Theological and Canonical Reflections on Religious Life
in View of the Maciel Disgrace
By R. Michael Dunnigan, JD, JCL
in View of the Maciel Disgrace
By R. Michael Dunnigan, JD, JCL
The following article will be appearing in the May 1, 2009 issue of the St. Joseph Foundation’s newsletter, Christifidelis.
“[Maciel] was a man with an entrepreneurial genius who, by systematic deception and duplicity, used our faith to manipulate others for his own selfish ends.”
—Archbishop Edwin O’Brien (Baltimore)
“The problem is if someone’s leading that kind of a double life, I’d be very concerned about the structure they set up that would make it possible to live such a double life.”
—Archbishop Thomas Collins (Toronto)
The name of Marcial Maciel now seems destined to become a byword for duplicity and manipulation of the most craven and cynical kind. Father Maciel (1920-2008), the founder of the Legion of Christ, already had been forced to live out his final years in prayer and penance as a result of credible allegations that he had sexually abused 20 or more boys and young men. Then, earlier this year, it came to light that Maciel had lived a “double life” for years and that he had fathered at least one child with at least one mistress. (The child, a daughter now 22, was born when Maciel was 68.) There are strong indications that Maciel also committed financial improprieties, possibly including diversion of Legion assets to his family and to his mistress and daughter. In addition Maciel is suspected of having committed the grave canonical crime of granting sacramental absolution to persons with whom he engaged in sexual sins (cf. cann. 977, 1378 §1). Rumors are circulating suggesting other serious misdeeds as well.
In the wake of Maciel’s disgrace, a lively debate has ensued over the future of the religious congregation that he founded. Some charge that the Legion of Christ is bound so inextricably to the persona of its founder that the congregation cannot continue and must be suppressed or merged into another order or congregation. However, defenders of the Legion and its associated lay organization Regnum Christi argue against suppression, pointing to their good works and the undoubted existence of many faithful members who played no part in the Maciel fraud.
George Weigel effectively has formulated the central question: Can the good that has come from the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi be disentangled from the person and legacy of Fr. Maciel? [G. Weigel, “Saving What Can Be Saved,” 9 Feb. 2009, http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?m=200902&paged=2.] Not surprisingly, this debate has occurred primarily on the practical plane so far, and on that plane, the prospects for the Legion appear bleak. The most urgent practical questions are
· whether any members of the current leadership helped Maciel perpetuate his fraud,
· whether the Legion’s power to attract vocations and lay support can survive the Maciel disgrace, and
· whether a congregation that has identified with its founder’s persona to such an extreme degree could possibly distance itself sufficiently from him to cleanse itself of his corruption and to accept reform.
As important as these questions are, the debate about Maciel and the Legion should not be confined to the purely practical plane. Rather, the Maciel disgrace also raises serious theological and canonical questions that to date have received little attention. This scandal provides an occasion to reflect on the meaning and purpose of religious life in the Church, and these reflections suggest that the theological and canonical obstacles facing the Legion are, if anything, even more daunting than the practical challenges. This becomes apparent when one examines the Legion’s arguments in favor of its continued existence.
The Administrative Argument
Legion spokesmen and prominent Legionary priests argue that Maciel’s life of fraud has no impact on the Legion charism or the future life of the congregation. The Legion’s arguments are not frivolous, but they are rather weak, and in the end, they do not withstand analysis.
One of the most frequent arguments in favor of the Legion’s continued operation is that the Holy See’s 1983 approval of the Legion’s constitutions and organizational documents (statutes) amounts to an assurance that the Legion’s charism is a valid path to holiness (cf. G. Matysek, “Archbishop O’Brien raises concerns about Legion of Christ,” Catholic Review, 25 Feb. 2009 [quoting J. Fair], http://www.catholicreview.org/subpages/storyworldnew-new.aspx?action=5703; “A Legion Priest [T. Williams] Answers OSV Questions,” 5 Feb. 2009, http://www.osvdailytake.com/2009/02/legion-priest-answers-osv-questions.html; “Report: LC ‘town hall meeting’ with vocations director [A. Bannon],” 19 Mar. 2009, http://americanpapist.com/2009/03/report-lc-town-hall-meeting-with.html). In the words of Legionary priest Thomas Williams, “We have the assurance of the Church’s magisterium to rely on.”
Thus, Legion spokesmen seem to be arguing that the Church’s approval of a religious congregation’s constitutions is equivalent to a guarantee from the Church’s magisterium of the validity of the charism and of the perpetual existence of the congregation. This position is not entirely devoid of scholarly support, but it finds little or no basis in the teachings of the Councils that specifically address the Church’s teaching office, namely the First and Second Vatican Councils (cf. A. Dulles, Magisterium [Sapientia, 2007], p. 78). The magisterium is the Church’s teaching office (munus docendi), but the approval of a congregation’s constitutions, by contrast, seems quite clearly to be an exercise of the Church’s governing office (munus regendi) [cf. can. 576]. Such a decision certainly represents a judgment that the congregation’s spirituality is calculated to lead to holiness, but it is no absolute guarantee and is by no means irrevocable.
Both history and canon law make this clear. The Church has indeed seen fit to suppress certain religious communities at various times in her history. The suppression of the Jesuits in the eighteenth century is the most famous example, but by no means the only one (cf. Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Religious Life”). In fact, serious sexual misconduct like Maciel’s figured prominently in the suppression of the Piarist order in the seventeenth century (cf. K. Liebreich, Fallen Order [Atlantic, 2004]).
Moreover, the law of the Church expressly provides for the suppression of religious institutes and congregations (cf. can. 584). To be sure, such a step is not to be taken lightly. However, the obstacles to the Holy See’s suppression of a religious community are prudential and administrative, rather than doctrinal. As a result, they are by no means insurmountable and therefore provide no absolute guarantee that a particular religious congregation will continue into the future.
This is especially true in the case of the Legion. That is, given Maciel’s utter duplicity, the Holy See might well conclude that Maciel essentially defrauded the Church in securing her approval of the Legion’s constitutions and statutes. Suppression regrettably would cause pain to innocent Legionary priests and Regnum Christi faithful, but one certainly can imagine the Holy See reaching the conclusion that such a step is necessary for the undoing of the fraud and the prevention of future harm.
The Donatist Argument
Legion members reportedly have cited St. Augustine’s anti-Donatist writings in support of the Legion’s continued existence (cf. “Maciel and Donatism,” 5 Mar. 2009, http://www.podles.org/dialogue/maciel-and-donatism-165.htm). The Donatist controversy of the fourth century concerned the relationship between the worthiness of the minister and the validity of the sacraments. During the persecution of Diocletian, some priests had weakened and turned over the sacred books to the Roman authorities. Some of these priests later were reconciled to the Church, but the Donatists refused to accept them as ministers of the sacraments because of their earlier betrayal. Augustine, by contrast, advanced the orthodox Catholic teaching that the validity of the sacraments hinges on the priest’s ordination, not on his personal worthiness.
Although there is indeed a danger in drawing too many conclusions from the unworthiness of a priest, the comparison between the Donatist controversy and the Maciel scandal does not hold. The most basic reason is that none of the Legion’s critics is impugning the validity of the sacraments administered by Maciel or any other Legionary priest. In addition, with regard to the decision of individual members, departure from the Legion or Regnum Christi is in no way comparable to the decision of the Donatists to separate themselves from the Church (cf. ibid.).
The Legionaries no doubt are aware that the Donatist controversy has no direct application to the Maciel scandal, and almost certainly are invoking it merely as an analogy. Even so, however, the analogy breaks down. The reason is that the context of these two events is essentially different. Donatism concerns the validity of the sacraments, which is judged by a minimal standard, but the Maciel disgrace, because it concerns religious life, implicates a higher standard.
The lesson from the Donatist controversy seems a strange one at first glance: the standard for judging sacramental validity is surprisingly, perhaps even shockingly, low. Thus, the Church recognizes that baptism may be administered not only by a priest, but also by a layman or even a non-Christian (cf. can. 861 §2). With regard to the Eucharist, the sacrament would be valid even if the priest were in a state of mortal sin while celebrating it. Moreover, when one considers the words that are necessary for bare validity of the sacraments, one similarly is surprised to learn how minimal the essential formulas are. This astounding minimalism is a great blessing to the faithful because it assures them that, even in the face of illicit additions and omissions in the liturgy, most attempts to administer the sacraments nonetheless remain valid.
The Maciel scandal, however, is another matter altogether. The key fact is not that it was a priest who committed all of these sins and crimes, but rather that it was a founder of a religious congregation. The standard for sacramental validity may be a minimal one, but the standard for religious life is not. This is why the Donatist analogy ultimately fails. Consideration of Maciel’s double life from the perspective of the very meaning and purpose of religious life sheds light on its true significance and consequences.
A Sign of the Age to Come
Most Catholics have little opportunity to reflect on the meaning of religious life, that is, the life of nuns and brothers who profess the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Most instinctively categorize brothers and nuns as belonging to a larger category of people, including the clergy, who have some sort of official role in the Church. Catholics who have had the benefit of a thorough formation in the faith can distinguish the distinctive characteristics of some of the major orders, such as the Franciscan embrace of poverty and the Jesuit dedication to teaching. However, even for well-formed Catholics, it often is difficult to describe the basic purpose and meaning of religious life itself.
Moreover, this is even more difficult to articulate in the Vatican II era. Although the Council of Trent had referred to religious life as a state of perfection, Vatican II deliberately avoided using this language (though it certainly did not repudiate it). That is, the Vatican II Fathers chose instead to emphasize the “universal call to holiness” shared by all the faithful. It is clear that religious life does not pertain to governance of the Church, which is the role of the clergy (some of whom, however, also belong to religious orders). Nor is religious life any kind of midway state between the laity and the clergy. Rather, religious life belongs to the holiness of the Church (cf. can. 574).
However, if all the faithful are called to holiness (cf. Vatican II, Lumen gentium, 40), then what is distinctive or unique about the religious state itself? References to the charism of the Legion of Christ frequently appear in the current debate over the Maciel disgrace. Of course the presence of a charism is indeed crucial to religious life, but surprisingly, it seems that even the charism is not the central reality of religious life as such. After all, the Dominicans are superb preachers, but there are many brilliant preachers who belong neither to the Dominicans nor to any other religious order.
What is it then that Jesuit priests and Franciscan nuns share in common as religious that is not shared by those of us among both the laity and clergy who do not belong to any religious community? The answer is that they and their communities are public witnesses to the faith. All Catholics of course are called to witness to the faith, but the religious do so in a distinctively public way. Their witness does not consist only in words or even in deeds, but in the entirety of their lives. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta understood this perfectly. Thus, she insisted that the witness of her Missionaries of Charity was more central even than their heroic work.
“You must tell people what brings us here. Tell them that we are not here for the work; we are here for Jesus. All we do is for him. We are first of all religious. We are not social workers, not teachers, not nurses or doctors; we are religious sisters.” (C. McCarthy, “Nobel-Winner Aided the Poorest,” Washington Post, 6 Sept. 1997, p. A17, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/teresa/stories/obit090697.htm )
Those in religious life give witness both to the world and to the rest of the Church (cf. SCRIS & Cong. for Bishops, Mutuae relationes , 11 & 14a). Their first duty is to this mission, even before the specific work of their own communities. “The apostolate of all religious consists first of all in the witness of their consecrated life” (can. 673). This is the reason that members of religious communities take public vows. Catholics often refer to their priests as having taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. However, this is incorrect. Although priests have obligations of obedience and celibacy (cf. cann. 273, 277), they generally do not make vows unless they enter religious life. The public nature of the religious witness also is the reason that the religious generally wear a distinctive habit. Father Benedict Groeschel, referring to his own Franciscan habit, put it memorably,
“I don’t walk around looking like an ad for The Canterbury Tales for no good reason at all.”
But what exactly is the content of the witness of religious life? What is the message that the rest of us are supposed to take from the presence of the religious among us? The answer is that the religious are a sign of the age to come (cf. LG, 44; Vatican II, Perfectae caritatis, 1; can. 607 §1). They are the eunuchs for the Kingdom of God that the Lord mentions in the Gospel (Mt 19.12), and the meaning of their life of perfect continence is a total gift of self to the Lord. That is, chastity represents dedication to Him “with an undivided heart” (PC, 12). Observance of the Commandments leads to salvation, but religious life represents an even “more generous” service to the Lord (MR, 8). Members of religious communities practice and publicly profess chastity to live lives of integrity and to give the world and the Church a sign of the heavenly kingdom, a sign of the age to come.
The higher standard to which the religious are held is not merely a pious aspiration. On the contrary, it finds concrete expression in the law of the Church. For example, canon 1397 provides penalties for homicide and for using force and fraud to abduct, imprison, mutilate, or gravely wound another person. If a diocesan priest were to commit one of these crimes, then one or more penalties would be applied to him according to the seriousness of the crime. He might be deprived of an office or a privilege, or in an especially serious case, he could be dismissed from the clerical state (cf. can. 1336). When a member of a religious community commits one of these crimes, however, the law provides that he or she must be dismissed from the religious community (cf. can. 695 §1). Thus, if a Norbertine priest were to commit the crime of abduction, he might or might not be dismissed from the clerical state, but the law would require his dismissal from the Norbertine religious community. (With regard to the particular crimes of Maciel himself, canonist Edward Peters persuasively argues that they warranted both Maciel’s expulsion from religious life and his dismissal from the clerical state [“So if Maciel was a criminal (or a sociopath), what of his charism?” 8 Feb. 2009, http://www.canonlaw.info/2009/02/maciel-was-criminal-or-sociopath-but.html].)
This higher standard that the Church sets for the religious is the reason that the analogy of the Donatist controversy to the Maciel disgrace falls short. There is no greater mockery of the religious life than the spectacle of a founder of a religious congregation leading a double life of cynical deception and predation. Legion spokesmen pile scandal on top of scandal when they refer to Maciel as if he were merely a weak man or a flawed instrument (cf. C. Wooden, “Spokesman [J. Fair]: News that Founder Fathered Child Causes Legionaries Pain,” 9 Feb. 2009, http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0900537.htm). The outrage is not that Maciel was a sinner or even that he fell into sexual sin on several occasions. Rather, it is that for years he led a double life, the very antithesis of the life of integrity that is the hallmark of the religious. He played the whole Church, including its cardinals and popes, for suckers. All the while, he not only demanded that his subjects take him as their model, but he also permitted them to defend him publicly and to venerate him as a living saint.
Legion spokesmen insist that God can write straight with crooked lines and that the Holy Spirit can use even flawed instruments to accomplish His purposes. True enough, as far as it goes. But how far does the argument go? At the end of March 2009, news reports appeared that the Holy See would be undertaking a visitation of the Legion and all of its institutions. The key questions likely will be the practical ones concerning how deep of an imprint of his own distorted personality Maciel impressed upon the Legion:
· What is the significance of the vow that Maciel required his subjects to take never to criticize him or other superiors?
· What is the connection between Maciel’s alleged abuse of the sacrament of confession and the Legion’s allegedly irregular practices in the area of spiritual direction and confession? (Some accuse the Legion of unlawfully restricting the Legionaries’ choice of spiritual directors and confessors [cf. can. 630].)
· Which members of the Legion’s leadership collaborated with Maciel to conceal his double life?
I find it difficult to escape Archbishop Collins’s conclusion, quoted at the head of this article, that the Legion must indeed bear distortions as a result of Maciel’s powerful influence and the extraordinary devotion that the Legionaries had to him. However, even apart from the answers to these factual and practical questions, I hope that the members of the visitation team will reflect profoundly on the meaning of religious life itself. Legion spokesmen are correct that Maciel’s sins and crimes, great as they were, did not prevent the Holy Spirit from working in the lives of Legion members. But does this necessarily mean that Maciel’s work can continue to wear the Church’s crown? For my own part, I do not see how the Church can continue to hold up, as an example of holiness and integrity of life, a work wrought by a man whose life was a lie, a fraud, and a brazen counter-sign to authentic religious life.
The Once and Future Founder
Many believe that the future of the Legion will depend on its ability to separate itself from its disgraced founder. The Legion is now grappling with this question. On the one hand, it reportedly has ordered the removal of Maciel’s portraits from Legionary schools, but on the other hand, it insists that it will not renounce him. Moreover, one of the Legion’s most accomplished priests, Father Thomas Williams, asserts that Maciel’s writings remain an authentic expression of the Legion’s charism. Many critics, however, urge the Legion utterly to repudiate Maciel and to cleanse itself of everything connected with him.
On this question, the Legion may be more realistic than its critics. Maciel’s imprint on the Legion is extraordinarily deep. All new congregations are closely attached to their founders, but in the case of the Legion and Maciel, the attachment was extreme. Maciel’s birthday was celebrated as a holiday; he was held up as a model of behavior; and his own writings are central to Legionary formation.
In addition, we have concrete evidence as to the difficulty or impossibility of the Legion distancing itself from Maciel. In 2006, the Holy See disciplined Maciel as a result of credible allegations that he had molested numerous boys and young men. The Holy See urged the Legion to distance itself from its founder. However, the Legion was unable to do so. Legionaries continued to assert that Maciel had been wrongly accused, and they continued to venerate him as a hero (cf. L. Goodstein, “Catholic Order Jolted by Reports That Its Founder Led a Double Life,” New York Times, 3 Feb. 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/04/us/04legion.html; R. Zoll, “Vatican to Investigate Scandalized Religious Order,” AP, 31 Mar. 2009 [quoting E. O’Brien]).
It is easy to criticize the Legion on this score, but it is likely that any religious congregation placed in a similar situation would have similar difficulties. Again, the key to this scandal is not that it concerns a Catholic priest, but rather that it arises in the context of religious life. The renowned moral theologian Germain Grisez has offered a trenchant observation. The Maciel scandal, he says, is not comparable to a sexual scandal involving a diocesan bishop. A founder cannot be “removed” in the same way that a diocesan bishop can. When the diocesan bishop leaves office, the clergy of the diocese cease collaborating with him. However, even after the death of a religious founder, the members of his congregation never cease collaborating with him in their own service and life (cf. “Text: Open letter to Legionaries by Dr. Germain Grisez,” 5 Feb. 2009, http://www.americanpapist.com/2009/01/text-open-letter-to-legionaries-by-dr.html).
That is, Legion spokesmen are correct that they cannot go on without their founder. However, they have drawn the wrong conclusion from this. They conclude that they therefore will go on with their founder, but the correct conclusion seems to be that they simply cannot go on.
In a variation on the “administrative argument” discussed above, several prominent Legionary priests have asserted that the Holy See’s approval of the Legion’s constitutions amounted to the Church taking the Legion’s charism out of Maciel’s hands. The scandal certainly would be more manageable if things were this simple, but they are not. It is true that the members must learn to distinguish between the congregation’s charism and the founder’s personality, but this distinction is not a compartmentalization and the charism remains always linked with the founder.
This may seem difficult to understand, and with good reason. St. Paul complained forcefully about the faithful espousing allegiance to those from whom they had received the Gospel instead of simply to the Lord.
“What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong ot Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor 1.12-13)
St. Augustine similarly counseled that good sheep put their hope not in the one who gathered them in, but rather in the Lord Whose Blood has redeemed them (Letter 208). However, as Grisez indicates, there nonetheless is a sense in which members of a religious community maintain an enduring relationship with their founder. Thus, venerable communities such as the Order of Friars Minor are referred to most often not by this official name, but rather by the name of Franciscan, which identifies them directly with the name of their glorious founder.
Religious brothers and sisters must indeed put their hope in Christ alone, but at the same time, the living out of their vocation takes place in communities that are bound to maintain fidelity to “the spirit of the founders” (cf. LG, 45). This was a central theme in the Vatican II teachings on religious life. “[T]he spirit and aims of each founder should be faithfully accepted and retained” (PC, 2). Moreover, the Holy See has continued to emphasize the importance of the founders in its pronouncements on religious life since the Council (cf. MR, 8). Religious founders are described as “raised up by God” (“Statutes of Int’l Un. of Superioresses Gen’l,” Canon Law Digest 6, p. 463), and the charisms of religious communities sometimes are called simply the “charism of the Founders” (MR, 11). Moreover, canon law obliges the religious to “observe faithfully the mind and designs of the founders” (can. 578).
What would it mean to maintain fidelity to the “spirit” of Marcial Maciel? What would it mean to “faithfully accept” the “spirit and aims” of this man? Or to follow his “mind and designs”? To ask the question is to answer it.
This is not simply a matter of embarrassment and shame. The Legion is in peril not because it has a scandalous episode in its past, but rather because it is saddled with a founder whose spirit and legacy provide none of the vitality necessary for a religious congregation to endure. This is especially important in times of reform. A religious community almost inevitably requires reform at various stages in its history, and reform means, above all, a return to the founder. Renewal “bear[s] the distinctive mark of the spirit of the Founders” (cf. CLD 6, p. 463).
A religious congregation’s traditions, its founder’s spirit, and the founder’s aims constitute the patrimony of the congregation (cf. PC, 2). This patrimony is a treasury that sustains the congregation and its members in all times, and especially in times of reform. In this sad case, however, Maciel simply has left the Legion with little or no patrimony. That is, his “spirit,” his “aims,” and his “mind and designs” provide nothing on which the Legion can rely. (Cf. E. Peters, “So if Maciel was a criminal (or a sociopath), what of his charism?” 8 Feb. 2009, http://www.canonlaw.info/2009/02/maciel-was-criminal-or-sociopath-but.html.)
There are several possible futures for the members of the Legion who played no part in Maciel’s deceits. As individuals they could join other congregations or become diocesan priests. As a group they might discern whether they are called to form a new community, or they might seek incorporation into another religious community (cf. can. 582). However, my own opinion is that the congregation founded by Marcial Maciel, the Legion of Christ itself, cannot survive.
Some have expressed wonder that, despite Maciel’s duplicity and manipulation, good nonetheless could exist in the Legion. However, this is no cause for wonder at all, for “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5.20). Maciel betrayed many, not least of all the faithful members of the Legion who had no part in concealing his crimes. Moreover, all throughout this long betrayal, their Lord remained always in their midst suffering the same betrayal. Though the Legion itself may not survive, the innocent Legionaries have reason to hope that the Lord in His mercy will prevent their good work from being lost.
R. Michael Dunnigan is a canon lawyer and civil lawyer, and he serves as General Counsel to the St. Joseph Foundation in San Antonio, Texas.
Copyright 2009 R. Michael Dunnigan