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Red Flags of Spiritual Abuse
A friend of mine recently asked me what some of the signs of spiritually abusive behavior in Catholic spaces. If a loved one was looking at joining a new parish, lay group, discernment house, young adult group, religious community, etc., what sorts of red flags would I suggest they look out for?
Spiritual abuse is when spiritual or religious beliefs or authority are used to control others, usually by someone in a position of power.
So a key thing to examine if the leadership or community of this group respects an individual's conscience and freedom—even if the individual’s decisions may be harmful to the individual—or does the leadership/community engage in coercion/manipulation to control other people’s behavior? Keep in mind that subtle or well-intentioned coercion is still coercion.
Spiritual coercion or manipulation can be an invasion of a person's conscience that can undermine an individual’s capacity to hear God and make judgments because it can cause the victim to have trouble discerning the voice of God with the voice of the manipulator.
I wouldn't consider this list exhaustive, but here are five signs of manipulation or coercion from spiritual communities/leadership that are red flags of an unhealthy community:
Does the community/leadership present themselves as speaking on behalf of God? This can look like leadership directly saying, "In this situation, I'm speaking on behalf of Christ." Or it can look like, say in charismatic circles, telling someone, “I have a prophetic word for you” without giving them the freedom to accept or reject that word as coming from God.
Does the community/leadership ignore the difference between the internal and external forum, that is, the difference between subjective discernment and freedom/culpability and the objective moral law?
Does the community/leadership say that a particular objective action will damn someone to hell or is a mortal sin, not taking into consideration freedom/culpability?
Does the community/leadership present prudential judgments of conscience as if they were the objective moral law? For example, if someone knows that drinking late at night is an occasion of sin for them, making a personal judgment to not drink at night is prudent and good. But it would be spiritually manipulative to tell others that drinking late at night is objectively sinful.
Does the community/leadership say that the Church teaches things when there is not an actual written teaching on that matter?
Now these things are focused on the behavior of the community/leadership, but a group's theology can also be manipulative. Key theological beliefs I'd watch out for are anything that communicates that I have to earn God's love and acceptance or that I have to meet God halfway for Him to care for me. God always meets me exactly where I'm at, for “at every time and in every place, God draws close to man” (CCC 1).
I'd also watch out for any theology that allows the community/leadership's teaching or direction to trump an individual's conscience. Not even the Magisterium claims that kind of authority.
I wrote a long research article last year titled, The Place Where You Stand is Holy Ground: Recognizing and Preventing Spiritual Abuse in the Catholic Church. This resource offers more examples of healthy and unhealthy spiritual communities/leadership, as well as a more detailed explanation of spiritual abuse in the Catholic Church:
Finally, here are some Church teachings for reference:
"Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. "He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters." (CCC 1782)
“We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them." (Amoris Laetitia 37)
“Chastity is freedom from possessiveness in every sphere of one’s life. Only when love is chaste, is it truly love. A possessive love ultimately becomes dangerous: it imprisons, constricts and makes for misery. God himself loved humanity with a chaste love; he left us free even to go astray and set ourselves against him. The logic of love is always the logic of freedom." (Patris Corde)
"The catechist, on account of his service, holds a position relative to the people he accompanies in the faith and is perceived by them as a point of reference, who exercises a certain form of authority. It therefore becomes necessary that this role be lived out with the most absolute respect for the conscience and person of the other, avoiding every kind of abuse, whether of power, of conscience, financial, or sexual. Catechists, in their programs of formation and through an honest dialogue with their spiritual guides, should be helped to identify the correct ways of living out their authority solely as service of their brothers. Moreover, in order not to betray the trust of the persons assigned to them, they should be able to distinguish between the external forum and the internal forum and should learn to have great respect for the sacred freedom of the other, without violating or manipulating this in any way." (Directory for Catechesis 42)