“The word cult has three definitions. First of all, it can simply be a group that loves something. When people refer to an “Elvis cult” or “The O.C. cult,” they mean really devoted fans.
The second definition is that of a religion whose beliefs differ from the majority around them. In the Roman Empire, Christians were sometimes considered a cult because they worshiped Jesus rather than the Roman gods.
The third, and most commonly used definition, refers to a religious group that is:
1) Exclusive. They may say, “We’re the only ones with the truth; everyone else is wrong; and if you leave our group your salvation is in danger.”
2) Secretive. Certain teachings are not available to outsiders or they’re presented only to certain members, sometimes after taking vows of confidentiality.
3) Authoritarian. A human leader expects total loyalty and unquestioned obedience.”
— From Christianity Today website
So, are Catholics members of a cult?
According to definition number one we are. We are “really devoted fans” of Jesus Christ and the Church He founded.
According to the second definition, we might be, depending on the time and the place. The Catholic Church is the Church Jesus established. Hence, the early Christians considered by the Roman Empire to be a cult were Catholics. America was discovered by a Catholic, but the U.S. was colonized predominantly by Protestants. In the 1800s, when large groups of Catholics came to the U.S., they were not welcomed. They were not wanted. They were considered “papists,” or “Romanists,” something other than Christian, even though “Christianity” and “Catholicism” had been synonymous for 1500 years before Protestantism even appeared. To the early American Protestants (and some modern day Protestants), Catholics were considered cult members. Ironically, Protestants could also be considered cult members according to their respective founders such as the cult of Martin Luther, John Wesley, John Calvin, King Henry VIII, etc.
The third definition does not describe Catholicism. We are “exclusive” in the sense that we believe Jesus meant it when He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” We also believe Jesus established one Church, gave His authority to that Church, and, as King, made Peter His first Prime Minister. Catholics believe that all Christians are part of the Church, although many, either willingly, or, through no fault of their own, have been cut off from many of the graces available through the Church. They have been deprived of these graces due to the Protestant movement and/or heretical teachings. Those who obstinately resist those graces do indeed place their salvation in jeopardy. But this is as much as saying that those who obstinately reject Christ place their salvation in jeopardy. The Church and Jesus Christ go together. They cannot be compartmentalized. This is why, when Jesus confronted Saul (Paul) of Tarsus on the road to Damascus He asked him, “Why do you persecute me,” not “Why do you persecute my Church?”
The beliefs of Catholicism are not secretive or confidential. Anyone can read the Catholic Catechism either in book form or on the internet. There are no “confidentiality” requirements to becoming Catholic. In fact, we are supposed to tell people about the Faith so they know where to find the Church that Jesus established.
The Catholic Church is not “authoritarian” it is “authoritative.” The authority she possesses was not claimed by her or taken by her but given directly to her by Christ. Jesus said, “All authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to me.” He told his apostles, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He also gave Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (like an Old Testament king appointing his Prime Minister).
The Catholic Church expects obedience because Jesus Christ expects obedience. Christ is the Head and the Church is His body. Where the head goes the body goes as one unit, not as many parts in various directions. The obedience is not “unquestioned obedience.” Catholics must have doubts and questions in order to learn. “Seek and you shall find” includes asking questions and growing in understanding of the Faith. The obedience of the Catholic is what Paul described as “the obedience of the Faith.” It is obedience out of love. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Catholics are not dumb animals without brains. As Pope John Paul II said, “Faith and reason are the two wings on which the soul takes flight.” Catholics are supposed to think with their brains and love with their hearts, not just have a “blind obedience.”
People who accuse Catholics of being in a “cult” usually use the term in a pejorative way to attack the Church with misconceptions. These people do not want Christ’s Church to have authority. They want to cling to their own authority. They suppose that, since Catholics have a pope, we must be following a man instead of Christ. In reality, we are all following Christ in a grand, 2000 year old parade. The pope is simply the man Christ placed first in line behind Him. Consider Paul’s words in Philippians 3:17 to “be followers of me.” As an apostle, Paul was a leader the Christians were supposed to follow. By doing so, they were following Christ. Catholics do the same thing when we follow the bishops, the successors of the apostles. The pope is simply the head bishop.
If Catholics are members of a cult, it is simply the cult of Jesus Christ. There is nothing wrong with being a follower of Jesus. I’m not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m a really devoted fan of His!