“A religion becomes mainstream simply because of its sheer demographic power—not because of the reasonableness of its beliefs and practices.”
he Spanish television network Movistar has recently released El Palmar de Troya. It is a pity that this four-episode docuseries is not yet available with English subtitles because the show would certainly relate to those in the English-speaking world. Palmar de Troya is a religious movement based in Spain, but it has branches in many other countries, including the United States and Ireland. And, in the docuseries, some English-speaking followers do offer their testimonies about their experiences with Palmar de Troya
When the Second Vatican Council convened in the early 1960’s, it was met with enthusiasm from all over the world, as many Catholics were eager for much-needed reforms. But, as with any reform movement, it was also met with resistance. Traditionalists were not happy with ecumenism or the modernization of old rituals (the two main points of reform in Vatican Council II). Some of these traditionalists, such as the prominent Marcel Lefebvre, manifested their disdain but still tried to stay within the ranks of the Church. Others went further and broke with the Vatican altogether. The Palmar de Troya movement was one such group of traditionalists.
It all began in 1968, when four girls in the village of Palmar de Troya (in Southern Spain) claimed to have received visions from the Virgin Mary. As news of the apparitions spread, people from surrounding villages began to congregate in large numbers, in expectation of miracles. This is not exactly an innovation within Catholicism. Yet, as opposed to the cases of Lourdes or Fatima, these girls never played a major role in the proceedings because they were displaced by newcomers. As, in the ensuing months, crowds grew larger in Palmar de Troya, two strange characters made their way onto the scene: Clemente Domínguez and Manuel Alonso Corral. Domínguez began to claim visionary experiences, and, according to some witnesses, he would have a stigmata—to the point of spilling copious amounts of blood. Such spectacular displays would soon make him leader of that blossoming ecstatic community; his friend Manuel would put to use his business skills (he had worked in the insurance sector), and, eventually, they managed to receive massive donations from all over Spain. A new Marian devotional movement was thus established.
The new church was traditionalist in the extreme. Domínguez and the succeeding Popes went on to canonize as saints, historical figures long associated with fascism in Spain, including Francisco Franco, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, and José Calvo Sotelo.
Their version of Catholicism was traditionalist to the extreme. Yet, as is often the case with charismatic religious movements, the Catholic Church itself was rather suspicious of these mystics. Ecstatic experiences are always a threat to Catholic hierarchy because direct communication with the divine bypasses the mediation of the Church. So, the Church hesitated in approving these visions and in fact, discouraged further religious revivals at Palmar de Troya. As far as the authorities in Rome were concerned, the visions at Palmar de Troya were not supernatural in origin.
Under the guidance of Domínguez, the new religious group, then, advanced the idea that—ever since the Second Vatican Council—the Church had been infiltrated by Masons and Communists, who sought to destroy it. In this conspiracy theory, Pope Paul VI was drugged by corrupt insiders, so he played along. This would explain why they did not approve of the heavenly messages delivered at Palmar. Naturally enough, the Catholic hierarchy was uncomfortable with these claims but did not pursue further clashes with the revivalists at Palmar de Troya.
Yet, within Catholic hierarchy, there was also discontent with the reformist trend. One exiled Vietnamese archbishop, Ngô Đình Thục (a brother of Ngô Đình Diệm), was one such traditionalist. In an audacious move, without Vatican approval, Thục consecrated Domínguez and Corral as bishops. In turn, as bishops, Domínguez and Corral now had the authority to consecrate as priests many other people who would gather at Palmar. In a short time, a parallel clergy at-odds with Rome was beginning to take shape.
The breaking point came in 1976, when Pope Paul VI died. Domínguez alleged that he received a new revelation from Jesus, ordering him to become Pope himself. Thus, the break with Rome was now finalized. Domínguez would now be Pope Gregory XVII. Many of the priests he had consecrated would be his bishops (some of them as young as eighteen years old, with very little education). Domínguez managed to get even more donations. With a newfound considerable financial muscle, he and his followers managed to buy a relatively large estate, build a huge church, and establish missionary centers in other countries.
The new church was traditionalist in the extreme. Domínguez and the succeeding Popes went on to canonize as saints, historical figures long associated with fascism in Spain, including Francisco Franco, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, and José Calvo Sotelo. They excommunicated Communists, as well as anybody who had ever watched Jesus Christ Superstar. They expanded the theological exaltation of Mary, with doctrines that were popular among some figures in the history of Catholicism but were never formalized by the Church in Rome.
Spanish authorities were suspicious of the money laundering of donations. There were also rumors of sexual abuse. But, it was ultimately difficult to know exactly what was going on. This was because with the passage of time, Palmar de Troya became a very secluded community, and their members were under very tight control by the Popes.
Naturally, such cultish behavior comes across as repugnant to most people, and the Movistar docuseries goes to great lengths in order to portray the Palmarian Church in a very negative light. Domínguez was himself gay, yet his traditionalist movement was deeply homophobic. He had a drinking problem, and many who originally supported him (including archbishop Thục) later came to believe he was a fraud, when it came to his visions. As the docuseries tells the story, the behavior of the Popes was so outrageous, that the entire movement just became a laughing stock (one Pope, Gregory XVIII, renounced the Papacy after he ran away with his mistress; both of them posed naked for a soft-pornography magazine, and now they have become celebrities on trashy talk shows).
Yet, it seems to me we should not be too quick to dismiss this group as a cult. What is a cult, anyways? As it happens, sociologists of religion do not favor this concept. To contrast a religion with a cult makes as much sense as contrasting religiosity with superstition. In the same manner that one man’s religion is another man’s superstition, “cult” is basically a word used by people to describe religions they do not like. Catholic theologians are repulsed by the fraud of Domínguez when he seemingly self-inflected wounds as stigmata. However, why should we feel differently about Saint Francis of Assisi, another man whose stigmata was also very likely self-inflicted?
The Popes at Palmar de Troya taught that Saint Joseph ascended to heaven in soul and body, something that the Catholic Church does not teach. Sure, this might make for a strange doctrine. Yet, is it any stranger than the doctrine of Mary’s assumption to heaven in body and soul (a doctrine that the Catholic Church does teach).
Yes, the Popes at Palmar de Troya were very authoritarian, and they kept a very tight grip on their followers. They did this possibly with aggressive manipulation techniques, not unlike Jim Jones or David Koresh. But, it is crucial to understand that—in the overwhelming majority of so-called “cults”—adult members are there willingly; they can walk out whenever they want. In fact, as the Movistar docuseries tells it, many members of the Palmarian Church did walk out.
Instead of referring to it as a “cult,” we should call the Palmarian Church a “new religious movement.” That is the preferred term of sociologists, and rightly so.
The United States has had its share of anti-cult hysteria; activists typically say that cults “brainwash” members—to the point of enslaving them and forcing them to stay in the cult against their will. These anti-cult activists could not come to terms with the simple fact that their relatives would join a religious group with beliefs and practices different from the mainstream. Actually, brainwashing does not exist, or at least not in the way media outlets frequently portray it. People who join Scientology, the Palmarian Church, or whatever other cranky group, are not mindlessly walking around as puppets of mind control, as in The Manchurian Candidate. Heiress Patty Hearst famously alleged in court that she was brainwashed into joining a terrorist group; the jury did not buy it. The jury made the correct decision.
Yes, so-called “cults” may use techniques of coercive persuasion. But, what is terrorizing someone’s mind with sermons about hellfire, if not coercive manipulation? What is proclaiming a doctrine on the basis of infallibility (as the Popes in Rome are capable of doing), if not brainwashing? We may not like that the Palmarian Church may have become a hub of money laundering in the form of donations. But, for anyone who has watched The Godfather III, it is clear that this may, very well, also happen in the Vatican. In fact, it most likely did: the Vatican Bank, under the administration of cardinal Paul Marcinkus, became notoriously corrupt.
Instead of referring to it as a “cult,” we should call the Palmarian Church a “new religious movement.” That is the preferred term of sociologists, and rightly so. Religions, in their beginnings, must face hostility from older, more established religions. Most of the “religions” we think of today were originally “sects” or “cults.” What do you think Jews likely called Christianity soon after Jesus died? What was Muhammad to Christians in the 7th century, if not a “cult leader”? Let a “cult” grow in number of members, and it becomes a religion. A religion becomes mainstream simply because of its sheer demographic power—not because of the reasonableness of its beliefs and practices.
The Movistar series is enjoyable enough in its portrayal of the Palmarian Church. There is in Spain a folk culture, España cañí, which is roughly similar to rural Americana (and its portrayals in popular culture) in the United States. In España cañí, there is a streak of anti-modern backwardness and dysfunction, mixed with agricultural communities. And, there are comic aspects that ultimately endear this segment of society to the rest of the country. Palmar de Troya is certainly part of España cañí, and the Movistar series manages to portray this religious movement as such. For that reason, viewers will smile and laugh as they watch the eccentricities of those at Palmar de Troya. Yet, there is also an irritating quality to the docuseries too, in that the experts featured, who are continuously condescending in their descriptions of the Palmarian Church, are theologians of mainstream religions. Was it not Jesus himself who said, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. His twitter is @gandrade80