Recently, a friend emailed me her concerns surrounding a traditional Catholic priest our age who insists he must be the director of various women we know.  We agreed he manifests at least half of the following 15 signs of toxic-religion as seen in PsycheCentral:

  1. It begins with dichotomous thinking, dividing people into two parts. Those who agree with the narcissists beliefs and those who don’t. Interestingly, only the narcissist is the judge and jury of who belongs on which side. Your opinion is insignificant.
  2. Then the narcissist makes fun of, belittles, and shows prejudice towards other beliefs. This tactic is done to remind you that if you change your views, you will be treated likewise.
  3. Suddenly the narcissist becomes elitist and refuses to associate with people or groups they consider impure or unholy. They prefer isolation and insist you do the same while condemning others who don’t.
  4. Next, the narcissist requires that you completely adopt their point of view. There is no room for differing opinions or questioning their authority. Any voicing of opinions to the contrary are met with threats of abandonment or divorce. There is no free will for you.
  5. Demands of total submission without question follow. You are not free to question their authority and any attempt to do so is met with spiritual, physical, and/or verbal discipline. Name calling, chastising, and the silent treatment are common maneuvers into compliance.
  6. The narcissist is no longer satisfied with private dominion but instead needs the appearance of power in public. They expect strict adherence to whatever image they have created regardless of the accuracy of that image. Even the slightest hint of challenging their facade is met with quick and cruel reprimands.
  7. To further intimidate, the narcissist labels people who don’t comply with their beliefs as disobedient, rebellious, lacking faith, demons, or enemies of the faith. This is done in front of others to reinforce their opinions and instill fear inside and outside the family.
  8. There is huge emphasis on public performance. They demand perfection and happiness at all times. Religious activities such as attending church have extreme demands, excessive expectations, and rigidity. No allowances are given even for grieving over the loss of a friend or relative.
  9. Strict adherence to their rules and regulations are commanded with absolute statements about insignificant issues such as hair color or style. Non-compliance is met with severe discipline and even excommunication.
  10. To further segregate, the narcissist uses secrecy or withholds information to a few select worthy individuals. Sometimes they require proof of advanced spirituality or some deeper level of commitment before they will share.
  11. Questioning the narcissist is worse than questioning the religion. Blind obedience to the narcissist is expected as their opinion is more important than the religion. In essence, they have replaced your religion with themselves and you are expected to worship them.
  12. The narcissist frequently uses their religious position of authority to connive for their own personal benefit which is often financial. They will justify this behavior by saying they deserve it because they are better than others. You, however, will not be included because even your best is not good enough.
  13. For the narcissist, the end justifies the means. They may engage in criminal misconduct or cover up the transgressions of others in the name of their religion. This includes covering up sexual abuse, physical abuse, financial felonies, and misdemeanors. They believe they are above the law and therefore can subvert it.
  14. To complete the isolation, estrangement from extended family members and friends outside of the religion is mandatory. This includes shunning, alienation, or persecution. You are completely alone now with only them as the voice in your life.
  15. At the end of this, you find your own beliefs have lost their vitality and your religious growth is stagnant due to the constant abuse by the narcissist. It is not unusual for you to question you faith and even abandon it due to the sadistic behavior.

By odd coincidence, an older male friend on the same day also emailed me 14 other points on Toxic Religion.  The following are his own personal notes from a 1940 article from Fr. Ronald Knox titled Enthusiasm.  My friend says these issues happened in charismatic Catholic movements in the 1970s, but I also see it applies to certain traditional movements today.  (I don’t give formal spiritual direction anymore, but I find that even I myself am tempted to #11-13.)  His bullet points from Knox’ work are as follows:

1. Excessive piety is manifest, not necessarily a problem in itself, but capable of leading to pride, a sense of elitism, and therefore friction with others.
2. Unchecked, this elitism can lead to schism, if not in fact, at least in tendency, a desire to separate from those regarded as worldly.
3. Authority rejected can then be seen as being derived from some charismatic leader or from the movement as a whole, not on some established authority.
4. Related to this, there is an ultra-supernaturalism. The ordinary means of approaching God become unnecessary — God’s direct and perhaps miraculous intervention in the lives of God’s favored ones. Grace is expected to do almost too much.
5. Global pessimism is present. The worst things appear in the outside, the more the movement is seen to be necessary.
6. Because grace is expected to do too much, and since God is expected to achieve everything through the movement, there is a tendency to anti-intellectualism, a forgetfulness, even a contempt of centuries of careful thought and experience. Now grace is doing for us what is did not do for our predecessors.
7. How is this reign of the saints established? Through coercion, if possible. A tendency toward theocracy. (Think Calvin in Geneva.)
8. Millennarianism, related to #5: we are a special group living in special times, chosen perhaps for the time of the Second Coming.
9. A false mysticism is present, with all of the trappings of private revelation; you are left out if you are not experiencing something of the supernatural.
10. Antinomianism: We do not need the law, the established rules – this being the result of spiritual pride.
11. A desire for martyrdom can occur; at the least, we are happy to suffer for the movement.
12. The true church is invisible, with membership known to God alone, this being a fruit of #3 above.
13. There is a great desire for results, something immediate, tangible. The prophecies must come true, the many secrets must be revealed. If not forthcoming soon, there is the danger of loss of faith.
14. Experimentation and experience of the supernatural are sought (an enlargement of #6 and #9 above.) No dark night of the soul here – we are awash in mystical experiences.

My other friend wanted me to add something to this article.  Her advice on how to depart from a manipulative priest (even when the abuse is only psychological, not necessarily physical) is as follows:  “I would prayerfully consider giving advice on what to do if this applies to a reader:  Cut off the relationship immediately. Tell a trusted friend or a counselor who is trained in abusive relationship and can recognize these patterns.  Remember a creepy cult leader—even if he is a priest—is still a cult leader… and none, None, NONE of this is authentic Traditional Catholicism.”

Last thing:  To men and women alike, I keep saying the same thing over and over: You do not need a spiritual director—only a confessor.  (And Padre Pio suggested every Catholic—priest and lay—go to confession every week.  If you can’t do that, just confess every month.)