Forty Years of Experience: The Danger of Personality Cults
Unlike the veneration of saints, whose lives we can read and whose overwhelming trait is humility, personality cults are based on utter pride. The saints are dedicated to purifying their selves from sin, but personality culters base themselves on oppressing others with their sinful and quite unpurified selves. Whereas the saints are transparent, the Spirit of Christ appearing in epiphanies to others through them, personality culters do not wish Christ to be worshipped, but want exclusive worship for themselves, claiming to be themselves heads of their particular ‘church’. Whereas the saints are great in Christ, wanting nothing for themselves; personality culters are ‘great’ for themselves, wanting everything for themselves. Whereas the saints are freely accepted by the whole Church, following in the Tradition, personality culters are cut off, do not frequent others, do not refer to others and operate in what are in fact sects, spiritually, intellectually or emotionally kidnapping their naive victims.
In clearly decadent periods of Church life, like that which we have just lived through in the second half of the last century and whose consequences are sadly still with us, Church life has suffered from personality cults. The personality cult is indeed a particular disease of modern times. From the 1960s especially, individualism and consumerism took over in the Western world and part of this individualist consumerism was the cult of self. Thus we saw the growth of sects, cults and gurus. We can see this egoistic indiviualism nowadays in the ‘Me’ society, with its ‘looking after No 1’, ‘me first’, ‘me-time’, ‘My space’, Facebook, iphone, ipod, ipad, the ‘because you are worth it’ mentality - all signs of anti-Christian humanist egoism.
With this socially egoistic ethos, pathological narcissism, the ‘spoiled child syndrome’, is on the increase. We have often come across it in the secular world, among line managers, senior management and others. Sadly, such narcissism also exists in the Church and not only among laypeople (where it has little effect and its victims are usually ridiculed on account of their self-important pretentiousness). In fact we have, since 1972, come across several such cases in Europe. I am also familiar with cases in USA. All cases come from various different jurisdictions; no jurisdiction is protected from such abuses. What are the characteristics of the personality cult?
Charm and Charisma
Although the personalities concerned have clearly been deeply flawed, even pathological, the first impression they have given to outsiders has always been of utter charm. These personalities are often very intelligent, sometimes academic - and vanity is a great, though resistible temptation for academics. When not intelligent, they are very cunning and in any case they may be very gifted, even, in the worldly sense ‘charismatic’. This is the realm of the false elder. The dark side of such charlatanism is contained in the answer to the question why they are so charming. In reality, their charm come from sheer self-interestedness. The charm is false, it exists purely because the culters want to create dependency and do not want any spirit of freedom on the part of their adepts. Whereas saints and authentic elders always offer freedom, personality culters control, they are control freaks. Theirs is an oppressive, totalitarian and exclusive regime.
Narcissism and Exclusivity
Such personalities are always profoundly narcissistic, living in bubbles of egoism. The ramifications of such narcissism are much more complex than mere selfishness or self-centredness. Like spoilt and therefore immature children, personality culters demand huge amounts of exclusive attention and complete agreement on the part of others. These narcissists are on ‘ego trips’. (An expression invented, I believe, in the 1960s). All others around them are seen as extensions of themselves – there to carry out their will to the letter. Any potential rivals are automatically discouraged and exiled, their reputation first having been blackened. Therefore, personality culters surround themselves with weak individuals. The Providential aspect of this is that once they die, their cult dies out, because there are only weak people to carry it all on. By definition the cult cannot be passed on, precisely because it is a personality cult. However, after the deaths of their personalities, their naive adepts will try and get their idols canonised. This leads to ridiculous situations.
Never Being Wrong and Self-Justification
Personality culters are always right, never wrong. It is always the fault of others. Indeed, all others are seen as threats to their own imagined, illusory self-importance and pretentiousness. Therefore others must be blamed and, if possible, punished for anything that goes wrong. Personality culters never apologise, but always self-justify. Here they use the ‘Job complex’ (also known as the ‘St Nectarius’ complex). This is when they make themselves out to be victims of slander etc, whereas in fact they victimise all the others around themselves and are experts in slandering others and distorting their words. The personality culter will brook no contradictions, rivals or opposition. Any opposition makes them feel insecure – and personality culters are always deeply insecure inside themselves.
Blamers and Manipulators
As a result of ‘never being wrong’, personality culters are always blamers and always make others feel guilty, even terrible about themselves, in order to manipulate them. Guilt is an essential weapon in their armoury. As part of their manipulative mode of operation, they use division and isolation, boycotting those who resist them or, sin of sins!, contradict them. Contradiction brings out in them the urge to crush others. In this context, it is common for them to enter into rages, which are usually deeply irrational. They also lie. In fact they lie so much that they themselves believe in their own lies and often become unable to distinguish between truth and untruth, reality and (their own personal) fantasy. Forgiveness is not a word that they know with regard to others, though if ever they are themselves found out, they will plea for it for themselves. They consider themselves to be indispensable and hate it when you tell them that the cemeteries are full of ‘indispensable’ people.
Hypersensitivity and Insensitivity
The result of being blamers is that culters are always cruel, even sadistic. Although personality culters are hypersensitive about their own persons, indeed extraordinarily vain, they are grossly insensitive, insulting and cruel towards others. In particular, they will try and take petty revenge on those who do not obey them or who contradict them. A favourite technique is slander. Culters are basically bullies, demanding idolisation, whose other typical techniques include intimidation and humiliation. They never encourage others and are always negative about the efforts of others, especially because the efforts of others may well be far superior to those of the personality culters themselves. (A real Christian would do the opposite, seeking out and encouraging the good, the positive and the redeemable everywhere, instead of belittling). Since culters are hypersensitive, they bathe in flattery, love receiving awards and having their photographs taken and displayed. They will take credit for anything and everything, especially for what others have done and they have not done. Hypersensitive, they are impervious to logic, for logic would destroy their illogical cult of self.
There are two solutions. The first is to behave tactically, avoiding the culter as far as possible, and wait it out. We should remember that people can change through the grace of God and suffering. The personality cult is basically the cult of the immature. However, through suffering, and only through suffering, people do mature. Remember: man proposes, but God disposes. More drastically, we should recall that it is God’s Church, not ours. We should also remember that people are taken away from it – through death. Personality culters are mortal. Of the cases I have come across within the Church, some are dead, others defrocked, some still active. We should always have the realism (also called humility) to remember that the Church does not need any of us. But we all need the Church.
The second solution is to move away, in the case of employers, changing jobs, in the case of bishops, changing dioceses. This may well involve moving house or even countries.