Among the undercurrents of Church journalism over the past week is a clear desire among news providers to connect dots within the Church—sometimes where the case for neither a connection nor a dot can be made. An article in the Los Angeles Times yesterday hearkened back to the shameful story of Fr. Marciel Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ. Many persons of integrity—having heard nothing but good of Fr. Maciel and the work done by the Legionaries—accepted with great difficulty the horrifying details of his double life. But Los Angeles Times writer Tim Rutten went a step further yesterday, placing First Things founder Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in the mix of those who doubted the initial accusations.
What’s interesting about all of this is that a list of Maciel’s most vociferous defenders reads like a who’s who of the conservative Catholic intellectuals who, in recent years, have insisted that Catholicism and membership in the Democratic Party are all but incompatible. Among Maciel’s defenders have been the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, whose journal, First Things, is a bible for conservative Catholics; William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, who refused to accept an award from Notre Dame because it invited President Obama to speak at its commencement; former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, now a talk-show host and commentator; and Deal Hudson, President George W. Bush’s Catholic liaison.
While all have since disavowed approval of Maciel’s personal character, Rutten draws particular attention to a claim Fr. Neuhaus made in March 2002 and later qualified:
In fact, when the Vatican ordered Maciel into retirement, Neuhaus—who earlier had written that he knew the man’s innocence as “a moral certainty”—told the New York Times: “It wouldn’t be the first time that an innocent and indeed holy person was unfairly treated by church authority.”
Not exactly. Neuhaus noted later that “moral certitude, it should be noted, is a very high degree of probability that justifies action but is short of certitude described as absolute, mathematical, or metaphysical.” Further, he acknowledged it was reasonable to believe the allegations against Maciel, given the circumstantial evidence:
I do not know all that the CDF and the Holy Father know and am not privy to the considerations that led to their decision. It is reasonable to believe that they concluded that Fr. Maciel did do something very seriously wrong. To censure publicly, toward the end of his life, the founder of a large and growing religious community is an extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented, measure in Catholic history. Moreover, because the only public and actionable charges against Fr. Maciel had to do with sexual abuse, the clear implication is that that was the reason for the censure. In view of the public knowledge of the charges, it is not plausible that he was censured for some other and unknown reason.
In short, Fr. Neuhaus went along with the evidence as it became available. But Tim Rutten persists:
Do Bennett, Glendon, Donohue and Hudson still agree with Neuhaus? The resolution of the Legionaries of Christ case will be a test not only for Benedict but also for those conservative American intellectuals who have yet to explain how they came to give such unstinting support to a malevolent sexual predator.
Rutten’s query is an odd one; If we assume Rutten is aware of Fr. Neuhaus’ passing over a year ago, we might respond with a “yes,” since Bennett, Glendon, Donohue and Hudson all agree with Neuhaus that evidence—not presumption—seems to show, regrettably, that Maciel was guilty. And as for the list of conservative names Rutten recounts, it should be expected that orthodox Catholics in public life would support a group like the Legionaries, given its efforts to engage lay Catholics and to stand against the secularization of culture. Despite Rutten’s snide suggestion, there is no evidence these individuals support the Legionaries because of the “malevolent sexual predator” once in their midst—a nonsensical claim that can hardly be presumed to be made in good faith. Nor is there a reasonable claim that any public figure outside the Legion has argued for Maciel’s innocence once the evidence emerged. Indeed, Fr. Neuhaus offered hope for the Legion when it seemed its founder’s name had been blackened indelibly:
The future of the Legion and Regnum Christi cannot depend on the innocence or guilt of Fr. Maciel. Founder and charism may not be entirely separable, but they can be clearly distinguished.
The months and years ahead must be a time of profound self-examination, reform, and renewal. Earnestly and confidently I pray, and invite all to pray, that the magnificent apostolates of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi will continue to flourish in the service of Christ and his Church.