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An Evaluation of Moral Rearmament

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Catholics are not normally much interested in revivalist movements among Protestants, and are certainly not concerned whether such movements have the Church’s approval. A Catholic, for example, may read with perfect detachment about the crowds of a hundred thousand who listen to Billy Graham’s sermons. Graham is a Baptist, preaching to Protestants, and evidently doing them much good. But when a spiritual revivalism like Moral Rearmament is addressed to people of all faiths, and members of the Catholic Church, including lay leaders and theologians, co-operate in the movement—it is not only news but a matter for study and critical reflection.

The problem is more acute in Europe, since the international headquarters of MRA are in Switzerland, and the movement has found a wider response there than in the United States. But American Catholics cannot afford to ignore it. Its founder is an American, and for several years MRA has been holding its world congress at Mackinac Island, Michigan, with active centers throughout the United States.

Development of Moral Rearmament

Frank N.D. Buchman, founder of MRA, was born in 1878 of Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry. He studied for the Lutheran ministry at Philadelphia, also travelling abroad to England and Germany. Assigned to a poor parish at his own request, he soon brought it to a flourishing condition by his zealous activity. In 1904 he turned to work with youth, and took up a position as chaplain in a youth center. But a disagreement arose between him and the administration over the use of funds for the institution, and Buchman left to travel in Europe. Here, in the English village of Keswick, as he attended a Sunday afternoon session of the village church where a woman evangelist preached about the cross and how Christ had taken on Himself the sins of the world, Buchman had a “spiritual experience.” He suddenly saw that all his knowledge of Christianity was only theoretical. His duty was to put it into actual practice. Since personal sin was the cause of the world’s evil, there was need for personal repentance. The very first step of his conversion was to write the six members of the committee in Pennsylvania and ask their forgiveness for his part in the argument.

Returning to America, he carried out his intention of imparting to others his own grasp of the religious truth he had seen by converting the atheist son of the family with whom he was boarding. Through his connection with the YMCA, and then Harvard University as a lecturer in personal evangelism, Buchman began to form followers in the ivy league colleges of the East. Soon the practice of house parties, at which students and often prominent men and women gathered to seek the “change,” became prevalent throughout the country. One of the principal techniques for this metanoia was a public confession of one’s fault’s, a device that caused trouble, particularly on college campuses, where the confessions were largely sexual.

In the early twenties he transferred his activities to Oxford, where he established a systematic organization of co-workers and followers under the title of the “First Century Christian Fellowship.” Ardent disciples were soon spreading the Buchman principles throughout the world. Quite accidentally the movement came to be known as the Oxford Group, and under this sobriquet it spread widely in Protestant countries, especially Australia, Holland, Scandinavia, and South Africa. Under pressure from opposition because of the house parties and the practice of public confession, Buchmanism entered into a second stage of development. As war clouds gathered over Europe, Dr. Buchman proposed the name Moral Rearmament to a group of his friends at a meeting in the Black Forest in Germany, and thereby shifted the emphasis from individual change to social salvation. On May 29, 1938, he said: “The crisis is fundamentally a moral one. The nations must re-arm morally. Morally recovery is essentially the forerunner of economic recovery.” [1]

During the war the movement spread rapidly, especially in America. In July, 1939, for example, 30,000 gathered at the Hollywood Bowl to hear Buchman proclaim the principles and merits of MRA. In 1942 he organized a center on Machinac Island which attracted large numbers of people from all over the world during the war years. Since then the major activities of MRA have been concentrated in Caux, Switzerland, where the idle Palace Hotel was purchased as a central headquarters.

Doctrine of Moral Rearmament

The basic tenet of MRA is that the reformation of the world can only be achieved by creating a moral and spiritual force, by convincing all men of the necessity of absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love. As helps to the practice of these cardinal virtues and to the further development of their moral life, the members of MRA engage in the exercises of sharing, surrender, substitution, and guidance. It is the last practice in particular that is of interest in an evaluation of this group.

Many leaders, Buchman states, are convinced that the world needs a moral and spiritual awakening, and they put their case in striking phrases. But that is only words. The problem facing men is how to do it. To solve this difficulty Buchman turns to God:

Now I find when we don’t know how, God will show us if we are willing. When man listens, God speaks. When man obeys, God acts. The secret is God-control. We are not out to tell God. We are out to let God tell us. And He will tell us.
The lesson the world most needs is the art of listening to God. [2]

Listening to God is the heart of MRA. As a program of spiritual reformation, it must be performed according to protocol. Everyone must set aside a “quiet time” of fifteen minutes a day to listen to the voice of God. Although “anyone can hear the words of the Lord,” it is also necessary to obey certain rules:

The first rule is that we listen honestly for everything that may come—and if we are wise we write it down. The second rule is that we test the thoughts that come, to see which are from God.
One test is the Bible. It is steeped in the experience through the centuries of men who have dared, under Divine guidance, to live experimentally with God. There, culminating in the life of Jesus Christ, we find the highest moral and spiritual challenge—complete honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love.
Another excellent test is, “What do others say who also listen to God?” This is an unwritten law of fellowship. It is also an acid test of one’s commitment to God’s plan. No one can be wholly God-controlled who works alone. [3]

Buchman is sure that he has this direct guidance from on high:

In a revolution I went through not long ago, God gave me direct orders to stay in a place which the authorities had said was the most dangerous of all. I stayed. Others, who fled in search of safety, nearly lost their lives. My friend and I were perfectly safe. [4]

The results of his listening are clear. He finds that God’s thoughts become his thoughts. In fact, “direct messages come from the Mind of God to the mind of man—definite, direct, decisive. God speaks.” [5]

This gift is not limited to himself. Everyone can, in fact, must, receive his instruction directly from God:

We accept as a commonplace a man’s voice carried by radio to the uttermost parts of the earth. Why not the voice of the living God as an active, creative force in every home, every business, every parliament? Men listen to a king when he speaks to his people over the air. Why not the King of Kings? He is alive, and constantly broadcasting. [6]

Thus divine guidance must become the normal experience of ordinary men and women. “Any man,” says Buchman, “can pick up divine messages if he will put his receiving set in order. Definite, accurate, adequate information can come from the Mind of God to the minds of men.” [7]

Receiving this communication from God to begin a life governed by absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love is only the first step. It is the reform of self which must come before anything else can be accomplished. But the aim of MRA is more comprehensive. Buchman envisages the change not only of individuals, but, through them, of the entire human race:

Wherever I go people say one thing: “If only so-and-so would be changed!” You probably thought of the very person. Or you probably thought of five persons. Well, think of five persons changed. Think of nations changed. Is that the answer? The world is looking for an answer, and, by the Grace of God, there is an answer. But be clear on this point, the answer is not in any man or any group of men. The answer rests in the living God. It rests in a God-controlled person. It rests in a God-controlled nation. It rests in God-controlled supernationalism. [8]

Individual change of hearts leading to the reformation of the world is the plan and purpose of MRA. Moral Rearmament, therefore, is not a new organization which prescribes allegiance to a system of truths or precepts, but avowedly is only a means of deepening the truths which every man must hold. It is neither a church nor a religious sect. There are no dogmas to profess; no rites to practice. MRA exists only to change the lives of men, to make zealous reformers out of sinners, who still remain members of their individual churches. “Catholic, Jew and Protestant, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Confucianists—all find they can change, where needed, and travel along this good road together.” [9]

Achievements of Moral Rearmament

The force generated by the devoted and energetic followers of MRA is not to be underestimated. Undoubtedly the movement has been of considerable moral aid to many of its members as a rallying ground against the forces of secularism in the modern world. The lives of many who would never subscribe to a “church” morality have been touched and changed for the better by MRA, which brings Christian ethics into the worldly atmosphere of the twentieth century.

Since there are no formal rites of initiation and no membership rolls, we have no estimate of the number of followers of the movement. As put in a popular slogan, “You don’t join anything, you don’t pay anything, you just begin living the MRA standards.” But judging by the thousands of participants at Buchmanite rallies and the wide circulation of MRA books and pamphlets, this Protestant counterpart of the Christophers is a flourishing “organization.” Among its advocates are listed political and social leaders in Europe and America. During the war years Harry S. Truman was an enthusiastic partisan of Dr. Buchman. Mr. Robert Schuman and Dr. Konrad Adenauer have participated in MRA meetings in Caux. MRA claims fabulous success among the workers. When war production in factories and mines had slackened, MRA leaders talked to the workers and infused new life into industry. Quarrels and labor troubles disappeared. Executive heads of twelve of America’s national trade unions sent a message of gratitude to Dr. Buchman:

Through the years the force you have trained has been strengthening union loyalty and leadership and uniting people above party, race, class, point of view and personal advantage. MRA is calling us and every nation to our true heritage under God. [10]

One observer sees MRA as the answer to labor’s problems:

  1. It changes the basic selfishness and greed in human nature (that sabotage even the best economic plans) and so ensures the creation of an entirely new type of Christian democracy.

  2. It creates the unity of labour by answering the root cause of present-day division—drive for power, personal ambition, jealously and materialism.

  3. It sets a further goal for labour—to think and plan for the whole world, people of every class, every race, every nation and not just for ourselves or our own party.

  4. It develops the moral qualities and character of youth that will enable them to take responsibility in the building of a new world. [11]

“It is impossible,” according to Sir Arnold Lunn, “to deny that M.R.A. has some very real achievements to its credit in the industrial field, and the reiterated attacked on M.R.A. by Moscow are impressive evidence to its effectiveness in converting Communists. I met at Caux many former Communists leaders.” [12]

To its credit, therefore, MRA has succeeded in uniting many people of diverse countries, religions, and social conditions. It has provided them with a plan of action intended to bring about a moral change in the members and, through them, in the rest of the world.

Appraisal of Moral Rearmament

However, the mere possession of laudable aims and even some achievement of moral reform would not justify active Catholic participation in the MRA movement. A more basic decision about MRA must be agreed upon. Is MRA a religious movement independent of the Catholic Church? If the answer is affirmative, then formal cooperation for a Catholic is out of the question. If the answer is negative, further examination must be made to determine how far a Catholic may cooperate in MRA activities. “Moral Re-Armament,” says Karl Adam, “is not, as its name might imply, merely an ethical movement, but a religious, indeed in the deepest sense, a Christian movement. But it is no way a confession or a church community.” [13] Adherents of MRA heartily approve this estimate, as seen from the publicity they have given to Adam’s favorable judgment of Moral Rearmament, based on the de jure tenets of the organization. But an examination of some basic definitions suggests that MRA is a religious organization in its de facto operation.

Religion, in a wide sense, is a system of truths and the obligations arising therefrom which constitute a man’s relationship to God. This system of truths is made known to us naturally by the law of creation, manifested to every man. In addition, since man has been raised to a supernatural state, he has received divine revelation to aid him in attaining this higher goal. The truths of Christian revelation were transmitted to the human race through the prophets and Jesus Christ and marked by most clear testimonies that the message came from heaven and contained the word of God.

It is a matter of faith that Christian revelation was closed with the death of the last Apostle. Any other revelation since then, unless confirmed by divine approval, is to be considered spurious and in opposition to Catholic Christianity.

Since MRA clearly professes to have a revelation, it is, therefore, a religion. Every page of Buchman’s writings shows that the members are expected to be in daily contact with God in the quiet times. Even though Buchman “issued no orders,” yet “every man has the privilege of being personally guided by God.” [14]

An Englishman active in MRA writes:

Countless lives have been lit on their way by occasional flashes of divine illumination. Many have followed a star. But for Frank Buchman it would be more truthful to say that the detailed, constant, accurate leading of God is as natural and powerful as daylight. It comes to him fresh every morning, like the sunrise—as welcome and as inevitable.…No man, perhaps, in our generation has accepted so completely the guidance of God as the be-all and end-all of living, as the golden thread running through every day. [15]

This guidance, received not only be Buchman but by all the members of MRA, has no mark of divine authority on it. There is no guarantee that it will remain the same from year to year, or even among different members. In short, it can hardly serve as the basis for an authenticated worship of God.

But there is no need to prove that MRA is a religion to find reasons why participation in it is at least dangerous. Granting, for the present, with Arnold Lunn, that “MRA is a religious discipline but it is not a religion,” [16] it is plain that the movement can easily lead to a contempt of legitimate authority both inside and outside the Church. If each member of society is allowed to hear the voice of God through personal revelation, the variety of onterpretations of the divine will becomes infinite. The Protestant churches have some sort of tradition, and even under its restraint they are constantly developing and evolving. With no governing code of tradition, MRA would present a truth varying according to the whims of each individual. For Catholics, a complete subscription to Moral Rearmament would mean the heresy of illuminism, in which every person receives the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit independently of the Church’s authority.

If the above tendency were not much to be feared, the danger of the spirit of indifferentism cannot be denied. Any movement which finds “Catholic, Jew and Protestant, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Confucianist” [17] talking and planning moral-religious issues in common can lead at best to a dilution of the already adequate body of truths possessed by the Catholic Church.

Moral Rearmament is anti-intellectual in its facile solution of the social problems that have vexed humanity since the dawn of history. Its obtuseness to these problems as nothing more than faulty, selfish personal attitudes to be solved by evangelical revivalism, is at least naïve. MRA is also anti-intellectual in its appeal to the masses as a world force and world view to which, step by step, a person is brought “to commit himself irrevocably,” [18] and then have every thought and action of his life determined accordingly. The absoluteness of this dedication cannot be questioned:

What would it mean for America to rearm morally? It would mean the uniting of our nation in every part of its life on a constructive plan. We need to find once again the power of a united mind. We must leave our causes, many of them excellent causes, and find this common cause. We shall find the force that will forge amiable individuals into a united nation. [19]

Church's Statements on Moral Rearmament

A decree of the Holy Office of August 8, 1951, makes the following provisions:

  1. It is not fitting for either diocesan or religious priests, and much less for nuns, to participate in meetings of Moral Rearmament.

  2. If exceptional circumstances should make such participation opportune, the permission of the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office must be requested beforehand. This permission will be granted only to learned and experienced priests.

  3. Finally, it is not fitting that the faithful should accept posts of responsibility in Moral Rearmament, and especially not fitting that they join the so-called “policy team.” [20]

Individual bishops have been more specific. In 1946 the Bishops of England and Wales stated:

This movement is so tainted with indifferentism, with the error that one religion is as good as another, that no Catholic may take any active part in such a movement or formally co-operate. Catholics should be warned not even to attend the meetings or gatherings even as spectators. [21]

Cardinal Schuster, Archbishop of Milan, condemned MRA in 1952 on the ground that the movement “follows a Protestant system, because, by lightly by-passing the Catholic Church, the only one charged by Christ with transmitting to souls the treasures of the Redemption, it would directly place souls in contact with God and His grace.” It is dangerous for both non-Catholics, to whom it offers “a morality without dogma, without a principle of authority, without a supremely revealed faith,” making them “sheep without a shepherd,” and for Catholics also, because, if they go to Caux, all they find is “a subjective pietism of the authentic Protestant stamp.” [22]

Thus, while MRA has something to give to those who are outside the true faith, it has little to offer to believing Catholics. All that is good in MRA they already have in undiluted form in the teachings of Christ and the Church. “The Catholic Church owes it to herself,” says Bishop Suenens, Auxiliary Bishop of Malines, Belgium, “to ask to see the credentials of any prophet who comes forward, in whatever manner, claiming to be sent by the Holy Spirit…The moment they speak a religious language, Buchman and his disciples must answer this same question: ‘Where is the guarantee of your authenticity’.” [23] In the absence of an answer, Moral Rearmament must be left to go its own way without the collaboration of Catholics.

Ralph J. Bastian, S.J.
John A. Hardon, S.J.

West Baden College
West Baden Springs, Ind.

[1] Buchman, Frank N.D., Remaking the World (London, 1955), p. 46.

[2] Ibid., p. 35.

[3] Ibid., p. 36.

[4] Ibid., p. 40.

[5] Ibid., p. 72.

[6] Ibid., p. 13.

[7] Ibid., p. 14.

[8] Ibid., p. 25.

[9] Ibid., p 166.

[10] Report on Moral Re-Armament, ed. R.C. Mowat (London, 1955), p. 63.

[11] The speaker is James Haworth, President of the Transport Salaried Staffs Assoc., and a member of the National Executive of the Labour Party in England, Report on Moral Re-Armament, p. 64.

[12] “M.R.A. and Its Critics,” Tablet, 203 (June 19, 1954), 591.

[13] “Moral Re-Armament and Christianity in the West,” from Vaterland, Aug. 12, 1952, quoted in Remaking the World, p. 256

[14] Remaking the World, p. xiii.

[15] Ibid., p. xix.

[16] Tablet, 204 (Sept. 18, 1954), 283

[17] Remaking the World, p. 166.

[18] Buchman, Frank N.D., Remaking Men (London), p. 76.

[19] Remaking the World, p. 125. Emphasis added.

[20] Taken from AER, 133 (Nov., 1955), p. 351. It is interesting to note that this statement about MRA follows the decree of the Holy Office on the Rotary by only a few months.

[21] Quoted in Tablet, 204 (Aug. 14, 1954), p. 258.

[22] Quoted in Tablet, 199 (June 28, 1952), p. 525.

[23] Leon-Joseph Suenens, The Right View of Moral Re-Armament, London, 1954, pp. 36-37.

American Ecclesiastical Review
Vol. 135, July-December 1956, pp. 217-226

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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