The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), with the approval of the Holy Father, has decided, in the words of the official Vatican statement, "to invite [Father Marcial Maciel] to a reserved life of penitence and prayer, relinquishing any form of public ministry."

Fr. Maciel is the founder of the Legionaries of Christ and its lay association, Regnum Christi. He retired from active leadership in 2005. Beginning in 1998, a number of charges of sexual wrongdoing, related to events of five decades ago, were brought against Fr. Maciel by former members of the Legion. The CDF conducted an investigation of the charges but, because of Fr. Maciel’s fragile health and advanced age, did not conduct a canonical hearing. Since there was no canonical hearing, there is no canonical judgment regarding his guilt or innocence of the alleged wrongdoings.

The most precise statement of what has happened, I believe, is that, in the judgment of CDF and the pope, it is in the best interests of the Church, the Legion, and Fr. Maciel that he relinquish his public ministry and devote the remainder of his life to penitence and prayer. It should be noted that "penitence" in this connection does no connote punishment for wrongdoing. The Vatican statement also says that "the worthy apostolate of the Legionaries of Christ and of the association Regnum Christi is gratefully recognized."

What to make of all this? Although I have no formal connection with the Legion and Regnum Christi, I have over the years been a strong supporter of both. They have in the past, do now, and, I am confident, will continue to provide vibrant apostolates in the service of Christ and his Church. When the charges against Fr. Maciel first surfaced, I studied the matter with care and had detailed discussions with knowledgeable people on all sides of the ensuing controversy. I said in First Things and elsewhere that I was "morally certain" the charges were false. 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. 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 think Fr. Maciel did do something wrong.

The official statement of the Legion says: "Fr. Maciel, with the spirit of obedience to the Church that has always characterized him, has accepted this communiqué with faith, complete serenity, and tranquility of conscience, knowing that it is a new cross that God, the Father of Mercy, has allowed him to suffer and that will obtain many graces for the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi Movement. The Legionaries of Christ and the members of Regnum Christi, following the example of Fr. Maciel and united to him, accept and will accept always the directives of the Holy See with a profound spirit of obedience and faith. We renew our commitment to work with great intensity to live our charism of charity and extend the Kingdom of Christ serving the Church."

The Legion statement also says, "Facing the accusations made against him, [Fr. Maciel] declared his innocence and, following the example of Christ, decided not to defend himself in any way." The venerable spiritual tradition being followed here is that of purification through suffering, in the confidence that Fr. Maciel will one day be vindicated. There is ample historical precedent of holy men and women who were unjustly treated by church authorities. St. Joan of Arc, for an obvious instance. Or the eleventh-century saint, Pope Gregory VII, whose dying words were, "I loved righteousness, I hated iniquity, and so I die in exile."

It was hardly the only factor, but one of the many factors that entered into my moral certainty regarding Fr. Maciel’s innocence was my great respect for John Paul II and his repeated statements of support for Fr. Maciel. With similar respect for the office and person of Pope Benedict, I do not protest this directive implying that Fr. Maciel is guilty of wrongdoing. It is obvious that CDF and the Holy Father know more than I know with respect to evidence supporting the guilt or innocence of Fr. Maciel.

I earnestly pray that the magnificent apostolates of the Legion of Christ and of Regnum Christi will continue to flourish in the service of Christ and his Church.

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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