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Caitlin Kennell Kim
Mary
Fr. Rick Malloy, SJ
General Questions
Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP
Ecumenical, Interfaith
Neela Kale
Culture, Moral Theology
Ann Naffziger, M.A., M.Div.
Bible
Mike Hayes
Swingman/Editor
 
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Our readers asked:

What are some religions that are defined as cults?

Neela Kale Answers:

The word “cult”, in its original sense, refers to a collection of practices and rituals associated with a religion or with a particular aspect of a religion. This is how the word is primarily used in academic discourse. Thus we can speak of the cult of a particular saint in reference to the devotions associated with honoring that saint in Catholic Christianity, or the cult of worship of Vishnu in Hinduism, for example.

However, in more popular usage, the word “cult” has come to refer to exclusive or separatist religious groups, especially new groups, whose beliefs and practices fall outside the perceived mainstream. The word is often used pejoratively, to label a group’s expressions as threatening or deviant. Scholars of religion avoid this sense and instead refer to such groups as “new religious movements.”

The Catholic Church has a nuanced understanding of the beliefs and expressions of other religious groups. We recognize that other religions traditions can be a source of life and light for their adherents. Rather than labeling any group as a cult, we teach that whatever is good and true in other religions is in fact a preparation for the gospel. At the same time, we denounce any elements that run contrary to the goodness and truth of the gospel – including some destructive elements of new religious movements that may be popularly known as cults. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, from Vatican II, offers an excellent summary of the Catholic perspective on how followers of other religions are related to the Catholic Church and the saving promises of Christ in #15-16. You can find the text of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church at http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html.

 
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The Author : Neela Kale
Neela Kale is a writer and catechetical minister based in the Archdiocese of Portland. She served with the Incarnate Word Missionaries in Mexico and earned a Master of Divinity at the Jesuit School of Theology. Some of her best theological reflection happens on two wheels as she rides her bike around the hills of western Oregon.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Nick

    A better term to use would be “New Religious Movements,” it is term used in a the more general religious studies academia

  • Steve

    I think the point of the answer is that the word “cult” is vague and it is impossible to sort religions into “cults” and “noncults” without a clear standard for what constitutes a cult. Since the Church does make any formal definition of what is a cult (in the negative, Jim-Jonesy sense of the word), it is up to the individual make that determination themselves, if they so choose.

    Take Scientology as your example you note. If you define “cult” as a religion with nontraditional beliefs, then it would probably qualify. However, if you define “cult” as a threat to the life of its members or having a high-degree of mass suicide, probably not.

  • Rev. David Stembaugh

    I agree with Pam- this was a very evasive answer to that question. Perhaps an attempt at political correctness- which cannot be done while being truthful.

  • Pam Cira

    I was hoping that the answer would at least define, if not name, what current “cults” are — akin to the prior “cults” of Jim Jones or the folks who thought they were going to be transported to some other planet. That kind of thing. Like does Scientology meet the definition of a cult? The answer here just seems to be a dodge of of the question.

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