Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Person, Charism, and the Legionaries of Christ

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Person, Charism, and the Legionaries of Christ

Article excerpt

This past May, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), with the approval of the Holy Father, issued a communiqué indicating that the decision had been made "to invite" Father Marcial Maciel "to a reserved life of penitence and prayer, relinquishing any form of public ministry."

Fr. Maciel is the founder of the Legionaries of Christ and its lay association, Regnum Christi. The Legion has more than 600 priests and 2,500 seminarians in some twenty countries, while Regnum Christi has more than 65,000 members around the world. The congregation and the lay movement are marked by apostolic zeal and vibrant orthodoxy. Both were strongly supported by Pope John Paul II.

As with other new movements in the history of the Church, the Legion and its lay association have had their share of critics. In addition to those who disliked the Legion's firm adherence to Church authority, there were those who accused it of being elitist, secretive, and excessively interested in cultivating the rich in order to fund its ambitious program of building educational and other institutions. Much of the criticism, I expect, is generated by envy of the Legion's success, especially in attracting priestly vocations in a time when vocations to most other religious orders are in sharp decline. But there are additional dynamics in play.

Fr. Maciel retired from active leadership in 2005. Beginning in the 1990s, a number of charges of sexual wrongdoing, related to alleged events in the 1940s and 1950s, were brought against Fr. Maciel by former members of the Legion. The CDF conducted an investigation of the charges, but because of Fr. Maciel s fragile health and advanced age of eighty-six, it did not conduct a canonical hearing. Since there was no canonical hearing, there is no canonical judgment of his guilt or innocence regarding the alleged wrongdoings.

The most precise statement of what has happened, I believe, is that, in the judgment of the CDF and the pope, it is in the best interests of the Church, the Legion, and Fr. Maciel that he relinquish his public ministry and devote the remainder of his life to penitence and prayer. It should be noted that "penitence" in this connection need not connote punishment for the wrongdoing of which he was accused. All Christians are to be engaged in penitence and prayer. At the same time, the invitation to remove himself from public ministry is undeniably a form of censure. Making a clear distinction between the founder and the work he launched and led, the Vatican statement also said that "the worthy apostolate of the Legionaries of Christ and of the association Regnum Christi is gratefully recognized."

Although I have no formal connection with the Legion or Regnum Christi, I have over the years been a strong supporter of both. They have in the past, do now, and will, I pray, in the future provide vibrant apostolates in the service of Christ and his Church. When the charges against Fr. Maciel first surfaced, I studied the matter with care and had detailed discussions with knowledgeable people on all sides of the ensuing controversy. I then said that I was "morally certain" that the charges were false. Moral certitude, it should be noted, is a very high degree of probability that justifies action but is short of certitude described as absolute, mathematical, or metaphysical.

I do not know all that the CDF and the Holy Father know and am not privy to the considerations that led to their decision. It is reasonable to believe that they concluded that Fr. Maciel did do sometliing very seriously wrong. To censure publicly, toward the end of his life, the founder of a large and growing religious community is an extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented, measure in Catholic history. Moreover, because the only public and actionable charges against Fr. Maciel had to do with sexual abuse, the clear implication is that that was the reason for the censure. In view of the public knowledge of the charges, it is not plausible that he was censured for some other and unknown reason. …

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