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Thursday, October 01, 2009

Tales From The Cult

He grew up in a stereotypically uptight Catholic household, was a drummer in a rock band, and had a transformational religious experience in his early 20s. After writing a book that received national attention and a Catholic bishop's imprimatur, he founded a movement that swept across the country gaining numerous adherents. It made him a millionaire.

If you think I'm talking about Christopher West, you're wrong.
I'm talking about his spiritual grandfather, Larry Tomczak.
Who is Larry Tomczak and why would anyone consider him Chris West's spiritual grandfather?

Therein lies a tale...

Back in the 1970's, Larry Tomczak was a young midwestern Catholic man who underwent a Pentecostalist conversion experience, becoming "born-again" without leaving his Catholic faith. He used his experience at Pentecostal churches to become a major player in the then burgeoning Catholic charismatic movement. In fact, the man from Cleveland, Ohio founded and oversaw charismatic communities through the same Sword of the Spirit umbrella community (search the PDF in this link with the phrase "Mother of God community") that saw Ralph Martin found the Word of God community.

Despite extremely dodgy liturgical theology, his autobiographical national best-seller, Clap Your Hands, received an imprimatur from Cardinal William Baum.

Why would the Cardinal do such a thing? Well, the charismatic movement was the latest theological fad in a Church whose leaders were trying to speak to the culture, to be really "up-to-date." Tomczak's book really appealed to the nation's young adults. Liturgical theology was in upheaval anyway. So, why not give it an imprimatur?

Tomczak moved to D.C. in the early 1970s, founding the nondenominational communities Take and Give (TAG) and People of Destiny International (PDI). Ultimately, however, the dulcet sounds of his own voice seduced him.

By 1982 he had left the Catholic Church to co-found Sovereign Grace Ministry. By sheer coincidence, PDI and Sovereign Grace Ministry were based in Gaithersburg, Md. -- where the Mother of God Community was and is based.

And, again by happy coincidence, the Word of God community which took its philosophy in part from Tomzcak's theology, was the progenitor for the Mother of God community. All of these Tomczak-inspired communities subscribed to the same "headship" principle of "shepherding", a principle that in the 1980's caused many Catholic bishops to become wary.

As it happens, the Mother of God community's "shepherding" technique was so heavy-handed that, despite initially receiving the approbation of the local bishop, it eventually invited a Washington Post series on the "Catholic cult" aspects of the community.

It was this series of articles that first brought Christopher West national exposure. He became the "star" stool pigeon in the series, whose progress out of the community was followed in breathless detail by WaPo reporters. Before the series was finished, West had, with characteristic understatement, made the claim that the Gaithersburg Catholic religious community had raped him.

So, as this thumbnail history shows, Christopher West not only has a Catholic charismatic background, his charismatic background is shaped by a "shepherding" technique developed by a Catholic apostate. It is a set of techniques that turns spiritual direction into a mockery of the real thing, and religion into a mockery of Catholicism.

Given this, is it any wonder that Chris West's view on sexuality is somewhat... different... than the view of Catholics who had a less severe upbringing, people who did not grow up in a cult atmosphere? Can the cult's attitude towards its own members explain why Christopher West seems to view Hugh Hefner as a kind of hero or saviour, someone who is somehow spiritually on par with John Paul II? Does West, like Tomczak, carry so much baggage from his cult past and family upbringing that he simply cannot properly explain the Catholic Faith?

It is certainly the case that Larry Tomczak eventually left the Catholic Faith, although the man who was once endorsed by many Catholics, both lay and ordained, remains a very successful speaker and presenter even to this day. But programs which appeal to the nation's youth have a habit of going astray.

We have not only seen this with Tomczak's version of the Catholic charismatic movement, we also saw the same thing with the Lifeteen movement which was so heavily promoted by various Catholic leaders, both lay and ordained, because it so "energized" Catholic youth.

There, too, we saw a movement whose founders regularly misrepresented Catholic theology and liturgy, but whose defenders explained those "minor" mistakes away by pointing to all the "good" it accomplished, all the orthodox teachings it did present, and the thousands of youth who returned to the practice of the Faith because of it.

But, where are those episcopal and lay Lifeteen cheerleaders now? To whom have they apologized now that Lifeteen's founder is excommunicated and defrocked and its movement become non-denominational? How many Catholics now carry a distorted understanding of what liturgy should be thanks to Lifeteen's "minor" distortions?

How many times do we have to go through this?

Lest this essay be seen as a pure slam of the Mother of God community, which still exists, it should be pointed out that the Mother of God community began a series of reforms the same year the WaPo series was published.

Indeed, within a few months of the WaPo articles (and before the reforms began), Christopher West would leave the Gaithersburg's community "cult" behind to begin his study of Catholic Faith at the John Paul II Institute in Washington DC.

Upon his graduation, someone would secure this unknown graduate with a freshly-minted MA in theology a speaking gig at an international theological conference in Brazil.

The rest is, as they say, history.

At least some members of the Mother of God community, the community whose spiritual life had been approbated by bishops, exposed by a national news series in the secular media, then reformed by those same bishops, were undoubtedly proud of this happy achievement.

But, it should also be noted, today, not all members of the reformed Mother of God community are happy with Christopher West's teachings. Indeed, at least a few of the current members at the highest levels of the community are quite concerned with both the content and the method of West's presentations.

In that regard, it is difficult to know what to make of yet another set of happy coincidences: Ralph Martin, the founder of the Word of God community, is now an associate professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, along with former MoG community chair Mary Healy, current MoG chaplain Father Francis Martin and current Christopher West associate, Dr. Janet Smith.

Dr. Smith, it may be remembered, is not only a professor at Sacred Heart seminary, she is also an instructor for the corporation West created, the Theology of the Body Institute, which sponsors West's pricey courses. She collaborates with him in leading TOB Institute seminars, although she innocently failed to mention her work with him when she first began writing in support of West's teachings.

So, who is for Chris West and who is against him?

Well, the lines seem pretty clear.
The people who taught him theology are very concerned.
Many of the people who benefit from his association are not.

To Learn More about Christopher West's errors, click on Chris and the Cult.


Patrick said...

As you pointed out, most movements that try to make religion the new hip and happening thing for youths usually falls apart because they have removed themselves from orthodox teachings and pushed the theologically correct boundaries to try to make it relevant to them. Dumbing down religion certainly hasn't helped when scandals occurs because of the gross misunderstandings that comes out of it. The secret to getting their attention and keeping their attention are two different things. Pope John Paul II was very good at showing how to get their attention. We really need better ways to keep their attention.

Anonymous said...

How very disingenuous of you to say that West considers Hugh Hefner "a kind of hero or saviour, someone who is somehow spiritually on par with John Paul II." Utter nonsense, if not libel.

And do you really mean to insinuate that Archbishop Chaput and/or Cardinal Rigali have been motivated by a desire to follow the latest "theological fad" in order to appeal to the nation's youth?

Very irresponsible writing, in my judgment.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Oh, brave Anonymous, whose judgement we should all respect because.... well, because you judged it prudent to remain anonymous...

I wasn't the one who said, "Hugh Hefner is my muse" or "I see historical connections between Hugh Hefner and John Paul II."

So, I suppose Chris West must have libeled himself. I hope both of him have a good lawyer.

And do you really mean to say that Archbishop Chaput and/or Cardinal Rigali are not capable of falling into the error of following the latest fad in order to appeal to the nation's youth? Are they impeccable in that area?

Pray, how do you know these things?
Your new learning amazes me. Could you explain again how you know the earth is banana-shaped?

Or maybe you could just give us your name and your connection with Chris West, if any?

Brendan said...

What is wrong with saying a bishop is motivated by a desire to appeal to youth? The endorsement of these disgraced (or disgraceful) movements and figures is not disputed. This motive is as positive as one can be, considering, and it is certainly the most probable. What is the alternative?

Steve Kellmeyer said...

You know, Brendan, I'm beginning to notice a pattern.

Every time I ask an anonymous or oddly named Westian to identify themselves and their connection to Chris West, they disappear into the ether.

Why do you think that is?
It's the oddest coincidence.

It's almost like invoking the name of Christ over demons, only different somehow. I can't quite put my finger on it... Hmmm....

Brendan said...

Probably not the answer you hoped for, but I see it more as a general Internet phenomenon than something peculiar to West defenders. People feel free to lob personal attacks when they feel safe behind a computer screen. In my work (at an Internet site) I find people often say things to me in email I cannot imagine they would ever utter to my face.

When you ask your detractors to identify themselves, it stifles that appeal. So they evaporate from the discussion.

Where I do see a pattern with the anonymous West defenders is that they have been especially nasty and personal toward you, apparently out of their perception that your analysis is rooted in vindictiveness. It stands to reason a person so disposed would probably also be disposed to do it anonymously.

A person disinclined to hide will be mindful of his words. He also might not be so rash in his judgments of others.

I dare say, such a person would be far less likely to respond so vehemently, because he would consider more carefully the content of what you are saying first.

So no, I'm not inclined to suspect the anonymous posters are really associates of West. However, it is a valid question, and it is very curious that they will not go so far as to deny it.

Mystic Rose said...


One little correction: the Lifeteen movement did not become non-denominational. It remains Catholic and has repudiated its founder, see:

Letter Regarding the Laicization of Dale Fushek

You must be thinking of that non-denominational "Praise and Worship Center" that Fushek established. That's totally separate from Lifeteen, which remains a Catholic movement under a new leader, Randy Raus.