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Are there cults within the Catholic Church?
-- Stacey (Stace@hotmail.com), August 10, 2001
That's a terribly interesting question. Strictly speaking, the answer is "yes" -- but probably not in the way you mean the word "cult."
The Catholic Church itself is not a "cult" (as people commonly use the word today). But, part of the Church's spirituality involves "cults" (as people USED to use that word). This requires a careful explanation. Please bear with me.
The problem is that, in recent decades, the word "cult" has been taken almost strictly to refer to non-Christian religions that are regarded as very weird, even more-or-less fake/spurious power-games. In this kind of "cult," there usually exists some kind of founding guru or oligarchy, sometimes a brain-washing and quasi-imprisonment of adherents, sometimes the use of mind-altering substances, and other injurious (even satanic) practices. Many people, when they use the word "cult," speak of the criminal Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh (died 1990) and his Tantra commune in Oregon ... or the Unification church (Moonies) ... or the Hare Krishna group. (I'm not calling those "cults" myself, as I don't know enough about them.)
But two older meanings of the word "cult" were widely used prior to the 1960s -- without any of the negative connotations now attached to the word. (Today's negative meaning of the term was used then -- but not exclusively, as it seems to be now.)
(1) The word "cult" occasionally was used as a synonym for "religion." If you look at the old (1913) Catholic Encyclopedia, you find that there is no entry for "cults" [as in weird, pagan sect]. The only entry for "cult" is "disparity of cult" -- which was a term that referred to differences of religion in people who sought to enter into what we now call a "mixed marriage."
(2) The word "cult" often was used to mean "great devotion to, or affection for, or veneration of, a person or thing." Notice, please, not adoration/worship, but rather devotion/affection/veneration. The word "cult," by extenstion, could also refer to prayers/rituals associated with the devotion. And so, one can come across old references to the "cult of the saints," the "cult of relics," etc.. I came across the following use of this kind of "cult" in the Encyclopedia -- referring to a cult of Christ's cross. I think that you'll see what I mean, and you'll realize that the word is almost never used this way now:
"[F]or St. Paul, the Cross of Christ was not only a precious remembrance of Christ's sufferings and death, but also a symbol closely associated with His sacrifice and the mystery of the Passion. It was, moreover, natural that it should be venerated and become an object of a cult with the Christians who had been saved by it. Of such a cult in the Primitive Church we have definite and sufficiently numerous evidences."
And so, if we one were to use the word "cult" to refer to "devotion" or "affection" or "veneration" shown toward certain holy persons in heaven or holy objects, one could technically say that there are "cults" within Catholicism.
St. James, pray for us.
God bless you.
-- (email@example.com), August 11, 2001.