Copyright (c) 2000 Fundacja Antyk. Wszelkie prawa zastrzeżone.
The psychological mechanisms
of mental conditioning inside
the neocatechumenate community
The organization called The Neocatechumenal Way has given rise to doubts,
perplexities, and opposing opinions within the Catholic Church for many
years. Some people, whether they are lay or ecclesiastical, see the Way as
being a blessing of the Spirit. Other individuals, of likewise importance,
consider the Way to be dangerous in doctrine and methodology; they have
compared it to a sect, having come to call it "a church within the Church".
The Neocatechumenate insist their intention is to return to a way of being
of the Church that's similar to the first Christian communities. The Way
defends itself from accusations of being a sect by saying that they are
being persecuted. The Neocatechumenate insist that whoever follows this path
will be able to bring about very radical choices and, therefore, that person
will be subject to persecution just like everyone who seriously follows
Jesus in his or her daily life.
Since I used to be in a Neocatechumenate community for many years, I'd like
to write about some of my reflections. I want to make my small contribution
to help people understand the psychological make-up of those who subscribe
to the "Way". Another motivation for me to write down my experiences comes
from a book I read by American psychiatrist, Jerry Bergman. The title of the
book was Jehovah's Witnesses and Mental Health (1996) and in it I came
across vivid analogies between the Neocatechumenal Way and the Jehovah's
Before I begin, I'd like to take this opportunity to clear up the meaning of
the word, "sect". For some scholars, this word seems to come from the Latin,
secta, past participle of the verb sequor, which means, "to follow".
Therefore, a sect would be a group and the doctrines it teaches that a
person follows. Other scholars contend that sect comes from the Latin,
sectus which is the past participle of "to cut". "Sect", then would be a
group that has cut itself off from the major body.
Whatever the correct etymology is, the term, sect, has taken on a deeply
negative connotation in the world today. It connotes closed mindedness and a
greatly limited participation with the "outside" world, meaning with those
who don't belong to the sect and don't share the same ideas and activities.
The limited amount of space I have here prevents me from giving an in-depth
account of all the types of sectarians there are. That would be useful so as
to see whether the Neocatechumenate are an example. But I hope what I have
to say here will be a valid cause for reflection.
The problem with psychological conditioning inside a sect is that it is
still the subject of debate among scholars. According to Frank (1974), the
mental processes used to draw a person into a sect are very similar to those
used in psychotherapy where one of the results is the reassuring
relationship that develops between psychotherapist and patient. In the
sectarian organization, together with the others (brothers and sisters of
the community and the catechists), the follower feels better and is able to
face life's problems with more serenity and confidence. The other people in
the organization, in fact, often become the unconscious projection of the
reassuring father/parent figure.
Sectarian organizations have always been accused of (what is commonly
called) "brain-washing", but today the term, "thought-reform", coined by
Lifton (1961), is preferred. The person who becomes part of a sectarian
group modifies his or her behavior. The change comes about so subtly that
the subject himself hardly ever perceives it. Quite a different story for
those who are close to the subject and notice the changes, sometimes even
radical changes. Thus, we have the term go conversion". But is it really a
Now, for those of you who are not familiar with the Neocatechumenal Way, a
brief synthesis is necessary as to what happens to the people who belong to
it over the course of many years (sometimes twenty or more years, depending
on a person's "spirit of conversion"). Whoever reaches the end of the Way,
will be able to affirm that he has understood what baptism is or, even
better, he will have rediscovered it.
Very often, the person who joins the Way is either a relative or a friend of
someone who already belongs. This member talks about the Way with such
enthusiasm that it borders on pedantry; he feels compelled by some
"missionary' duty to share the "wonders" of the Way with other brothers and
sisters. Whoever then decides to get in touch with the movement has to
participate in fifteen catechesis which in general are held in the parish
every other week. After completing them, the member is obliged to
participate in a convivence (meaning, a time of living together) which
starts on a Friday evening and finishes Sunday afternoon; from this the
community will be formed.
The convivence is a crescendo of feelings and new experiences. The
experience (especially for who has never been a person of faith) triggers
something in the person to become very deeply and incisively involved. It
stirs and awakens something present in every human: the need for what's holy
and for meaning in one's life. Unfortunately, the sectarian
organizations profit from these needs.
The convivence starts off with a very suggestive rite called, "skylight".
The room is left completely dark for a few minutes. Then a presbyter enters
the room holding a lit Easter candle that rips through the disturbing
darkness. On a Saturday, after a long catechesis on how the Hebrews prepared
for Passover and how that then paved the way for Christian Easter, the
Eucharistic celebration follows the ways set out by the Neocatechumenate for
any Saturday evening celebration: an altar decorated with flowers set in the
middle of the church with the brothers and sisters of the newly-formed
community and catechists circled round it (obviously, the catechists are
there only during the convivence ).
During the Prayer of the Faithful, anyone can pray out loud, freely,
expressing whatever feelings he or she has. Even before the presbyter's
homily, anyone "can share with his fellow brothers and sisters what the Lord
has communicated to him in the readings and how his life has changed because
of the Way". Opening up oneself to the others is a very important element of
the program. By revealing oneself under the light of what's read in the
Scriptures, an existential interpretation is given to one's own life. It
also prepares the Neocatechumen to open up to his brothers and sisters of
the community things that have been the most hidden and unconfessable
principles, facts, and episodes in one's life.
This apparent liberation becomes, however, a double-edged sword. On the one
hand, if the "brother' feels "liberated/released" and accepted it's because
the catechists continuously repeat, "God loves you as you are". On the other
hand, the person realizes that every lay person there like himself knows
each and every little nook and cranny in his life and this creates an
ambiguous dependence. Lay people are not held to the secret of the
confessional like a priest is, so as one can easily imagine, they are armed
with gossip and rumors that are certainly not edifying. The Neocatechumenal
celebration ends with a final dance based on the one David did around the
Ark of the Covenant of God.
The community follows a biweekly rhythm made up of activities to prepare for
celebrations, celebration of the Word, and Saturday evening's Eucharistic
celebration. Usually after two years, one gets to the first scrutiny, but
mostly it depends on how receptive the members of the community have been to
what the catechists have been teaching. The first scrutiny is the member's
first powerful and moving experience. It's at this step the follower starts
to unveil the depths of his heart. In fact, at this &I stage", there is a
strong call to "test oneself in the treasures". This would be to rid oneself
of those things one is most attached to, for example, money. The catechists,
as a matter of fact, "invite" you to donate something personal, something
you are particularly attached to (it doesn't necessarily have to be money.
It can be jewelry or other things ... ) to someone who would never know who
donated it nor where it came from.
But, during this rite, there's a moment which can sometimes take on dramatic
heights for the person who experiences it. It's when every "brother' and
"sister" has to say, in front of the whole community and the catechists,
what his personal cross is. This moment is marked by very powerful emotions
because to make one's cross known -often confessing with tears and with
great internal resistance- has a cathartic and liberating effect. Many
people will lie at this point because they are ashamed or embarrassed. It's
the first powerful stage in the Way and many people quit. But the catechists
reassure the ones who stay, "not everybody gets asked to be salt and light.
The Lord has invited you."
An apparently stronger "I" is thus created. One takes on an identity of the
saved one who's a bit special -to be the one who is called on a mission for
the church that not everyone is given the chance to be called for. Subtly,
the strait jacket begins to tighten. It tightens even more for those people
who have an "I" that's weak and without much grounding. These people, after
a few years, are unable to find anything outside the Way nor anybody other
than his "brothers and sisters" in his community.
One year after the first scrutiny, in general, one faces the "shemŕ" (listen
Israel). Here they drive home the idea that a sign is necessary and that
would be doing away with valuables. But the real turning point comes with
the second scrutiny when the Precatechumen must make some big, serious
decisions about his or her life in regards to being called to be the salt
and light. The conviction that salvation lies only in the Way is emphasized
even more; outside the Way one would be outside the Church. Often the
catechists repeatedly tell the ones who have tried to quit that, "outside
the Way you'll be with the dead because this is the road the Lord has chosen
Similar notions are repeated at other occasions and for other reasons. On
page 20 of "The Orientations for the Catechist Teams for the Second
Baptismal Scrutiny" (one of the "holy texts" of the Neocatechumenal Way)
Kiko Arguello states, "I saw a parish priest who spent his whole life
battling against us and who hated us. It only took one night when he was
struck with a tachycardia strong enough that he started taking his life
seriously and he completely changed." Therefore, for Mr. Arguello, that
priest had to have a providential tachycardia in order to accept the Way!
Many stories like this one are frequently told among the people in the
community and especially by the catechists So, this influences the people
even more to see the Way as the only, or at least, the best that the church
has to offer.
The second scrutiny is characterized by the renouncing of one's so-called
"idols". Once the community has passed this stage, they are requested to
turn over ten percent of their earnings. This is done in the same way all
the collections are done among the Neocatechumenate. Out of contempt and
scorn, the contributions are put in a bag that is called "the
garbage" -giving a negative symbol of money.
Next, the Way has the "initiation to prayer". After the appropriate
catechesis, the catechumen discovers or re-discovers the beauty of prayer
and begins to pray with the Liturgy of the Hours. Couples who "walk" the Way
together become more focused on the membership of their children. Since
children, as the catechists teach, might be another example of our "idols",
they might be left at home at night with the baby-sitter, or grandparent, or
someone else if the parents - in a moment of pity - decide to spare the
children from the long-windedness of the evening celebrations!
Another step is the Redditio, where the Creed and the Traditio are given.
After this, the Neocatechumen tells the story of his or her whole life in
front of the entire assembly - often times interspersed with the most
untimely details of how much the Way has changed his life ... and then he
recites the Creed. The Way ends with "election" and the renewal of baptism.
Such a brief account has made me have to give only the gist of the Way and
to leave a considerable amount of things out. But I would, however, like to
offer a few considerations. Throughout the Way, there is a subtle and
imperceptible control over what the individual does by his taking part in
the community. In fact, in the beginning, the commitment is relatively
light -one must attend the two weekly celebrations and take part in their
preparations when necessary. In doing this, the person ever so slowly takes
on a language, a way of doing things that is nearer in harmony with the
spirit of the Way. Everything in his or her life changes in relation to the
Way - which is the only thing that can bring satisfaction to one's life.
Information is kept secret, The texts the catechists use aren't published.
Once, a parish priest was first told there were no reference texts, then he
was told, "but even you, too, must convert.. you still haven't reached that
phase of the way, yet"!
By carrying out the duties of the Way (which the catechists tag as being
"time given to God"), the person is aided in not having to think anymore.
When he conveys any kind of doubt or perplexity to a fellow "brother' or
even to a catechist, he is told that this is Satan who wants to lead him
away from God. Most of the time, when someone has temptations of these
kinds, he or she is told to speak about it with the catechists. The
catechists slowly begin to run your life. A person's past sins are used to
condition, or worse, to denigrate him or her. After many years, one becomes
deeply convinced that the catechists are never wrong!
But one of the most serious things is the control over a person's emotions
through the use of guilt and fear. In the first catechesis, they talk about
the baptismal pool which one most submerge into in order to look at one's
sins in the face. One catechist has said, "you must go down into the sewers
in order to rise up again with Christ". Another catechist said, "the
community begins to grow when you begin to argue with each other and hurl
all the putridity you have inside out of you." All of this is very different
from what the Church teaches about conversion ("metanoia"). The Church
reminds us above all that we are saved by the love of God and that he makes
us feel the joy of his mercy even in the midst of our miseries.
However, the laying on of guilt (which is quite different from humbly
recognizing oneself as being a sinner) is one of the most important methods
in controlling a person's feelings and emotions. Humility is badly
interpreted when the person rejects him or herself - which then leads to
alienation. This in turn creates a personality which tends to hold up an
ideal that's out of reach and so the person ends up feeling guilty for not
being able to live up to that ideal.
The members of the community become inculcated that they are part of a
privileged elite in the church; they are destined to bring salvation to the
people they work with, to their families, or even in missionary work abroad
which we see in the case of "itinerant catechists". As is written elsewhere,
the people often hear the catechists' typical phrases, "The Lord has chosen
you and has invited you and no one else". This and other similar phrases let
the people believe that they have been "specially elected". This
unconsciously satisfies their own frustrated sense of self.
Another thing that characterizes the Neocatechumenate is their zeal in
carrying out what the catechists (and most of all, the founder of the Way)
tell them to do. In the communities, in fact, the celebrations don't take
place in a church, but rather in a room. The altar has to be a table and the
paten, the chalice, the cross, the lectern, and whatever else is used,
absolutely must be signed "Kiko"! Everything borders on the maniacal! Once,
a bride who was in a parish that wasn't Neocatechumenal insisted that the
ceremony be conducted in the style "inspired" by Kiko, with his cross,
altar, chalice, paten, songs, etc...
Whoever has been accustomed to this manner for years finds it incredibly
difficult to separate one's relationship with God from this style and to
live one's faith, still in the Church, but in a whole other way! It creates
a psychological dependence that makes the person end up controlling others
and demonizing everybody, too, including bishops and presbyters, who doesn't
share the Way with them. One catechist once said, "It's good that we have
bishops and priests who don't believe because this strengthens us in our
journey; it's a sign that we are on the right path."
Many Neocatechumenate seem to have lost their critical and logical
abilities - faculties which make a true Christian. The Scriptures say the
true Christian is one who makes sense of his faith! It's true that many
people criticize the Way, but they don't have courage any more to leave it
because they identify the Way with the Church. Perhaps they don't know or
they don't want to know that the Church is a place that's much more spacious
and free than the church Kiko and his catechists present!
A euphoric and self-aggrandizing atmosphere is created inside the community
which reaches its culmination at the Passover Vigil. The vigil is celebrated
throughout the night and young children are baptized. As time goes on and
these children grow up, they will be subject to a religious formation that
is very debatable.
Speaking of children, it was written before that, in general, the
Neocatechumenate are very proliferous because they are very pro-life.
However, since children mustn't be idols, they are left in the care of
grandparents or baby-sitters until late at night because God comes before
all things and God is identified with the Way. In the second scrutiny, when
they are asked to dispose of the idols in their lives, who knows if anybody
in the Neocatechumenate ever once suspected that one of their idols just
might be the Way itself! Many forget that a way must be a means to arrive to
God and not an end in itself.
I'd like to wrap up these reflections on the Way by summing up the
1. Kiko and his catechists have reigning authority. Something one of the
catechists once said is telling, "Even priests should become part of the way
2. People who follow the Way consider themselves to be predeterminately
chosen to become the salt and light of the Church and for the world.
3. Members of the Way are promised salvation by accepting the Way as a style
of life that's unique and dearly for a privileged few. Something often said
by the catechists is, "If you take on this way, you will have the spirit of
Jesus Christ. We feel that it's been true for us in our lives."
4. The community exerts a huge amount of pressure on its members. The
members are subject to iron-handed discipline in the Way , as the catechists
say, "it will bring you to the point of having to make a radical choice in
5. It creates an attitude of segregation against those who do not take part
in the Way. People who are excluded even include Christians who are part of
the Church, people who are active in other catholic movements, and even the
despised Catholics who go to Sunday Mass. Personally, I have seen many
people who are richer in mercy than most Neocatechumenate!
6. Followers of Kiko focus on missionary activities even if they have large
7. After the second scrutiny, members must turn over ten percent of their
monthly earnings, but on top of that there are even other collections for
other purposes to contribute to! No year-end budget is ever produced from
all the fund-raising. The catechists justify this with the evangelical
teaching, "don't let the right hand know what the left hand is doing." So
then, I have to ask myself, why is that the Church justifiably has every
parish and ecclesial body have a finance council? Contributions, income and
expenses are made clear across the board.
8. Often without even realizing it, the Neocatechumenate take on a language,
a particular jargon that makes them standout and distinguishes them from
9. Generally, the Neocatechumenate react quite violently when someone
criticizes the Way. They try to avoid the subject, or as is especially the
case with the catechists, they resort to dialectics (the sign of the better
sophist). Once I was really struck by how a person from the Way reacted to a
man who said he didn't believe in it. At first the follower of the Way
calmly gave his own personal life's testimony; even though he was vulgar in
his criticism of the pope and bishops, he didn't get angry until the moment
the man criticized the Way. Hardly loving one's enemy in the dimension of
10. The Neocatechumenate often feel persecuted and they demonize (as I wrote
earlier) those who don't belong even if those people should still be
considered their brothers in Christ. Sects typically demonize those who
don't think like they do because they need to create an external enemy (a
scapegoat) upon which they can target all their individual fears and
To grow in the faith is to grow in love not to busy oneself for years with a
lot activities, preparations, celebrations, passing through different stages
or anything else. Many Neocatechumenate have the illusion that it carrying
out deeds", "doing things", and "being active" for many years converts you.
People should be told, however, about a document that was published by the
Holy See in 1986 by the Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. It was
titled, The Phenomena of Sects or New Religious Movements: A Pastoral
Challenge." On page three, talking about the intolerance present in sects,
"a similar spirit can be encountered in congregations of people who belong
to churches or ecclesiastical communities."
Now, a few questions that still have no answers: Why are the texts by Kiko
so rigorously held secret? Why don't the Neocatechumenate make their
income-contributions public? Have they never considered that the criticisms
made against them, both doctrinal and methodological, just might have been
made out of love for the truth and not made by the persecutive devils that
have a grudge against them? Seeing how familiar they are with the Word,
haven't they ever reflected upon that verse from Hosea that says, "faithful
love is what pleases me not sacrifice. Knowledge of God, not burnt
offerings." (Hosea 6:6)
For further information, refer to on Internet at:
To send comments or to request copies of this transcript (in Italian or on
English), write to