Wednesday 7 September 2022
'OLD STUFF' Open Letter to Fabio Ciardi from Gordon Urquhart
"Those chosen to comment on those writings [the 'visions' of Chiara Lubich, known as the 'Paradise of '49] are low-level authors - as theologians, not as people! - who show themselves as unfamiliar with mystical texts. He [Ferruccio Pinotti] quotes Gordon Urquhart (old stuff)..."
Fabio Ciardi Talking about mysticism without competence
[review on La setta divina, Ferruccio Pinotti, Piemme, 2021], https://fabiociardi.blogspot.com/2022/05/parlare-di-mistica-senza-competenza.html?m=1
Dear Professor Fabio Ciardi
Usually, as an author, director and journalist, I follow the good old tradition of never responding to criticism - positive or negative. It is always better to take a dispassionate stance, also (but not only) because you never know the reasons behind that criticism. I assure you that I am well aware of that aspect in the criticism of my work.
Your review of La setta divina (your blog 19 May 2022), however, is different, because it is not so much me as a writer that you criticise, in an authentic manner, but, in my opinion, you are trying to cover up increasingly justifiable and demonstrable accusations against the Focolare movement and Chiara Lubich, when, with reference to my contribution to that book, (an interview and personal testimony about my nine years in the movement, five as a celibate focolarino) you pronounce, 'Gordon Urquhart (old stuff)'. To use a comment of such banality suggests that one does not want to - or perhaps cannot - defend oneself or the target of the discourse, namely the Focolare movement. There is not much difference between 'old stuff' and the ad hominem criticisms that the focolarini themselves have used to discredit my book The Pope's Armada (Bantam Press, 1995) - though they have never accused me of errors of truth. For example: 'You can't believe what he says because he is divorced (I was ordered to marry by the focolarini in the first place); he saw a psychiatrist (sent by the focolarini) and became homosexual (but God, in his wisdom, created me that way!).' 'Old stuff' and ad hominem criticisms are the arguments of those who have no arguments
I can only wonder what would you, as an academic, would say if one of your students used such an argument to reject the opinion of an 'old' thinker or writer? For example, is Plato 'old stuff'? Is Homer 'old stuff'? Is Chiara Lubich, God forbid, 'old stuff'? Jesus himself - is he 'old stuff' too? If you used this category in your teaching, I would be very concerned for your students! It's a poor method of scoring points. Socrates' way of reasoning still holds good in the philosophical world: it consists of asking questions. And the question one should ask is not 'old or new?' The question one should ask is this: 'Is it true or not?' Then you need proof, evidence. So far - after 27 years - no one has shown any evidence that what I said in The Pope's Armada is not true.
If you had done the due research, you would know that my work on the Focolare movement, as opposed to being 'old stuff' has continued over the years. Ever since I wrote The Pope's Armada, I have been continually receiving very serious testimonies of abuse of all kinds in the Focolare movement - so much so that, since I wrote the first version of the book in English in 1995, I now believe that abuse in the Focolare movement is much worse than I thought at the time. In 2013, I finished a counselling course, because the cases of people harmed by the movement who asked for my help were so serious that common sense was not enough to help them. In 2020, I launched a new blog - popesarmada25.blogspot.com - to restore and update the ideas of The Pope's Armada because I realised - in discussions with experts on cults and former members of the movement, many of whom had come out in recent years - that the ideas in my book were increasingly current - hardly 'old stuff'.
At the same time I saw, with some surprise, that my analysis of 'new Catholic movements' is not at all 'old stuff' for Pope Francis, and the Vatican he is in the process of reforming. In speeches and documents he has repeated in similar terms, or even using identical words, the key ideas of The Pope's Armada. For example, in his address to the General Assembly of the Focolare movement on 6 February 2021, he speaks, with reference to what I have called Lubich's 'personality cult', of the 'post-foundress period' and says, 'Every charism is creative, it is not a statue in a museum, no, it is creative...Self-celebration does a charism a disservice.' On what I called the main work of the movement - recruitment - he says, 'the gospel is meant for everyone, but not as proselytising.' Defining this concept more clearly, he speaks of the need to 'avoid any self-referentiality, which is always a sin, and a temptation to look at ourselves in the mirror. This is horrible. This avoidance of self-referentiality, which never comes from the good spirit, is what we hope for the whole Church: to beware of the withdrawal into oneself, which always leads one to defend the institution to the detriment of the person, and which can also lead one to justify or cover up forms of abuse. With much pain we have experienced this, we have discovered it in recent years. Self-referentiality prevents us from seeing mistakes and shortcomings, hinders progress, and hinders transparency of institutional procedures and forms of government.'
Ever-growing testimonies from all parts of the world give identical examples of various forms of abuse in the movement, building a picture of problems that are not isolated, or the fault of a few (the point of view the movement seeks to spread), but systemic problems, just as we have seen with paedophilia in the Church (although in the Focolare movement it is a series of various abuses, including paedophilia). In the 1990s, the then Cardinal Ratzinger, together with the followers of his beloved Cl, furiously denied that there existed - as liberation theology suggested - 'structures of sin' i.e. structures where sin was systemic: according to him, only the individual could be resonsible for sin. From a sociological point of view, this idea is on very shaky ground, but a person, even one who calls himself a distinguished theologian, who denies that the Church is a 'structure of sin' after the experience of the last twenty years of discoveries of sexual abuse of minors all over the world, simply comes across as an idiot. The other day I saw on the internet, a guy like that, someone in the movement, proclaiming, 'abuse can't be systemic because it didn't happen to me'! Who is he trying to kid?
These are some of the most dangerous and damaging abuses of the Focolare movement, which I analysed 27 years ago, and which are undoubtedly systemic and certainly not 'old stuff', either because they are integral to the movement's methods, established by Lubich, or because they are fundamental to the teachings, which are also, like everything else, prescribed by the foundress:
1. For eighty years, pastoral care (a rather important word in the Church outside Focolare but a word I never heard used in the movement) has been based on a foundation that breaks two points of canon law, creating catastrophic abuses (of which we have a great deal of evidence) in the minds and souls of individuals (although I know that the individual does not count in a movement where 'there is no unity if people still have a personality' - Chiara Lubich, 1946). These two points are: 1) distinction between inner forum and outer forum; 2) enforced manifestation of conscience*. This system is based on Lubich's concept of the 'private conversation' (colloquio privato), an unlawful invasion of individual conscience. It is incredible that a person with her power never studied pastoral training as approved by the Church. Here is a truly frightening story - which needs to be investigated thoroughly - of a kind of spiritual abuse involving thousands of people. As Pope Francis rebuked the movement: '[We must observe the] wise distinction between the external forum and the internal forum, which the experience and tradition of the Church teaches us is indispensable. Indeed, the intermingling of the sphere of government and the sphere of conscience gives rise to the abuses of power and the other abuses we have witnessed, when the cooking-pot of these ugly problems has been uncovered.' (6 February 2021) If you see my book as 'old stuff', it is not exactly a compliment to the Vatican which has only discovered these problems now, 27 years later. It is appalling that for almost eighty years the pastoral work of the movement has been headed in a direction contrary to the laws of the Church, without any kind of control or restraint. One thing is certain - only the inner members of the movement, i.e. the celibate members, have the slightest concept of the level of abuse the Pope is talking about, i.e. those most involved as objects or operators of these methods. Certainly, this is too fundamental a problem to be solved within the movement itself. What is needed is an intervention from outside - for example an Apostolic Visitation - and a detailed investigation of the movement's archives. To get an idea of the horrors of this 'mixing' that the Pope speaks of, read this article in my blog:
2. The Focolare movement has a strong aspect of Manichaeism that comes directly from Lubich's weltanschauung. I remember a passage from her diary while she was spending her usual two-month summer holiday in Switzerland. She took a trip up a mountain and at the summit found what you would expect - a café, a gift shop, other people. Her reaction was: 'world, world, world!', clearly expressed with disgust, even hatred. For Lubich, the term 'world' - that is, normal life that is harmless to most people - meant something very negative. In the focolarino lexicon even the word 'human', which is beautiful and precious to most people, is a negative term. It is interesting that another foundress, Soeur Madeleine de Jesus, a very humble person (I met her on one occasion) but with very mature, contemporary ideas, said, 'Before being religious, be human and Christian with all the strength and beauty of the terms.' Dualism, i.e. spirit=good/material=evil, is one of the early heresies of the church and re-emerges in every age. For the Manicheans, it even meant that Jesus did not die on the cross, because being God, he could not be truly man because material things are evil. Lubich expressed her Manichaeism in the phrase 'Vanity, vanity, all is vanity' from the most pessimistic book of the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes. That quote is part of the 'Story of the Ideal', the fundamental mindset of the movement, and means: 'nothing "human", nothing of the "world" has any value'.
When I first became acquainted with the movement, from the outside I had the impression that living as a focolarino in the world, doing a job like a normal person, gave value to all our actions, to every job. But before long, almost without consciously realising it, I realised that the opposite was true. When I was very young, my ambitions were to become a writer and film director, and already at the age of fourteen, my school teachers encouraged me to send my works of fiction to publishing houses. When I was 16, with one of my short stories, I won an amazing two-week trip to Rome in an international competition. By the time I was 17, I had already written two books for young people of 80,000 words each. But, under the influence of 'vanity of vanities', I destroyed them: they were what the movement would call 'attachments'. Worse still, in 1967, shortly before I met the focolarini, I had written to my favourite author, the great E M Forster, author of Passage to India and Room with a View. He replied with a full-page handwritten letter, responding with great care and tenderness to the details of my letter, with his gentle humour, and encouragement for my ambition to be a writer. Today, it would be a historical document. I destroyed it. Because according to the so-called Ideal, it was 'vanity of vanities'.
After I left the movement, I achieved those ambitions, to a certain extent, especially as a film director, albeit nine years too late. Had I stayed in the movement I would have thrown away the gifts God gave me and perhaps thrown away my life. Many of the focolarini (i.e. men) in the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium realised this in 3 major semi-'rebellions', and protested to the leaders of the movement how they could not use their talents in the context of the movement. For this reason, many left. I find it incredible that in such a vast movement, and with all its self-celebration, it has produced nothing of any worth in the arts. It makes me think of Stalin's time when a genius like Shostakovich lived in fear and young communists held demonstrations, carrying placards saying: 'Long live mediocrity!' In my opinion, the movement has always favoured mediocrity in ideas, art and even people. Paradoxical and very disturbing, that a movement that talks of 'inundations [of society] ' and 'clarification', i.e. typically of a sect, of a complete renewal of society (interview with American psychologist Margaret Singer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bRBFhMEQFk&t=403s), has ideas that look more like a focolarino cultural revolution, Maoist style.
There is also much evidence of censorship in the movement. I experienced it personally when I was editor of the New City magazine in Britain - attempts at censorship coming from the women's side of the movement, involving Lubich herself. I experienced it when they put The Pope's Armada in its various language editions on the Focolare Index (there is a mountain of evidence to prove it, including from internal members of the movement). Chiara, the supreme amateur, gave her stamp to everything that dared to call itself 'art' in the movement - even the Gen Rosso and Gen Verde songs. Lubich was so uneducated in all things creative that she boasted that she didn't care about fairy tales as a child 'because they weren't true'. I wonder what Carl Jung, who revealed in fairy tales the role of the collective unconscious, would have said about Lubich's notion? What about War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov? Were they not worth reading because they are not true? Did Lubich not realise that most of The Book of Genesis uses the literary genre of mythology? But that doesn't mean 'not true'! I once heard Fede - one of the first focolarini and a person with very old-fashioned ideas - say, 'Shakespeare knew the Old Man [the bad side of human nature in Focolare-speak] very well.' What creativity can we expect from a movement that thinks this way and is not afraid to impose censorship? I personally convinced, from a long professional career in the creative world, that one does not achieve anything in life - any kind of invention or artistic or scientific creation - without passion. But with the philosophy of 'vanity of vanities' and the elimination of all attachments - where is passion? I have often thought that with the philosophy that 'world' and 'human' are negative things, in the long run we would be back in the Dark Ages. Moreover, I am convinced as a counsellor that no one in the world today needs to sing heartily along with Lubich and the early focolarini, 'Nulla son!' - 'I am nothing'. I believe that this very negative and nihilistic undercurrent of Lubich's doctrine is at the root of the very high level of mental illness found among the celibate focolarini - even the founders - because on the psychological level it is highly destructive. Fortunately, after I left the movement, I discovered a truly great Catholic thinker of the 20th century - Pierre Teilhard de Chardin - who reveals a whole different universe, all positive, all spiritual - even in material things. Interestingly, our national Focolare leader (capo zona) in the UK in the 1970s once told us over dinner that Teilhard was 'too optimistic'.
3. 'When someone has an answer for every question it is a sign that they are not on the right track.' For anyone who knows the Focolare movement, 'an answer for every question' is a very familiar concept. These are Pope Francis' words from the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exultate, (March 2018). I was very surprised to discover that in this document, Pope Francis speaks of 'contemporary Gnosticism', an important theme in his teachings to which he often refers. In The Pope's Armada, using identical words, I spoke of Gnosticism in the movement, especially with reference to Lubich's 'Paradise of '49'. In Gaudete et Exultate, where he explores this issue in detail, Pope Francis says: 'Gnosticism is one of the worst ideologies, for while it unduly exalts knowledge or a particular experience, it considers its own vision of reality to be perfection. In this way, perhaps without realising it, this ideology feeds on itself and becomes even more blind. Sometimes it becomes particularly deceptive when it disguises itself as disembodied spirituality. Indeed, Gnosticism "by its very nature wants to tame mystery", both the mystery of God and his grace, and the mystery of the lives of others'. Pope Francis, continues his discourse, suggesting that 'a false prophet... uses religion to his own advantage, at the service of his own psychological and mental meanderings. God surpasses us infinitely, he is always a surprise, and it is not we who determine in what historical circumstance we find him, since it is not up to us when and where and how we encounter him. Those who want everything clear and certain, claim to dominate the transcendence of God'. The Pope emphasises that, 'We come to understand in a very poor way the truth we receive from the Lord. And with even greater difficulty we manage to express it. Therefore, we cannot pretend that our way of understanding it authorises us to exercise strict control over the lives of others... A dangerous confusion often occurs: believing that because we know something or can explain it with a certain logic, we are already holy, perfect, better than the 'ignorant masses''.' It is illuminating to compare this last statement with the way Chiara Lubich described the 'Paradise of '49' to the inner members of the Focolare Movement in 1963, which I quoted in The Pope's Armada: 'We had the impression that God had opened the eyes of the soul to the kingdom of God that was in our midst and we saw Him who is in our midst, the Paradise that was in our midst, and in such a divine scenario, such an expression of the Trinity, we understood all those years ago [in 1949], what the role of this movement as a whole was and its role in each of us in the Church.'
But even more worrying is an interview that focolarino co-president Jesus Moran gave to the Italian magazine of the Dehonians, Settimana News (20 February 2021).
In that interview, to a question referring to 'some critical questions with respect to [Chiara Lubich's] mystical experiences - especially the original ones, of the late 1940s,' the so-called 'Paradise of 1949,' Moran responds, without the slightest hesitation: 'It must be said that Chiara always thought, and passed on to us...that this mystical experience is constitutive of the mentality of any person who wants to be a leaven of unity today in the Church and in society - that is, of those who make the charism of the movement their own. So it is not a private, particular experience of Chiara.' Although I may not be a theologian, it is enough to be an informed Catholic to affirm that Lubich's experience is, without the slightest doubt, what the Catholic Church defines as a 'private revelation', (unless one is planning to set up a church within the Church). According to Benedict XVI's Apostolic Exhortation of 30 September 2010, following the Synod on the Word of God, it is necessary for the Church to 'help the faithful to distinguish the word of God from private revelations, the task of which is not to "complete" the definitive revelation of Christ... the value of private revelations is essentially different from the one public revelation.' This document clearly says that 'the use [of private revelations] is not obligatory.' It seems to me that Moran suggests something quite different about the 'Paradise of 1949' revelations when he states 'they are not ...private'! C.S. Lewis in his novels such as those of Narnia, and Ray Bradbury's fantasy and science fiction tales, say arguably more interesting and certainly more intelligible things about spiritual matters, but they do not demand that the world must 'believe' or 'live' them, that they are the basis of 'inundations' that will change every aspect of society. Such ideas reach the brink of megalomania. William James, the American psychologist, brother of the novelist Henry James, in his classic book Varieties of Religious Experience, while acknowledging the possibility of personal mystical experiences, very wisely comments that they are only relevant to the person who experiences them.
The Focolare movement's concept of 'charism' does not correspond to that of the New Testament. St Paul shows charisms as gifts from God to every Christian - and which can be interpreted by other simple Christians. In an address to the Second Vatican Council in October 1963, using word for word notes made by the theologian and peritus of the Council, Hans Kung, based on the theology of St Paul, Cardinal Suenens spoke of the importance of spiritual gifts and the call of all Christians and that the hierarchy should take this seriously. In his book The Church (1967), Kung reinforces this concept: 'The charisms of leadership in the Pauline churches...did not produce a 'ruling class', an aristocracy of those invested with the Spirit who separated themselves from the community. Every Christian has his or her own charism. Every Christian is charismatic.' In the Focolare movement there is only one charism - that of Lubich. There is no place for other charisms, not even original contributions. The internal members of the movement are like the apparatchiks of the Soviet Union, whose job is to blindly carry out Lubich's orders or ideology, to spread her doctrine and extend her influence and power. There is a fixed blueprint for every eventuality - how to recount the beginnings, the 'history' of the movement (the Story of the Ideal), to how to recount even one's own 'experience' of discovering the movement, each the stage prescribed in advance. Far from what St Paul says, that Christians could explain and interpret each other's inspirations, Lubich's charism requires an entire university dedicated to its 'doctrine', composed of 'true theologians...[who are] familiar with mystical texts.'
Pope Francis and the Dicastery for the Laity have recently shown that that The Pope's Armada's analysis of the 'new Catholic movements', Focolare included, was not at all 'old stuff'. Little by little, Francis has rebuked the big movements one by one - Neocatechumenals, Cl - the Focolare movement. And one of the most problematic aspects that the Vatican has begun to address - only very recently - is the use of the word 'charism' in relation to secular movements. As I said in The Pope's Armada, 'Perhaps the most problematic effect of this new concept of charisms is that movements are allowed complete freedom of action under the current regime in the Vatican, with no checks or balances, no accountability.' The late Bruno Secondin, a Carmelite academic and author of The New Protagonists, a survey of the 'new Catholic movements', told me in the 1990s that in his opinion, the idea of the 'charism of the founder' of these movements emerged around 1985. In the case of the focolarini, however, I was well aware that they were using the term 'charism of Chiara' when I encountered the movement, as early as 1967. Later on, all the movements latched on to this term. But now, with regard to Cl - and therefore to all movements - Cardinal Farrell, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Laity, has declared: 'The charism of Cl, like the charisms that have given rise to multiple aggregative realities in the Church, has a collective and communal dimension: it has given rise to a community of people called to live and make operative that charism in history.' (Letter to the President of the Fraternities of Communion and Liberation, Davide Prosperi, 10 June, 2022)
I have noticed something that I find very suspicious in the attitude of focolarini towards their possibility of making mistakes. When The Pope's Armada was published in 1995, Chiara Lubich admitted that the movement had made many mistakes. In her book-length interview with Michele Zanzucchi, talking about The Pope's Armada, Maria Voce, Lubich's succesor as President, also says that the movement has made many mistakes. When La Setta Divina was published in 2021, an official announcement of the movement said that it had made many mistakes. It is strange that no one ever says what the mistakes are. Nobody would dream of standing up at their trial and declaring 'I made a mistake' or 'I made so many mistakes'. If someone confesses truthfully, they have the courage to call the crime clearly by its name The many people who have suffered abuse in the Focolare movement have the right to hear those responsible specifically admitting to their mistakes and even Lubich's mistakes. She (Lubich) also admitted to them, but justice demands that they be named specifically by the movement itself.
In my testimony in La setta divina, I talked about how I left the movement because I was sure that otherwise it would destroy me. I was always open with the movement about being homosexual. Their 'solution' was always just 'loving Jesus forsaken'. Finally, when this 'solution' no longer conviced me, they offered me three (obligatory) solutions: 'conversion therapy, an arranged marriage and chemical castration.' Do you think that this form of spiritual abuse - which also broke church laws on the distinction between inner and outer forum - and abuse of all kinds experienced by others - sexual, psychological, modern slavery - are, for us and the movement, 'old stuff'? I assure you that they are not. These abuses have more or less damaged, and in some cases destroyed, the lives of so many, and justice will continue to be sought from the Church (https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100083514304797), from civil authorities and international institutions.
History shows that there was a time in recent decades when the leaders of the Focolare movement hoped that the child abuse carried out by a leader of the movement in France, which they tried so hard to hide from the Church and civil authorities, was 'old stuff'. But we now know that this was not true at all. It is not 'old stuff', at least for the Focolare movement; it is current and future stuff, which it had managed to keep secret for many years, but which is now public and which it will been forced to face up to and account for.
And then the fact that you call me an 'low-level author'? Instead of being offended, I feel pity for an academic who feels compelled to descend to insults. At least I haven't descended to that level. 'Old stuff', insults, ad hominem arguments: the last refuges of the desperate. Incidentally, my comment on the 'Paradise of '49' was not that of a theologian, but of a former focolarino, who had every right to lament the fact that these weird ideas were kept hidden from us, of whom they asked our entire lives, while it now appears that they were the essence of Lubich's thought. This 'low-level author' at least has the good sense (something I have seen notably lacking among focolarini) not to return insults but to try - in part, because I could have said much more - to reason, with concrete examples, against your phrase, 'old stuff'.
*In Catholic moral theology, manifestation of conscience signifies the kind of revelation of intimate personal thougthts, feelings and actions that might be made by choice in confession or to a spiritual director.