What is Wrong with CL?
OR, How Not to Run a Catholic Community
What is Communion and Liberation?
Communion and Liberation, in short, CL, is a Catholic movement founded originally in Italy in 1954 by Luigi Giussani. The movement aims towards young people, and regards itself as bringing these people closer to God and closer to one another by encouraging a mindful experience of the divine. Local chapters of the organization hold meetings usually once a week.
CL faced severe criticism right from its start. The group has traditionally been regarded as a tightly knit, somewhat inbred community, and was criticized even originally for excluding individuals who expressed doubts or questions about its main ideals. The group has also been affiliated with various mafia investigations, which, however, will not be the main focus here.1
The organization of whole movement is indeed somewhat puzzling, even without the criminal aspect. While the main aim of the group is to cultivate more personal connections with God and with one another, the whole group is organized and controlled top down in a totalitarian fashion. Individual members of the group have no say in what the group reads or discusses. (In some cases even the music is assigned which members should listen to.2) Whenever individual members disagree with some of the readings, they get either expelled or at least ostracized within the group.3 Nowadays, the group leaders send their emails by an online client, as a consequence of which members can neither see who else got the same message nor respond to the message. They do not even see who the sender is unless the sender gives a signature. As a consequence of this kind of organization, the members of the group become disenfranchised and vulnerable; they have no channel to express disagreement with anything, and have no way even to connect with one other. Members can expect no support from the group or from other members in any personal difficulty. It is perhaps also telling that there is no contact number or e-mail address on the official CL website either. Thus, if someone has any problem with how a chapter is organized or run — e.g., if the organizer of the chapter is abusing some members — they will have no way to let anyone know about it.
As was said earlier, there is a centrally assigned reading for every meeting that members are supposed to read and reflect on. These readings, almost without exception, are taken from some work of the founder, Luigi Giussani, or the current leader, Julian Carrón. At the meeting, the leader of the chapter reads a reflection on the reading, and other members are supposed to share whenever they are in agreement. My aim here is not to give a comprehensive analysis of these texts, which are themselves rather varied. Some of them pretend to be spiritual, some more philosophical, some blatantly self-advertising (containing and explaining letters from recent converts to the Movement). Almost all of them use some philosophical vocabulary, some if not most also misuse it. In my experience, the assigned texts are both badly written and damaging for the intended audience.
That Giussani is not a good writer by any standard is well recognized even by the CL community, and it is enough to just read a few of his sentences to become aware of how cumbersome his writing is. Of course, there have been many bad writers in the history of both philosophy and theology who nevertheless were brilliant once one struggled through the textual difficulties. With Giussani, however, this is not the case. His clunky style, most of the time, seems to serve as a mask, and if one reconstructs what he is indeed saying, it very often turns out to be either obviously false or trivially (hence uninterestingly) true.4 Again, the main purpose of these writings, supposedly, is to encourage mindfulness and attention to the transcendent in their readers. But one wonders why people read Giussani when there is so much good spiritual writing that could serve the same purpose. In fact, the mindfulness that Giussani calls for is one of the standard elements of spiritual writings both old and new. Reading Ignatius, most or any of the Carmelites, the collections by Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, or even Anthony de Mello’s short stories, would achieve the same purpose without having to struggle through Giussani’s style. Of course, none of these authors are members of CL, and hence reading them is discouraged within the group.
Reading bad writing alone, even if most claims of the writing turn out to be false or trivial, is not damaging in itself but merely a waste of time. There are reoccurring themes in these texts, however, that cause actual harm. Giussani, following the unfortunate example of some recent religious authors, dismisses other thinkers incredibly easily, even when these thinkers are of much greater stature than Giussani himself. Here is, for instance, an often recurring blurb against Immanuel Kant: “At a certain point, we reason the way Kant did, as we have described on other occasions: If we already have the Gospel, why should we still follow? We can manage on our own. In this position – of the Pharisees, Peter, Kant, … – the already known takes precedence over memory.”5 The problem is not that Giussani completely misunderstands the Kantian project; he is certainly not the first one. Neither is it that everyone should be a Kantian; in fact most Christians today are not.6 Nevertheless, Immanuel Kant was a serious and deep thinker, probably among the five greatest figures in the history of Western thought, who devoted much more effort to thinking about religion and revelation than Giussani can probably imagine. Young people whose first exposure to Kant is Giussani’s unelaborated blurb, will come to their college classes on Immanuel Kant primed already with the conviction that whatever Kant says is wrong. This kind of intellectual priming is extremely harmful when it comes to educating free-minded, critically thinking people.
Unfortunately, intellectual priming seems to be one of the constitutive elements of the group. Everything in the group is pre-designed, and questioning of — or even reflecting on — the design is not allowed. The design includes the scheduled readings, music, pre-made “spiritual exercises”, the veneration of the founder Giusssani, and the recurring critique of modern (or mostly, all) philosophy. These themes are slowly inculcated into the minds of the participants, and they either do not become aware of it, or if they do and start reflecting on them, they get ostracized in the group. While at the meetings people do discuss the assigned readings, dissenting opinions and even clarificatory questions tend to be silenced by the leader. Members are only allowed to fully agree with the reading, and express how its main ideas are reflected in their lives. More specifically, members showcase, in sometimes disturbingly self-righteous fashion, how they experienced God in the previous week. Members only share their successes but never their problems or failures. Since all of the shared experiences are private, and questions are in general discouraged, there is no real discussion.
All in all, while the name of CL suggests that they aim at building community (communion) and freedom (liberation), they achieve neither — and with the current structure of the organization, this failure is not accidental. They cannot achieve communion since every part of the organization is controlled in a totalitarian way, resulting in a disenfranchised community. They cannot achieve liberation since there is no freedom where there is no thinking.
1: See the references on the since heavily edited Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Communion_and_Liberation&oldid=858062029 I am not claiming these accusations are correct, since again, this is not the focus of the current writing. As will become clear below, certain strange elements are present in the movement even today, starting from having to buy their own books written by their own authors published by their own publishers, in order to participate in the meetings.
2: Without any reflection or justification of course. For those interested in the intersection of music with the Holy, Rudolf Otto’s classic (The Idea of the Holy) is a good place to start.
3: The only evidence I have for this claim is anecdotal. But this was my personal experience and the same I have heard from some other ex-members as well.
4: Some examples (taken by just opening the books I happened to read with them, completely randomly): “The second instrument of which the design of God makes use is memory. Memory is the opposite of sleepiness; it is being intent on something … For this reason, memory becomes entreaty.” (Christmas: The Mystery is Present, p. 5.) “The first and fundamental way with which the Mystery becomes manifest is the instant, the circumstance at hand. It is through the present circumstance that we adhere to our Destiny, that we penetrate into the Mystery, that we collaborate with the action of the Father in the world.” (Ibid., p. 4.) “There’s one detail, an implication, that we still need to underline, one that we can’t let escape our notice: not every presence, not just any presence is charged with meaning, pardon, not just any presence with a proposal is charged with meaning in a way that makes it fit under the word that we’re about to use; rather, a presence with a proposal is charged with meaning, in the way described by the word we’re about to use, only when it has an unforeseeable quality, unforeseen and unforeseeable; when, in other words, it carries within it a radical newness.” (Introduction to the Spiritual Exercises, ed. Julian Carrón, 2018, p. 8.)
5: Exercises, 2018, p. 70. Here is another, this case by Julian Carrón, current leader of CL: “If we do not grasp God’s method, if we do not recognize the nexus between our experience of freedom and His initiative, we will inevitably move away from the origin. How? By taking it for granted, treating it like something already known. … We realize that we share Kant’s temptation to move away from the source, reducing Christian life to crystallized doctrine or to ethics. But the Christian life is always God’s free gift to us; it always springs anew from His present initiative, from His happening again now, and moving away from this source, reducing it to what we have in our heads, to our interpretations, means returning to slavery, whether we like it or not.” (Exercises, 2018, p. 25, emphasis added.) Carrón cites Kant’s letter to Jacobi on Aug. 30, 1789, where Kant notes that even if originally the moral law came from the Gospel, once we know it by reason alone, we can convince people of it by reason alone. Kant makes no claims whatsoever about whether the moral law exhausts religion, as Carrón seems to read this passage.
6: But there are also some counter-examples.