In Catholic theology and spirituality of religious life, founders of religious orders have a unique charism (gift of the spirit) that the church is affirming when it establishes that order. But what happens when it is revealed that the founder was evil? That’s what the Catholic church is wrestling with now in the wake of the revelations about Fr. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi. And it’s also clear that the church knew there were problems from the very beginning. As a young man, Maciel was booted from one seminary to another–formators saw he had problems. He began gathering boys to himself, and grooming them to imitate his spirituality, mandating that they never speak ill of him, but always reverently call him “Nuestro Padre.” He created a regimented order of priests, based on the Roman legions. He mandated their behavior down to minute details such as how they used knife and fork, how they sat, how they dressed, and how they laughed. “The Stepford priests” is how some referred to them.
Accusations of misconduct came early. The first accusations concerned drug abuse, and led to a Vatican investigation and Maciel’s suspension in the 1950s–but he was reinstated. Then came accusations of sexual misconduct, but these never got anywhere. With the elevation of Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy the investigation was reopened. He was removed from leadership and sent into seclusion. Recent reports depict him as a faithless blasphemer in his last days. Following his death, it was revealed that he had fathered children, and created several phony identities for himself, and that the order protected his secret. Now it is is said he sexually abused not only the boys in the order, but his own biological children.
Because of Catholic theology about charisms of founders, this all has grave implications for the order he founded. If he had no spiritual gift, if his spirituality and his order was all a cloak for his secret sins, if all the manipulation and control and secrecy was rooted in his own duplicitous life–is there anything good to be saved?
There is a lot of anger surrounding these questions among former members of the Legion and Regnum Christi–rooted in the grief that comes from realizing that they were betrayed and hoodwinked and manipulated by a consummate professional. These members were (and are) good people, sincerely desiring to follow Christ. They were attracted to the Legion and Regnum Christi because it seemed to be the real thing. Here was an order that affirmed the validity of Vatican 2, professed faithful obedience to the pope, taught Catholic theology without apology, and had evangelistic zeal. It seemed to be just what the Catholic church needed in the wake of the chaos that followed Vatican 2. During the pontificate of John Paul II it was lifted up as a shining example of the “new evangelization.”
I encountered the Legion late. I became a Catholic in 1992. I was a director of religious education at a parish in New York, then a campus minister at UCSB, and then was director of young adult and campus ministry for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston from 1998-2007. I became familiar with the movement because some students at one of the Newman Centers were seeking to promote College Compass, the Regnum Christi apostolate for college students. A couple of students went on Compass’s “Prince of Liechtenstein Fellowship”–a month long, all expenses paid trip to Europe. When Compass had a regional gathering in Lafayette, LA, I went with the Rice students. I began to build relationships with the Compass leadership, and then with Legion and Regnum Christi members in Houston. I was asked to give some talks on the 2005 Prince of Liechtenstein Fellowship, and had a wonderful time for about ten days in Europe. I was invited to serve on the Compass advisory board, helped organize a national Compass gathering in Houston, and helped to build bridges between Compass and the Catholic Campus Ministry Association. I interviewed for the position of Compass executive director when it became available. I’ve visited the Legion seminary in Cheshire, CT, and stayed at their seminary in Rome.
I found much about the Legion and Regnum Christi attractive–and some things very odd. But I was willing to accept that there are different spiritualities, and that while it might not be for me, it may be appropriate for those called to it. I knew of some of the accusations against Maciel, but I trusted John Paul II and Benedict VI. I found the defenses of Maciel written by Richard John Neuhaus and Mary Ann Glendon to be persuasive. I kept silent my feelings about the oddity of the Legion–I found Legionary priests could laugh at their peculiarities, and that seemed healthy to me. And let’s be honest–why would I want to bite a hand that was being so generous to me?
So I can relate to the feelings now of betrayal and anger and disbelief that the members and former members of Regnum Christi and the Legion are experiencing. I also am privy to how the Legion treated some specific individuals.
The lesson in all of this for me is that conservatives need to be very careful in reacting to problems in the church (any church). You may be unhappy with things being done in the name of your church, with theological dissent and with those who question traditional morality. You may see those on the conservative edge as being a counter balance. You may be drawn to their zeal, and their orthodoxy and orthopraxy. But beware. Satan can pull people off track to the right as well as to the left. He can appear as an angel of light, so that the very elect run the risk of being deceived. Be careful. If something doesn’t seem right–whether in how people are treated, or how people are expected to behave, don’t dismiss that still, small voice. Don’t view any person or group as “the answer” to the problems in your life or the church. Don’t surrender your judgment to any person. “Test the spirits.” “Be wise as serpents, but harmless as doves.”