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Representatives elected by the many good men who compose my former religious congregation, the Legionaries of Christ, are currently meeting in Rome in an extraordinary General Chapter. The multi-week meeting was intended to mark the culmination of a three-year period of “profound re-evaluation” and reform initiated in the spring of 2009 when then Pope Benedict XVI requested a canonical visitation of the congregation in response to the turmoil into which it was thrust by revelations of sexual depravities by the congregation’s founder Marcial Maciel.

In his last interview with journalist Peter Seewald (Light of the World), Benedict described Maciel as a “mysterious figure” yet asserted that the congregation itself was fundamentally “sound.” Subsequently, in 2010, the congregation was essentially placed in receivership, under the direction of a specially appointed Papal Delegate, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis.

De Paolis recently noted that Benedict’s actions were “not so severe as to destroy the congregation,” which in De Paolis’ view meant he was “implicitly denying that a substantially negative judgment of the Legion itself should be made.”

For a religious congregation to be sound it must be animated by a valid and clearly ascertainable religious charism. The question of the Legion’s charism, however, is an enigma. Not surprisingly, in the interview, De Paolis notably demurs on this question. He suggests that because the five bishop visitors appointed by the Holy See to undertake the canonical visitation judged that “the congregation [could] move forward [apart from Maciel] . . . they implicitly acknowledged that perhaps it already had a valid charism.”

“Perhaps there’s a charism” is pretty thin theological ice. De Paolis is powerless to express in a concise fashion just what that charism might be. His best option is to pivot to a different concept. He says he prefers the term of “institutional patrimony” to that of “charism” because the latter concept—in the case of the Legionaries—becomes “problematic” when you try to talk about it.

If by “patrimony” DePaolis means—as I suppose he does—the ensemble of elements of spirituality, piety, and commonly shared traditions of religious life that are discoverable within the Legion, these are not unique to the Legion. They are rather elements of the Church’s own spiritual patrimony. So the opaque notion of “institutional patrimony” gets us nowhere in terms of understanding the putative charism of the Legionaries.

At the heart of the problem is the Church’s historical experience of religious congregations and their charisms. Historically, foundational religious charism and founder go together; you don’t have one without the other. If there were a charism present in the Legion, a charism discernible apart from any reference to Maciel, this would constitute an unprecedented situation in the history of religious life in the Church.

All that notwithstanding, Pope Emeritus Benedict clearly embraced those two assumptions regarding the Legionaries: The community was essentially “sound” and a charism was “perhaps” existent.

I am not alone in believing that the best thing for the Legionaries and for the Church, in the wake of the catastrophic revelations about Maciel, would have been for Benedict to suppress the congregation—an argument I have made before in this journal. Yet, Benedict’s disciplinary tack in 2010 was not to suppress the Legion of Christ, but to attempt a reform. (An ecclesial instance, perhaps, of “too big to fail”?)

This reform has not gone well. De Paolis’ approach to “fixing” the problem of the Legionaries has been painfully narrow in focus, almost entirely canonical, directed overwhelmingly at adjusting the congregation’s exercise of authority. While the problem of authority was the leading cause of the internal disorder of the Legionaries, it was certainly not the only one.

Yet De Paolis describes his approach as having been precisely to reduce all the Legion’s ills to this one problem of the misunderstanding of authority. “We have reduced [this] problem,” he affirms, “to the redaction of Constitutions according to the instructions of the [Second Vatican] Council, the post-Conciliar period and the Code of Canon Law” (implying very clearly, by the way, that the Legion’s 1983 Constitutions were highly problematic and never should have been approved).

In other words, rewrite the Constitutions, elect new superiors, and—voilà—the problem of the Legion is essentially solved.

The premise that the Legionaries of Christ are fundamentally “sound,” remains to this day open to serious question. Canonically they exist as a juridically valid religious congregation. That, however, does not equate with being “sound.” And De Paolis’ canonical approach has never directly addressed the profound problems of the internal culture of the congregation. In fairness, I can personally attest that some of those elements have finally begun to be addressed, and not just cosmetically. But deeply entrenched problems remain.

The presumption of soundness left the hundreds of young Legionary seminarians in the unconscionable status quo in which facts about Maciel were essentially inaccessible due to the internal control over access to the media, and in which, any accounts of the congregation’s situation were filtered through carefully scripted presentations by the superiors who essentially told the Legionary seminarians what and how they were to think about their predicament. They were left in the same vulnerable situation of manipulation and suppression of interior freedom that was characteristic of the Legion’s internal culture since its inception.

In light of the revelations of 2009, it is still an open question as to whether each and every one of the Legionaries has been able to discern his continuance in the congregation with genuine interior freedom—a freedom that requires adequate knowledge of the facts of Maciel’s depravities, of the financial improprieties of the congregation, and of the myriad layers of institutionalized deception, manipulation and control that was the reality of the congregation as of just five years ago.

Returning to the enigmatic question of the charism of the Legionaries, and notwithstanding the deficiencies of his approach to reform, De Paolis has hit on a plausible thesis. In the Lombardi interview, he affirms that a charism has emerged from within the broader reality of the Regnum Christi Lay Movement, which began historically as the primary apostolic work of the Legion. He suggests that the Legion’s charism is nothing other than the charism present and operative in the lay movement Regnum Christi.

I find this to be a theologically tenable possibility.

I say that ever so cognizant of the profound problems that have existed within Regnum Christi—which emerged as a primary apostolate of the Legionaries in the 1970s—which was not untouched by the sickly internal culture of the Legion, and where some of the greatest and lasting harm was done—especially in the lives of aspirants to, and members of, the female consecrated branch of Regnum Christi.

The enigma of the Legion and Regnum Christi is that it was at one and the same time a blend of wheat and weeds—evil weeds. Yet, notwithstanding the evil structures, methods, and cult-like internal culture that were the immediate fruit of Maciel’s depraved persona, it is at least tenable to believe that God in his infinite mercy could inspire a charism precisely in spite of, and accidental to, those evil structures.

I continue to believe in the vast majority of these men and women of Regnum Christi, whose authentic love for Christ and his Church I have experienced personally, and who themselves were also victims of the horrific fraud that was Marcial Maciel. I have come to believe that many men and women of Regnum Christi have been living a discernible charism, namely the evangelization and formation of Catholic laity. That charism would be precisely to encourage laity to make a personal commitment to Christic discipleship and exercise their specific form of service in the Church.

In the Legion of Christ, we notoriously debated the nature of our putative “charism” for decades. It is true that something akin to what I have just described did emerge under the rubric of the “formation and evangelization of leaders.” Yet within the Legion, this conception was too often corrupted by an elitist emphasis on “leaders,” and by a methodology that often became deceptive, and which manipulated rather than served. The pursuit of more and more recruits was driven by the cult of personality of the megalomaniacal founder. Over years, this far too often became an idolatry of “numbers” and “results,” an idolatry of aggrandizing the fame of the Legion above all else. Too often as well, it occasioned the moral failure of treating Legionaries and Regnum Christi members alike as disposable objects, as means to an end, instead of ends in themselves.

The inability of Legionaries to ascertain and articulate just what their charism was had very much to do with the fact that the founder orchestrated a change of “focus” for the congregation any number of times over decades—whatever would best “serve the Legion”—and himself. Given the control he exercised over the congregation, the Legionaries were simply incapable of centering their lives on a discernible charism. Perhaps that simply indicates that there was no charism present—no there, there.

But Maciel never managed to exercise such control over the entirety of Regnum Christi. The Movement attracted men and women of great spiritual caliber. Many, to be sure, were attracted to something in Regnum Christi, but never felt an attraction to Maciel; some in fact reported years later that they even felt a repulsion for the founder—although at the time they could never quite put their finger on the cause. Can it be the case, then, that the Holy Spirit inspired an unknown number of Regnum Christi members with a genuine charism, and that by sharing in that charism, the Legionaries will discover their own raison d’être in the Church? This is at least a theological proposition that merits serious consideration.

In light of all of this, and as potential indicators that the Holy Spirit is working a genuine transformation in the lives of the men who compose the Legion, I offer in conclusion this advice to my former confreres presently engaged in their General Chapter:

• Apologize—as late in forthcoming as it would be—in the style of the apology issued by Legionary priest Fr. Juan Sabadell, to all the victims of sexual abuse by Maciel. Explain in greater detail what you have done, and what you will do for the victims of Maciel and for the victims of sexual abuse by other members of the Congregation. In addition to disclosing the reality of Legionary priests who have sexually abused others, be entirely forthcoming and report on the Legionary religious (non-priest members) who also have credible allegations of sexual abuse against them. Demonstrate that you will overcome resistance to such reporting and disclosure in every territory of the congregation.

• Apologize as well to all of those—thousands of people—who believe that they were personally hurt by their association with the Legion and Regnum Christi through exposure to any number of internal aberrations in which the Legion and Regnum Christi were tragically immersed. Engage in an efficacious outreach to them which may include different forms of spiritual and material assistance and reparation.

• Appoint a fully independent body to investigate the entire history of Maciel and the Legion. The institutional resistance to such an investigation is one of the most damning ongoing reasons for distrust in the reform effort. But the resistance is understandable. Such an investigation would likely turn up unpleasant evidence of failed leadership (if not worse) within the Vatican, in the vein of what has already been discovered through investigative reporting such as the inaction of the then prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Cardinal Fran Rode (prefect from 2004 to 2011), who sat on knowledge of Maciel’s depravities for at least two years, omitting any effort to inform the hundreds of Legionaries living their lives in a state of utter deception.

• Break—irrevocably and unambiguously—with the figure of Maciel. Any members of the congregation who are unable to overcome emotional dependence on Maciel should be directed to appropriate psychological therapy.

• Emerge from the general chapter sending the Church a clear and credible message: We are something new. Specifically, the Legionaries could request that the Holy See dissolve the juridical person of the ‘Legion of Christ’ and constitute a new canonical and juridical entity with a new name. That is to hope for too much. But the Legionaries must find some vehicle for expressing the reality that upon conclusion of the General Chapter, a new history begins. Yet by the same token, understand that it will take years to recover your credibility and instill confidence with thousands of Catholics around the globe.

• Ask the Holy See to appoint a new Delegate to guide the “reformed Legion” or the new religious entity during the first years of its new life. Understand that the period of “reform” is not coming to an end, but rather, only beginning. Any plausible rehabilitation of the Legionaries in the Church is going to take many more years. Embrace that reality with humility and trust in the Holy Spirit.

• Escape from your myopic Legionary world. From recent contacts with the Legionaries, it is clear that what continues to plague them, hand-in-hand with resistance to the truth, is the Legion’s pernicious, cult-like institutional self-referentiality. With very few exceptions, the Legionaries resist hearing criticism of the congregation. They must acquire a new and unconditional openness to the voices of those who point to problems in the congregation as it has existed to the present day: Listen, learn, acknowledge, accept, and change.

• Stop demonizing those of us who have left. Work to rid the members of that cult-like parsing of the non-Legionary world into “friends and enemies.” Respect the process of discernment that led many of us to follow Christ into other forms of service in the Church, especially those of us who discerned that we were not called to remain part of the Legion or its attempt at reform. And as current members continue to leave in light of similar discernment, respect the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, assist them, support them, and continue to consider them brothers and friends.

• Stop insisting to the Church that you are a “work of God,” particularly on the basis of acts of ecclesial approval—such as the eventual canonical approval of your new Constitutions. In other words, stop confusing the exercise of the munus regendi with the munus docendi. Constitutions can be approved and struck down. Religious families can be established and suppressed. Such juridical actions by the Holy See, in principle, say nothing with regard to the supernatural origin of the foundational inspiration. (Was the Society of Jesus any less a genuine work of the Holy Spirit when it was suppressed by Clement XIV in 1773?) Whether the religious family that emerges from the General Chapter is a “work of God” or not is a question that can only be answered many years down the road. Focus, rather, on serving the people of God—with genuine humility.

Whether Benedict erred in his prudential determination to attempt a reform of the Legionaries as opposed to suppressing the congregation can only be judged over time. For now, the Church must grapple with the continued unprecedented spectacle of the Legionaries. She must, indeed, accompany these good men, and the many members of the lay association Regnum Christi. Only over time will we be able to discern the Legionaries of Christ as they emerge weeks from now from their General Chapter. They will have to be judged anew—like all of us—by their eventual fruits.

Rev. Thomas V. Berg is Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. He was a member of the Legionaries of Christ for twenty-three years.

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