The Legionaries of Christ admitted last week that their founder, Father Marcial Maciel, fathered a child. This physical evidence finally put the facts of his irregular secret life, which also included the sexual abuse of seminarians under his care, beyond the power of any further attempts to conceal. Those who are shocked and disillusioned by the revelation must now learn to distinguish conservative conformism and cult of personality from authentic Catholic Christian faith.
Throughout the twelve years since Maciel’s victims first accused him in the Hartford Courant, his supporters labeled them lying conspirators. Maciel’s supporters included Legionaries and non-Legionaries, among them prominent conservatives such as the late Father Richard John Neuhaus and Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon. Rather than hear the suffering of true victims, Maciel’s apologists chose to spin his defense by pointing to saints of history wrongly persecuted by the Church. They aimed to guilt believing Catholics into dismissing the accusations by defining them as attacks on the Church itself.
Defenders of Maciel always rested in the fact that he preached – though in words, not deeds – tenets of Catholic orthodoxy, such as the centrality of the person of Jesus and the authority of a teaching church. They also exploited the false assumption that the orthodox never abuse anyone or live lives that go against what they preach. And they failed to understand that abusive behavior discredits orthodox belief.
Because Christians worship the Way, the Truth, and the Life, truth would have made a better criterion for action than martial ideological alignment. Instead, Maciel’s defenders spun lies, counting on the fact that Catholics are accustomed to believing in truths they cannot see. Catholics who believe Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist against all appearances could be spiritually blackmailed into believing that Maciel was innocent against all appearances.
Legionaries indoctrinated themselves to trust uncritically a charismatic sociopath, the very definition of cultishness, and this happened even under Church rules and supervision. The Legionaries gained official approval from the Catholic Church and used that approval to claim that they were not a cult, even though Church approval could never have guaranteed that the members of an institute behave well privately. Church investigation and oversight did slowly expose Maciel in the end.
Even Pope John Paul himself was taken in. His praise of Maciel in 1994 as a good guide for the young was the gall that prompted Maciel’s first accusers to go public. It also obliged John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict, to undertake in 2006 the chore of disciplining the founder his predecessor had privileged. Pope John Paul’s memory is tarnished by his support for Maciel, no question about it.
Yet John Paul’s authentic values remain untarnished for disillusioned Legionaries and Maciel’s former conservative supporters to aspire to, if they care to help heal the damage they have done to the Catholic Church with their lies. For all that the Legionaries claimed to love John Paul, anyone who has read his work knows that John Paul’s philosophical personalism sees religious vocation as a free self-giving by a dignified human person, as opposed to being overwhelmed and absorbed into a father-revering group.
There is good reason that the Catholic Church does not canonize the living. Christians place their full trust only in God, not human beings – not in a movement leader, not in the pope’s fallibly chosen friends. Only Jesus, in Catholic belief, is the perfect receiver of souls, and we may be properly cautious with anyone else who asks for them.
Whenever misplaced trust is betrayed by news of priests who rape and charismatic movements that tell lies to further their agenda and faith in God is sorely tested, we will do well to remember that John Paul’s “martyrdom of charity” finds value in suffering and suggests that the immense pain caused by Maciel’s betrayal can be transformed into empathy, greater self-knowledge, and a Christian life deeper and more real.
Or in the words of Tolstoy: if we cease to believe in a wooden god, that does not mean that there is no God, but only that God is not made of wood.
Cassandra Jones is a pseudonym. The writer has worked for the Legionaries for a number of years.