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The lesson of Heaven's Gate.

By now the mass suicide of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult in California has been examined over and over again. Could there tee anything more to say about it?

The marks of the Heaven's Gate group were similar to other cult groups. They tended to recruit people who feel rudderless, unfulfilled and unhappy with the world and with the hand they've been dealt in it.

The cult offered a privileged path to "salvation" and the security in the meantime. of a tightly organized community life where there are no choices about the time of rising, meals, work, leisure activities or going to bed at night.

To maintain the coherence of such a group, it is necessary to have authoritarian leaders to whom absolute and unquestioning obedience is given. Individuality is totally suppressed.

Thus, all wear the same hair styles and the same shapeless clothes to insure the negation of human sexuality and gender differences. Ties to family and friends outside the community are strictly forbidden.

As some of us take our critical measure of the Heaven's (Sate group and of others like them, we should proceed with caution and not a little humility. After all, we had our own versions of Heaven's Gate in the pre-Vatican II church.

Women religious at one time were required to deny their feminine sexuality by shaving their heads and donning ample habits that covered and concealed the natural curvatures of the body. They renounced their baptismal name for new ones (just as the Heaven's Gate group took new names, some as silly as Bo and Peep), and many were given male names.

Every minute of the day was carefully regulated. Silence was enforced, even at meals, not just to encourage prayerful contemplation but to inhibit social interaction. Contact with the "outside world" was also meticulously controlled and friendships outside the community were discouraged. Although bonds with families were not totally severed, as with Heaven's Gate, home visitation was out of the question. Brief visits from family were allowed, but rarely.

Upon a parent's death, many religious women were forced to choose between attending the wake or the funeral -- but not both. And they were discouraged from grieving openly.

Male religious communities in the pre-Vatican II church were no less rigid or isolated, even if they enjoyed a greater measure of freedom than their women counterparts.

But the men -- diocesan and religious alike -- also concealed their sexuality under long, flowing habits and cassocks. Prolonged periods of silence similarly inhibited social interaction. Friendships outside the clerical circle were discouraged (friendships with women were simply unthinkable), and contact with one's family was limited -- more in the case male religious than of diocesan seminarians.

Unlike today, there was a severe stigma in leaving the group, and the fear of that stigma (a "spoiled priest" in the case of an Irish seminarian who quit before ordination, or a "shepherd in the mist" in the case of a man who left the priesthood itself) functioned as a strong deterrent.

This is not to say that members of religious orders before Vatican II are to be equated with cultists. Religious of that period were -- and still are -- people of deep faith and of profound, even heroic, ministerial commitment to the poor and the sick.

We are fortunate that much of this is ancient history for the mainline religious orders, male and female alike, and for diocesan seminaries. The habits and cassocks are, for the most part, gone, and so is the enforced isolation from the world outside, from family and friends, and from those of the opposite sex.

Some conservative Catholics complain about the changes: others are simply nostalgic for the "good, old days." But most Catholics recognize the changes for what they are: a leap forward from unhealthiness to healthiness (keeping m mind that the Latin word for salvation is salus, which means health).

But have we completely evacuated the Heaven's Gate syndrome from the inner life of the Catholic church? Unfortunately not.

Some of the new religious orders and movements, much favored by the Vatican, are throwbacks to the pre-Vatican II order, emphasizing the worst of it rather than the best.

Their leadership structure is just as authoritarian as the Heaven's Gate types Their denial of human sexuality (suggested in the restoration of the old-fashioned habits and cassocks) is just as pronounced. So is their rejection of the goodness of the human body (reflected in the practice of self-flagellation). And they, too, enforce isolation from family and friends, and apply enormous pressures against leaving the group.

They are traveling away from, rather than toward, the fullness of health promised in the gospel.
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Title Annotation:cult whose 39 members committed mass suicide
Author:McBrien, Richard P.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 25, 1997
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