More than a month has now passed since the February 3 revelation that Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, fathered a daughter. The Legionaries immediately admitted it officially and claimed to be surprised at the discovery of inconsistencies in their founder’s life. But this was only a provisional response that avoided specifics out of concerns for privacy and suggested that a fuller accounting was being prepared. That fuller accounting is now delayed and the reasons why are emerging. Church officials must reconcile two divergent views on the question whether the Legionaries have a “charism” and a “mission” given to them by God and already acknowledged by the Church.
A promise of “materials to inform the Church and the public about all of this” was first made on February 13 by Rev. Owen Kearns, publisher of the Legionary National Catholic Register. Some inside the Legion and the Vatican expected these to be issued on February 24 and the Catholic News Agency was told so.
The statement could be expected to address specifics, at least in general terms: Was the daughter’s mother a “mistress” or was the child conceived in an act of statutory rape, another instance of Father Maciel’s pedophilia? Is there another child? Was money embezzled or misused? Is Father Maciel’s sexual abuse of his seminarians now officially admitted to? Will Father Maciel’s public accusers, whom the Legion calumniated for years, be acknowledged and apologized to? What are the consequences of Father Maciel’s sins on the life of his institute?
These questions are painful enough for the Legionaries to answer honestly, especially since for 12 years in public they only ever defended their Founder with untruth and evasion. But the statement would also begin to lay out for the order a path on which to continue in a post-scandal future and that will need the approval of Catholic Church authorities. The Church will not now allow the order to decide its future entirely on its own.
This poses for Church authorities not only an administrative problem, but even one of technical Catholic theology, the question of “charism.” In Catholic understanding, religious orders, that is, communities of specially dedicated men and women, receive from God a particular gift, a “charism,” that equips them to serve in a characteristic way. Some orders are contemplative, some are active in the world. Some teach, some do social work, and so on.
In this view, it is the founder of the religious order who communicates from God the charism and actually embodies it. In 1965 the Second Vatican Council document on religious orders Perfectae Caritatis held: “It redounds to the good of the Church that institutes have their own particular characteristics and work. Therefore let their founders’ spirit and special aims they set before them as well as their sound traditions -- all of which make up the patrimony of each institute -- be faithfully held in honor.”
For religious orders to exist in the Catholic Church by Church law they must also receive official approval from the Holy See, that is, the pope. This approval, called a “Decretum laudis,” recognizes that the proposed Constitution and way of life of the order is praiseworthy. The Holy See formally opened consideration of the case of the Legionaries of Christ in May 1948 and gave preliminary approval in February 1965 and final approval in June 1983.
Whenever it grants formal approval to a religious institute, the Church would seem to be approving the “charism” of the founder. And because in Catholic belief popes can in some instances speak “infallibly” on matters of faith, it is possible to claim that the pope’s recognition of a religious order’s charism, characteristic work, and founder is an infallible judgment.
This is the theology that Legionaries were relying on when, in the aftermath of February 3, they made statements that puzzled and outraged outsiders. Their official position was that their charism and mission has been defined infallibly by the Church. Nuestro Padre (as Father Maciel is called within the order), weak instrument though he was, had served as the voice of God. His writings were inspired by the Holy Spirit and remain valid expression of Legionary charism. Therefore, they cannot fully repudiate him (“he will always be our founder”), but only acknowledge his failings and move forward with the charism he communicated. This view is parallel to the way in which Catholics understand the Church: the Church is always holy in the sense that it is incorporated in Jesus Christ, even though individual members of the Church commit sins.
Father Kearns wrote in this vein on ncregister.com on February 9, “The Holy Spirit speaks to my soul through Father Maciel’s words. I owe my priesthood and my way of being a disciple of Jesus to Father Maciel’s guidance and spirituality, and for that I will always be grateful.”
So did Rev. Alvaro Corcuera himself, Director General of the Legionaries, in his February 4 letter to members of Regnum Christi, the lay association affiliated with the Legionaries, in a now notorious passage: "I cannot but recognize all the good I received through [Father Maciel]. Through the charism he passed on to us… I am grateful to him for being the instrument God used to give my entire life meaning, seeking eternal salvation, the path to God. This is the truth I experienced, and it would be impossible to find enough words to thank him."
“Guidelines for answering some questions,” an official memo of talking points distributed within a week of February 3, told Legionaries and members of Regnum Christi, “We can’t forget that our founder was the instrument that passed on, in all its integrity, the charism God gave him and the Church approved. For that, we are forever grateful to him.”
The Legionaries have lately been repeating “flawed instrument,” “charism,” and “mission” as persistently as they used to repeat “demonstrably false” when deflecting the accusations against Father Maciel. But the drumbeat has not drowned out an opposing point of view, which emerged almost instantly, even among prominent conservatives. “There is, I think, at least as much reason to wonder whether Maciel set up an institute in order to assure himself of ample access to sexual targets and unaccountable funds, or whether he suffered from some warped psycho-emotional condition that enabled him to compartmentalize pious devotional practices and sexual predation for decades on end, as there is to wonder whether he left a real charism to a Catholic clerical, religious, and lay organization,” as canon law professor Edward Peters put it on February 13 on canonlaw.info.
Moral theologian Germain Grisez on February 5 on americanpapist.com called for “an orderly termination” of the existing Legionaries and the “election of a small group to serve as founders of its replacement.” George Weigel, biographer of Pope John Paul II, on February 9 on firstthings.com also called for a “brutally frank analysis of the institutional culture” and said a “personal delegate, appointed by the pope, must be empowered to take over the governance of the Legion of Christ and to conduct the moral and institutional audit required.”
This view that the Legionaries lack a valid charism and must be investigated and perhaps disbanded received official support when Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, who oversees Legionary apostolates in his archdiocese, bluntly voiced it himself in an interview made public on February 25: “It seems to me and many others that [Father Maciel] was a man with an entrepreneurial genius who, by systematic deception and duplicity, used our faith to manipulate others for his own selfish ends…. The very basis of the Legion movement should be reviewed from start to finish.”
The Legionary claim to have received a charism from God, recognized infallibly by the Church, from a thoroughgoing hypocrite, was always problematic.
For one thing, a Catholic religious order simply cannot continue with a discreditable founder, because the charism is inseparable from him or her. As Pope John Paul II wrote in 1996 in a letter about religious life, Vita Consecrata: "It is precisely in this fidelity to the inspiration of the founders… that the essential elements of the consecrated life can be more readily discerned and more fervently put into practice." The Legionary intention to carry on with the claimed charism motivates the Legionary resistance to “full disclosure” of the sins of the founder in the name of privacy. The wickeder he is, the less likely it is that he can be sustained as charismatic founder.
For another, theologians have recognized that Church approval of a religious order is not necessarily an infallible judgment. The Second Vatican Council in 1964 in Lumen Gentium held that the pope is infallible when “as supreme pastor… he proclaims in an absolute decision a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.” Decisions on other matters fall within what is called, in technical language, the secondary objects of infallibility. Catholic theology is more careful than in the past to attribute infallibility to a secondary object such as the approval of a religious order.
The late Cardinal Avery Dulles addressed this briefly in his 2007 book Magisterium, published by the Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University: “Some authors defend… a kind of ‘practical infallibility’ in papal actions such as the approval of religious institutes. Although the common teaching of theologians gives some support for holding infallibility in these cases, it is difficult to see how they fit under the object of infallibility as defined by the two Vatican Councils.” It may be that the Legionaries, often criticized for being pre-Vatican II in tone, are on this matter even pre-Vatican I. And so even an orthodox Catholic may suspect that the decisions of Paul VI and John Paul II to approve an order founded by a sociopath were fallible and imprudent..
For another, the stated Legionary charism was never specific and “characteristic,” but always vague and all-purpose. The characteristics they claim are: Christ-centered spirituality, filial love for Mary, love for the Church, loyalty to the Pope and bishops in communion with him, preaching the Kingdom of Christ, and love for one another with Christ’s charity. But these are the basics of Catholic life for anyone and all.
Anyway, no religious order in the history of the Church has been exempt from reform, including Benedictines, Franciscans, and Carmelites, whose congregations comprise many varieties. Vatican intervention has already abolished the Legionary’s fourth vow never to speak ill of a superior, which the Legion had explained as manifestation of their charism of charity, but in retrospect was obviously merely a technique of the founder’s self-concealment. The Carthusians are the exception that proves the rule, “never reformed,” in the famous words of 17th century Pope Innocent XI, “because never deformed.”
According to the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, charisms are “intended for the common good of the Church.” Authentic charisms promote unity. Legionaries have often caused division in the Church, always seeking the auspices of special Vatican benefactors. The Legionaries’ false, self-interested interpretations of the investigation and disciplining of their founder have at various times set at odds Cardinals Angelo Sodano, Josef Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict), and William Levada. Now they pit Archbishop O’Brien against Cardinal Franc Rodé.
The Vatican administrative division with oversight over religious orders is the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. This is the body that could be expected to be able to conduct a rigorous examination of the Legionaries, to decide its future, and to explain with theological understanding and precision whether or not the Church had discerned a valid charism. Its current head, however, is Cardinal Franc Rodé.
Rodé is already a decided Legionary friend and supporter, who for more than two years since Father Maciel was disciplined in May 2006 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the body with responsibility for investigating charges of abuse by priests) has often publicly declared his belief in a valid Legionary charism.
Rodé is 74, Slovenian and former primate of Slovenia, a member of the Congregation of the Mission (the Lazarists). He was made prefect of the Congregation in 2004 and a cardinal in 2006.
Rodé has frequently presided at important Legionary events and ordained Legionary priests. In January 2005 he celebrated Mass to conclude the Legionary General Chapter that elected Father Maciel’s successor, Father Corcuera, and, according to John Allen, called him "the instrument chosen by God to carry out one of the great spiritual designs in the church of the 20th century."
Even after the Vatican Communiqué of May 19, 2006, which disciplined Father Maciel by suspension from public ministry, “gratefully recognized” “the worthy apostolate” of the Legionaries and Regnum Christ, but only “independently of the person of the Founder,” Rodé in Atlanta in July 2007 told Regnum Christi members: “To assimilate and get a deeper grasp of your Movement’s particular charism, apply what the Church tells the religious: the Founder’s interpretation of the charism is the authentic interpretation. So read, meditate on, and absorb the words of the man God chose to transmit this spirit to you: your Founder, Father Maciel. This is the most effective way that God imprints your Movement’s charism in your conscience, your heart, and your action.”
In a trip to Chile and Brazil last December he spoke often of the Regnum Christi charism. “I know that love is the center of your apostolic charism,” Rodé said in Brasilia.
In the “Guidelines” talking points, the support of Cardinal Rodé is crucial to the Legionaries’ vision of their future:
“Cardinal Franc Rodé... reminded us of this in Chile this past December: ‘Then I told him (the Holy Father) that I was going to meet the groups of the Regnum Christi Movement and my friends, the Legionaries of Christ, and the Holy Father, Pope Benedict, told me: “Tell them that I know them, I esteem them, and I appreciate them. Tell them that my blessing accompanies them; tell them to follow with great conviction the path marked out by the charism given to the Regnum Christi Movement, and to be great witnesses of Christ and of his Church in today’s world.”’
“We count on the closeness and support of the Holy Father and Cardinal Rodé and many other churchmen who appreciate the charism and the works of apostolate of the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi Movement. They are strongly encouraging us to move onward, faithful to our vocation of service to the Church according to the charism God gave us.”
And so, on February 8, an official of Rodé’s congregation told Catholic News Agency that Rodé planned no immediate intervention into the Legionary crisis and would wait to see if the Legionaries could handle it on their own.
And during a Mass of healing for Regnum Christi members on February 8 in suburban Washington, DC, Father Corcuera said in his homily that Rodé had in effect told him in a recent meeting that “if the Legion stopped practicing its charism, Rodé would ‘kill him,’” according to Thomas Peters on americanpapist.com. “This drew laughter.”
Thus, the Church’s predicament is that Cardinal Rodé, the Church superior of all religious orders, is compromised as an objective investigator or judge in the case of the Legionaries. This is why both Germain Grisez and George Weigel called for a investigation independent of Rodé’s Congregation. Weigel wrote that Rodé’s Congregation could not be trusted to conduct an investigation “because… senior curial officials resisted that solution in the years leading up to CDF’s 2006 action, and the Congregation for Religious has been resisting it ever since the latest Maciel firestorm broke…. Such reluctance hardly befits any curial office for a supervisory role in a credible moral and institutional audit of the Legion.”
Not only does Cardinal Rodé lack objectivity in the matter, but he (if the talking points report Rodé’s words accurately) and the Legionaries are even willing to co-opt and pressurize Pope Benedict. The talking points have casually attributed an opinion on the debatable point under discussion, the question as to whether the Legionaries have a valid charism (“the pope says to follow your charism”), to an exceptionally masterly and precise theologian and one who has in the past in his authentic words spoken with great care about secondary objects of infallibility.
In May 2005, one month into Benedict’s papacy, the Legionaries unilaterally declared that the investigation he had reopened as cardinal was complete. He remained silent for a year until it was in fact completed by Maciel’s discipline. When the Legionaries declared unilaterally that the discipline was no discipline, Benedict again remained silent, but he may be tiring of the recognizable Legionary tactic of putting words in his mouth, especially in the guise of declaring their obedience.
The O’Brien anti-charism and Rodé pro-charism perspectives have already been contending. Legionary seminarians have been reassured of the order’s charism and unchanged future and continue to read the Founder’s writings for spiritual nourishment. A few friendly ecclesiastical authorities have in the last month visited one of their seminaries in America to offer support and encouragement.
Father Benedict Groeschel, one of the founders of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, on February 20 visited the Legionary seminary in Thornwood, New York and said in a homily: “Now: ‘You all need reform!’ We ALL need reform! When do we need it? Every single day, no matter what goes on. Send anybody around to me who says, ‘They need reform!’ and I'll tell them, ‘Wake up, smarty!’” This was understood by some as Father Groeschel’s support for the view that the Legionaries do not need to be reformed or, at least, are no more in need of reform than anyone else.
English language Zenit, the Legionary news service based in Rome, carried Groeschel’s sermon ten days later on March 2 in an item more spin than news, “This Is Not the Legion of Anybody Except of Christ." Likewise it had reported on February 27, two days after the Ash Wednesday interview that “O'Brien Will Not Close Legionary Academy [in the Baltimore archdiocese]; Assures Director That Woodmont Is a ‘Fine School.’” O’Brien may be mad, in other words, but he’s not going to close us down.
Nevertheless, the delay of the Legionary statement represents a setback for the Rodé pro-charism position and we may expect a future less congenial to the Legionaries than the one envisaged by a statement that would have come out on February 24.
Rodé had spoken to Legionary seminarians by video on Monday February 23 to anticipate the statement expected the next day, Tuesday. Instead the statement was put off and the news became Archbishop O’Brien’s public denunciation of the Legion on the day after that, Ash Wednesday.
Pictures of the Founder may still be seen in Legionary houses, but one promised change has in fact now occurred. The Legionaries will no longer celebrate personal milestones of Father Maciel as solemn feast days on their calendar. His upcoming birthday Tuesday March 10, what would have been his 89th, and baptismal day Wednesday March 18, will for the first time be observed in Legionary houses as ordinary days.
In Catholic belief, Jesus is God made a human being. Incarnation, embodiment, remains central to Catholic theology. Popes John Paul and Benedict have constantly preached consistency of faith and life in Christian witness. If the Legionaries cling, even in a limited way, to Father Maciel’s authority as founder despite his double life, they will be providing the Church with an unseemly counter-example.
Yet a spontaneous apology from the heart, like Tom Hoopes’ on amywelborn.wordpress.com (“I’m sorry, to the victims, who were victims twice.”), may fail to calculate legal repercussions and Legionary superiors reprimanded him for it. What to do if institutional survival is at odds with authentic Christian response?
On the Saturday after Ash Wednesday, Catholics are exhorted to follow Christ as immediately as the publican Matthew who left his post when called. Yet the Church has not responded to the Maciel scandal with an immediate, short-term revulsion, but, taking a longer view, is taking into consideration the preservation of lay Legionary apostolic networks in Latin America, which are among the few the Church has there, and the personal destinies of many Legionary seminarians and priests and Regnum Christi members. But for as long as the Church takes time for reflection, abuse of conscience and the aftereffects of Father Maciel’s sexual violence and corruption continue within the Legion.
These are some of the factors delaying the Legionary statement. In any event, if Catholic Church authorities really want to assure themselves that the Legionaries have spun their last lie, that will certainly take a little more time.
Cassandra Jones is a pseudonym. The writer has worked with the Legionaries for a number of years.