“By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them”: How Good and Bad Works Can Deceive—the Case of the Legion of Christ
The cultic studies field includes many cases in which the commendable actions of certain groups incline some observers to view the groups as good. Conversely, the blameworthy actions of certain groups incline some observers to view those groups as bad. Contrary to the well-known biblical saying that gives this panel its title, the situation is often more complex and differentiated than it appears. One cannot necessarily judge a group by its apparent fruits, especially when one is not aware of all the fruits. This panel focused on an illuminating example of a Catholic movement that successfully deceived Church authorities for many years, until the disgraced founder was relieved of his duties by Pope Benedict. The case the panel explored is that of the Legion of Christ, a congregation within the Roman Catholic Church, and its lay sister organization, Regnum Christi. Paul Lennon and Peter Kingsland discussed the “fruits” of these organizations from their respective perspectives as a former Legion priest and a parent of a Regnum Christi member. First, however, a bit of background. The ICSA began to examine the Legion in 2003, when Mexican psychiatrist Cesar Mascarenas gave a talk at our California conference. Somehow, the Legion heard about this talk; and I was approached before, during, and after the conference by people concerned that we were discussing the Legion at a “cult” conference.
We scheduled a follow-up panel on the Legion for our fall conference in Connecticut that same year, inviting as panelists Father James LeBar, Paul Lennon, and Juan Vaca, one of the first ex-Legionaries to accuse the founder of sexual molestation. We also invited the Legion to send representatives to give their side of the controversy. The group invited me to visit their seminary in Connecticut prior to the conference, which I did, along with Father LeBar. Interestingly, the organization sent representatives to our conference for private discussions, but they did not attend the panel.
Our ICSA e-Newsletter published my introduction to the Connecticut panel and later, on July 18, 2006, added an update. You can find that report here.
In that same issue, we also published Paul Lennon’s article, “Aspects of Concern Regarding Legion of Christ Mind Control Reflected in Its Rules, Norms, and Ex-Member Testimonies.”
The current panel was inspired by an interesting email exchange that began when Paul Lennon asked a colleague about Massimo Introvigne’s views on Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi founder Marcial Maciel’s fall from grace. Mr. Introvigne is an attorney who heads an Italian cult-watch organization, CESNUR. Some call him a “cult apologist”; however, he has graciously invited a number of ICSA experts, including me, to speak on issues of harm at CESNUR conferences. He is very much aware of the fact that, as I often put it, some groups harm some people sometimes. However, his concern for religious freedom and his criticisms of some “brainwashing” perspectives have put him on different sides of some issues from most people who attend ICSA conferences. He was to have participated in this panel, but a schedule conflict prevented him from attending.
In the email exchange, Massimo said,
The principle that good fruits are a clue that the tree is good was so widespread that most people in the Church did not believe the accusations against Father Maciel until very late in the pontificate of the Blessed John Paul II. I was among the majority of Catholics and was, of course, wrong. So were the Blessed John Paul II and most cardinals. To his credit, the present Pope was inclined to give some credibility to the accusations against Maciel from the very beginning. But he never questioned the good work of the Legion of Christ and, to this day, is keen to distinguish between Father Maciel’s “criminal activities” and the good work done by the great majority of the Legionaries and by Regnum Christi.
Later in the exchange, he said,
Paul Lennon’s mail confirms that most in the Legion had no idea of what Maciel was doing. This was also true for most OUTSIDE the Legion, who did not know Maciel but did know the good deeds of other Legionaries.
In that same message, Massimo also alluded to something I have noticed as well; namely, that some who disagree with Maciel’s conservative theology suggest that aspects of the theology are wrong because Maciel was corrupt. This is a non sequitur that merely uses Maciel as a hammer to harass theological opponents while it obscures the central issue of harm.
Massimo also shed light on why well-intentioned people can hold diametrically opposite views on an issue. He said that the Renner and Berry book Vows of Silence, which outside the Vatican was generally viewed as vital in exposing Maciel, was, inside the Vatican, viewed as so flawed on matters of Church history and canon law that it “persuaded many in the Vatican that those accusing him [Maciel], since they were obviously wrong in other matters, were probably wrong on Maciel too.” Much of the polarization in the cultic studies field has been fueled by this kind of thinking—the tendency to dismiss people, including people with reputable credentials, because one knows they are wrong about some things. The non sequitur is “If he is wrong about some things, then he must be wrong about all things.”
Thus, members of the so-called anticult movement (ACM) may dismiss so-called procultists because the latter question reports of harm associated with cults, while so-called procultists may dismiss cult critics because they may sometimes report inaccurately about certain groups. This attitude fuels polarization, which encourages inaccuracies to arise on both sides of a controversial issue. In her 1995 presidential address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR), Eileen Barker chided her colleagues:
If we are to be honest and self-critical, we have to admit that several of us have reacted against the selective negativity of the ACM by, sometimes quite unconsciously, making our own unbalanced selections. Having been affronted by what have appeared to be gross violations of human rights perpetrated through practices such as deprogramming and the medicalization of belief, there have been occasions when social scientists have withheld information about the movements because they know that this will be taken, possibly out of context, to be used as a justification for such actions. The somewhat paradoxical situation is that the more we feel the NRMs are having untrue bad things said about them, the less inclined we are to publish true “bad” things about the movements. (Barker, 1995, p. 305—emphasis added)
Given this candid remark, it is not surprising that Dr. Barker reached out to ICSA in the late 1990s and established a dialogue that has been quite productive.
Dr. Barker’s remarks to SSSR and the email exchange involving Massimo Introvigne underline the fact that the vast majority of generalizations that refer to human behavior, such as “by their fruits ye shall know them,” are probability statements, not absolute “natural laws.” In the email exchange, I commented,
Given that the tree-fruit relationship, like the cult membership-harm relationship, is only probabilistic and will vary greatly from situation to situation, it seems to me that Church authorities can be faulted, as can some cult experts, for treating the tree-fruit relationship as though it were a “law.” Even if Massimo and Pope Benedict are correct in their belief that “the fruits are, generally speaking, excellent,” we can still fault Church authorities for not adequately examining what they thought were low probabilities. And we can especially fault the Legion’s leaders (not just Maciel) for the viciousness of their attacks on those who dared to criticize Maciel… A grocer may not worry about a handful of eggs broken during a shipment of hundreds of boxes. However, Christians (and anybody else who claims to care about people) ought to be concerned about a handful of broken souls. The pain of one person is not negated by the joy of 100.
In closing, I’d like to comment on the distinction between “good works” or “good deeds” and “good fruits,” a distinction that I did not think about during our email exchanges. Although I am certainly not qualified to expound upon the proper theological interpretation of the biblical verse concerning good fruits, it seems clear to this layman that fruits should not be morally judged without reference to the tree that produces them. In other words, ends should not be morally evaluated without consideration of the means used to achieve them or the context from which they spring.
One may, of course, erroneously believe that a particular tree is good and that the effects seemingly produced by that tree are good fruits. However, if one learns that the tree is not good, even in the imperfect sense in which all “good” people are good, if one learns that the tree is in fact corrupt at its core, then one should refrain from interpreting positive events as necessarily the good fruit of that tree. One should, instead, look for other explanations for the good things formerly associated with the tree now known to be very bad.
The Legion tree was rotten from its inception. No amount of pruning will eliminate the poison in the seed (Marcial Maciel) from which the Legion and Regnum Christi sprouted.
I would, then, humbly suggest to Pope Benedict that he conceive of the Church’s task in this matter to be the preservation of the goodness of individual members of the Legion and Regnum Christi, not the preservation of the organization founded and corrupted by a man whose actions Benedict has called “criminal.” Whatever good fruits we may now point to may be viewed as the fruits of the good will and piety of individuals aspiring to virtue, perhaps in spite of the Legion and Regnum Christi, not because of them.
Dissolve the organizations. Even if property and other considerations argue for some legal continuity, at least change the names of the organizations. Also, move out all of the upper-level management, and some mid-level management, who functioned adaptively for so many years in Maciel’s climate of deceit, control, and abuse. One does not adapt to such a system without internalizing attitudes and habits of thought that sustain the system. The resulting identity does not disappear simply because the leader is gone.
The rank-and-file members of these organizations also adapted themselves to the system, and, like their leaders, they do not shed their Legion/Regnum Christi identities automatically because Maciel was discredited. The universal human tendency to rationalize will preserve Maciel’s influence in ways that will not always be apparent. Church authorities, whose inclinations tend toward kindness and gentleness, may be reluctant to challenge the rank and file. I believe this would be a mistake. The cognitive dissonance, confusion, and sense of betrayal that some Legion/Regnum Christi members may feel should be addressed directly, preferably by professionals trained to help people cope with such transitions. The resilience of former cult members who come to the ICSA for assistance suggests that Legion and Regnum Christi members are probably stronger than some Church authorities may think.
In my opinion, the Church needs to affirm its own integrity by expending the pastoral and counseling resources needed to help the good people of the Legion and Regnum Christi see more clearly that the Church welcomes them, that the Church will find or create places for them, and that their desire to do good and to be good does not depend on organizations nourished by decades of deceit. The “good fruits” of the Legion and Regnum Christi members will not wither on the vine if those individuals are separated from the fraudulent system that took advantage of their noble spiritual aspirations.
Barker, E. (1995). The scientific study of religion? You must be joking! (presidential address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion). Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 34(3), 287–310.
Michael D. Langone, PhD, a counseling psychologist, received a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1979. Since 1981 he has been Executive Director of International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). Dr. Langone has been consulted by several hundred former cult members and/or their families. He was the founder and editor of Cultic Studies Journal, that journal’s successor, Cultic Studies Review, and editor of Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse (an alternate of the Behavioral Science Book Service). He is co-author of Cults: What Parents Should Know and Satanism and Occult-Related Violence: What You Should Know. Currently, Dr. Langone is ICSA Today’s Editor-in-Chief. In 1995, he was honored as the Albert V. Danielsen visiting Scholar at Boston University.