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Independent Traditionalism and Sectarian Warning Signs

Independent traditionalism exhibits many, if not all, of the same problematic behavioral patterns as other religious splinter groups and sects that break away from a larger organization and operate independently. In my time functioning as an administrator of Trad Recovery, I have engaged with many people who have left these communities for various reasons. Some have only been involved with these groups for several years, and some have for decades, but regardless of how long they were involved, all experienced very similar things upon their exit; things that no group claiming to be traditionally Catholic should be doing. And traditionalists were certainly not the first religious group to break away and display these types of behavior. I have delved into extensive research to better understand this, reading the material of psychologists, social workers, and studies on “new religious movements” published by such experts as Michael Langone, Steven Hassan, Rick Alan Ross, Alexandra Stein, and others.


The alarming trends that have been reported at Trad Recovery fit a pattern. When groups break away from a larger organization, and the authority structure is upended, there are inevitable results, especially in religious groups where people are approaching these pastors, clerics, or other leaders for spiritual fulfillment. Individuals who appoint themselves as spiritual leaders over a group can easily fall into the trap of twisting this for their own personal gain, and what follows is a predictable pattern of human nature. One who claims ultimate authority demands ultimate obedience and develops an elitist mentality, shutting down any questions or doubts, and over time uses more forcible tactics of shaming and imposing guilt to maintain control. They warn their followers that anything outside their group is compromised and that they risk losing their soul if they were to leave.


These warning signs were unanimous across all sources I found, and they matched our experiences and what is reported by new members to an alarming degree. The similarities between so many personal stories confirm that these were not simply strict family dynamics or specific to one location; it was undeniably universal. With that knowledge, I feel compelled to share a number of these warning signs, in order to hopefully show what is under the surface.


Problematic religious groups have the following characteristics:


  1. Unquestioning commitment to the group, the leader, and the ideology is required. Individuality and independent thought are stifled.

  2. Absolute obedience is demanded, with consequences threatened for followers who disobey (i.e., they are bound under pain of sin).

  3. Questioning and critical inquiry is discouraged or even punished. Those who question the group’s ideology are labeled as dissenters, and members are told to avoid them.

  4. The group displays elitism or superiority, and claims to have a special mission for some greater purpose.

  5. There is no accountability to any authorities. The leadership only answers to themselves.

  6. The group and/or its leadership holds all the answers, and they are always right. Their “doctrine” becomes absolute truth, and no outside group can offer what they can.

  7. There is an “us-vs-them” mentality. Those who are not in the group are considered inferior or “the enemy.”

  8. The group claims that the ends justify the means, and behavior that would normally be reprehensible is legitimate for the cause.

  9. The group controls members through shame, guilt, and fear (including fear of leaving, which would bring disastrous consequences, i.e., losing your soul).

  10. Former adherents are shunned or cut off and considered to be under evil influences. Contact with them is discouraged, and they are either pitied or demonized.


In an article called Sifting the Wheat From the Tares, canon lawyer Peter Vere (who attended traditionalist chapels for a time and has written extensively about their canonical issues after he left) reviewed fifteen warning signs that Fr. Francis G. Morrisey, OMI, identified as “red flags” for newly established groups within the Catholic Church. Several of them are of particular interest here.


  1. No sense of belonging to the local church (i.e., the local parish and diocese)

  2. Lack of true cooperation with diocesan authorities

  3. Promotion of “fringe” elements in the life of the Church (i.e., special apparitions, private revelations, or extreme social or political agendas)

  4. Serious discontent with the previous institute of which certain members were part


Independent traditionalist groups exhibit every single one of these characteristics, as is confirmed by almost every new member of Trad Recovery (and which I and many I know have experienced personally). Many site members join anonymously, and explain that they are afraid of being rejected by their family if they were to be found here. Others are not on speaking terms with their families at all after leaving their old traditionalist group. They report that they were not allowed to raise any questions about the group, and that if they dared to question the traditionalist ideology, they were immediately ostracized. They were never allowed to speak critically of the leadership and its decisions. They confirm that there was a pervasive elitism in their old community, which presented itself as spiritually superior to the local church, and that the group claimed to be on a special mission to save the Church from ruin. They were subjected to constant reminders of sin, death, hell, God’s wrath, the demonic, and the evils of the world. Their priests warned them that leaving the community would endanger their soul, and only there could they find the most ideal way to live an authentically Catholic life. Those who did leave were seen as under the influence of the devil, the world, or Modernism, and were shunned. For them, the group was the Church, and to question it or leave it was tantamount to damning themselves.


Even if people have never experienced adverse effects like shunning, guilt and shame tactics, or ostracizing, one cannot deny the facts behind these groups’ establishments- that they broke away from a “larger group” when they thought they had a clearer understanding of the faith than the church did, that they do not accept any penalties, they isolate themselves and are in constant strife with “the outside world,” and so forth. The patterns are too clear to ignore, and indicate that these are not spiritually healthy environments.

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Thanks for the comment, Val.


I agree with you 100%, meeting Him Body, Soul, and Divinity in the Holy Eucharist, of course.

ATB,

Patrick.

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Interestingly, these characteristics are also shared by Fascist movements, which explains why Traditionalism is so often linked to authoritarian leaders, such as Philippe Petain, Adolf Hitler, Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin, and of course, Donald Trump.

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Well written and thought out. Thank you for sharing.

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Brother, you provide a good description of the motives of a lot of people in the TLM movement—including my own! But I don’t discount the experience of those here who have been inside of highly controlling traditionalist groups, and those who are looking for emotional support due to spiritual abuse of one kind or another. I don’t think the goal of this community is to conduct sociological research, but rather to help ordinary people who have suffered some degree of spiritual disorientation under the banner of “traditionalism.” That’s why I’m here. I didn’t need to be in a “cult” for the traditionalist movement to effect my faith negatively. And that’s why, though I do often attend the TLM, I fully…

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Love this. Yes. I was led back to the Catholic faith through a series of signal graces and encounters with Jesus over many years. I used to care little about the form of the mass and many other issues because when I came into the sanctuary I was attentive only to the presence of Jesus in his Sacraments. This was my experience and it has been a very bad bargain to trade this durable kind of faith for the “rules and mantillas” faith that eclipsed it as I became more mentally unhealthy and spiritually shallow. A bad bargain. But I miss what I had before — an interior focus, a willingness to be with Our Lord regardless of the externals…

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About the "Independent Traditionalism and Sectarian Warning Signs" article, I'd just like to respectfully say that in modern-day Religious Studies, the sociology and psychology of religion etc., the brainwashing/social control theory of Margaret Singer, Langone, Tobias and Lalich etc. is about 30-40 years out of date and has been generally discredited by academia (I'm aware of this because I did a PhD on Polish Mormon conversion process, finishing it in 2021).


Contemporary sociological study of NRMs (or any other religious groups) looks at many different factors of religious recruitment/conversion and practice, not just the social control aspect which is magnified and exaggerated by Singer, Langone, Tobias and Lalich etc., although, fair enough, it can be one out of many factors…


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Many, many thanks for the message, Clelia, your research project on SSPX schooling sounds fascinating as you'll be evaluating the heart of the operation. I've never been an SSPX core member, only a long-term peripheral member, so I've never been involved in SSPX education, although I did actually come close to it.


At one point, I was involved in getting non-woke English Language learning coursebooks for an SSPX school in a non-English speaking country (it was nothing big and only for a short time). At around the same point, I was invited to become the SSPX school's English teacher but I knew this would probably be transmission point from peripheral to core SSPX membership so I politely declined. A self-preservation…


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