The Personalist Project

One of my ongoing mental preoccupations is the problem of community. How do we establish it without getting it wrong? What are the sound principles of "intentional" communal living? By "intentional" I mean a kind of communal life that is deliberately adopted and cultivated, as opposed to what occurs spontaneously just from the fact of our living in society.

I've been pondering it since my undergraduate days, when my discovery of philosophy coincided with the imploding of the covenant communities that had been a major influence, for both good and bad, in the spirituality at my alma mater.  

At Steubenville I had learned "how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity." Never before or since have I experienced such wealth and warmth and joy and blessing in committed Christian companionship. I still pine for it and feel bereft without it. But I also learned there how easily it goes awry—how abusive dynamics creep in, even when everyone involved means well. And when it goes awry, people get injured—sometimes irreparably.

In the years since, two things have been constant in me: a longing for true community and an acute sensitivity to bad group dynamics, which makes me recoil from anything that smacks of "community."

I talk about this issue often with friends. Some don't understand the longing. Don't you have a husband and children and friends? Shouldn't we just concentrate on rebuilding the "little platoons" of traditional American society?—the Knights of Columbus, the Ladies Sodality, the Rotary Club, the PTA, the parish? Some friends who have had bad experiences with covenant communities, the Legion of Christ or the like have come to the conclusion that the effort to deliberately "form community" is in itself dysfunctional—it's trying to substitute the organic with the artificial. Forget community! Focus on your family.

I have a lot of sympathy with this point of view. 

A priest friend likes to tease me for my grass-is-always-greener coveting of monasticism. "What, your own Sacrament isn't enough for you?" He helps me see that the stability, serenity and regularity of monastic life has quite a lot to do with the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience that undergird it. The lay vocation has a different function, different needs and different accompanying graces and consolations.

I take his point. And it helps me understand better one of the ways "intentional communities" typically go wrong. It's role confusion—a collapsing of the lay vocation into the religious.

I also see plainly how the longing for community can become a substitute for and an avoidance of the effort and vulnerability involved in genuine intimacy. We feel the gaps in ourselves and our actual relationships, and, instead of working to fill those, we start fantasizing about something else—something less challenging and more rewarding. Or else we try to substitute natural bonds with arbitrary bonds, written down and agreed to in advance.

So, "Yes, true" to all that.

And yet, and yet... I can't help myself. Deep down, I'm persuaded that the fractured, dispersed way we live today is not okay. I'm sure it's the prime cause of the epidemic levels of stress and depression and mental illness and general misery we're experiencing. I note that Karol Wojtyla, before he became John Paul II, visited the United States and was alarmed by the rootlessness and alienation he sensed here. And that was in the 70's, before things got much, much worse.

The human person urgently needs to belong to a wider community—one where he's truly known and loved and appreciated for who he is and what he has to offer, and one where his defects are supplied by the gifts of others. The nuclear family is the foundation, but it's not sufficient in itself. We need more. We need extended family; we need neighbors and colleagues who know us and care for us; we need familiarity with a wide mix of types and generations and aptitudes; we need a distinctive local culture incarnating real values, where we feel at home with others. We need rituals and traditions; we need to recreate with the people we also work and worship with; we need a polity.

The kind of superficial, piecemeal, practically random dealings-with-others most of us make do with today doesn't cut it.

I keep thinking there must be a solution. It can't be so that there's no way to do intentional community without instituting dysfunction. I'm encouraged by the fact that my yearnings are shared by many.

In my conversation with John Crosby (recorded last week and available on the member page) we ended by agreeing that personalists have more to offer and do in the way of helping think through and articulate the principles of true communion. Anyway, I mean to try. Someday soon, I'll post about good models of true community.

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Comments (69)


#1, Jul 30, 2014 4:45pm

Thanks, Katie. I, too, have been preoccupied with this question for the past 25 years, and I've taken note of communities gone bad, as well as a few successful ones. I really have to conclude that communities, like happiness, have to be a side effect of something else, and not, well, "intentional." Another thing I've been watching for 25 years is how Catholic families keep their grown kids Catholic--or how they lose them--and I've concluded that the ones who succeed are the ones who have had larger communities for their children to grow out into when the family is no longer enough. 

The best "something else" for a Catholic community to arise from, besides a religious order and its charism, seems to be academic endeavors: Catholic homeschool co-ops and small Catholic schools and colleges. It's why we sent two daughters to Trivium School, even though they could only come home on weekends. It's why we've encouraged our older kids to take on debt if it's the only way they can get a Catholic liberal arts education that won't even get them a good job when they graduate. It's the best we can do, but we're still starving.

Abby Tardiff

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jul 30, 2014 4:53pm

I agree about academic institutions being the best cases available. I think it's something about there being a shared endeavor, plus geographical proximity.

We really miss the comaraderie of college and grad school and professional life in academia.

I guess I'm not ready to give up yet, though, on the possibility of something emerging in the extra-academic world—something that takes due account of all that's been learned through trial and error over the last couple centuries.

Rhett Segall

#3, Jul 31, 2014 10:45am

Katie and Stellatum

Your yearning for the richness of  the kind of community experience you had for a period in college reminds me of a comment by Jacque Maritain regarding the study circles he and Raissa had established in France. WW2 broke up the gatherings and Jacque saw this as an example of the fact that “the Holy Spirit is not at work only in the durable institutions which go on for centuries, He is also at work in ventures which vanish overnight and must always be started afresh.”

Regarding communities of deliberate intention, I think it is helpful to differentiate  three different kinds of communities: communities of work, e.g. a construction crew building a house. Here just a minimum level of cooperation is needed. Second, there is the community of spirit. Here we have individuals cooperating to create something worthwhile for human kind, e.g. the development of an art museum or philosophical study club. The third type of community is the community of the heart. Here we have the profoundest sharing and enrichment.

Rhett Segall

#4, Jul 31, 2014 10:46am

None of these communities can be forced and a fortiori the community of the heart. In my experience as a Catholic school teacher,  (I judge Catholic Schools to be a community of spirit) I find it absolutely counterproductive when the powers that be try to force the teachers and the students in to a community of heart. This can be encouraged but never forced.

Lastly I would note that religious communities should not be seen too quickly as embodying communities of heart. I was in the Society of Mary (Marianists) for nine years. I love the Society and its mission but, as Katie noted with her college experience, flawed human nature is very much operative there too, sometimes in spades!

Sam Roeble

#5, Jul 31, 2014 11:41am

Wojtyla's The Person: Subject & Community sheds a bit of light on this topic

His points about the differences between personal participation vs. alienation are crucial to understanding community.  

Yep, unfortunately, suffering is shared along with bearing fruit over time--but it is worthwhile 

Sam Roeble

#6, Jul 31, 2014 12:30pm

Also, Katie, I highly recommend bringing this subject up with Fr. Bob Oliver!  I heard the superior of his order last evening in Minnesota: Br. Ken Apuzo.  His order is all about community for both religious and lay members.  Brotherhood of Hope and

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Jul 31, 2014 12:35pm

Rhett, I, too, noticed that point of Jacques Maritain's, in his introduction to Raissa's Journal. It's come to mind often. He remarks in the same place that even if the initiative dies on the vine, often the friendships it engendered abide. I love that thought, and I have found it to be true in my own experience.

I agree completely that the deepest kind of interpersonal communion cannot be forced.  Forced intimacy is one of the mistakes the Covenant Communities made.

One of the things I admire in Newman's description of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, as he understood it and brought it to England, is his unapologetic adoption of the principle of affinity. New members would be admitted on the basis of the other members' sense that they were a good fit for the community.

Of course that principle would have to be guarded against the problem of elitism. How do we limit ourselves and safeguard our specific identity without becoming elitist?

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Jul 31, 2014 12:41pm

Samwise, I wish Fr. Bob had time for conversations like that. On the other hand, I'm not sure he and I see eye to eye on the subject. His sense of where and why convenant communities went wrong is (unless his view has changed in recent years) very different from mine.

Katie van Schaijik

#9, Jul 31, 2014 12:49pm

And Samwise, thank you for that link! As always for us, Wojtyla's thought is seminal. He nails the nub right in the beginning:

 The Acting Person does not contain a theory of community, but deals only with the elementary condition under which existence and activity “together with others” promotes the self-fulfillment of the human being as a person, or at least does not obstruct it.

This imo, in a nutshell, is the difference between sound and dysfunctional community. Wholesome communities promote the the self-fulfillment of the human being as a person; dysfunctional communities tend in practice to subordinate the individual to the whole.

Sam Roeble

#10, Jul 31, 2014 2:24pm

Wojtyla strongly supports Catholic covenant community:

So did Ratzinger and so does Bergoglio.  Perhaps it's true that you don't see eye to eye with Fr. Bob...but I do

Katie van Schaijik

#11, Jul 31, 2014 2:29pm

How do you know that, Samwise, when I have said nothing of what he holds or what I hold, or where I see the difference between us?

Katie van Schaijik

#12, Jul 31, 2014 3:00pm

Further, I think you are overstating the case when you say Wojtyla strongly supports Catholic covenant community. The article you link says nothing about covenant communities. He is speaking generally about the "new movements" within the Church, including the charismatic renewal. I support those too.

And he reminds all that it is "easy to err", and that to "guarantee the authenticity" of a charism, it is essential to be in proper relation to the competent ecclesial authorities. 

One of the ways (only one) the Covenant Communities went off track is that they were not properly related to the Church and Church authorities. This isn't my personal opinioin; it's the finding of the bishops.

My concern with this post isn't to diss community, but rather to make a start toward identifying and articulating the principles by which they can avoid error and dysfunction—the kind of error and dysfunction that caused so much damage in so many lives through the Covenant Communities of the 80s.

Sam Roeble

#13, Jul 31, 2014 3:05pm

Well you did say, " I wish Fr. Bob had time for conversations like that. On the other hand, I'm not sure he and I see eye to eye on the subject".

Forgive me if read into point is broader.  JPII sums it up nicely:"There is so much need today for mature Christian personalities, conscious of their baptismal identity, of their vocation and mission in the Church and in the world! There is great need for living Christian communities! And here are the movements and the new ecclesial communities: they are the response, given by the Holy Spirit, to this critical challenge at the end of the millennium. You are this providential response."  (ibid)

Sam Roeble

#14, Jul 31, 2014 3:16pm

It is true, the Brotherhood of Hope--and the community from which they originated
had difficult in their beginnings with the Bishops.  But as JPII says, a maturing process was necessary for them to be incorporated into the oversight of the Bishops.  Today, Fr. Bob is a great example of one who is very influential in the Magisterium--when his order was initially exiled from New Jersey.  Another example is the papal preacher Fr. Cantalamessa...


#15, Jul 31, 2014 3:43pm

Just a caution.  Any community that has it's roots and is still associated with the Sword of the Spirit is one that should be carefully examined before it is held up as a model of community.  From the outside it might look appealing, but unfortunately the Sword of the Spirit, while it claims to be ecumenical is more non-denomenational.  This, imo, limits the potential of a community like this from becoming the force it should be in the Catholic Church.  Unfortunately being approved by the Bishop of the diocese is no guarantee of authentic Catholic teaching within the community. 

Sam Roeble

#16, Jul 31, 2014 3:56pm

If Bishops and Papal approval is not the criterion for authenticity this side of heaven, what is?  I'm strictly speaking on a level of subsidiarity, that is, as a Catholic covenant community meets the approval of the local bishop/archbishop who is in communion with Rome


#17, Jul 31, 2014 4:17pm

All that you say is true and somewhere in there is the heart of the matter.  When something is not what it should be or what others might think it is or what it claims to be, problems surface.  As I said, just a caution.  BTW, my reference is to community and not to the Brotherhood of Hope. 

Sam Roeble

#18, Jul 31, 2014 4:43pm

The Brotherhood of Hope is officially a part of SOS.  See pdf page 2.  Also see Fr. Bob Oliver on page 1

This link is the Brotherhood's official newsletter:


#19, Jul 31, 2014 4:59pm

I am aware of that, and admire Fr. Bob Oliver very much.  I am hopeful that the Brotherhood's involvement with the Sword of the Spirit will have a good influence going forward.  Their involvement is a recent development. 

Katie van Schaijik

#20, Jul 31, 2014 6:56pm

Don't forget, Samwise, that Pope John Paul II was an enthusiastic supporter of the Legion until very near the end of his papacy. For years and decades the Legion defended their modes and methods by saying, "We have the approval of the Pope."

It only came out later that the Pope had been deceived. 

The same is true of the Covenant Communities. In many cases, if not all, they initially enjoyed the support of the bishops. It was only later that the bishops discovered that they hadn't fully known what was going on. Only later that they intervened to correct abuses.

Samwise, the "difficulty with the bishops" that the SotS encountered was not in the beginnging, but much later—only after many stories of terrible harm done came to their attention.

I know. I was there. 

I don't say that there was no good in them. Rather I say that they went off the rails, and now provide a good source of "what not to do" wisdom as we consider the question of how to form wholesome communities—the kind that promote the good of persons.

Sam Roeble

#21, Aug 1, 2014 9:27am

Bishop Andrew Cozzens--Minn/St. Paul, MN

Bishop Georges Bou-Jaoudé--Beirut, Lebanon (faithfully attends every community prayer meeting)

Bishop Frederick Campbell--Columbus, Ohio

These are just a few Bishops that I know first-hand, who are actively and wholeheartedly supportive of the covenant community.  In Ohio, for example, the Rector of the Pontifical seminary is the chaplain for the fledgling covenant community supervised by Bishop Frederick Campbell.

Bishop Andrew Cozzens grew up in the midst of the covenant community in Minnesota!

I'll admit, some places like MI, Steubenville, PA, NJ etc. have had traumatic experiences with community.  But today, on a firsthand basis, I know Bishops who are actively involved in community and are very supportive

Katie van Schaijik

#22, Aug 1, 2014 10:02am

Several points in reply:

1) When I here critique covenant communities, I am speaking of the the communities of the '80s, before bishops intervened to correct abuses. I am not speaking of covenant communities as such (i.e. as a concept); nor am I speaking of the covenant communities as they exist today, after reforms were instituted. I have no familiarity with them, so am not in a position to judge their soundness.

2) The fact that bishops approve does not by itself guarantee soundness. Many bishops had enthusiastically endorsed the communities of the '80s, which only later were exposed as rife with systemic abuse. And, as I already mentioned, Pope John Paul II was an ardent supporter of Maciel and the Legion, before the truth of their inward evil and disorder came to light.

3) Even canonical approval is not enough to guarantee soundness. Again, the Legion's Constitution had been approved. 

Canonical and episcopal approval do not and cannot absolve the leaders and members of a given community of responsibility to discern carefully and continually the health of their group as a group.

In fact, an answer to concrete criticisms of "Our bishop approves," is a pretty clear indication of dysfunction.

Katie van Schaijik

#23, Aug 1, 2014 10:17am

I've been working on a long post on just this point.

For years, members and observers of both the covenant communities and the Legion brought forward criticisms and concerns in good faith: "Something's wrong here; look at what's going on." They got dismissed, basically, like this: "We're great and our bishop approves. So, why are you attacking a work of God? You clearly have issues."

Anyone in or associated with the Legion who raised concerns was reprimanded for a lack of charity or worse.

This, all by itself, is proof of dysfunction. We can say that an indispensable principle of sound group dynamics—especially religious groups—is that criticism is welcomed.

Katie van Schaijik

#24, Aug 1, 2014 10:19am

I forgot to add that the fact that lots of people (such as Fr. Bob!) had "positive experiences" in community doesn't mean those communities are perfectly sound. It only means they're not thoroughly bad.

Lots of Protestants become holy. But Protestantism as such lacks the fullness of truth and involves serious errors that do harm.

Katie van Schaijik

#25, Aug 1, 2014 10:46am

Samwise, Jul. 31 at 3:05pm

JPII sums it up nicely:"There is so much need today for mature Christian personalities, conscious of their baptismal identity, of their vocation and mission in the Church and in the world! There is great need for living Christian communities! And here are the movements and the new ecclesial communities: they are the response, given by the Holy Spirit, to this critical challenge at the end of the millennium. You are this providential response."  (ibid)

I agree with every word of JP II here. (That I see a need for Christian communities should be evident from the substance of my post.) But this cannot be construed as an endorsement of covenant communities, much less the covenant communties of the '80s.

To say, "we need communities" is in no way the same as saying "all communities are perfectly sound and commendable".

Similarly, to say that the family is the foundational unit of the civilization of love is not to deny that some families are deeply dysfunctional.

Sam Roeble

#26, Aug 1, 2014 10:54am

I too am working on a balanced list of sound and unsound  aspects of community for a post that I trust will be acceptable to personalistic criteria.

I've been involved in different forms of covenant community for nearly ten years, I've seen both good and bad: many critique it as Protestant, Modernistic, Sensationalistic, out of harmony with Bishops, too patriarchal and cultish, etc.  But these are IMPERSONAL criteria. 

Katie van Schaijik

#27, Aug 1, 2014 10:59am

I'll be looking forward to that list. 

Also to getting a better idea of what you mean by impersonal criteria. Certainly patriarchal and cultish seem to me very much problems for personalism.

Sam Roeble

#28, Aug 1, 2014 10:59am

JPII's address is dated 1994.  I don't know what CVCOMM's of the 80's means.  A lot of maturation has happened since then, and I am well aware of many abuses that occurred in those days, especially against women

Katie van Schaijik

#29, Aug 1, 2014 11:06am

Not just maturation, but reform. The bishops intervened and insisted on reforms. And there wasn't just just reform, but a lot of dissolution. Many, many people (I think the majority of members) left the communities, taking their injuries with them. Grievous harm was done in countless lives.

Nor do I think there has ever been a full accounting. I still see worrying amounts of denial, and much too little in the way of public remorse and amends for damage done.

Sam Roeble

#30, Aug 1, 2014 11:08am

Let me also say that my participation in community is purely voluntary, and I have freely chosen it.  It is not for everyone, and I'm not a spokesman, an employee, an ideologist or anyone who benefits from community other than I think it to be an authentic way for human persons to live out their lives together in relationship with Christ and his Church. 

Katie van Schaijik

#31, Aug 1, 2014 11:15am

Another essential principle of sound "intentional communities": they must be voluntary and free of coercion and manipulation of all kinds.

Sam Roeble

#32, Aug 1, 2014 11:35am

Of Course! 

Has this website become a prolonged critique of covenant community?  It seems to be a running theme...

Katie van Schaijik

#33, Aug 1, 2014 11:53am

You say of course, but in fact, the covenant communities of the 80s and the Legion were full of coercion and manipulation, though every member would have said he or she was there voluntarily. Every day people volunteer for dysfunctional relations.

But if you think of my work here as a critique of covenant communities, you're missing the point. My point is rather to to consider and help articulate principles for sound interpersonal relations.

One way of doing that is the "via negativa", i.e. by looking at bad examples in our collective moral experience, in order to learn what went wrong and why.

The pursuit of health involves the study of the nature and sources of disease.

What I find worrying and maddening is how uninterested so many otherwise good Catholics are in examining wrong as a means both for setting things right and for establishing good.

They seem to think it virtuous to ignore injustice and just "move on"—thinking only happy thoughts. "My personal experience was positive, therefore, I don't need to hear about problems."

Need I say that this, too, is a recipe for dysfunction?

Anna Macdonald

#34, Aug 18, 2014 3:29pm

"It can't be so that there's no way to do intentional community without instituting dysfunction."

It can, and is, so. There is no way to do intentional community without dysfunction popping up, because people are people. Every option people can pursue is prone towards its own unique problems. An emphasis on the individual breeds selfishness and separateness; an emphasis on community breeds pressure to conform and, ultimately, infighting. You can try to minimize the problems that come with having a community, maybe try to balance different elements, but you can't get rid of the problems altogether.  

You might try to phrase your goal differently: to do intentional community better than the ones you have had negative experience with. And if you do, a good place to start might be to look at the covenant communities in some detail, to see if you can learn more about what they do right and what they do wrong. (I got a lesson on covenant community history from my dad a couple weeks ago, so if you want some balanced insight, I can refer you to him.)



Katie van Schaijik

#35, Aug 18, 2014 3:53pm

I can't agree that it's impossible to institute intentional community without dysfunction. No community is perfect, because people aren't perfect. But some are basically sound and healthy and some are not. Likewise, all families are imperfect, but not all families are dysfunctional—unless you empty the word of its meaning.

My goal is to help identify and articulate the principles of sound communal living.

Since I think the covenant communities got it wrong in broad lines, why would I look to them for detail? 

Let me stress again: When I speak of the Covenant Communities as a a negative example of intentional communities, I am speaking of the Covenant Communities as they were before they went through crisis, shakedown and reform in the early 90s. (I am very familiar with those.) I am not speaking of the current communities, because I am not familiar with them. I'm not interested in becoming familiar with them, because I don't trust them, just as I don't trust the current Legion.

Katie van Schaijik

#36, Aug 18, 2014 3:59pm

I hope for the sake of all those involved and for the good of the Church that the reforms that have been instituted are sufficient to abolish dysfunction. But, personally, I doubt it. One reason I doubt it is because (as I've said) there was far "too little too late" when it came to the leadership's acknowledgement of wrong and error.

To this day, it seems to me that many of those who remain involved are still deep in denial. They want to blame the "problems" on "disgruntled ex-members" or a few people with "issues" who misunderstood the teachings, or a scandal-hungry media, or whatever.

They have yet to come to terms with the fact that their community was severely dysfunctional in principle and mode and that many people were badly hurt as a result.

Anna Macdonald

#37, Aug 18, 2014 4:32pm

The distinction between dysfunction and imperfection is a fair one, although I would point out that telling which is which, in practice, can get pretty difficult sometimes, certainly with families, and for communities too.

Denial is... well, one of those human things. The Catholic Church still has problems with denial of the sex abuse problems (blaming it a few people with issues and a scandal-hungry media, just like you mentioned); does that make the Church dysfunctional instead of merely imperfect? Do you know of families where certain members are in denial about past problems, but are currently relating well to each other?

To be clear, I'm not trying to convince you to join a covenant community or even to like them. They certainly have their issues. I just think that when you're talking about wanting to work out the principles of forming intentional communities, it pays to research what's already been done. If you feel you have a lot of other examples of lay communities to draw conclusions from, then you may not need to look at the covenant communities. Otherwise, they're an available resource, even if it only shows what to avoid.

Katie van Schaijik

#38, Aug 18, 2014 4:43pm

It sounds to me like you are being defensive about covenant communities. Why? Are you a member of one?

Anna Macdonald

#39, Aug 18, 2014 4:58pm

I was deliberately trying not to be defensive. :) I guess I didn't succeed too well. :P No, I'm not a member of one. I grew up in one, but decided not to join as an adult. I have somewhat mixed feelings about it... friends who call it a cult because of the damaging effects on them, and others who have been hurt, but also some extremely meaningful memories of their support, especially around the time my mom died. When I long, as you do, for a deeper community, I have concrete experiences from my past in mind.

Katie van Schaijik

#40, Aug 18, 2014 5:15pm

So do I. My own and that of lots and family and friends.

When I say (as I do) that the convenant communities were badly infected with cultlike tendencies and dynamics, I don't mean to condemn them utterly. There was a lot of good in them. 

If we want to create new communities that capture those goods without succumbing to the bad tendencies and dynamnics, then we're going to have to come to honest terms with what went wrong.

In my experience, that's just what a lot of people still involved with the communities (and the Legion) don't want to do, which is not a good sign. They want to say, "We're all dysfunctional compared to Jesus", or "You don't know the history or all the people involved or all the good that happened" or whatever.  I think that habit of denial and avoidance is part of what got them into trouble in the first place.

I wrote a post a while ago on how to recognize cults and cultish tendencies.

Anna Macdonald

#41, Aug 18, 2014 11:04pm

I suppose my more positive personal experience leads me to classify the problems of covenant community more in the "imperfection" category than the "dysfunction" category - something that can, and SHOULD, be worked on, including the denial of problems, but not enough to toss them out of consideration completely. Whereas, presumably, your more negative experience leads you to the opposite conclusion.

So, out of curiosity for how you see the situation overall, how would you compare the dysfunction in covenant communities with the situation in the Church over the sex abuse? I see similar patterns of denial and avoidance in both. Would you still call the Church's situation a dysfunction? If not, what is the difference in people's behavior that makes it not one?

Katie van Schaijik

#42, Aug 18, 2014 11:23pm

I think it's a fundamental mistake to attribute my evaluation of covenant community to "negative personal experiences." 

This is a way (excuse my directness) of not taking critics and objective criticisms seriously. The Legion did the same thing. If anyone raised a concern, the response was, "I'm sorry you've had negative experiences." That way, anyone whose personal experience was positive felt justified in ignoring the evidence that there was a problem that needed addressing.

If you read the post I link above, you'll get a clearer picture of what I mean by cultism.

As for the comparison with the Church, there are key differences. The Church herself, as an organization, is sound. But particular dioceses or groups or institutions within the Church can become dysfunctional. Likewise, the Rule of St. Benedict is a model of sound communal living. But, over time, particular groups of Benedictines can become dysfunctional. When they do, they need reform, viz. they need to return to their founding vision and rule.

The Legion was unsound from the beginning, having a corrupt founder, a bad rule, and a toxic institutional culture.

The Covenant Communities started with many sincere people, but quickly went off the rails.

Anna Macdonald

#43, Aug 19, 2014 12:15am

I think you're reading me more defensively than I am. I wasn't attributing your evaluation to "personal experiences" as a way of dismissing that evaluation, any more than I was encouraging you to dismiss my own evaluation when I said mine was based on personal experiences. I share your concerns, if not your end judgment.

Ultimately, a final evaluation of ... anything... involves not just the identification of problems and benefits, but also a) getting a sense for the scope and pervasiveness of those plus-es and minus-es—in theory, this could be done objectively, but in reality limits on information almost always require us to rely on personal experience in gauging how common a phenomenon is—and b) a subjective assigning of value (positive or negative) to the various effects. What one person will find a tolerable annoyance, another might find an insufferable state of affairs, same for good stuff. It is neither possible nor desirable for an end judgment to be made without consideration of personal experience. You thought I was being dismissive; I was trying to be the opposite. I was, in effect, saying that I cannot/willnot argue with your experience, because you experienced it.

Anna Macdonald

#44, Aug 19, 2014 12:19am

If the word limit didn't cut off at 200, I'd have added something to the effect that personal experience is the root of all reality. :)

Katie van Schaijik

#45, Aug 19, 2014 7:27am

I'm all in favor of personal experience, and I agree that it's crucial to a just critique.

What I oppose is the tendency (very pronounced in cults and cult defenders) to dismiss or diminish criticisms and evidence telling against their group as the negative experience of a few, which contrasts with the positive experience of many more. (It typically comes with a subtle suggestion that negative experiences are not reliable indicators, since they often affect the judgment and objectivity.)

As someone who began critiquing the communities in the 80's, before the bishops intervened, and who began critiquing the Legion before the Legion had acknowledged Maciel's double life, I am very familiar with the tactic. I've seen it quite a lot, including from people who don't realize they're doing it.

Notice that you have here made no positive claims that the communities were or were not cults. Neither have you taken up the claims I make in the article on cultism.

By the omission, you (perhaps unintentionally) divert attention away from the subject in question, namely the problem of cultism and dysfunction in intentional communities, and instead put it on me and my imputed lack of knowledge and perspective.

Katie van Schaijik

#46, Aug 19, 2014 7:49am

I don't suppose you mean to do this, but you do.

You suggest that I can't know that the Communities were infected with cultism without doing a huge amount of formal research (which you seem to take for granted I haven't done). You suggest repeatedly, though discretely, that my opinion is not balanced, that I am not well enough informed to render the judgment I've rendered (your father could give me some missing perspective), etc.

Though I've twice mentioned my article on cultism, you haven't taken up its points.

You are engaging in a form of ad hominem argumentation, in the sense that you are trying to discredit me and my conclusions without engaging my arguments at all.

This is how Community members (and Legion members) were trained to deal with critics. They were taught to think they were being reasonable and charitable when they did it.

Katie van Schaijik

#47, Aug 19, 2014 8:16am

To determine whether a group is infected with cultism, we look for the symptoms of cultism, for instance:

- a lack of transparency and accountability in the leadership

- an exaggerated stress on authority and obedience

- externalism and conformism

- a culture of deflecting criticism, discrediting critics, and shaming and marginalizing ex-members

If we find these things, red flags go up. If we find these things plus lots of stories of people who, when they tried to bring forward concerns and problems found themselves not listened to, but accused, alarm bells ring.

If the bishops call in cult experts and insist on fundamental changes to the structure, leadership and teaching of the groups, we can be sure we weren't "overly sensitive."

Against all this the fact that lots of people have had positive experience is irrelevant. It does nothing to prove the group isn't a cult, just as the fact that I feel fine doesn't prove that the tumor in my body is benign.

The fact that many Mormons are happy in Mormonism doesn't mean that Mormonism isn't a cult, does it?

Nor does the fact that it's a cult mean there isn't a lot of good in it.

Sam Roeble

#48, Aug 19, 2014 9:35am

Let's please define our terms, many of which are loaded, in order to continue a philosophical discussion about covenant community. 

I read the article about "cult-like" behavior written by Katie and did not find a definition of "cult" in it, except sentences like this:

All that frustration you experience over the shortcomings of your parish or your pastor? Be grateful. It means the group is human and real. You're not in a cult. This is cultism.Conformity, loyalty, obedience, submission and reverence toward the leaders are demanded either explicitly or implicitly.  Resistance or "negativity" of any kind is frowned upon and punished, either overtly or discretely, as "divisive" and destructive.

The reality is that the word "cult" means "how we worship" as in the Catholic Church is Creed (what we believe), Code (how we live) and Cult (how we worship). 

Now, if we agree on those terms, I think the one in question with covenant community is moreso CODE than CULT. 

Are you with me so far?

Sam Roeble

#49, Aug 19, 2014 9:46am

Katie's definition of community is a little easier to grasp, per the same post:

"Persons are made for communion.  We can only flourish as selves when we live in a genuine communion of love with and for others. So, when we're deprived of the natural community life normal in pre-modern human history, we suffer, and we search, and we substitute.  And we find it difficult to recognize the difference between the real thing and its counterfeits.But, since all of us need real community, we'd better learn."

By using the modifier "natural" beside community, I interpret this to mean that no ideology is involved in its function.  That is, persons are free from coercion in "natural" community--it happens "naturally".

Some critics of covenant community find it unnatural precisely because it suggests in various degrees a CODE of living together with other persons.  This is the main issue in question for persons, not so much CULT (provided it is a Catholic community that celebrates the liturgy).

Sam Roeble

#50, Aug 19, 2014 9:55am

A few clarifying points:

*By Liturgy I mean "Liturgy of the hours" and the Mass as CULT

*A parish is a CULT in that sense that it teaches "how to worship", but does not necessarily have a CODE "how to live"  this is what largely differentiates covenant community from Parish life

Lastly, the Legion is a red herring, imo, it is being referred to as the worst Catholic example in the spectrum of lay movements to date so as to distract from defining truly genuine Catholic community.

Sam Roeble

#51, Aug 19, 2014 9:57am

*Parishes and covenant community also teach CREED (what we believe)

Sam Roeble

#52, Aug 19, 2014 10:09am

Let's talk then, so long as no one disagrees with my terms: CREED, CODE and CULT, about the CODE of covenant community.

If I could identify Katie's main issue with the CODE of covenant community, I would say that it is with "some" communitys' teaching on marriage--specifically the headship of the husband in the Christian family. 

I have referred before to Dr. John Grabowski's article, and it's CODE of living out Catholic Christian marriage as absolutely compatible with the current CODE of Catholic covenant community (Katie supplied the link to Dr. Grabowski's article herself).  But again, I cannot speak for ecumenical community on this same issue of CODE.

Katie van Schaijik

#53, Aug 19, 2014 10:16am

"Cult" in the contemporary cultural context has a meaning completely distinct from the ancient theological meaning, which is generally understood by all. A parish is obviously not a cult in that sense. So, let's set that aside as a distraction. 

I don't offer a definition of the term because I think my meaning comes through more clearly and fully by offering a set of earmarks, as I did just above and as Fr. Longnecker does in the article my other post links.

But I will say that, imo, its essence is what I said above (taking my cue from the Wojtyla article you linked): a group with dynamics, practices, and teachings that suppress and subordinate individuality in favor of the group. A healthy community serves the flourishing of personal life.

By "natural" in the context contrasts with "intentional", not ideological.

The Legion is not a red herring. It's a vivid example in our collective moral experience of how even a community with orthodox theology and approved constitutions and tons of sincere devout members can still be, at bottom, an abusive cult.

For years and decades anyone who criticized them was attacked as "imbalanced", "uncharitably negative," etc.

Sam Roeble

#54, Aug 19, 2014 10:29am

a group with dynamics, practices, and teachings that suppress and subordinate individuality in favor of the group. A healthy community serves the flourishing of personal life.

Wojtyla's definition of "cult" in the contemporary cultural context will suffice.  But again, "cult" is a loaded term and not consistent with the lexicon of the Church, like "pro-choice", etc. 

I persist in the argument that CODE is more suited to the type of "counter-cultural" teaching on "how to live" Catholicism that covenant community fosters and is in question.

Katie van Schaijik

#55, Aug 19, 2014 10:32am

Sam, you are confusing my critique of the covenant community teaching on marriage (not the teaching of "some" leaders, but the teaching of the covenant communities as such, before they were reformed) with my judgment that those communities were badly infected with cultism.

The two aren't completely unrelated, since the false teaching on marriage was bound up with the abusive treatment of women. (Women's individuality was systematically subordinated to her "role" as wife.) But the one is not reducible to the other.

The fact that some community leaders now embrace JP II's thought on marriage tells us nothing about whether or not the former communities were cults. It isn't even sufficient to ensure that the current communities aren't cults.

As I've said, the fact that some community leaders even now still embrace Steve Clark's radically depersonalizing teachings is not reassuring.

Katie van Schaijik

#56, Aug 19, 2014 10:37am

You can use "code" if you insist, but if you do, you won't be addressing the questions and problems I've raised. You'll be talking past me. A group's teachings are only one aspect of its dynamics. 

Katie van Schaijik

#57, Aug 19, 2014 10:58am

The contemporary meaning of the word "cult" is not comparable to "pro-choice." "Pro-choice" is a emphemism adopted to obscure the reality of abortion.

"Cult" was adopted to identify a modern phenomenon. We all have an idea of what it means, even if we struggle to pinpoint its exact features and contours. Its contemporary meaning is different from its theological meaning, but it's not incompatible with the Catholic lexicon! 

There is nothing about being Catholic that prevents us from noticing and talking about the reality of destructive and abusive cults, including cults that claim to be Catholic.

Anna Macdonald

#58, Aug 19, 2014 12:21pm

I think you and I had different ideas about what we were talking about. I wasn't trying to defend covenant communities against the charge of cultism. I didn't avoid the question to try to discredit the question; I avoided the question because I took it as an agreed fact between us that cultism has been a serious issue for the covenant communities. Since you ask, I will say that I don't think of the covenant community that I grew up in as a cult, per se, but mostly because that word brings up images in my mind of a more extreme stereotype of "cult" than I experienced. For sure, the covenant communities have had problems with denial, blaming problems on the afflicted members, ostracizing former members, discouraging disagreement with leadership, and other cultish problems. (I was, in fact, originally saying that I think it's impossible to have a close-knit community WITHOUT these problems, although I then accepted your point about having problems vs. those problems being at a level of dysfunction.)

Anna Macdonald

#59, Aug 19, 2014 12:23pm

I was not suggesting you research covenant communities to find out whether they were cultish; I was thinking that if you want to start an intentional community without those problems, it might be helpful to know the details of how the attitudes arose in the first place, what contributed to them, whether there were any structural or other factors (like varying leadership personalities) that made the problem worse or better in one community vs. another, whether any community made any progress in reducing the problem, and if so, what did they do that helped, and if not, what—if anything—did they try that failed... stuff like that. As I think I said before, if you have more positive examples of healthy lay communities to draw from, then looking at the covenant communities may be unnecessary, because then you have a positive guide to follow. 

Anna Macdonald

#60, Aug 19, 2014 12:24pm

And if you think you have enough knowledge of the covenant communities not just to identify the problems but also to identify their contributing factors and solution, then more power to you. The suggestion was a casual one, the path that I would probably follow if I were interested in setting up a community, not a suggestion based on a sense that you were lacking anything. 

(The bit about my dad was more of "hey, he just gave me this surprise lesson on covenant history, and now someone's talking about covenant history, so I'm totally going to throw that in!") :)

Out of curiosity, are you actually thinking at all about starting a better community? Or is it more just an identified need at this point? 

Katie van Schaijik

#61, Aug 19, 2014 12:26pm

Anna, I really appreciate and admire the way you're hanging in with me here! Often my frankness drives people away.

I have to run, but will be back soon to take up your good points.

Sam Roeble

#62, Aug 19, 2014 1:29pm

Katie van Schaijik, Aug. 19 at 10:37am

You can use "code" if you insist, but if you do, you won't be addressing the questions and problems I've raised. You'll be talking past me. A group's teachings are only one aspect of its dynamics. 

 It is precisely for this reason that I use the term CODE, so as to begin to categorize different dynamics in question with covenant community vs. the loaded umbrella term "cult".   My intention is not to talk past you but to try to agree on a proper language for defining the types of dynamics we observe in covenant community.

Katie van Schaijik

#63, Aug 19, 2014 2:28pm

Samwise, Aug. 19 at 1:29pm

Katie van Schaijik, Aug. 19 at 10:37am

You can use "code" if you insist, but if you do, you won't be addressing the questions and problems I've raised. You'll be talking past me. A group's teachings are only one aspect of its dynamics. 

 It is precisely for this reason that I use the term CODE, so as to begin to categorize different dynamics in question with covenant community vs. the loaded umbrella term "cult".   My intention is not to talk past you but to try to agree on a proper language for defining the types of dynamics we observe in covenant community.

The term "cult" is a perfectly useful one. It captures what I mean to identify. Code doesn't. If I want to critique a given group's teachings, I do that. If I want to identify the group as a cult or as infected with cultism, I do that. I'm sorry you don't like the term, but it's the right one for my purposes. CODE doesn't serve the need.

Katie van Schaijik

#64, Aug 19, 2014 2:36pm

Anna Macdonald, Aug. 19 at 12:21pm

Since you ask, I will say that I don't think of the covenant community that I grew up in as a cult, per se, but mostly because that word brings up images in my mind of a more extreme stereotype of "cult" than I experienced. 

To my mind, one of helpful lessons we've learned in recent decades, partly thanks to the experience of the Legion and the Covenant Communities, is that not all cults or cultlike groups are extreme. Cult dynamics can be more or less subtle and more or less thorough-going.

Similiarly, we've learned that you don't have to get drunk every day to be rightly considered an alcholic. We've learned that sexual abuse and physical abuse aren't the only kinds of abuse. (There's also verbal abuse and emotional abuse.)

We've learned that cults don't have to have a whacked-out theology or a a central leader. They can even be Catholic. The key factors are things like control, conformism, and lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the leadership. The convenant communities had all those things in spades, though I agree with you that they weren't as bad as the Moonies.

Katie van Schaijik

#65, Aug 19, 2014 2:52pm

Anna Macdonald, Aug. 19 at 12:23pm

I was thinking that if you want to start an intentional community without those problems, it might be helpful to know the details of how the attitudes arose in the first place... 

I don't want to start an intentional community. What I want to do is help articulate and identify the sound principles for intentional community life. One way to do that is the "via negativa", i.e. examining bad and dysfunctional communities.

So, for example, if a lack of transparency and accountability in the governance of the group is hallmark of dysfunction, it follows that transparency and accountability in governance is among the desiderata for a healthy group.

If control and conformism easily creep in, we will want to find ways of maximizing freedom, and so on.

Since a stress on "roles" for men and women so easily leads to the subordination of the individual to his or her "role," we would want to take care to avoid that.

I've already got several draft posts in the works. One identifying community destroyers, one identifying several models of healthy community, one being to lay out some key principles of sound community.

Anna Macdonald

#66, Aug 19, 2014 3:30pm

Katie van Schaijik, Aug. 19 at 2:52pm

I don't want to start an intentional community. What I want to do is help articulate and identify the sound principles for intentional community life. 

So more of an academic interest then, rather than an immediately practical or action-oriented one? Given that your post contrasted yourself with people who find their family/parish life to provide sufficient community, I find that ... odd? I would rhetorically ask you what the point is, of working out the right way to do something, if you're not planning to actually do it... except I've done that so many times myself, it's not really worth asking.

Katie van Schaijik

#67, Aug 19, 2014 6:14pm

I'd say philosophical rather than academic, since the latter term has a negative connotation of "unrelated to life". Also, I'm not an academic. :)

Philosphical of course doesn't mean impractical. When Wojyla wrote his essays on Person and Community, he didn't intend to start a community. Same goes for von Hildebrand's Metaphysics of Community. But both texts have immense value for anyone who might like to form a community.

Then, too, think of all the debate and discussion that preceded the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. Quite a lot of thought about the principles of right governance went into that document, including the thought of men who didn't live to see their ideas realized.

Think of Peter Maurin and his call for "round table discussions" as an indispensable prerequisite for the development of new communities.

Think of the discussions and debates, not to mention all the philosophical and theological texts, that preceded the documents of Vatican II. 

The Protestant Reformation began with the 95 Theses...

Anna Macdonald

#68, Aug 19, 2014 7:46pm

That makes sense.


#69, Nov 22, 2014 5:36pm

Rhett, All,

lots of finery to choose from above, but:

Rhett Segall, Jul. 31 at 10:45am

Katie and Stellatum

[snip] Second, there is the community of spirit. Here we have individuals cooperating to create something worthwhile for human kind, e.g. the development of an art museum or philosophical study club. The third type of community is the community of the heart. Here we have the profoundest sharing and enrichment.

 I'm not sure I quite comprehend your distinction, but I'm also not sure I need to to support you at this time.  Howison, p.188:

The doctrine which thus comes to light, that in art man not only shares literally in the creative office of God, but enriches Nature with new members that express its divine Ground in a still higher form, will seem to many overbold -- extravagant and irreverent.  But its advocates are neither few nor inconsiderable; ..."


The true artist worships, and must worship, God;


And thus every work of art is and must be an embodied Theodicy - a symbol of the justification of the ways of God to man, ...


...poetry rightfully takes the highest place...

"we are here for all of us"?:

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