A searching article by former Legion of Christ priest Fr. Richard Gill, Can the Legion of Christ Be Repaired?, raises all the right questions, questions which merit serious consideration as the Church seeks to salvage the Legion.
I’d like to present Fr. Gill’s concerns in a somewhat larger perspective, however, because while they do apply to the Legion in a unique and concentrated way, they also apply to religious life as a whole and, indeed, in some ways to the spiritual life in general.
Evil in the Church
Fr. Gill, who served in the Legion for 29 years before becoming a priest of the Archdiocese of New York a little over a year ago, now thinks “it is no exaggeration to say that Marcial Maciel was by far the most despicable character in the twentieth century Catholic Church, inflicting more damage on her reputation and evangelizing mission than any other single Church leader.”
It is understandable that Fr. Gill believes this to be true, but such a judgment requires a greater personal distance from the pain. By this I do not mean to imply that Maciel did not inflict enormous damage, but only that the Church is no stranger to damage inflicted by those in her own ranks.
It will skew our sense of the possibilities of renewal if we conclude that the Legion has been tainted in a manner or to a degree unique in the history of the last century or any other.
Marcial Maciel was either very evil or mentally unstable, or both, and the fact that he was the Legion’s founder raises special difficulties.
But we are currently surrounded by religious communities which are ruled by leaders so thoroughly corrupted by the values of the larger culture that they operate in open resistance to Catholic faith and morals, while happily presiding over the near-destruction of their orders in the name of progress.
Every case of personal evil is, of course, unique.
But none represents a kind or degree of evil beyond the experience of the Church, or beyond her ability to confront and defeat.
Now let me ask a hard question.
Are we prepared to say that the leadership of the Legion as a group was or is more evil than the current leadership of, say, the Jesuits as a group?
One group more or less knowingly presided over a thriving but distorted new order; the other group more or less deliberately infected a once great order with a serious illness, and still too often persists in the same destructive treatment.
Or another question: Are we prepared to say that Marcial Maciel was more evil as the leader of the Legion than Rembert Weakland was as the leader of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee? Let us be careful about supposing any man’s evil to be the greatest ever, or to place any evil situation beyond the reach of the Church’s grace.
In any case, to me, leadership that still believes it has always been right is the greatest obstacle to reform. It is hard to imagine there are many Legion leaders who still believe they have always been right.
The Scope and Impact of the Legion
I also think that, with a little distance, we can avoid overestimating the impact of the Legion of Christ, both for good and evil.
The Legion was a striking engine for vocations and fund-raising, and through its priests and lay movement, Regnum Christi, it has certainly touched many souls (most of whom have gained from the encounter, even while some were harmed), but we would have to claim blind stupidity to be unaware of how widespread were the concerns about the Legion even before Fr. Maciel was exposed.
For a generation or more there has been considerable suspicion that some aspects of the Legion were undesirable, suspicion both on the part of the laity, among whom the Legion recruited, and on the part of bishops and secular clergy, with whom the Legion has sought to work.
Not all of this can be attributed to a lukewarm distaste for Legionary zeal. Based on anecdotal evidence over the past thirty years, I would say that these suspicions arose from two key aspects of the Legion’s culture, aspects which also played a major role in preventing the Legionaries themselves from discerning what was going on in their midst and from mounting an appropriate response:
- A Faulty Understanding of Vocation: Again
and again, potential recruits (for both the Legion itself and Regnum
Christi) who felt inspired on Legion retreats were told that a person
gets only one chance to seize his vocation, and if he hesitates he will
have lost his chance forever. This is contrary to the mind of the Church
on vocational discernment, which encourages a careful and prolonged
process. This approach, along with its impact on the young and
impressionable, caused severe problems for the families of many who
suddenly wanted to join the Legion, as well as for many who did join but
did not continue in formation. It also put many other families on their
- Faulty Understanding of Authority and Spiritual Direction:
In the Legion itself, in Legion-run schools, and in Regnum Christi, a
strong emphasis was placed not only on obedience but on the commitment
to never question or criticize those in authority or their policies. At
the same time, there was little or no distinction between administrative
authority and spiritual direction. The Church typically insists, and
certainly recommends, that religious and laity alike confess to and
receive spiritual direction from persons other than those who have
administrative authority over them, especially in religious orders or
The dangers of not making this distinction are obvious. This emphasis on unthinking obedience, with no opportunity to let spiritual light in from another source, gave an impression not just of a strictness which indicated strength, but of a peculiar and limiting strictness which raised questions—again, both among lay people and other priests and bishops—about how far their trust of the Legion should extend.
What I am suggesting here is that, given this long-standing concern that has surrounded the work of the Legion of Christ, an outsider would be unlikely to share Fr. Gill’s assessment that Fr. Maciel has inflicted more damage on the Church’s reputation and evangelizing mission than any other single Church leader.
The Legion would have had to be far more successful and far more trusted than it ever was for this to be the case, let alone for an impartial observer to regard the damage as in any sense fatal. Again, a little distance is salutary.
I am not saying that people were not hurt (though I am remembering as well that a great many were also helped). But with a little distance, we find that the Legion’s power and influence over souls was not as great as Fr. Gill might suggest.
The Legion was not everything, nor is its current crisis the end of everything. Unless the Church herself falls, there remains to all of the fallen a source of grace and healing.
The Tensions of Religious Life
Another factor in putting all of this in perspective is to recognize that if the Legion is an object lesson, it is still an object lesson in the tensions that are part and parcel of all religious life.
It is an important part of Catholic spiritual life that religious must give up their own wills and accept the direction of their superiors as the voice of God.
There is also a very definite Catholic spiritual theory (and a very correct one) that, within the limits set by faith and morals, a professed religious is to go where he is assigned and do what he is told, and that this will be a more fruitful source of grace and holiness than preferring his or her own will.
I do not mean that there should not have been greater possibilities for fraternal correction, exchange of ideas, participation in religious governance, and redress of grievances in the Legion than there were.
But what I am reminding everyone is that it is not a bad thing to be obedient. Moreover, to be perfectly obedient (again, within due limits) is to be unresistingly and uncomplainingly obedient.
To pick again on the Jesuits, each of whom with St. Ignatius ought to give up “all my liberty” to Christ through his Jesuit superiors, let us not forget how often in our own time fine priests have been prevented from doing what would appear to be their most effective work by superiors who limit their freedom simply because they are orthodox.
Yet they obey.
Or again, do we not all know priests who have been assigned to backwaters because they are courageous in the defense of Catholic faith and morals but serve bishops who prefer a more “nuanced” approach?
Yet they obey.
And, in fact, they often obey in direct proportion to their holiness.
I can honestly say that I have never met a priest or religious who didn’t care about personal holiness and yet was obedient in anything that compromised his own will.
This brings me to the strength of a great many priests and seminarians in the Legion of Christ, and lay people in Regnum Christi—the strength of being zealous enough to subordinate their own wills to the will of a religious superior for the glory of God.
If now we find that they have been cruelly practiced upon and taken advantage of, what then?
Are they all fools?
Are they all knaves?
Is their zeal to be denigrated and dismissed?
And what of the countless souls these priests and lay apostles have helped to grow spiritually, helped to learn their faith better, and encouraged to engage in apostolic work?
I understand that some families who have been hurt by the Legion of Christ are convinced the organization must be destroyed, that it cannot be salvaged.
But, with respect, those who have been hurt are not in the best position to make such a judgment.
Again, a measure of emotional distance is required.
It is also necessary to understand that every spiritual work we perform is tainted in some way by our own personal limitations and sinfulness.
We will search in vain for a religious order, no matter how great its charism, that is not held back in some ways by its deficiencies.
In fact, we will search in vain, like Diogenes with his lantern looking for an honest man, for even a single person, no matter how great his holiness, who is not hampered in some situations by his personality or his blind spots or his sins.
So let us keep some perspective.
But let us also understand that, with all the perspective in the wide world, the Church and the Legion together must still address the very real and legitimate concerns raised by Fr. Richard Gill.
Fr. Gill’s Questions
The core of Fr. Gill’s concern is that there may be a culture of religious “paternalism” in the Legion that either cannot be rooted out or will not be rooted out by the slow and painstaking effort at Vatican reform led by the papal delegate assigned to this task, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis.
By paternalism Fr. Gill means the attitude that “the priests and religious [have] no right to know of serious matters that affected their future, their freedom, and the commitment of their lives to the Congregation.”
As a result, Fr. Gill fears that many who had joined the Legion as “idealistic young men who saw in the Legion a great force for renewal of the Church and for collaboration with Pope John Paul II in the new springtime of evangelization” are now “disillusioned beyond measure”.
As Fr. Gill explains, “Obedience, grounded in the idea that for the Legionary a superior represented the will of God, has become for many a tense and uneasy labor.”
Although only about 10% of priests have left the Legion, Fr. Gill sees plainly that a reform must be very transparent and very thorough to restore the trust of the majority who remain.
Moreover, while he applauds Cardinal De Paolis’ insistence that every Legionary participate in the process of revising the Constitutions in a spirit of fraternal dialogue and respect, he points out that “it is difficult to exaggerate the enormous paradigm shift this represents for Legionaries, since the Constitution of Maciel was understood to express the will of God in detail.”
This is where the first of Fr. Gill’s six major questions arises, as briefly enumerated below.
- The Legion as a “work of God”: Fr. Gill
notes that when Cardinal De Paolis inaugurated his work in a letter in
October of last year, he called the Legion a “work of God”, which is
exactly what Maciel called it repeatedly. Gill rightly insists that this
be clarified. In what sense can the Legion now be called a “work of
God” if the charism its founder gave it is rooted in duplicity? What is
now the charism of the Legion?
- Investigation into the origins and history of the scandal:
Fr. Gill reports that Cardinal De Paolis seems to have put aside calls
for the investigation into how Fr. Maciel won such support from his
subordinates and aids and, even more, how he won such powerful Vatican
support. For example, Maciel obtained a Decree of Praise for the
Congregation from Pope Paul VI in 1965 just a few years after he had
been suspended and investigated for misconduct for two-and-a-half years.In
addition, the Constitutions of the Legion were approved in 1983 by the
Congregation for Religious despite significant conflicts with Canon Law.
Maciel was repeatedly defended by powerful Vatican Cardinals, even
after allegations of abuse arose. He was praised by Cardinal Sodano as
late as 2004 even as he was being investigated by the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger. The problem of Fr.
Maciel and his relationship with the Curia, Fr. Gill again rightly
insists, needs to be understood before reform can be trusted.
- The question of accountability:
Fr. Gill does not see any effort to hold individuals accountable “for
their role in keeping secret from Church authorities what they knew of
Maciel’s behavior.” This must change.
- Need for new leadership:
Cardinal De Paolis has yet to dismiss a single major superior from
office. As Fr. Gill puts it, “Yet as long as that group remains in
power, few members of the hierarchy will place much confidence in the
Legion…. Dismissals will be needed to restore some measure of confidence
in the Legion.”
- The limitations on real dialogue:
Fr. Gill fears that in fostering “sincere and frank discussions” among
Legionaries, Cardinal De Paolis will be unaware of how ingrained the old
culture is, and how closely the written and electronic correspondence
of Legionaries continues to be monitored by superiors; or Cardinal De
Paolis may not include in the discussions those who have left the Legion
due to the scandals, who are perhaps most likely to speak frankly.
- The difficult question of culture:
Reviewing again the culture of religious paternalism in the Legion, Fr.
Gill suggests that the rapid decline in vocations and fund-raising in
the United States and Spain (the Legion’s two most powerful territories
after Mexico) is tied to the fact that the culture in these two regions
is more open and more critical, so that members and non-members alike in
those places have a strong sense of betrayal, whereas in Mexico the
culture is typically more closed and also less concerned about the sins
Therefore, Fr. Gill fears that the impetus for the reforms most needed in the Legion’s case may not be strong enough, and Maciel’s emphasis on “monolithic unity” might not be transformed by the new structures necessary to ensure a more balanced approach to governance.
I believe that Fr. Gill is right on target in his identification of these key issues, which certainly influenced his own decision to leave the Legion.
Every one of these issues will play a critical role in the Vatican’s effort to put the Legion of Christ on the right track.
At the same time, we must remember the context I set forth in the beginning: First, the Church is no stranger to betrayal by her own members. Second, we have no reason to fear that the problems of the Legion have dealt any sort of death blow to the Church. Third, many of the difficulties faced by the Legion are rooted in tensions natural to religious life, meaning that it is possible to adjust those tensions but not eliminate them entirely. Fourth, there is no such thing as a perfect religious community. To preserve and maximize good is not the same as eliminating all chance of evil.
No one can see the outcome of the reform of the Legion of Christ.
It is understandable if some Legion priests do not wish to continue serving in the Legion for long years during which the effectiveness of their service may be impeded.
But during the period of the reform effort, we must not lose sight of the fact that many Legion priests and members of Regnum Christi continue to do wonderful work.
The way forward will be long and hard, but it is not hopeless.
Perhaps, above all, that is what I mean by perspective.
Things are never hopeless. Not with Christ.
And not in Christ’s Church.