One of the foremost, if not THE most scholarly writer in the past 40 years on cults, communities and religions, is Benjamin Zablocki. I first came across him in the early 1970s, when I discovered his 1971 book, The Joyful Community: An Account of the Bruderhof: A Communal Movement Now in Its Third Generation. The reason I read it was that I was joining a lay community and wanted more information on what religious communities were like. As a Catholic, I wanted to live in a more structured environment and found a group of people who prayed together daily, shared things in common, and had superb teaching about the Faith. The discipline of this community resembled that of the Bruderhof, but a huge difference was that all 2,000 members of “my” community went to their own churches on Sunday. We were an ecumenical community, but the vast majority of people who belonged to it were Catholic. I lived the communal life from 1972-1979, seven years, which gave me discipline and life-long habits of being under spiritual guidance. Since 1970, except for a few interruptions, I had a spiritual director in my life. The community held many mature Catholics with strong spiritual lives who could provide this service, as well as priests.
Zalocki’s book followed the history of an Anti-Baptist community, the Bruderhof, which, Ironically, I visited twice forty some years after reading his book. The Bruderhof is a community which has separated itself from the world, but successfully not falling into a cult. Even though I was attracted at first to their lifestyle, their low-Church beliefs stopped me from getting involved. Here is their mission statement. “We are an intentional Christian community of more than 2,900 people living in twenty-three settlements on four continents. We are a fellowship of families and singles, practicing radical discipleship in the spirit of the first church in Jerusalem. We gladly renounce private property and share everything in common. Our vocation is a life of service to God, each other, and you.”
I personally know one of their members who came from a Catholic family who joined the community. As based on Anti-Baptist beliefs, only holding that baptism should be given to adults and that there are no other sacraments but marriage, this community remains unusual in 2019. One of the ex-Catholics finally left the community. Whether he has gone back to the Catholic Faith or not, I do not know. However, I could understand the attraction of this life.
The Bruderhof live like the Amish. They are not a cult, in that people are free to leave, and the elders base their beliefs not on personal messages from somewhere else, but on literal interpretations of the Bible. In this way, this community is a Protestant, man-made religious community. Although Zablocki’s book helped me to understand intentional communities, that is, communities which were started as communities on purpose, it did not help me for the Catholic experience of communities, except in the sharing of goods and the efforts of prayer and daily forgiveness and forbearance.
However, an interesting occurrence happened when I was in community, as my “house” of twelve single adults, a married couple and two children, was chosen by our leaders to be interviewed by Zablocki’s research team as he was working on a book on intentional communities in the United States. We were interviewed, we filled out a survey, and the researchers went on their way.
Zablocki then followed up with another survey after ten years or and another after twenty some years, to see “where we all were” in our faith life. By the second follow-up, I was married and living in England and filled out the survey from that perspective. Those of us from the States were given the results of that survey, and delightfully two of the findings stuck in my mind. One was that the vast majority of people, whether they had stayed in the community or not, were practicing their faith. The second point I recall was that the majority were involved in their parishes a great deal. The community experience had created mature Catholics who continued their faith into middle and old age.
Zablocki made distinctions between cults and communities. Communities were more organised, not centred around one or two people, involving beliefs outside the group, such as Catholic doctrine and the Mass. The communities were not separating themselves from the world—quite the contrary—but doing work in the world, either in their jobs, or as full-time writers, missionaries and evangelists. In other words, the negative aspects of the cult were missing in these healthy communities.
There was not undue pressure to stay in the community, and there was no brainwashing or coercion of any kind which could be construed as threatening.
Since those years, Zablocki has written more on communities and cults. His last book in on New Religious Movements (NRMs) and cults. I would like to read it but have not to date. At this point in time, there are many more researchers working on NRMs and cults then when Zablocki began his studies over 40 years ago. With the growth of both cults and NRMs, sociologists and psychologists are interested in the appeal to contemporary men and women for these movements.
One of the main reasons for the NRMs is dissatisfaction with the traditional main religions, either revealed, as is Judaism and Christianity, or man-made, as in Islam and the Protestant denominations. Many people, especially in the United States, have created NRMs in contract to traditional Christianity. Therefore we see the rise of paganism, and non-denominational churches.
Sometimes these NRMs are attached to communities and sometimes not. The real need for communal life, which is all but disappeared in most States and in Great Britain, as seen in the individualistic attitudes toward religion, even in the Catholic circles, had forced people to see out community, to build it outside the confines of the parishes, where is it vastly missing or dying out.
The pull of cults, NRMs, and communities is a real threat to organised religions which have failed to provide community to their groups. I have written this series as a warning, for as the family life continues to become more and more dysfunctional and as society as a whole becomes more and more shattered by political, religious, and mystical cults, as well as NRMs, those of us who remain in the Catholic Church must be aware of the dangers of movements which take people into psychological and spiritual danger.
I hope this short three part series is helpful. If readers want more on this subject, I would be happy to oblige.
JMJ, pray for us!
God is good,