideas.

Naturally, these two types of sects must be controlled, pursued, impeding their carrying out their illegitimate ends. And the greater part of legislation, by requiring religious ends for an entity to be recognized as a religion or by considering the public order as a limitation to religious activities, are taking measures that attempt, insofar as possible, to impede or mitigate the harmful phenomena of the sectarian phenomenon.

It is possible that in Latin America there is a movement of sects that is harmful to the population. That that same movement might change the face of Catholicism is absolutely not predictable.

Catholicism in Latin America will continue to be what it is, just as the other religions will, regardless of the social harm that the mentioned sects can cause.

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