A time of reckoning

Recently, the Legion of Christ has acknowledged that its founder, Rev. Marcial Maciel, lived a double life and fathered a child. His religious order is, though, to all appearances, a flourishing one: Together with its associated lay movement Regnum Christi, it has done a lot of good in the service of the Church.

This development seems unprecedented in Church history. Usually, a religious order’s founder is either canonized or canonizable (think of St. Francis and the Franciscans, St. Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and the Missionaries of Charity). But in this case the founder of a religious order fully approved by the Church is, just a year after his death, certified as a hypocrite.

To be sure, the news can hardly be a total surprise to those who have followed the Maciel story over time. In 1997, the Hartford Courant ran a series of articles that charged Maciel with having sexually abused a number of young seminarians, who eventually left the Legion. Maciel issued an indignant and total denial of the charges. In 2005 he retired because of age from his position as Superior General of the Legion.

In May of 2006, the Vatican’s Press Office issued a statement that reported on what happened to the canonical case against Father Maciel, because since 1998 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had been receiving related complaints charging him with sexual abuse and even abuse of the sacrament of penance by absolving accomplices. The Vatican reported that “the then Prefect of the Congregation..., Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, authorized an investigation of the charges.” In the meantime, Pope John Paul II died and Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI.

The Congregation then decided, “taking account of both the advanced age of Father Maciel as well as his bad health, to avoid a canonical trial and to invite Father to a private life of prayer and penance, renouncing all public ministry. The Holy Father approved these decisions.” At the same time, the Vatican Press Office’s communique recognized “with gratitude, independent of the person of the Founder, the praiseworthy apostolate of the Legionaries of Christ and of the Association Regnum Christi.”

The action was widely taken at the time as a tacit acknowledgment by the Church of the truth of at least some of the grave charges against Maciel. If there wasn’t a formal trial, that was to spare a sick old man, and perhaps more importantly, the order he founded, the trauma of a definitive public sentence that he was a pedophile. Had he wanted to, Maciel could have insisted on a formal trial before the penalty was imposed. Clearly, the Holy See wanted to distinguish the person of the founder from the good people and good works of the order.

The statement that the Legion’s Press Office issued at that time in response to the Holy See’s action was ambiguous on the question of his guilt, but left a clear impression that he had gotten a bum rap: “Facing the accusations made against him, [Father Maciel] declared his innocence and, following the example of Jesus Christ, decided not to defend himself in any way...Father Maciel, with the spirit of obedience to the Church that has always characterized him, has accepted this communique with faith, complete serenity and tranquility of conscience. The Legionaries of Christ and the members of the Regnum Christi, following the example of Father Maciel and united to him, accept and will accept always the directives of the Holy See with profound spirit of obedience and faith.”

People sympathetic to the Legion and Regnum Christi were thus encouraged to view Father Maciel like Jesus Christ, who was falsely accused, or a latter-day Padre Pio, who had himself been suspended by the Vatican during his lifetime but was ultimately vindicated when he was canonized. Flattery got them nowhere: “Following the example of Father Maciel” is now a very dubious proposition, particularly given that there seem to be numerous unacknowledged victims of his duplicity.

I hope and pray that the Legion and Regnum Christi can successfully save their apostolates and extricate their charism, which Wikipedia helpfully describes as “the particular grace granted by God to religious founders and their organization which distinguish them from other organizations within the church,” from the grave faults of their founder.

While my first-hand experience with them is quite limited, as I only know well an exemplary woman in Regnum Christi and know none of the Legionaries, I am sure that there are some very good and holy people involved, who must be deeply pained by these developments. Extricating an authentic charism from a flawed founder has got to be the ecclesiastical equivalent of brain surgery, and it is a very delicate operation. On the other hand, Pope Benedict is just the man to do it. He began doing it in 2006.

For those interested in following this story, I recommend the Catholic blog www.americanpapist.com. Stay tuned.

Dwight G. Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.