Over the past year, members and friends of the Legionaries of Christ and its affiliated lay movement, Regnum Christi, have worked hard in trying to “save what can be saved” from the wreckage created by revelations that the founder of these communities, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, lived a vicious and duplicitous life of moral turpitude for decades, during which he fathered several children; sexually abused seminarians; violated the canons respecting the Sacrament of Reconciliation; deceived popes, curial officials, bishops, his brother Legionaries, and the lay members of Regnum Christi; and funded all of this by the misdirection of contributions given to support the religious work of the communities that called him Nuestro Padre or Nuestro Padre Fundador.
On April 30, the five apostolic visitators whom Pope Benedict XVI had charged with investigating the Legion met at the Vatican with senior officials of the Holy See, in a daylong session that Pope Benedict joined for ninety minutes.
On May 1, the Holy See released a statement on the Legion case and the initial steps being taken to save what can be saved. The statement bluntly acknowledged that Maciel had engaged in “extremely serious and objectively immoral behavior,” some of which involved “real crimes,” and all of which, taken together, led to the conclusion that Maciel’s was “a life devoid of scruples and authentic religious sentiment.”
The statement further deplored the structures of deceit and self-deception within the Legion that had facilitated Maciel’s double life, including an “ostracism of those who doubted his upright behavior.” The impact of that structure of deceit continues to be felt, the statement continued, in the “surprise, distress, and profound sadness [felt] among members of the Legion” when their superiors finally told them something of the truth about Maciel. Indeed, the statement acknowledges that the sordid facts of the Maciel affair “could bring into question the vocation and central charism that belongs to the Legionaries of Christ and is proper to them.”
As for immediate next steps, the Holy See will appoint a commissioner or delegate to run the Legion of Christ for the foreseeable future. The May 1 statement suggests, and Vatican sources confirm, that this delegate will have plenipotentiary powers, including making recommendations to the pope about the future of the Legion of Christ—about which, it seems, all options remain on the table. The delegate presumably will address several of the major concerns identified by the apostolic visitators: the “need to redefine the charism of the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ”; the “need to review the exercise of authority” within the Legion, “which must be joined to the truth, in order to respect conscience”; and the “need to preserve the enthusiasm of the faith of young people [in the Legion or in its institutions] . . . by means of an adequate formation.”
A Vatican commission will carefully examine the Legion’s constitutions; that examination will have to consider how the present constitutions facilitated the problems of deceit, misuse of authority, and malformation within the Legion. Finally, an apostolic visitation of Regnum Christi will be undertaken, with an apostolic visitator to be appointed shortly.
If, indeed, everything about the future of the Legion (and, by extension, Regnum Christi) remains on the table, so that an open discussion of options is possible, the following notes may be of some use to those involved in resolving this drama in ways that serve the universal Church while saving what can be saved of the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi.
1. The prime imperative for the immediate future is to dismantle the “grand narrative” of Legion history within both the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi—the carefully crafted, nurtured, and inculcated story of noble works being achieved after humble and often persecuted beginnings. Some of this dismantling has begun, in recent admissions by Legionary authorities that Maciel committed sins and crimes. But the temptation to hang onto an annotated grand narrative, in which Maciel appears as a flawed man who nonetheless accomplished great things, remains; prior to the most recent concession, by Legionary leadership, of Maciel’s perfidies, some within both the Legion and Regnum Christi were comparing Nuestro Padre to St. Augustine. All of this must stop, and the grand narrative must be destroyed, root and branch.
To that end, the delegate governing the Legion ought to request that the Holy See prepare and publish an account of Maciel’s double life, with his specific crimes described individually. Such an account would then be given to every member of the Legionaries of Christ and every member of Regnum Christi, who would be asked to sign an affidavit stating that “I certify that I have personally read and understood the account of the crimes of Father Maciel that has been provided by the Holy See.” Such a process would make it difficult, if not impossible, for any form of the grand narrative to be reconstructed. Putting the full details of the wreckage on the public record now would also clear psychological space for a consideration of the future while sparing the Holy See and the rest of the Catholic Church the drip, drip, drip of lurid revelations being brought to light for decades by investigative journalists and the plaintiffs’ bar.
2. At the beginning of his work, the delegate ought to consider informing the members of the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi that, as they gave themselves to these institutions without knowing the pathologies of their founder, they are free to leave these institutions without sin, guilt, shame, or remorse.
Such a statement is essential to stop the moral blackmail that (according to credible reports from the families of Legionary seminarians and students in Regnum Christi schools) continues today: “Since you came to us it is clearly God’s will for you to be here, and you will be turning your back on God’s will and sinning if you leave . . .”
Procedures for the fast-track exclaustration of vowed members of the Legion who wish to join another religious congregation or incardinate in a diocese as regular clergy should be devised. This will make clear that what is to be salvaged from the current debacle are priestly vocations (many of them impressive and of great value to the Church), not necessarily Legionary vocations. Similar procedures for assisting lay members of Regnum Christi to leave without any pressure or stigma are essential to the authentic reform of that movement.
3. The current Legion leadership, at the international and regional levels, must be replaced, immediately and comprehensively, with appointed interim superiors who will serve at the pleasure of the delegate. The delegate should thoroughly investigate the question of whether present Legion members were knowingly complicit in Maciel’s crimes, and arrange for the dismissal of those who were from the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ.
4. Through its delegate, the Holy See should instruct the Legion to suspend immediately all vocation recruitment, including vocation retreats and postulancy programs, none of which is to be resumed without permission of the Holy See. At the same time, the Holy See should instruct bishops around the world to supervise closely the work of the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi within their dioceses, such that the spiritual lives and consciences of those attending Legion schools and those undergoing formation leading to consecrated life within Regnum Christi are rigorously safeguarded. Credible reports of repeated pressures being put on young consciences should result in the immediate suspension of faculties of the Legionary priests involved.
5. The delegate should facilitate a serious theological reflection within the Legionaries of Christ on what the May 1 statement describes as the “true core” of the Legion’s charism, namely, “that of the militia Christi.” That charism cannot be credibly attributed to Marcial Maciel; it may have emerged from the devotion and good works of the members of the Legion. How that happened requires the most serious reflection on the dynamics of sin and grace in the Church, and an acknowledgment that a militant zeal for the Church’s evangelical work is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the entire Church, not simply to an elite corps of religious within the Church. Indeed, a serious theological reflection on the Legion’s future will have to include a rigorous examination of the Legion’s ecclesiology and its understanding of how it “fits” within the Body of Christ and its triple mission of teaching, sanctification, and service.
Historically, the charism of a religious congregation has been deeply and intimately linked to its founder, even if the original foundation subsequently has split and subdivided (as, for example, with the Franciscans, whose various communities today nonetheless all live in continuity with the originating charism of St. Francis). In this case, however, the founder must be repudiated: Whatever canonical form a reformed or reconstituted or refounded Legionaries of Christ might take, its charism cannot be linked to Marcial Maciel. How it might be linked to the spiritual patrimony of the entire Church militant, mediated through the holy lives that have in fact been lived within the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ, is a question requiring very careful thought and a willingness to consider a full menu of possible answers.
6. Given the unprecedented nature of this case—a religious congregation manifestly capable of good works yet founded by a sociopathic personality—options beyond either suppression or reform ought to be considered. If it is essential that the grand narrative of Legionary history be repudiated along with the founder, and if a mechanism needs to be devised to ensure that the future can be constructed without the burden of those associated with the evils of the past, then perhaps a dissolution-plus-refoundation scenario should be explored.
Such a scenario might unfold like this: The delegate governing the Legion, after taking the measures noted above and concluding that no program of reform from within is likely to prove feasible, would summon a General Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ. The General Congregation, after reflecting on the record compiled by the apostolic visitators, would conclude its work by dissolving the present Legion to clear the path for a “refoundation”—the creation of a new religious community dedicated to the tasks of lay formation, spiritual renewal and evangelization, and Catholic education that characterized the best of the work of the former Legion.
Having accepted the General Congregation’s decision to dissolve the Legionaries of Christ, the Holy See would appoint a commission, composed in part of now-former Legionary priests of indisputable integrity and in part of other priests and bishops of known probity, to receive and consider the applications of those priests and seminarians of the now-dissolved Legion who wish to enter the new community.
This commission would have the authority to reject the applications of those whose linkage to the Legion’s past would create difficulties for the new community’s future. Assuming a suitable number of applicants were judged acceptable, an election would then be arranged to constitute a committee charged with defining the new community’s mission and drafting provisional statutes for its governance under the supervision of an apostolic delegate who would chair the committee. Such a mission statement and rule of life would then be submitted to the normal processes of review by the Holy See.
It will be objected that such an unconventional method of addressing the ecclesiastical crisis provoked by the Maciel Affair cannot work: The work of various Legionary and Regnum Christi institutions would be seriously disrupted, questions of property would be endlessly litigated, and some ecclesiastical home would have to be found for those who chose not to join the new community or who were denied acceptance into it.
Yet if the goal remains to save what can be saved in the work of the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi, there must be a clear, unmistakable, and public break with the past and with the person of Marcial Maciel. A self-dissolution of the present Legion and the creation of another religious community dedicated to the good works that the Legion has done—including the spiritual direction of a “refounded” Regnum Christi—would help break the fever of the grand narrative and end the personality cult of Maciel, both of which contributed mightily to the current crisis of the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi.
As for the property issues, these will doubtless be litigated, with or without a dissolution and “refoundation,” given the financial issues that the revelations of Maciel’s double life have already raised. Finding some ecclesiastical home for ex-Legionaries whose past lives do not qualify them for admission to the new community ought not be impossible, however difficult.
To propose that such an unprecedented course of action be seriously considered is not a question of desperate situations calling for desperate measures, but of great evils requiring the remedy of heroic virtue—in this case, the heroic exercise of the cardinal virtues of courage, justice, and prudence. If, as I think we must believe, God can bring good out of evil in the Maciel affair, then the exercise of prudence in the work of justice and courage here must be to open a path along which the goodness to be found in the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi can find its way into the future, absent the chains of the past. That requires breaking those chains: theologically, psychologically, historically, and, one suspects, institutionally.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.