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Following Vatican protocols
First of all, it is important to know that elderly priests are rarely defrocked – if for no other reason than their ministry is no longer in the future but for all intents and purposes behind them. It would have little effect, and therefore the action taken, to curtail Maciel’s public image in this way, is a significant and requisite response from the Church according to her protocols and the particular circumstances.
Secondly, according to Canon Law, such investigations that follow the guidelines of the 2001 Motu Proprio must end in one of two ways – exoneration of the accused because of lack of evidence (eliminating the need to take further action) or a trial due to adequate evidence, which in Maciel’s case was renounced due to his frailty and advanced age. Those familiar with canon law also know that such trials can be scandalous to the faithful and counter-productive, which the Church has to weigh in prudence. Thus no clear guilt or innocence was proclaimed by Rome, other than what can be discerned from the restriction of Maciel’s movement and public ministry. One could make the case that there was insufficient evidence in the extensive investigation, but then Benedict’s obviously negative response would have to be interpreted as a scandal in and of itself, administering an injustice to a founder with years of highly visible apostolic service to his credit.
Thirdly, the nature of the Movement has to be taken into consideration. It must be obvious that untangling details about this extremely closed group, which over the years of its existence employed with its members censorship of all information in and out, used sacraments, spiritual direction, and the congregation’s own statutes to guard against all divisive thoughts or words, and layered their apostolates with a smokescreen of absolute papal approval of all details of everyday life, has proven nearly impossible. The fact that any action has been taken after decades of attempts is the result of heroic, dogged persistence by men who ultimately believed in truth and justice.
So finally from this we infer a very clear challenge. The Vatican has placed enough doubt about the innocence of the founder of this group in the minds of the lay faithful that they can no longer subscribe to the notion that Maciel “has never said No to God,” or that he is “God’s gift to the Church in this generation.” What we can agree on is that he has built an extraordinary empire in the heart of Holy Mother Church ostensibly with a mission to save souls, and on that accomplishment alone we must focus. It is to be hoped that all of us share that mission, that all of us are drawn to orthodoxy, and that each is committed to proclaiming the Kingdom – and yet it is that Kingdom that we need to define in order to make our collaboration successful.
The Legion Response
Now we come to the Legion’s response, and it is phenomenal. They state:
Father 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.
That the Legion immediately characterizes him as an ever-faithful martyr is very telling. In an email to be widely distributed to supporters, a Legionary priest wrote, “Nuestro Padre [affectionate nickname members use, meaning “our father,”] had asked God to give him a final cross before his death, so that he may die nailed to it…!!!” He is offering all for the Legion and the RC. Imagine the fruits that we will harvest thanks to his faithfulness…!” Does this analogy mean that the pope himself is Pontius Pilate, however unwitting?
Another missive sent to another section notes: “I am sure you are hearing and reading in the papers about the Vatican position toward Fr. Maciel. Please keep him in your prayers throughout this further persecution. Today’s gospel was certainly fitting, ‘If they hated me, they will hate you.’” Not a doubt about his innocence, simply Maciel as victim.
The National Catholic Register, owned by the Legion, indicated within days of the Vatican statement that there would be no coverage of the story, no inquiry, and no possible acknowledging of the fact that the founder was anything less than completely innocent.
For one, that’s not what the Register does, ever. … [O]ur policy is to focus on the vitality of the Church. … There’s another reason the Register is not covering it in the common journalistic way: the example of Father Maciel. … He has always reacted the same way: seeing the cross as coming from God, refusing to defend himself, bearing malice toward none …
Interestingly, though, the refusal to defend Maciel has been carried out with a well-orchestrated whisper campaign, suggesting that this is actually meant to be an attack – not on Maciel – but on the memory of John Paul II, that this is a calculated attack on orthodoxy by disgruntled liberals, or even that this is caused by the jealous stirrings of Opus dei rivals. It is evident that the Legion will not allow Maciel’s image to be tarnished, nor his cult of personality to be diminished in any way – because it has always been the bread and butter of their ability to recruit and raise funds. Internal documents attest to this fact, although few rank-in-file members see them. Even seminarians don’t see the full constitutions until after ordination.
Many are reminding the faithful about the seemingly similar example of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, who was subject to unjust censure at the hands of the Church hierarchy. The comparison isn’t valid because of the process. Padre Pio was surrounded by detractors and had to step away from ministry during various investigations concerning the authenticity of his message. He returned, exonerated each time. To the contrary, Maciel is surrounded by zealous supporters and feted by many powerful men in the hierarchy, and the restrictions on his ministry came at the close of a completed investigation. Nothing was abridged; although the process was derailed for unknown reasons several times, we can say with certainty that it was finally finished.
A better comparison would be made with the George Cardinal Pell of Sydney, Australia. At the first hint of impropriety raised by an accuser who came forward in 2002, he temporarily stepped aside from the duties of his office, allowing a full investigation to take place. The evident difference, though, lies in the outcome, as he was exonerated and restored to his position. Maciel’s actions never allowed such a transparent process to take place, protestations not withstanding, which adds to the shadow over his reputation at present.
One defense constantly on the lips of his supporters is the fact that some accusers recanted. This is absolutely true. I would posit, though, that their previous experience concerning nearly air-tight control over the reigns of clerical influence combined with the fact that they entered the seminary before the age of 12 may have caused these men to lose heart. If they indeed were abused and broken from childhood, they may have lacked the courage and tenacity necessary, seeing the mountain of justice simply too steep to climb in this life. Although this would be entirely in keeping with the fragile profile of victims, we’ll never know.
Regnum Christi Members Must Choose
The members of the Movement have now arrived at the Ultimate Dilemma inherent in their very existence. If they are faithful to their charism as it exists at present, it pits the action of the Holy See – to which they offer unswerving loyalty – against the other pillar of faith – the permeation of their charism with the person of Marcial Maciel: the perfect Legionary.
To quote from a Legionary prayer, which I and countless others prayed regularly after Mass (and aloud in Legion chapels):
Since the Legion and the Movement will be vigorous and will flourish as long as the spirit of our founder is present and active in our lives and behavior, we ask you to open our eyes to the urgency of learning, assimilating, and passing on the doctrine, spirit, and apostolic methods, genuine traditions, discipline, and lifestyle of the Legion and Regnum Christi, just as our founder made them known to us, since this is our responsibility. Lord help us to adhere totally to the charism you inspired in our founder.
Now whether that charism can be lived apart from the “spirit of the founder” remains to be seen. To respond with a tongue-in-cheek stance, obeying the pope in this “unjust” and “false” finding is to make a mockery of obedience, filial respect, and martyrdom. The Legion’s continued public support of Macial’s innocence collides calamitously with the finding of the Vatican, and yet the Legion straddles the divide, saying it will embrace both. In any other setting this would be certifiable schizophrenia. It cannot stand.
A recent meeting of the priests of the Congregation bluntly stated the ulterior aims of the Legion to date:
344. Allow me to take advantage of this exceptional opportunity the General Chapter has offered me to once again insist on this: the meaning and goals of our schools – like all apostolic work of the Legion and the Movement – must not be worn down by operating solely as teaching facilities. They will not accomplish their true goal in God’s plan for us if they do not bring a large number of students, parents, family members of students and teachers into Regnum Christi. I have said it many times: for us these schools serve primarily as an open means of recruitment and of the recruitment of leaders.
The Vatican would like the Movement to purify itself and simply serve the Church at large. Perhaps this is also an invitation for the Movement to integrate its ends with the needs of the Universal Church, even at the expense of its own recruitment.
If the Movement is Christ-centered, let Christ prevail. If it is loyal to the person of Benedict, let his judgments carry appropriate weight. If Legionary priests cannot draw souls to Christ without the “spirit of Maciel,” then their followers must search their souls for authentic discernment about the meaning of such a vocation. If God saw each member “from all eternity” as united to Regnum Christi, then did not God also foresee the crisis of loyalty that would accrue? If, as we were taught, that “by following the methodology one can never go wrong,” does that place the charism in an untenable, infallible place? This intense reflection must take place in the hearts of those outside trying to make sense of the Legion as well as in the hearts of Maciel’s supporters whose vocation to follow Jesus seems inseparable with one very finite individual.
Now, in this age of the laity, it’s time for the faithful to act. Every father and mother of a child in a Legion school will consider the atmosphere therein. Every rank and file member of Regnum Christi going forward will have to consider Maciel’s place. Will his pictures remain on the walls? Will the prayers he has written be taught and recited? Will his mother continue to be promoted as a model of Christian piety? Will he still be identified as the perfect Legionary? Will his books remain on the shelves and be the essence of every team meeting and youth group meditation? Will his personality remain ubiquitous (though in whispers as the heroic and maligned saint) or will the Movement purify itself to cling to Christ and Christ alone?
This is not an indictment of the enthusiastic and sincere faith of thousands associated with the Movement, who offered their lives to promote the Gospel, who piled up their “widow’s mites” in good faith, and who joined their energy to what they thought was a group dedicated to serving the Church. How could they begin to understand whether or not the accusations had merit? They accepted the possibility that the Legion was under attack for its orthodoxy, knowing that persecution is inherent in discipleship. To this end, the Vatican statement notes,
Independently of the person of the Founder, the worthy apostolate of the Legionaries of Christ and of the Association ‘Regnum Christi’ is gratefully recognized.
Benedict is truly guided by the Holy Spirit in this response, because now the charism has the opportunity to succeed in a purified form, serving the Church rather than its own ends, or to fall of its own weight. The key word in the statement is “independently.” There is still a chance that all the well-meaning souls attached to this group will prove themselves loyal to the Vicar of Christ, and yet that clearly means that they have to distance themselves from the person of Maciel. The Legion cannot preach both Maciel the Martyr and Benedict the Wise.
The Vatican rightly sees in the Legion’s works many schools – from primary to advanced institutions; it sees apostolates for all members of the people of God; it sees abundant vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, all poised to serve the Church. Either these belong to Holy Mother Church – who has spoken in the case of Maciel – or they don’t. The fruit therein that is authentic will flourish for Christ, or it will rot on the vine. The lay faithful must hold to the fire the feet of every Legion priest, whose guidance they trust, to choose the Pope (and the Holy Spirit) unreservedly, or they must walk. We trust that they will do the right thing. Whether or not Maciel continues to be the wind in the sails of the Legion will soon enough determine its new direction.