How can a “cult expert” justify his Catholic identity?
Joe Szimhart (Oct 2012, 2014 edits)
Over the years many people including members of skeptics groups and ex-members of cults have puzzled over why or how I (or anyone) will claim to be Roman Catholic. Their distress emerges especially after knowing of my knowledge of science and psychology as applied to deceptive and harmful cults, and my success in helping people to “exit” said cults since 1980. The inevitable suspicion is that I make some kind of prejudicial compromise for the Catholic Church, that I sustain a double standard and that I am a hypocrite because, as the old chestnut goes, The Catholic Church is the biggest cult in the world.
The “C” word or cult becomes vacuous when applied this way. Hard core skeptics will say that all of Christianity is a cult. Rigid Evangelicals believe that every approach to religion outside of their “born again” formulas is a cult—note recent  buzz among knuckleheaded preachers over a Mormon running for president (Mitt Romney is in a cult).
Many Catholic leaders responded to the Reformation started by Luther and others by stating that a “sola scriptura” approach to the Gospel creates a cult of Bible worship. Some sociologists in the 1990s said that if anything was a cult, it was the Cult Awareness Network or CAN! (CAN, by the way, was a grass roots effort founded in the late 1970s to expose harmful cults and help ex-members, however in 1996 the Church of Scientology operatives sued CAN successfully and took over the entire business, thus when you call CAN today, you will be greeted by a kindly Scientologist who will take down all your information).
Like most people I know, I generally avoid discussing politics, religion, and whether a cat is better than a dog in polite company. Topics like these often lead to distressing circular arguments that lack rules for engagement or an informed basis for debate. They often get ugly. Yet, these topics remain most interesting and valuable—everyone has at least an opinion with an emotional charge because these topics speak to our core identities, our personal likes and dislikes, our individual destinies and legacies, and our cats and our dogs.
By identifying with any religion or cult, the suspicion arises that we will condescend to outsiders at best and at worst we might impose our rules on outsiders. Early Islamists did just that conquering by the sword. Roman Catholics did just that during Crusades and when certain Catholic Church officials in Rouen, northern France tried and convicted a nineteen year old girl and then burned her at the stake on 30 May 1431. Twenty five years later, Joan of Arc was made a saint by the wider Church authority that acknowledged the mistake. As for condescension, that unfortunately is a common narcissistic by-product of any strong devotional milieu—note how American pundits among Democrats ridicule Republicans and vice versa.
Let me get a few personal things out of the way: I was born in 1947 to Hungarian Catholic parents in a Displaced Persons camp in Bavarian Germany after World War 2 and baptized in a German Catholic church a week or so later. I attended a public kindergarten in America before I could speak English. I was enrolled in organized Catholic education from first grade until I graduated in 1969 from the University of Dayton in Ohio. I lapsed, as they say, from Catholic practice at age nineteen in college and remained uncommitted to Christianity for the next two decades.
My interim spiritual search, if we can call it that, included a wide array of experiences and teachings that ranged from dabbling with neo-shamanism to various theosophies to the modern Western occult traditions. With casual but real curiosity I tried a number of psychedelic drugs but stopped all experimentation in 1975. I came to the conclusion that entheogens get more boring and increasingly harmful with each trip. I pursued an art studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1971-1975. Modern artists Kandinsky and Mondrian who were inspired by Theosophy led me to explore neo-occultism and its pervasive effect on 20th Century arts. After reading a cover article on artist and mystic Nicholas Roerich in a 1975 American Artist magazine, I discovered the Agni Yoga Society teachings. Interest in the Roerich movement drew me into a tangled and disruptive if not harmful experience as a devotee of a dynamic New Age religion from mid-1978 until late 1980. That new religion was known then as Church Universal and Triumphant but generally goes by Summit Lighthouse.
The Summit Lighthouse was founded on the East coast of America by the self-taught occultist, Mark Prophet (his actual name—he died in 1973) in 1958 as Lighthouse of Freedom. At the time Mark Prophet was a member of the small Theosophy offshoot, Lighthouse of Freedom led by Frances Ekey who broke away from a sect called The Bridge to Freedom whose unstable leader, Geraldine Innocente, reportedly committed suicide in 1961.
Following Innocente and Ekey, Prophet combined the earlier “I AM” Activity of Guy and Edna Ballard with the Agni Yoga Teachings produced by Nicholas and Helena Roerich. The “I AM” borrowed liberally from Theosophy and New Thought sects including Psychiana founded by Frank Robinson (1886-1948). Prophet, like his predecessors was a medium or channel for discarnate beings or Ascended Masters that included Saint Germain, Jesus, Hercules, Surya (the sun), Buddha, and a host of mythological heroes and gods from many traditions, some of them like the Great Divine Director and K-17 imagined out of whole metaphysical cloth. Thus, I am now embarrassed to say, that most of the odd religious movements that attracted me at the time communicated with imaginary friends that stemmed from the teachings of Helena P. Blavatsky (1831-1891), the primary founder of the Theosophical Society in 1875.
Mark Prophet, then in his forties, abandoned his first wife and five children to marry his disciple Elizabeth (Wulf) Ytreberg, then only nineteen. Mark trained Elizabeth to channel the “Masters.” The two self-proclaimed Messengers and their cult following moved to Colorado, then to the Malibu area in California where their new movement thrived during the 1970s. By the 1990s it attracted around ten to twenty thousand members with over seven hundred on permanent staff. Elizabeth Prophet died in 2009 suffering from dementia for at least a decade. The SL/CUT organization no longer has a channel as a leader. SL/CUT has splintered and enthusiasm for its teachings though wide spread has declined. Agni Yoga, however, continues to have a following of three million or more, mainly in Russia.
Hijacking Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions
The Summit Lighthouse incorporated many Buddhist, Hindu, and Catholic themes. At the time of my interest if not always devotion, the leader claimed she was the true “Vicar of Christ,” the same title applied to a Catholic pope. SL established a form of communion with bread and grape juice as a sacrament mimicking many Protestant sects. The SL Ascended Masters included Jesus, his mother Mary, and many Catholic saints. As with all Theosophy cults, the SL introduced me to ostensibly “deeper” mystical or hidden (occulted) teachings and meanings behind all the world religions. I discovered versions of alchemy, astrology, American New Thought, Buddhism, Vedanta, and mantra chanting or “decrees” mixed together in a religious stew spiced with Catholicism. Reincarnation figured mightily, the leader claiming to have been Nefertiti, Lady Guenivere, St. Catherine the Great and St. Catherine of Sienna, Martha in the Gospel, and more.
The claim that there was some kind of “science” beneath this mysticism grabbed my interest. The Catch-22 of course was that I would have to experience and apply the teachings first to find out just how scientific or real they were. (This is similar to believing that I needed to be bitten by a snake first to find out of it was poisonous). I tried to participate, but by the fall of 1980 and a year after suffering a divorce from my first wife who came to hate the SL, I defected from the cult on my own. My decision was accompanied by two months of anxiety and panic attacks. I know from experience that nobody just “walks away” from a charismatic engagement with a totalist cult. It is quite like trying to walk away from a mental disorder if you have one. It is in your head no matter where you go.
Toxic devotion cuts deeply into one’s psyche. Recovery for me meant a deconstruction of the entire tangled mess. How could this happen to me? Was I just stupid or are there powerful social and psychological forces of influence at work? Is there some kind of evil force behind all this religious and social skullduggery? In any case, I began a relentless self-education about world traditions as well as the mechanisms behind conversion, brainwashing, mind control, hypnosis, and coercive persuasion. In the process, I entered a career as an intervention specialist to help others emerge from similar cultic entanglement, a career that was my main source of income from 1986 through 1998.
Invariably, during a successful intervention, the newly awakened cult member (to immediate observers, this event often appears as if someone emerges from a spell) would ask the intervention specialists what indeed they believed was “Truth” now that the fake stuff was exposed. Most of my peers answered with caution or not at all. My response would indicate that the question was wrong and dangerous: What is the truth is an invitation to deception and self-deception. "Learn to ask more refined questions," I would say, "as it invites more refined answers." Any full-of-crap guru or preacher can tell you “the truth.” So, only if a client asked, would I admit to being Catholic, not recommend the Church, and drop it there. I did not want to get involved in a polemic that might influence a vulnerable person to join or to avoid any world religion. My cult experience and career helping others drove me deeper into questions about my early Catholic faith--I had new eyes and ears and a will to keep up the search.
Anti-Catholic sentiment is easily understood given the Catholic or Holy See’s social and political history and its embattled relationship with modernism in science (Darwinism), the arts, and Biblical “higher” criticism stemming from the 18th century Enlightenment. For example, Pope Pius X in 1907 condemned Modernism as the “synthesis of all heresies” in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, ‘on the doctrine of the modernist.’ Fundamentalism emerged at this time [late 1800s] as well in reaction to "higher criticism" of the Bible and to scientific discoveries about the universe and the true age of the planet Earth with its rather insignificant place among the galaxies.
Ironically, the Roman Church did more to create the benefits of secular modernism through its enterprising monasteries, clerics, scholars, and scientists than any other institution in the history of the world. The Roman Church leaders initiated in the 8th Century what we now understand as the university with its open approach to education. This move toward non-sectarian education continued through the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment when Theology was finally shed as the queen of the subjects. My personal experience in the 20th Century bears this out: As a student at the Catholic University of Dayton, I took courses in science, philosophy, and theology that shook up my early Catholic orientation. Note that the Catholic cosmologist, mathematician-priest, Fr. Georges Lemaitre (1884-1966), developed the math for singularity (the Big Bang) and convinced Einstein of it. Yet Lemaitre rightly resisted any notion that his theory proved how in Genesis God created the world “out of nothing.” (As an aside, another favorite mathematician is the Indian prodigy S. Ramanujan (1887-1920), or The Man Who Knew Infinity).
Of course, the common ire toward the Church today in the secular, developed Western world, the non-Christian Middle East, and the largely unconverted Indian and Chinese East is not so much directed at the average Catholic in or out of the pews. Rather, most of the vitriol and ridicule is aimed at the popes and the Vatican as well as toward historical Church behavior. I am not going to go into the history or content behind all of the ire—if you are an anti-Catholic or know one, you already know what I mean: Inquisition, co-opting pagan feast days, Galileo, Crusades, sexually deviant priests, Vatican secrecy, all the “wealth,” the gaudy vestments, idolatry toward Mary and the saints, calling a piece of bread the very body of God, and claims that only good Catholics will go to heaven—I repeat, you know the drill.
[As an aside, most people, especially atheists, get the facts about Giordano Bruno's execution wrong:
"But as Ingrid Rowland demonstrates in her new biography of the renegade thinker, "Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic," Bruno was no martyr for science. What got him killed was a murky mixture of spiritual transgression and personal foibles, combined with a large dose of bad luck." <http://www.irtiqa-blog.com/2008/09/why-was-giordano-bruno-burnt.html> ]
Let us get down to the blood and bone of this discussion: Jesus Christ.
The man was reportedly a flesh and blood carpenter’s son from Nazareth in Palestine, a teacher with a short-lived prophetic ministry (he taught a mere one to three years depending on your source), and an itinerant Jewish rabbi crucified under the Roman rule of Pontius Pilate around 30 Anno Domini or the beginning of the Common Era. On the plaque affixed atop the cross, he was mocked in Latin, Greek and Hebrew as Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. The earliest documents and traditions attest that his followers believed that Jesus (a. k. a. Yeshua /Joshua, a common name in Palestine and it meant to deliver or rescue) was more than a prophet, that he was God (YHWH or I Am That I Am) in living flesh as That “only begotten son” through a young maid named Mary. Joseph the carpenter was regarded by his peers as the father of Jesus, if not the sperm donor—another case of her baby, his maybe?
As the tradition evolved a decade or two after the execution of Jesus, the story that he was born of a “virgin” appears first in Gospels by Luke and Matthew. The earlier scriptures including Mark and several authentic letters of Paul mention nothing about a “virgin” birth, as it was later not mentioned in the final Gospel of John (circa A.D. 90). These later Hellenized accounts, especially that of Luke, helped to convey the actual impression of the first Apostles who among others met this Jesus Christ in the “flesh” as risen from the dead several days after Jesus died on a cross and was buried. The resurrection of Jesus, coupled with the reported witness by hundreds of his ascension and disappearance into the "sky" some weeks later, apparently inspired his followers to proclaim that the living God was Jesus the Christ who was “born without sin.” God as such cannot have sin--flaws in pure being has no meaning.
Early Christians along with their cousin cults and sects in the Middle East and India apparently had a problem with sex, viewing intercourse with a virgin as defilement of the woman even in marriage. This sex problem pervades many established African, Asian and Semitic sects—note how fanatical Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish fundamentalists obsessively and often abusively protect their women from sexual exposure and modern education. To maintain Jesus as sinless God born undefiled of a woman, the Apostles taught that he must have been born of a sinless woman, a “virgin.” Based on Matthew and Luke gospels, we can speculate whether the young Mary conceived Jesus out of wedlock with a man other than Joseph, then due to the harsh stigma of having a bastard son that could carry a death sentence for the pregnant woman, the couple compensated by believing it was “God’s will” that Mary have this boy and that Joseph help to raise him. In any case, we know that later tradition held that Mary was the “Immaculate Conception” conceived sinless but naturally after her mother and father had sex. Priest and theologian Hans Küng (born 1928) reminds us that the “birth stories [of Jesus] are not historically but theologically oriented.” This distinction is not well appreciated by some Catholics and nearly all Fundamentalist Christians that have been deeply tainted by a need to believe that scriptures are entirely concrete reality and historically literal. The birth stories were not meant to be according to Kung and a host of modern theologians.
More so, this God showed an unprecedented capacity for forgiveness and healing for his human creation by “sacrificing himself as his sinless son” thus destroying the need and purpose of the Jewish Temple and all animal and personal sacrifice forever—forever! In others words, the debt for all human sin and imperfection was revealed as perfectly and eternally “paid for.” An endless array of animals need no longer be led to slaughter in a temple that varied little from early or later pagan sacrificial rituals to appease a god. The passion and death on a cross was a demonstration of unfathomable love. The universe has a heart, after all, is the Good News. That gift marked in history freed mankind to enjoy eternal life through resurrection (whatever that is) with God—all an individual has to do is:
1. Admit to the impossibility of gaining heaven only by human effort or means.
2. Accept the grace of this God by saying, “You have loved me and will save me and I truly now love you even if I am a wretch and have little idea what this means.”
It means, have faith in the kerygma or proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
I know, if you are a skeptic or atheist, I lost you here:)
After faith, what?
John 21:17 NIV:
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep."
That is the core of the Catholic life.
That is the core of the Catholic Church whose mission in the name of Simon Peter is to “feed the sheep.” It is significant that Jesus named Peter as Cephas, "the rock," upon which God would build God's church, significant because there was nothing written in stone--it was written in the heart of a living, breathing, flawed human being, the first "pope." It was written on a man that relied on a dream to inform him that all foods are "clean" (Acts 10: 9-23) and we all should know how unstable visionary or dream-derived information is. Jesus founded his church on something unstable and unreliable, yet, Jesus promised to guide this flawed papacy through his Paraclete, the Holy Spirit. My hunch is that without the latter, the church would have failed by the beginning of the 1st Century, most likely re-absorbed into the mother faith, Judaism.
But we have a problem. The Church has often fed poison to the sheep by its behavior, its leaders, and its teaching. And I am not just talking about the Roman Catholic Church here. I include every Christian and non-Christian, other religious and non-religious orientations, every cult and philosophy, every popular song, and every fatwa. All are sinful to some degree, all fall short every day and in every way, none are perfect or holy, not even in a moment or instant of time, ever. Without this eternal Jesus Christ, as the Gospel reports, all matter, energy, and life is naught, all good effort ends in naught as a big zero, just as Jesus did on the cross, totally abandoned at that instant of death by God and man. Jesus hung there dead, a big zero who could not respond to taunts to “save him self.” At that point in time there was nothing and every atheist was proven absolutely and eternally correct. We die, all things will pass from this life, all planets and suns will eventually get ground up into less than quarks and leptons under the impossible to imagine mill wheel of a black hole. That will be the end, beautiful friend, the end. Jesus dying on the cross erased all possibility of a human or universal solution to life beyond the grave and the meaning of this life extended into infinity biologically or bio-energetically. Your life will be kaput—no doubt about it—no matter what your guru or holy book or channeled entity or personal experience tells you.
Okay, you say. That is radical and so very Modernist. We all sense that anyway—all the popes and Mother Teresa had their moments of doubt. There is nothing and no one beyond the grave for us. Dead people don’t talk and people that channel or experience dead people are beyond creepy crazy. There is absolutely no scientifically established reason to believe in ghosts, talking angels, or what comes out of the pens and mouths of mediums and prophets. And even if there were, there is absolutely no more value in what they say or do than in what Shakespeare or Mark Twain or Emily Dickinson or Captain Kangaroo said or did—it all gets ground away into that black hole in the end. The death on the cross ended everything for Jesus. So why bother with anything more?
Zen Buddhists will smile at this point of my argument, recognizing the “no-self.” A Sufi will find solace in this “oblivion.” A Brahman priest or sadhu will still the breath to “yoke” with the unknowable “non-dual” Om Tat Sat at this point. A New Ager will strive for Oneness. But a Christian, and perhaps only those like a Christian, will go with Dante in his epic poem The Divine Comedy to the physical reality of this “zero” where all is negated and feel and see it in an utterly personal way in the physical Dis. I can easily imagine the great prophets and founders of inspired religions sitting at the foot of the cross in full recognition of its meaning, but we have only one prophet that made dying on that cross and resurrecting the foundation of human salvation and the entire crux of the conscious life in the universe.
From Dante’s Hell:
All hope abandon ye who enter here. (Canto III)
Dante with his guide Virgil descend into the lowest pit of hell where the bat-winged devil as “Dis” remains half embedded up to the thighs in ice. Dante, while hanging onto Virgil for his life, must physically crawl over and past this monstrous Satan. (To be Christian means that one must be in action with the body and not merely the mind---this is not Gnosticism, New Thought, Zen Buddhism, or Raja Yoga. There is no "loving you purely from within" in Christianity. To love means to risk messy, difficult relationships and even die for the ones you love):
When to the point we came,
Whereat my guide was pleas'd that I should see
The creature eminent in beauty once,
He from before me stepp'd and made me pause.
“Lo!” he exclaim’d, “lo Dis! and lo the place,
Where thou hast need to arm thy heart with strength.”
How frozen and how faint I then became,
Ask me not, reader! for I write it not,
Since words would fail to tell thee of my state.
I was not dead nor living.
I clipp'd him round the neck, for so he bade;
And noting time and place, he, when the wings
Enough were op'd, caught fast the shaggy sides,
And down from pile to pile descending stepp'd
Between the thick fell and the jagged ice.
Soon as he reach'd the point, whereat the thigh
Upon the swelling of the haunches turns, (excerpts from Canto XXXIV)
From the Apostle’s Creed, a set of early Christian beliefs historically referred to by St Ambrose in 390 CE and now common to almost all who profess to be Christian:
He descended into hell;
on the third day he rose again from the dead
This Jesus Christ abandoned all hope and “went to hell” dead. He was recorded as quoting Psalm 22:1 in Matthew 27:46 while near death on the cross:
My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?
At this stage Jesus was the atheist, entering that zero point, emptied, no self left, not even a whisper of an “Om.”
When the God of Abraham and Moses and Jesus was recorded to have created the “world” and everything in it out of “nothing,” apparently God meant it.
Nothing. Zero. Jesus was totally emptied of a self to get back to his beginning. Dead.
And then, on the third day he rose again from the dead.
As St Paul tells us, without this “and then” there is no Christian faith and Paul is a damned fool:
And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15, KJV)
Let us do the metaphorical math.
The ancients in India “invented” the zero in mathematics, putting it to use by the 4rth Century CE, and by the 7th Century Brahmagupta established the basic mathematical rules for dealing with zero: 1 + 0 = 1; 1 - 0 = 1; and 1 x 0 = 0 (the breakthrough which would make sense of the apparently nonsensical operation
1 ÷ 0 would also fall to an Indian, the 12th Century mathematician Bhaskara II). http://www.storyofmathematics.com/indian.html
Bhaskara employed 1 ÷ 0 = infinity.
Bhaskara II (1114–1185) tried to solve the problem by defining (in modern notation) . This definition makes some sense, as discussed below, but can lead to paradoxes if not treated carefully. These paradoxes were not treated until modern times. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Division_by_zero)
Extinction on the cross: the metaphor
My God, my God! Why hast Thou forsaken me?
Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.
God is forsaken when Jesus is forsaken. There can be no material world if God is not forsaken. Infinity as in its symbol, crosses or passes over itself. Jesus is the pass over lamb of God. The angel of death does not destroy what is of God, only what is not of God. "The Israelites were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb and, upon seeing this, the spirit of the Lord knew to pass over the first-born in these homes." (Wikipedia -- Exodus 12: 11-13)
When the real individual Jesus Christ was "forsaken" or divided by zero on the cross, all sin was purged from him. We know that being divided by zero amounts to nothing, but that is the point. Sin is limitation of good by one notion. He was emptied of "sin" of all that was not good in God--God is limitless. He became “infinite” and one with “the father.” We could stop here and envisage the Buddhist nirvana and the Hindu moksha and the Sufi oblivion. But this Jesus came back as an individual, the same flesh and blood body transfigured, his person intact with the promise that every individual can be with him likewise in heaven by taking up his or her cross and following good commandments. Infinity and individuality are thus preserved forever as one. However one interprets resurrection, one thing is certain: In the Christ of the Gospel we are loved, born again, and resurrected now or "today." In Christ, according to St. Paul, we die daily. (1 Corinthians 15:31)
Rene Guenon (1886-1951) treated this problem of the cross in his seminal essay Symbolism of the Cross (Le Symbolisme de la Croix, 1931). This difficult but careful treatise relies on Guenon's idea of Traditional knowledge that underlies all true religion. He converted from Catholicism to Islam and Sufism at a young age in France but his best work identified the core metaphysics in Hinduism. Without elaboration, I will quote him from his chapter 'Center and Circumference':
"...but if it [that of ultimate reality/being] were sought to transcend the bounds of Being itself and envisage absolute Perfection, then it would be necessary at the same time to pass beyond that Unity to metaphysical Zero. which cannot be represented by any symbolism, or named by any name." (Symbolism of the Cross, 1975 edition translated by A. MacNab, 131)
Well, maybe not. St. Paul names "it" as love in his infamously overly-quoted passage in 1 Corinthians 13:8: "Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing."
All things must pass, but love remains. Love carries the good in us through the atheistic and metaphysical zero.
So, let us return to Dante again:
Paradiso (Canto XXXIII: The Final Vision)
Virgin mother, daughter of your Son,
Humbler and higher than all other creatures,
Fixed aim and goal of the eternal plan,
You are the one who lifted human nature
To such nobility that its own Maker
Did not disdain to be made of its making…………
Here powers failed my high imagination:
But by now my desire and will were turned,
Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,
By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars. [end]
Read this carefully: Virgin mother, daughter of your Son. Dante eloquently states the Catholic conundrum: How can anyone be a virgin mother and the daughter of her own son? This is crazy talk unless we go with Hans Küng and recognize this as theology and not history. The theology is about the beginning of all things when God through the Christ made the world: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1). That Word (Jesus Christ) generated human kind and Mary so that I Am That I Am could appear out of infinity as an individual. Only in the Christ can God save that which is conscious of God in God’s image. Language defeats us here. We may appear to be babbling but this is theology, not history or science about the existing, testable universe.
And back to hell:
Before Vatican 2 reforms, in grade school in the 1950s I was taught by nuns that if I died in mortal sin I would go to hell where I would suffer and burn forever. This idea was terrifying especially because there were many ways to commit mortal sin. Not going to mass on Sunday, eating meat on Friday, and murdering someone could get me into hell. Or so I was led to believe. A more sophisticated version post Vatican 2 as posted on the conservative Catholic EWTN website defines mortal sin as a “knowing and willful violation of God’s law” regarding grievous sins like murder, slander, idolatry with the refusal to repent. But to some neo-liberal theologians including Hans Kung who participated in Vatican 2 debates, hell is not so simplistic:
Neither in Judaism nor in the New Testament is there any uniform view of the period of punishment for sin. In addition to statements about eternal punishment, there are texts which assume a complete destruction ("eternal corruption", 2 Thes. 1:9). And throughout Church history, in addition to the traditional dualism, the possibility of annihilation or even universal reconciliation (restitutio omnium, apocatastasis ton panton) have been defended.
... As Paul -- for instance -- says in the Letter to the Romans: "God has imprisoned men in their own disobedience only to show mercy to all mankind" (Rom. 11:32). And anyone who thinks he knows better should listen to the verses immediately following, which Paul takes almost entirely from the Old Testament: "How rich are the depths of God -- how deep his wisdom and knowledge -- and how impossible to penetrate his motives or understand his methods! Who could ever know the mind of the Lord? Who could ever be his counselor? Who could ever give him anything or lend him anything? All that exists comes from him; all is by him and for him. To him be glory for ever! Amen"(Rom 11:33-36)…
In the final analysis, the Gospel tells us it is not up to the pope or a priest or a guru or one of the gods or imams in the name of Allah to condemn anyone. The Judgment is God’s alone. The Church or earthly religion can certainly manage its temporal affairs, ruling about things on earth, defining sin in general, and naming a heresy when it occurs. Final judgment is when we meet God at that zero, when all scripture, channeled revelation or inspired holy books burn away as stupidly insufficient and utterly errant, when tradition drifts into the mists of meaningless mythology, and when personal opinion ceases to impress and carries no more weight than zero. Only what is good is saved and all evil will be burned away under instant recognition. Our tares will be separated from our wheat at that time (Matthew 13:24-30). If we do not let go of our tares (repent) we will suffer the fate of the tares that cannot share in the “perfection” of God: Be ye perfect as your father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)
Eucharist means thanksgiving:
What about Holy Communion or the tran-substantiated bread unique to Catholic belief? The Eucharist host is generally made from wheat. The Roman rite uses unleavened wafers whereas Eastern and Orthodox rites tend to use leavened loaves of bread. Again, expanding from my argument about the “zero,” nothing changes in the communion wafer or bread during the so-called transubstantiation as the priest calls to Holy Spirit to make the change in the bread and wine: This is my body, this is my blood. The believing Catholic at that instant accepts that God’s presence becomes the wafer of bread. Just as God is said to have created the world out of nothing, we meet God at that zero as we create God out of nothing through a mere invocation based on Jesus saying to his apostles, “Do this in remembrance of me—eat my body, drink my blood.” In a way, this is pure Zen Buddhism, the ultimate koan through ritual: If some change in the bread and wine could be measurably established by science, then it would not be God. This is theology, friend, not science.
A last judgment:
From gospel of John 7-8.
Jesus drew in the sand by his feet. She stood there terrified, waiting for the elders who brought her to Jesus to stone her to death.
She has been caught in adultery. The law states that she deserves death by stoning. What have you to say?
Let he that is without sin cast the first stone. The elders dropped their stones and one by one walked away leaving her alone with him. Is there anyone here to condemn you?
No sir, no one.
Neither do I condemn you. Go, sin no more.
The adulteress was not a Christian, much less a fundamentalist Christian. She never carried or opened a Veda or a Bible or a Koran or an Adi Granth or A Course in Miracles or Atlas Shrugged. But we can wonder that this story of the adulteress reflects sympathy for the mother of Jesus who claimed, “I know not [did not have sex with] a man. How can this be?”
This is the last judgment of all that lives in the universe: If a life strives to sin no more, if a life moves toward the good despite the worst circumstances and even after failing “seventy times seven times,” that life will be glorified and saved. That is the kerygma, the Gospel promise.
If you take the talents that have been given you, whether a mere one or more than one thousand, and struggle to increase the gift, you will be rewarded with far more after judgment. (Luke 19:12-28)
To answer my initial question: How does a cult expert justify his Catholic identity?
I do not justify it in the way, for example, that an atheist that subscribes to Free Inquiry magazine would want me to—with “science.” Mine is a theological and philosophical struggle, a jihad, and not a scientific choice, but hopefully an informed one after decades of wrestling with it. I can view it as an aesthetic choice—I like the corresponding symmetry of my metaphorical math above! I like the rich history and embattled tradition! I like the inner debate among many aspects of the faith. I like Michelangelo’s Pieta and Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa (of Avila). I like the fact that thousands of soldiers on both sides in World War 1 carried The Story of a Soul by St Theresa of Lisieux (1873-1897) or her card image with them into battle. Soldiers felt protected by her and forty apparitions were reported by them while in battle. Whole regiments were dedicated to her and countless artillery named after her. The Little Flower as she was known paralleled Ganesha of Hindu lore as a mighty protector and "remover of obstacles." Again, the metaphor pleases my aesthetic judgment.
Cults good and bad exist within the Church as within every world religion. Devoted, educated, and sensitive Muslims world wide are heart broken by stories of bad clerics and fanatical sects and movements within the ranks of Islam. Every world religion has its elegant and civil aspect that maintains the good. Catholicism is no different. Some Catholics are caught up within devotional milieus and forms of hero and idol worship that are equally as harmful and constricted as some of the most notorious cults. I have met and ‘counseled’ Catholics that emerged from Opus Dei, the Legion of Christ or maverick monasteries with abusive leadership styles. The otherwise powerful theology or tradition of a world religion can be “hijacked” as the bait to hook and drag naïve seekers into harmful cult systems. The Vatican and popes have too often accommodated the larger, insider cults because they bring in money for the Church.
New religions or relatively small cults often fall into harmful ways due to inept leadership styles that encourage a closing of ranks or an “us verses them," elitist devotional milieu. Often the new revelation that the leader contacted a god, angel or deep insight into the nature of reality is little more than delusion, thus creating a cavalier, dismissive, or paranoid reaction to critics. Such leaders often have character flaws that naive seekers experience as charisma. Once that charismatic connection occurs whether in a moment of ecstasy or subjective resonance, the seeker instinctively resists all criticism or doubt. Members of self contained, all or nothing piss-ant cults or churches have no lateral option for change as do cult members within world religions. For example, moderate Muslim clerics have had success in educating imprisoned Muslim terrorists, thus diffusing their loyalty to a corrupt version of Islam. When properly exit counseled prisoners are released, they no longer pose a sinister threat while retaining their faith.
The matrix is not the reality
A world religion or any religion or cult is a "matrix" or context for devotion. My argument all along is that all matrices collapse in the end, just as all function in a human being collapses at death. I am not merely echoing Heidegger and the Existentialists here that view man (Da-sein) as a temporal "clearing in the woods" in the infinite forest of evolving matter). This "end" or final cause as in Aristotle's language, to me, is clearly presented by the Gospel. The entire Jewish Temple industry was "wiped out" by Jesus, all that tradition without dispensing what was good in it. The "end" may be something akin to the idea of moksa or mahasamadhi in vedic philosophy--I can argue the point in my head, at least.
The problems with most constricting cults is the entire matrix they present is corrupt, thus leaving little good to "save" in this life or the "next." In temporal terms, the vast majority of new religions like badly wrought businesses tend to collapse by implosion from self-generated corruption and poorly applied foundation mythologies.
By my definition, ex-members of newer cults like Scientology or the Raelians have no such option as traditional Catholics —the entire mess or matrix in their heads has to be rejected and reformed. Of course, former Christians turned atheist would say the same of Christianity, but there is the matter of quality of a matrix--humanists find good qualities in the Gospel sans miracles and God claims. For my part, there was nothing about Summit Lighthouse that I retain as good. Everything that Mark Prophet and Elizabeth Prophet taught severely lacked the finer qualities that I seek in religion, science, aesthetics, and the polis. This is not to say that an ex-member of Legion of Christ will ever again feel good about the matrix of the Catholic Church. A cult experience can damage any compulsion to ever belong to organized religion again. My cult experience with the SL remains with me—there are many aspects of Catholicism that I will probably reject or resist for the rest of my life. Although I appreciate the mass, I have no feeling of guilt for not going to church every Sunday. My focus is with this man Jesus who reportedly said:
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
When it comes to cults and religions, the most we can hope for is informed choice based on an educated and civil discourse within the social, scientific, and historical environment. Totalist cults tend to constrict that struggle for informed choice and a flourishing civility in life based on that choice. The Catholic Church as I relate to it does not constrict my choice in this life. And I realize that my Catholicism as well as your position or belief ends in empty dust at the “0.” The rest is faith in a promise revealed by Jesus Christ through the testimony of his "good news" Gospel....for me, at least.
[June, 2014: The following is my response from a recent discussion with a retired psychologist and former Catholic:
In the Eucharist, the body is separate from the blood to indicate a sacrificed animal. The mystical union or communion occurs only after sacrifice and that sacrifice at the G-d level is an eternally recurring event, if I grasp the intent of Christ's words: This is my body, this is my blood; do this in memory of me. He was saying that Abba is showing what "he" does—G-d dies for “his” creation to save, it is what God has to do, to take on "our" sins and die for us, because God takes responsibility for what God creates. Iow, God cleans up God's messes, God knows how to clean house to save what is good. Without this G-d loop, life becomes totally absurd, and we are all Waiting for Godot (as in Beckett’s play).
The atheist Nazi Martin Heidegger argued that Dasein (they being/being there) is that awareness or existence that is a "clearing in the woods" and 'Dasein' must struggle to be authentic as that clearing, as an openness to authenticity. I think that is what I strive for in my small, perhaps clumsy way, to find how dasein, as a Catholic, becomes a clearing in the tangled Catholic forest with all its beauty, erudition, bizarre baggage, and authoritarian disorders.
1 Peter 2:24 ""He himself bore our sins" in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; "by his wounds you have been healed."
This letter in context in the Gospel says there is no way in hell we can "pay" for our sins and limitations no matter how good we are or how much we burn. It would be like asking a goldfish to build a rocket ship to fly to Betelgeuse. I agree with that notion. I stare into the universe knowing how much more astronomy has yet to reveal, and I am speechless. I am at the mercy of all That. If we accept the gift that is Christ and strive to do well despite inevitable failures with what we are given (talents in the parable) in our goldfish world, then God provides the star ship to get "up there." I am using God, not as Nietzsche saw the popular use of God that "died" with Modernism, but more like the strict Jews do as G-d, the unspeakable name of YHWH, that name that seems to get more mysterious and evasive as we evolve in our sciences. In a post-modern approach, we are all atheists, because to say we believe in God is a meaningless statement, if we are honest. We really have no idea what that means. But we still use the word, because somehow we still care, we anxiously want to get to that point where Dasein emerges full on to the goldfish world we know and experience.
But we have to die first to everything.
 http://www.vlib.us/medieval/lectures/universities.html Charlemagne (d. 814) realized that his empire needed a body of educated people if it was to survive, and he turned to the Church as the only source of such education.
 Hans Kung (1984) On Being a Christian, 455.
It all seems to resolve in mysticism, doesn't it?
Even Heidegger became a "quietist" in the end as did Wittgenstein, the two most influential, "atheist" 20th Century philosophers who "ended" philosophy as a viable enterprise. They both became quasi-mystics. Yet, mysticism is no resolution. The jihad or struggle continues till we cannot bleed anymore, is how I see it. There are no non-dualists among those who breathe and bleed. There is no blood in mysticism.