The Following Three Articles Originally Appeared in Christian Renewal Magazine
EXAMINING THE CURSILLO MOVEMENT.
Over twenty years ago Christian Renewal published a review of Cursillo (pronounced cur-SEE-yoh), a Roman Catholic, revivalistic technique which originated in Spain in the 1940s. At the time it was being embraced by a few Reformed (largely RCA and a few CRC) churches in North America. In the two decades that followed, this questionable movement has grown both in popularity and controversy. The centerpiece of this method is an emotionally-exhausting, cloistered weekend culminating in an induction into the “Cursillo community.” I became interested when some of our church members in Northwest Iowa attended, were forbidden to reveal what took place, and then proceeded to tell me anyhow. This resulted in several years of research and a book: Cursillo: Little Courses in Catharsis. In this and the next few issues, I will offer an updated review of Cursillo which has become an international movement with branches in every major Christian denomination. A Canadian Cursillo website, cursillos.ca, notes that the Cursillo movement has spread to more than 60 countries. It offers links to 1,550 Cursillo-related websites and to 81 separate Catholic and Protestant movements based on the Cursillo. In these articles, I will examine Cursillo in terms of theology, methodology, and results.
Some previous critiques of the Cursillo method have focused on the theology of the movement. While biblical truth is always of utmost concern, the fact is that theology is the least important component of the Cursillo method. This is evidenced by two facts. First, leading proponents of the movement will admit that participants most likely will not hear anything they had not heard before or learn anything new, so the content cannot be the determining factor. The other reason is because the Cursillo method is so readily transferable between different doctrinal perspectives, i.e. Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, or Presbyterian (even decidedly non-Christian groups use similar methods and regularly achieve the same results). Rather, the main concern for the Cursillo is that the theological or philosophical content taught during the weekend must be dramatic and emotional, dealing with deep themes of guilt, shame, rejection, disappointment, and so forth in order to achieve the disturbing effects.
It is more helpful to examine the unstated theological assumptions behind the movement which make it possible, even seemingly desirable. The Cursillo is clearly a form of revivalism based on a semi-Pelagian perspective of sin and the need for grace. From the Cursillo viewpoint, people are not dead sinners incapable of responding to God without the prior working of the Holy Spirit through the ordinary means of grace such as preaching and prayer. Rather, men and women are capable of being persuaded one way or the other, for grace or against it; and Christ’s servants must use the most persuasive means at their disposal. No one would deny that the Cursillo method is powerfully “persuasive.”
Two quotations demonstrate this semi-Pelagian perspective, one from the Roman Catholic founder of Cursillo, Eduardo Bonnin, and the other from an early, Reformed (RCA) leader, Rev. Roderick Jackson.
Eduardo Bonnin, a Spanish psychologist, notes that the Cursillo method was devised so that initiates could “live in truth and by the truth in surroundings that are most conducive to deep penetration of the soul by this truth.” This was necessary because “everyone knows that words penetrate effectively only when the doors of our souls are open to them and these doors are opened only under favorable circumstances.” (The How and the Why [Dallas: National Ultreya Publications, 1981], p. 34) If by “favorable circumstances” Dr. Bonnin simply meant a quiet place to reflect, this would be innocuous enough. But these “circumstances” are in fact an overwhelming series of powerful, psycho-social techniques which attempt to “open the doors of our souls” by coercion.
Pastor Roderick Jackson wrote a 43-page Handbook for Leaders in the Cursillo Movement for the Reformed Church in America (available from the library of Sioux Falls Seminary). In his Handbook he sees no doctrinal conflicts between the Roman Catholic Cursillo and the reformed tradition.
The writer believes, after eleven years of working in the Cursillo movement, studying the literature it has produced, and studying the scriptures and theological documents of the Reformed Church, that there is nothing basically incompatible between the RCA and the Cursillo method. (p. 9)
What’s surprising is that Jackson inadvertently exposes his affirmation of Roman Catholic theology as opposed to the reformed theology he professes. He declares that in the spiritually- declining, final decades of the 20th century, “The church must awaken a hunger for God, rather than presume there is a hunger which doesn’t exist.” (p. 6)
Of course the Bible declares that unbelievers are not simply asleep and in need of awakening, but dead in their sins (Ephesians 2:1-3). They are not merely disinterested in God, but actively hostile toward him (Romans 8:7) and do not seek after him (Romans 3:11). Reformed churches have never presumed that people were naturally hungry for God and have never believed that the church could “awaken a hunger for God.” But this tenet is foundational for the Cursillo movement, and the Cursillo method stands ready to accomplish what God declares the church cannot do.
Everything that is humanly possible, from the best insights of psychology, pedagogy and group dynamics to the clearest understanding of Scripture is put together in an orderly sequence to achieve the aims of the Cursillo. (Jackson, p. 10)
The Cursillo movement rests on a faulty foundation: unbiblical assumptions which Reformed churches have consistently and unanimously condemned, and reformed Christians would be wise to repudiate it and flee from it.
But there are more problems with the Cursillo method. Next time we will look at the powerful psycho-social techniques employed during the Cursillo initiation weekend. For more information or to order the book, Cursillo: Little Courses in Catharsis, visit the website questioningcursillo.com or email me at email@example.com.
THE TECHNIQUES OF CURSILLO
Nobody seriously questions the dramatic effect of the Cursillo weekend. There is too much testimonial evidence to dispute it. Many participants will use phrases like “life-changing,” “best experience of my life,” “mountaintop,” or “miracles.” The real question is what produces these glowing reports. According to Cursillo leaders it is not the content or doctrinal teaching offered during the weekend. Roman Catholic Cursillo expert Al Blatnik explains to new Cursillo converts: “The presentation of Christianity in the talks by the priests and the laymen contained nothing that you did not already know about your faith. It is the unique manner in which it is presented that is so effective.” (Your Fourth Day, p. 26) If no new information is imparted during the weekend, then the results must be due to the techniques. To say the weekend is “orchestrated” for maximum emotional impact is an understatement according to Blatnik: “The weekend is the result of long years of work, experience and prayer. The psychology involved, the schedule, order of talks and events, and the content are carefully planned. Nothing is left to chance.” (Your Fourth Day, p. 25)
These techniques are often referred to as “surprises.” While this may sound quite innocent, the “surprises” are actually a relentless series of powerful, psycho-social techniques which are commonly employed in forms of secular psychotherapy and often used by unscrupulous, cultic groups. I will describe some of these techniques.
A sense of anticipation is created in the candidates as an aura of mystery surrounds the approaching weekend due to the enforced secrecy. During the weekend itself candidates are exposed to emotional washing as they are run through a series of sudden and dramatic emotional shifts (the “surprises”). The technique of love bombing is used as candidates are continually applauded, flattered, and pampered. Strong peer pressure is exerted on them as the group direction, dominated by the numerous leaders present, is carefully steered toward the climax. And there is a reversion to childhood: candidates sit in table groups and draw posters with markers or crayons just like they did in elementary school, as a continual, silly, playful mood is fostered during the weekend.
We should mention also the unavoidable sleep deprivation, the withdrawal of familiar comforts and supports (no cell phones, only strangers in your table group, etc.), the loss of time consciousness (windows are covered, watches are confiscated, and no schedule is published), sensory over-stimulation (hugging, back rubs, close physical contact with strangers), and sometimes even dietary modifications resulting in a sugar high.
The purpose of these techniques is
to keep the candidate disoriented and to break down their resistance and
defense mechanisms. And the goal of this
disorientation and wearing down is to precipitate a cathartic experience. A catharsis is a sudden discharge of pent-up
For many, the weekend begins with a sense of dreading the unknown. This is enhanced by the strange format and many surprises, by darkness and silence, and by moving and dramatic lectures and testimonies. Eventually such emotion seeks release, and when the dam breaks and the feelings flow, usually through weeping, the resultant discharge often creates a strong sense of relief and euphoria, a “breakthrough.” This is quickly redirected into exuberant joy, and the candidate is assured that they have had a powerful, religious experience. Most often this translates into a new commitment to the Cursillo agenda, a close bonding with similarly-affected, fellow candidates, and a loyalty to and affection for the leaders.
The use of such methods on unsuspecting Christians or non-Christians is itself inexcusable and unconscionable. But the plain fact is that all of these techniques are commonly known and used by cultic, religious groups and in secular, non-Christian psychotherapy groups. There is nothing particularly Christian about them. In fact, there is clearly something sub-Christian about them. The Apostle Paul decried the use of such tricks, and we should take his counsel to heart:
“For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” (1 Thessalonians 2:3-4 ESV)
“But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:2 ESV)
Next time I will examine the lasting legacy of the Cursillo method on the participant and on the local church. For more information or to order the book, Cursillo: Little Courses in Catharsis, visit questioningcursillo.com or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE EFFECTS OF CURSILLO
In two previous articles I have explored the historical origins and the semi-Pelagian theological perspective underpinning the Cursillo movement as well as the unscrupulous psycho-social techniques which are used to create the dramatic effect. In this final installment, I will discuss the long-term effects of the Cursillo weekend and movement and suggest appropriate responses by those who are concerned.
What are the lasting effects of the Cursillo weekend? It largely depends on the individual who attends. For many it may seem like a pleasant retreat weekend composed of surprising experiences and meeting new friends. For others, though, the weekend may captivate them. In my experience it is the more emotionally needy participants who tend to have the most dramatic initial response. This emotional catharsis is overwhelming, and its inevitable fading is viewed as a great loss. For some, the Cursillo weekends become their life.
The first long-term effect is that the experience tends to wear off. Some will quickly dismiss it, but for others, this begins the quest for more and more emotional, weekend experiences: usually a new pattern of attending frequent Cursillo weekends as a part of the team. But this quest falls prey to the law of diminishing returns. Subsequent experiences are not nearly so powerful, and eventually they have little or no emotional impact.
The weekend also tends to “spoil” the candidate. Such a powerful experience is unlike anything else in life, and so normal life tends to lose its luster and seems flat and dissatisfying. When this perspective is brought to the local church, the church is found wanting. Church services cannot match the emotional high achieved during the weekend, and so the result is often a growing disaffection with and drifting away from the local church—a transfer of loyalty to the Cursillo community.
The weekend can also create a sense of spiritual superiority. “If my local church never provided this deep, religious experience, and if my elders, pastor, or fellow church members have not been enriched as I have, then I must have advanced beyond them.” This sense of superiority is exacerbated by the fact that candidates are sworn to secrecy. They have become a part of the in-group, possessing special knowledge and experiences beyond those of the uninitiated. And the inevitable result is a cliquishness, an affinity toward fellow Cursillo participants which transcends church membership and even family ties.
During the weekend Candidates are led into an emotional regression in which they are released from adult responsibilities for seventy-two hours and encouraged to behave like children. Participants may retain their new-found childish perspective and avoid serious responsibilities, calling this a “child-like faith.” But children are ill-equipped to cope with adult demands, and they resist the sobering, Christian maturity to which Jesus calls us. This, combined with the emotional-rollercoaster and the steadily-ebbing decline of the ability to regain or retain the emotional high, often leads to emptiness and depression.
Cursillo participants are largely wasting their time and their lives, chasing after an elusive emotional experience, when we are called to take up our cross and follow Christ into the serious service of discipleship. I know of one pastor who is nearing retirement age. As a young pastor he was attracted to the Cursillo movement, and it became his life and ministry. Instead of a lifetime in the approved labor of preaching the Gospel and caring for souls, he has now wasted his precious years on a phantom work that bears little lasting fruit for the kingdom. This is a tragedy of incalculable proportions.
How can you, the reader, respond?
First, become informed. Look up the website below or secure a copy of my book. The enforced secrecy and the glowing Cursillo testimonies have long masked the troubling aspects of this movement.
Talk to your pastor and other church leaders. Direct them to the website or give them copies of these articles. Help them wrestle with these issues as well.
If you know those who are involved in the movement, approach them with care. In many cases, Cursillo has become their de facto religion. They may have assumed that they have at last arrived at the true, spiritual experience and may have difficulty listening to someone whom they consider to be a spiritual inferior. Such a deep, emotional experience is not easily repudiated, so approach them gently. And be confident that there is hope in God’s providence and power.
I know this because I was engaged for several years in something quite similar to the Cursillo movement, involving emotional, religious weekends. I served on the leadership team, and eventually hosted some of these events myself. And then late one night, three high-school students challenged me on my methods. They felt as though they had been tricked, manipulated into an emotional response. Their probing question led to my serious re-evaluation, repentance, and recommitment to the biblical ministry of the ordinary means of grace. So there is always hope, and I am but one more example of the liberating power of God’s truth.
For more information or to order the book, Cursillo: Little Courses in Catharsis, visit questioningcursillo.com or email me at email@example.com.