Communities Falter under Heavy Hands: Hickey Condemns Leadership Methods of Charismatic Group

By Jones, Arthur | National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 1997 | Go to article overview

Communities Falter under Heavy Hands: Hickey Condemns Leadership Methods of Charismatic Group


Jones, Arthur, National Catholic Reporter


Hickey condemns leadership methods of charismatic group

GAITHERSBURG, Md.-- The cardinals warm greeting and conciliatory tones quickly gave way to a stern warning as he delivered a nine-page address to a segment of his flock.

The Mother of God charismatic covenant community may have been "a gift from the Lord," as Cardinal James Hickey of Washington said in at the start of his talk, but it was a gift that was being badly misused.

"This community," Hickey said in the Sept. 25, 1995, meeting with members of the group, "suffers from a lack of charity, from the failure to reach out in reconciliation, from anger, suspicion, slander, fear." In the same address, he warned that "no private individual can say he or she presents the absolute will of God for another person in life's personal decisions. No lay person has a right to demand religious obedience from a fellow adult lay Catholic."

Hickey could have been speaking for more than a few other bishops who have confronted the excesses of some charismatic communities in their own dioceses during the past two decades.

It may be unusual for a cardinal to get so closely involved with a parochial dispute, but charismatic covenant communities historically have presented anything but the normal run of local church problems. In "covenant" communities, members make a specific commitment to the group, to its rules and to obedience to leadership. When such groups attract the attention of the local bishop, it usually after community leadership has become so authoritarian and controlling that members begin to rebel. The Mother of God community was only the latest in a string of such stories.

By the time Hickey became involved, as his tone and language indicate, the community had begun spinning out of control. The story of the community's breakup came to NCR's attention in 1995. Details emerged during months of interviewing and reviewing documents and videotapes that recorded some of the community's history. The details show that what had begun with the innocence of a simple prayer and Bible study group had grown into an organization with leadership that controlled courtship, marriage and other family arrangements, as well as careers and finances.

The story of the Mother of God community demonstrates how well-intentioned religious fervor can be co-opted and manipulated and how apparently noble motives can lead to damaging practices in the name of faith.

Fr. Michael Duggan, a Canadian priest and theologian involved in the community for more than a decade but now back in Canada, wrote in the spring of 1995. "I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that only in the last nine months did I comprehend the total picture, which I shall describe." He wrote of the community's "pre-scientific, quasi-dualistic world-view" that "removes God from the present world order." Duggan, in a 4,000-word paper that critiqued the community's teaching and pastoral practice, warned of the "strong hierarchical structure in which practically all power has been concentrated in two coordinators," referring to community cofounder Edith Difato and her son Joseph.

"The matter became extremely serious when people would make life-determining decisions based on the advice of these coordinators," wrote Duggan, who said the community teaching "was accorded an aspect of infallibility that one rarely identifies even with statements of the pope."

During an early 1996 community retreat, after the Difatos had departed, the interim governing committee chair, Robert J. Roche, gave an example of "how we felt compelled to conform to norms of submission that are not normal."

In a printed report of that meeting, Roche is quoted as saying that when he became engaged he tried to stop his fiancee from telling anyone about it at the Sunday night prayer meeting until he had told his head or superior.

"I was a 61-year-old man," said Roche, "all worried. …

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