Bringing Good out of Evil
Let’s talk about something that God can and always does do infallibly, and that Christians are enabled to do extremely well by His grace: Bringing good out of evil. What made me think of this is the recent announcement that the apostolic visitation of the Legion of Christ is expected to conclude in March of 2010. When that visitation ends, the Legion will be able to close a long and difficult chapter of its history and, hopefully, to go forward with renewed confidence. But let’s get some spiritual theory first.
Bringing good out of evil is essentially a work of mercy. God does this because of His infinite love, and His resulting plan of salvation ensures that He does it always and everywhere without fail. For God’s response to all of the sins that have been committed and will be committed in the future was to send His only Son as a sacrifice, and to establish Him as the eternal high priest and advocate for all. By the economy of salvation, then, the infinite merits of Christ’s sacrifice, along with any graces we can add through our own cooperation with Christ, are continually working to bring good out of every evil in every time and every place.
In an absolute, universal and infinite sense, then, Christ Himself is the good that is brought out of evil. As St. Paul explains: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). But in particular and finite ways, it is not always possible to see this process at work. Though God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4), some resist this desire of God’s heart to the end. In addition, many times we fail to witness good being brought out of evil. We may be insufficiently perceptive, or simply too far removed in space or even time from the good that emerges out of any particular situation.
Nonetheless, I suspect that we have all seen examples of this in our own lives. We have experienced moments when an intense yearning for God has emerged in the midst of temptation or sin, or when our experience of the evil actions of another has brought us or someone we know closer to God, or when we finally understand the reason God has permitted us to suffer some evil, even perhaps a spiritual or moral evil. But above all, we have experienced in our own lives—or in observing the lives of others—how the Christ-life we share enables us to “repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (Rm 12:17).
The Case of the Legion of Christ
I suspect most readers are familiar with the unusual case of the Legion of Christ. Established as a religious congregation of Pontifical right in 1941, the Legion was founded by Father Marcial Maciel, who was revered by its membership as an example and guide, and who served as the Superior General of the Congregation until 2005. Legionary priests have the mission to work in collaboration with bishops around the world to extend the Kingdom of God. The Legion is known for its strict discipline, rigorous formation, unfailing orthodoxy and rapid growth. Today the Legion has over 800 priests and 2,500 seminarians, with houses in 22 countries. It also directs a vibrant lay movement known as Regnum Christi
But as so often in life, there is a dark side. From a relatively early date, the Legion became known for high pressure recruitment tactics and a subsequent severe discipline that tended to cut off seminarians from their families. Both could be explained in terms of the intense zeal and discipline of the Congregation, but both very quickly also became sources of discontent among many parents, and among seminarians who eventually left the Legion. From extremely widespread anecdotal evidence, it seems that a peculiar feature of Legionary recruitment was the strong tendency to make young men fear that they had but one chance to seize their vocation, such that if they didn’t act immediately, it would be lost forever. Again by common report, a similar approach has frequently been used to gain young members for Regnum Christi. At the same time, a common complaint concerning Legionary training is that those who did not quickly embrace the vocational theory and the rigor of that training were cast off with little concern for their spiritual well-being, resulting in many young men who felt psychologically damaged by the Legion’s system of formation. In addition, the promise to never criticize a superior has been a strong feature of life with the Legion, including teachers in schools supervised by Legionary priests. One can imagine how this same stricture could have severely distorted the internal life of the Congregation.
So much for the critique, and it is considerable. Yet despite all this, it has also been exceedingly clear that Legionary priests were extremely strong spiritually, well-studied, thoroughly orthodox, obedient to the Pope, zealous and hard-working. As I have already indicated, their numbers increased with extraordinary rapidity. This sort of success is not easy to dismiss. The result has been a long and often acrimonious debate about the strengths and weaknesses of this young Congregation, and frequent confusion among those who have come in contact with it.
In the midst of this ongoing debate, in the latter part of the 20th century, rumors began to circulate concerning the founder’s improper sexual relationship with some seminarians. As these allegations increased, there was apparently a considerable struggle in Rome as to whether the allegations would be assumed to be false or would be fairly and decisively evaluated. Finally, in 2001, Pope John Paul II directed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to undertake a formal investigation. In 2006 the CDF decided that, in deference to Fr. Maciel’s advanced age, no comment would be made on the allegations, but Fr. Maciel should give up his ministry and spend the remainder of his life in prayer and penance.
Since that time, it has emerged that Fr. Maciel also had children by one and probably more than one woman, that he was actually involved with one of these families “on the side”, so to speak, for an extended period of time, and that he misused the Congregation’s funds in connection with these scandals. In the wake of these further revelations, many onlookers have reasonably asked how much other key members of the Congregation knew about their founder’s scandalous life, why reasonable controls were not in place, and whether there was in fact a widespread cover-up within the Congregation even while its leaders were holding Fr. Maciel up for veneration.
The Holy See Attempts to Bring Good out of Evil
If there were ever an institutional need to bring good out of evil, this was it. In March 2009, Pope Benedict ordered an Apostolic Visitation of the Congregation. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI had previously expressed their gratitude for the outstanding work of the Legion of Christ in many areas. Clearly the Holy See hopes to see that work continue by investigating the Congregation, effecting any necessary changes, and setting the Legion on a more fruitful path. Just as clearly, the Holy See does not wish to see the sincere and devout priestly members of the Legion and the many wonderful lay members of Regnum Christi shattered spiritually and left by the wayside after such a series of devastating upheavals in their spiritual lives. To its credit, the Legion has welcomed Vatican intervention and guidance, and has offered full cooperation at every turn.
This is, in fact, a stellar institutional example of the highest authorities in the Church attempting to bring good out of evil, and it seems clear that the ability to do so will depend on two things: (1) The cooperation of the Legion with the results of the Visitation (which cooperation is widely expected to be both transparent and complete); and (2) The willingness of many parents, former seminarians, diocesan priests and bishops to keep an open mind, pray for the Legion, and welcome its efforts at internal reform.
For those who would swear that the Legion is fundamentally flawed at its very root and cannot be salvaged (and there are a good many in this camp), I would suggest they take careful note of the difference between the Legion and the women religious in the United States as to how each group has responded to their respective current apostolic visitations. A large number of communities of women religious are in open rebellion against Rome, resisting the visitation, and revealing their desire to do without the Petrine ministry, the male priesthood, and the “patriarchal” dogmatic theology of the Church, including the traditional definition of the Holy Trinity. In contrast, the Legion has turned confidently toward the See of Peter as to Our Lord Himself. It is not too much to say that the one thing necessary to fruitful ministry is an ongoing willingness to make the mind of the Church one’s own. If the Legion can do that—as a number of female religious congregations apparently cannot—then there are many, even among its just opponents, who would be well-advised to hold their fire.
As I indicated, the Visitation is expected to finish its work in March, after which we shall presumably gain some idea of the results, in spite of the “pastoral sensitivity” and aversion to clear public statements which may accompany Rome’s decisions and recommendations.
And What about Us?
At the outset, I mentioned that this matter of the Legion, and the coming judgment which it faces, has led me to reflect again on that unique power of God, communicated to us through the sacraments and every other means of grace, to bring good out of evil. This power is not simply a matter for academic discussion. It is central to the Christian calling to be the light to the world. It is, in fact, commanded: “Do not be overcome by evil,” warns St. Paul, “but overcome evil with good” (Rm 12:21).
There are many ways in which good is drawn out of evil, so to speak, and none of them suggest even for a moment that evil in itself has the capacity to transform itself into good. But evil does, in countless ways, present fresh occasions for grace. And grace is always able to take each person’s experience, even the experience of evil, and turn it into both a motive for and a more effective means of doing good. In ordinary life, what enables this to happen is humility, the abandonment of one’s own feelings and prejudices out of a genuine desire to be emptied of self in order to be filled by God. And what stands in the way of bringing good out of evil is every sort of pride, as evidenced most often by rash judgment, prejudice, refusal to forgive, lack of due care for the good of others, holding grudges, and everything else that indicates a soul full of very little but itself.
As we enter into the Christmas season, in which so many families, coworkers, organizations, communities and even nations find themselves divided one against the other, it is a good time to reflect on this Christian calling to bring good out of evil, a calling which is at once a marvelous gift and a tremendous responsibility. Where only harsh judgment, trouble and conflict are expected, whom will we touch with forgiveness or kindness or love? A soul open to God will see good overcoming evil in itself, and such a soul will also be a source of this transformation in others. “Love your enemies,” says Our Lord, “and pray for those who persecute you. Do good to those who hate you” (Mt 5:44; Lk 6:27).
Or try this even more explicit counsel: “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish” (Luke 6:35). Here we find the key to bringing good out of evil: It is to expect nothing in return, for real love is love for the advantage of another, not for our own advantage, not for something in return. Real love is the work of releasing someone else’s precious gifts, like the Pope with the Legion, or like Christ with ourselves. For we draw good out of evil only by stirring in the gift of self, a gift of self ennobled and engraced by Christ. This is what it means—this is all it means—to overcome evil with good.
See also my related 2011 article, Can the Legion of Christ Be Fixed?
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Posted by: amdg47681 -
Dec. 23, 2009 5:09 AM ET USA
Thank you, thank you, thank you for this marvelous reflection!! How we need to hear these words, especially in our day of so much moral pain and sadness. May God continue to bless you and your family.
Posted by: richard_ryan5260 -
Dec. 22, 2009 5:45 PM ET USA
"The cooperation of the Legion with the results of the Visitation (which cooperation is widely expected to be both transparent and complete) ..." You must be kidding. If history is any example, the Legion is actually likely to resist reform. When the CDF dropped the canonical investigation into Fr. Maciel, a number of Legionaries and Regnum Christi members treated it as some kind of exoneration of "Nuestro Padre". I find your boosterism of the Legion to be a little disturbing.