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The Legion of Christ & its founder

By Diogenes (articles ) | Feb 17, 2009

 What do we know about the misbehavior of Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, deceased founder of the Legion of Christ? In strict terms: nothing. In part this is the fault of the Holy See, whose 2006 communiqué did not specify the wrongs in response to which it "invited" Maciel to "a reserved life of prayer and penance." In part it is the fault of the Legion of Christ, which issues assertions about Maciel while withholding the evidence on which the assertions are grounded. In place of publicly verifiable data -- such as checkable documents and signed testimony -- we have coy and ambiguous declarations based on informal confidential investigations. This is not knowledge. 

In early February the Legion's spokesman Fr. Paolo Scarafoni announced that Maciel had sired an illegitimate daughter, now in her twenties. The CNS story reports, "Asked how the Legionaries came to know about her, Father Scarafoni said, 'Frankly, I cannot say and it is not opportune to discuss this further, also because there are people involved' who deserve privacy." This is a transparent falsehood. Scarafoni was in reality communicating "Frankly, I cannot be frank about this matter." Tactical mendacity of this kind is beloved of Roman churchmen (think of the Jesuit General's claim that there is no conflict between the Society and the Holy See); it is not intended to be credible, but it serves as a kind of No Trespassing sign, warning outsiders that further inquiry along a given line will not be tolerated. Granted, however, that we don't and can't know whether Maciel's paternity is better founded than any other claim the Legion has made about him, the remarks that follow will assume that this minimal admission is true.  

Maciel deserves to be reviled by the Legionaries of Christ. By "deserves" I mean his revilement is a debt of justice owed all Catholics by the Legion. This is not on account of Maciel's sin of sexual weakness, nor even on account of the sin of denying his sexual weakness. The fact of the matter is that Maciel was publicly accused of specific sexual crimes, and that out of moral cowardice he enlisted honorable men and women to mortgage their own reputations in defense of his lie. The lie was the lie of Maciel's personal sanctity, which Maciel knew to be a myth, and which the fact of his paternity (putting aside the more squalid accusations) proves that he knew. To the villainy of sacrificing the reputations of others, Maciel added the grotesque and blasphemous claim that the Holy See's sanctions were an answer to his own prayer to share more deeply in the passion of Christ, as an innocent victim made to bear the burden of false judgment in reparation for the sins of mankind. The Legion cannot share Catholic reverence for the Passion and fail to repudiate Maciel's cynicism in portraying himself as the Suffering Servant. 

Yet the LC leadership persists in allotting Maciel a role of (somewhat tarnished) honor: praising with faint damns, and suggesting that his spiritual patrimony remains valuable in spite of his personal life. This won't work. 

Many of the greatest saints were repentant sinners. Yet not only did Maciel (as far as is known) go to his death without repenting, but he used wholesome Christian spirituality as a tool in the deception of others. Think of the Soviet mole Kim Philby: while he worked in the UK's SIS and Foreign Office, his articulate patriotism may have inspired those he duped to a deeper love of country. Yet once he was unmasked as a spy, and after his patriotism was revealed as a contrived distraction from his real treachery, even those who were moved to genuine loyalty by his speeches would not continue to feed on them. And note: Philby's patriotic words would provoke the most shame and disgust precisely in the persons who found those words truest. 

Or consider a woman whose husband ingeniously hid his infidelities from her for many years. Once she realized she had been deceived, the gifts he brought back from his business trips would be understood to have been instruments in that deception. Far from cherishing the jewelry he gave her, she'd feel that the diamonds now mocked the affection and fidelity they symbolized. By the same token, Maciel's addresses will be spiritually kosher -- he was after all a highly successful deceiver. But those addresses dishonor the very truths they expound, and it's impossible that they can cause anything but distress and confusion in those who attempt to nourish themselves on them. 

To repeat: the fact that he was a flawed priest is not the reason for repudiating Maciel. The Mexican priest-protagonist of Graham Greene's novel The Power and the Glory was enfeebled by lust and alcoholism and despised by those he served; yet, because of his concern for souls, he kept himself in the arena of danger and died a martyr. Maciel presents Greene's image flipped on its head: he was a Mexican priest with an internationally cultivated reputation for sanctity. He lived surrounded and cosseted by admirers, and yet in reality he held divine retribution so lightly that he went to his deathbed without undeceiving those he'd taken in, leaving behind him shattered consciences and wobbly faith.  

When I speak of the Legion's duty of revilement, I do not mean they should issue so many pages of rhetorical denunciation of Maciel's sexual iniquities. What is required is an unambiguous admission that Maciel deceitfully made use of holy things and holy words in order to dupe honest and pious persons into taking false positions -- sometimes slandering others in the process -- in order to reinforce the legend of his own sanctity. Since Maciel's treachery was sacrilegious in its means and in its effect, he should posthumously be repudiated as a model of priesthood and of Christian life. 

What is said above is predicated on the minimalist assumption that Maciel's siring of a daughter is the only canonical lapse that can held against him. Yet he stood accused of sins much more serious, including the sin of absolutio complicis -- i.e., of sacramentally absolving one's own partner in sexual wrongdoing. The Legion's leadership professes improbably comprehensive ignorance of Maciel's misdeeds, but even if they are in fact in the dark about Maciel's guilt in this area, they surely must understand that abuse of the sacrament of confession moves the debate over Maciel's priesthood onto an entirely different level than a failure in sexual continence.  True, we don't expect Newsweek or NPR to focus on the gravity of abusing a sacrament, because for them sacraments are simply ceremonies. But we would expect orthodox Catholic priests to grasp the importance of the charge. Knowing what they now claim to know about Maciel's sexual delinquency, can the Legion confidently dismiss the accusation of abuse of the confessional? And if they can't dismiss it out of hand, how can they fail to address it, even obliquely, in their statements? How can they keep up the public patter of his "flawed priesthood" without the certainty -- the certainty -- that there are not souls out there that need concrete sacramental help, souls whose access to the sacraments Maciel may have blocked by his villainy? 

The Legion leadership's piecemeal public disclosure broadens rather than narrows the general speculation about the extent of Maciel's crimes. Today and for the foreseeable future they're in the "half of the lies they tell about me aren't true" position.   They have only themselves to blame. Whereas St. Augustine said, "God does not need my lie," the Legion's officialdom appears to base its strategy of teaspoon by teaspoon revelations on the contrary conviction: "God needs our falsehood, and yours as well." 

Yet what are we to make of the Legionaries who aren't superiors and who remain under a vow of obedience to those who are? Are they complicit in the actions of their superiors simply by remaining bound by their vows? If Maciel has real victims whose urgent spiritual needs are being ignored or dismissed by the leadership, can the Legionaries who would wish to address those needs act on their own to do so? If not, what is the course an honorable man would take, and how might the Holy See make it possible for him to act in conformity with a well-formed conscience while remaining a religious in good standing? Many persons of good will associated with the Legion and Regnum Christi have called for prayers for Maciel's victims. This is entirely proper. But if you were a victim of Maciel, and had been denounced as a slanderer for accusing him, and that denunciation had never been unsaid, would you feel spiritually buoyed by the promise of prayers offered on your behalf?

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