Monday, March 30, 2009

Disturbing 'Discovery'

A young Catholic man, whom I believe I met once at a party, "friended" me on Facebook recently, and shortly thereafter invited me through that site to a "Discovery Seminar."

The three-day intensive event, which is sponsored by the Association for Christian Character Development, is described on its Facebook event page as "A three-day experiential learning environment that affords the opportunity for you to discover and realign the belief systems which govern your life, such that you experience a transformation in your ability to love others as Christ loves you, liberating your conscience to fulfill God's unique purposes for you with freedom, passion, and power."

Not only consciences will be liberated. According to the seminar's registration form, participants' wallets will be liberated of $325.

Most of my concerns are for Catholics who might attend the seminar under the impression that, because one of its "trainers" is of that faith, it will strengthen them in their Catholicism. However, I believe there are reasons why non-Catholics should be wary as well.

In a nutshell: I am old enough to remember Werner Erhardt, founder of the large group awareness training (LGAT) known as est,™ as my mother attended numerous Erhardt-influenced events when I was a child and brought me along. Erhardt's colleague John Hanley founded a New Age human-potential organization, Lifespring, that trained ACCD founder Dan Tocchini. That experience leads me to question whether LGAT techniques are a good or fruitful means of deepening people's walks with Christ.

I don't doubt that there are good people who have gotten involved with the ACCD, nor do I doubt the testimonies of those who say they have benefited from them. But, as former members of the Legion of Christi and Regnum Christi have told me, the wheat gets mixed in with the tares. An organization claiming to "subscribe to the tenets of orthodox Christianity" could not gain disciples if it were made up entirely of people of unquestionably bad character.

There are numerous pages on the Web containing criticisms of the ACCD—formerly known as Momentus and as Mashiyach Ministries, and of its programs, particularly its "Breakthrough" seminar. The most informative one includes a Q&A explaining why the group's methods cause concern. One of the prime issues is whether psychological techniques that include isolation, confrontation, and "Weep and Wail" tactics influenced by primal-scream therapy should be used in a Christian setting:

Why are you so disturbed about activities just because LGATs use some of them? They are just neutral forms which can be productively used by anyone, Christian or not.

Some are just neutral forms, and we see no problem with these. However, others are not neutral, but can cause psychological or physical harm. ... Some also embody a philosophy which lies at the core of LGATs but not of Christianity; or are physiologically manipulative, which makes participants unduly vulnerable.
I have a couple of other concerns. For one thing, there is the whole issue of whether laypeople with no Catholic theological training should be providing intensive spiritual guidance to Catholics temporarily isolated from the outside, without supervision from Catholic clergy or religious. This also hits home for me, as it is the reason why I am currently pursuing a master's degree in theology from a Catholic university. In the wake of my book's publication, when people started asking me theological questions, I wanted to be able to answer them from a point of view of knowledge.

Likewise, a sense of public accountability, and the concomitant need for checks and balances, should be a concern for everyone who gives spiritual guidance. When I speak publicly, I usually have the advantage of having a priest in the audience who can and will correct me if I say something wrong. The ACCD Web site gives no indication that it has any advisory board, and the Facebook page for the "Discovery Seminar" does not indicate that a priest will be present at the seminar. I don't like that. A three-day seminar, closed to the public, gives "trainers" who do not hold degrees in Catholic theology a lot of opportunities to say things that can be counter to the faith.

Finally, there is the issue that ACCD founder Dan Tocchini is an ex-Catholic who credits his experience as a trainer for Lifespring as reported by the Los Angeles Times in its 1994 article on Momentus, "Faith or Fad":
"In Catholic schools, I learned a lot about the Bible and Jesus Christ," he says. "But knowing truth is very different from being true. . . . In Lifespring, I saw that people were able to take on principles and use them like second nature in a short period of time. I wanted to learn how to (use the same teaching methods) to make biblical principles more (real) in people’s lives."
Another ACCD trainer, Jean Marie Jobs, was likewise raised Catholic but left the faith when she became "born again."

I realize that my Catholic friends who are interested in the Discovery Seminar or have benefited from it are seeking in good faith to deepen their walk with God. But I can't help wishing they would seek guidance from organizations led by faithful Catholics, not ones who have left the faith.

It does seem that some Catholics' desire for Protestant-founded spiritual direction reflects a failure of catechetical training on the part of the Church. As Steve Kellmeyer says, "If people don't have Aquinas, they will follow any ass who comes along."