A Realist Agenda for Reform of the Legion: Group's Supporters Praise Vatican Official's Letter, but Some Reformers Worry It Affirms Status Quo

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 2010 | Go to article overview

A Realist Agenda for Reform of the Legion: Group's Supporters Praise Vatican Official's Letter, but Some Reformers Worry It Affirms Status Quo


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


In the months since Pope Benedict XVI launched an investigation of the Legionaries of Christ following revelations that its founder, the late Mexican Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, was guilty of sexual and financial misconduct stretching over decades, speculation has swirled about the future of the controversial order.

Some wondered if the Legionaries would be disbanded, while others asked if the current leadership would be swept aside. If neither happened, cynics questioned whether there will be any real change at all, something beyond the merely cosmetic.

The Vatican has now provided answers, which could be summarized as "No, no, and we'll see."

They came in an Oct. 19 letter from Italian Archbishop Velasio De Paolis, who heads the Vatican's Prefecture for Economic Affairs, and who was appointed last July as a pontifical delegate to guide the Legionaries through a process of reform.

De Paolis, a Scalabrinian Missionary, was recently named one of 24 new cardinals to be created by Benedict Nov. 20.

While conceding that "not a few things are to be changed or improved," De Paolis said that the Legion "not only survives, but is almost intact in its vitality," and that it is "a work of God at the service of his kingdom and his church."

That's a clear signal the Legion will endure. Worldwide, the Legionaries number 800 priests and 2,500 seminarians, while 70,000 people belong to its lay branch, Regnum Christi.

De Paolis also said the current superiors have been confirmed, and it's a mistake to assume they covered up Maciel's double life. There were rumors, De Paolis said, but "it is something else to have proof," which came "only much later, and gradually." (See Tom Roberts' perspective, Page 26.)

De Paolis said it might take two to three years, or more, before any reform is complete. In the meantime, he appealed for unity, warning of "certain shipwreck" if the Legionaries fight among themselves.

Several current and former members, speaking on background, say the revelations about Maciel spawned three currents with the Legionaries and their Regnum Christi network:

* True believers who see these events as a trial sent by God, analogous to the period in the 1950s when Maciel was removed as the head of the order and subjected to a Vatican investigation related to charges of drug abuse. That time is known internally as the "Great Blessing," a test of faith that strengthened the order's resolve. A few might play down Maciel's failures, or make comparisons to King David in the Old Testament--another flawed leader nevertheless chosen by God.

* Realists who understand the gravity of the revelations, and the steep challenge they pose to any religious order that draws inspiration from its founder, but who also believe that the vitality of the Legion and its commitment to the "new evangelization" called for by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI are fundamentally sound. They support some internal changes, especially distancing the order from Maciel, but not a 180-degree about-face.

* Root-and-branch reformers, whose agenda usually begins with removal of the current crop of superiors, on the grounds that trust cannot be rebuilt with the same people in charge. This group believes it's too easy to say, as De Paolis does in his letter, that Maciel's failures "cannot be transferred onto the Legion of Christ," without facing the ways his style permeated the order's structures and culture. They're prepared to start over almost from scratch, including a less centralized system of control.

The tension among the three groups isn't so much over whether reform should occur, but how sweeping it ought to be.

By most accounts, the first and third groups are relatively small, while the second represents the bulk of the membership. One current Legionary said the "true believers" have diminished significantly over the last 18 months, and today it would be difficult to find someone fitting that description. …

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