Doctrinal Prevention and Catechesis against Sects

Prof. Michael Hull, New York

The menace of sects to the Church is a modern-day sorrow. The Holy See has responded to this distressful situation by attempting to understand new religious movements in a number of documents, especially Sects or New Religious Movements: A Pastoral Challenge (May 3, 1986). And the Holy Father has paid particular attention to the Church in Latin America, where millions of Catholics have been converted to Protestant sects. The problem of sects is exacerbated by other worldwide socio-religious trends such as the "New Age" movement, syncretism, and religious indifferentism. In order to meet this danger, concrete apologetic initiatives at the diocesan level are necessary to strengthen Catholics’ understanding of their own doctrine and the inherent danger of false teachings. To quote Benjamin Franklin: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Sound doctrine and early warning are the superlative solutions to the threat of sects. This is principally true at the grass-roots level of individual dioceses.

The revitalization of doctrine among Catholics is essential. Diocesan bishops, as successors to the apostles, must lead the way, followed closely by their clergy and laity. Fortunately, they have a number of effective tools at their disposal. On the international level, they have the assistance of the Holy See, which has published an enormous number of invaluable theological and instructional materials in the recent past, most notably the Catechism of the Catholic Church. On the national level, they have the assistance of their local Episcopal conferences. Episcopal conferences allow for the inculcation of the true faith within specific cultural, linguistic, economic, and social milieus. Moreover, the marvelous advances in social communications—so often utilized by the proponents of sects—are also available to the Church, for example, cable and satellite television as well as the Internet.

This revitalization of doctrine must include a clear articulation and overview, not only of Catholic truth, but also of contemporary false teachings. This is particularly true in the religious education of the young. In our present-day state of affairs, where license is confused with liberty, where value is mistaken for virtue, and where newest is deemed best, there is grave need for an exposition of the good, the bad, and the ugly. There is great peril in Catholics conceiving of the Domus Dei as merely one amidst a village of equally compelling abodes (see 1 Tim 3:15). Rather, Catholics must come to see that the Church is in no sense built on sand, as so often are the shifting foundations of sects (see Matt 7:24–28 and Luke 6:47–49), but on the reality of the revelation of Jesus Christ and His promise: "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt 16:18).

The threat of various sects is real and global. For example, the number of radical Protestant evangelicals in Latin America is estimated to have grown from 50,000 in 1900 to 70 million today. While it may not be within the Church’s power to cure every heart and mind from pernicious belief, it is certainly her duty to do all within her power to prevent her sons and daughters from mistaking fallacy for the truth that will make us free (see John 8:32).