BURGOS, Spain, SEPT. 16, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The key cause of the growth of religious sects lies within each Christian, says an author of a new book on sectarian currents that he says threaten the Hispanic world.
Father Manuel Guerra Gómez, who is an expert in the history of religions, believes that “without doctrinal formation, a vibrant inner life of prayer, and apostolic dynamism, the ground may be fertile for the penetration of sects.”
His new book, “Las sectas y su invasión del mundo hispano: una guía” (Sects and Their Invasion of the Hispanic World: A Guide), is a definitive study in this complex area. It has been published by Navarra University Press (www.eunsa.es).
Father Guerra is a diocesan priest of Burgos, and professor emeritus of the Burgos headquarters of the Faculty of Theology of Northern Spain.
Q: Isn’t it exaggerated to speak of an invasion of the Hispanic world? Is the phenomenon that alarming?
Father Guerra: To speak of “invasion” might sound like a simple metaphor. But it is real. Obviously, I refer in the first place to Hispanic America as it is the place where the greatest number of Spanish-speaking and praying people are.
I challenge anyone who thinks it is an exaggeration to compare Hispanic America of the first half of the 20th century with that of today, half a century later. He will discover the proliferation of religious sects of Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Shintoist, Afro-American, magic, and ideological origin and stamp which are spreading in all areas, including among the Indians.
The same can be said of Portuguese-speaking Brazil, which therefore virtually embraces the whole of Ibero-America or Latin America. Suffice it to think that, according to some sources, 15.4% of Brazilians, 25% of Chileans, 31% of Guatemalans, etc., have turned to Pentecostalism.
I know that a great number of Pentecostals are evangelicals and the principal disseminators of Protestant fundamentalism. But a good number are sects in the technical sense of the term and, therefore, not Christians. Among them are the World Pentecostal Assembly, the United Pentecostal Church, all the Unitarian churches, etc.
This is why I consider correct the assessment of a connoisseur of reality, Bishop Cipriano Calderon, president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America: “Half of the world’s Catholics are in Ibero-America, and it is the reason for great hope. However, we must not fall prey to rhetoric: There is a terrible problem, which is that of sects, which are attracting many Catholics; consequently, the number of Catholics is decreasing in many nations. So, perhaps, we might fall into the danger of speaking much about half the Catholics of the world being in Latin America and then find that they have been lost to us. This is why the last assembly of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America dedicated its sessions to outline a new strategy to evangelize in Ibero-America, especially to counteract the phenomenon of sects.”
Q: Do sects really offer attractive alternatives to traditional religions?
Father Guerra: One of the characteristic features of Latin Americans is their profound religious sense, their readiness to venerate the sacred. For centuries their religious thirst was satisfied by the Catholic Church. Now, in addition to the Protestants, sects have invaded.
The latter confirm that the religious sense is innate to the human being. The sects are not anti-religious, but often anti-Christian, at times rabidly so, or at least not Christian. Therefore, they are able to quench the religious thirst of Latin Americans to the extent that they are not satisfied by Catholicism, the traditional religion and spirituality of their countries.
There is a tendency to think that “evil comes from outside” and that “others are the evil ones,” namely, the sects, etc. But the principal cause for the spread of sects lies within each Christian, namely, in his lack of information on the dangers to his faith, his lack of Christian doctrinal formation, and lack of apostolic dynamism, as well as his failure to evangelize, to be an apostle, and to engage in the apostolate.
Did the statue of Nebuchadnezzar that Daniel talks about collapse due to the weakness of its feet of clay or because of the impulse of the little stone that rolled down from the top of the mountain? If his feet had been of gold, silver, bronze, or iron, up to the ankle, as the rest of his body, the statue would have remained erect.
Q: The people who have been in a sect explain that one of the positive aspects is the feeling of being accepted, known by name.
Father Guerra: The activism of modern life; a mother’s work outside the home; the deficiencies, at times absence, of dialogue between parents and children due to lack of time or interest; and the fascination of television; the uprootedness of immigrants far from their homeland; the failure of individuals in large urban centers — [all] justify the individual, especially youth, already insecure and inexperienced and a victim of anonymity, seeking small circles where he is accepted and loved for himself.
Sects usually provide this for their initiates, at least in the beginning. I have often asked members or former members of sects: “Why have you abandoned Jesus Christ for the founder of a sect?” The answer has almost always been, with but slight nuances: “Because I have not felt loved or welcomed by the Church.”
Hence the opportuneness and even necessity to promote the formation of groups which facilitate the acceptance and coexistence of young people, their Christian formation and recreation, groups which generally flower more in movements than in parishes. In addition, such groups will allow them to breathe in an ethical-moral and religious “micro-climate,” which does not always exist at present in families.
Q: You say that perhaps Catholics who incorporate themselves in a sect were already “outside” the Church.
Father Guerra: Yes, I wonder about that, because the nucleus of believers and practicing Catholics in traditionally Catholic countries is surrounded by a wide margin — 70-80% — whose membership in the Catholic Church is weak, very weak, or even nonexistent.
The gamut of membership can run from “believing without belonging,” to “belonging without believing.” Since a religious void does not exist, to the extent that an individual is not determined to belong truly and vitally to his traditional religion, to that extent he will belong to another alternative religious form — sect, New Age, neo-paganism — which can be a profane or idolatrous sign of a political or narcissistic type.
There is a need for novelty and fascination with the novel or the fashionable not only in dress, but also in the ideological realm. Traditional religions — Catholicism in Hispanic countries — have accumulated successes and some failures in the many years of their existence. Modern man tends to focus on the failures in order to reproach them and justify the inconsistency of his faith or his abandonment of it.
Sects and non-Christian religions, however, lack antecedents; they are a novelty whose historicism makes them more up-to-date. Hence the protean chameleonlike manner of not a few sects, generally dangerous, and their change of name when the original one is charged with pejorative connotations. So they start again and avoid the reactions that hinder proselytism.