Maciel & beyond
By Diogenes (
) | May 21, 2006
Below are some initial thoughts on the affair of Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado. Though it's true of every post, it won't hurt to emphasize that these opinions may not reflect those of Catholic World News or, for that matter, of California State University at Fullerton.
The Holy See's Communication doesn't specify what the exact charges were. Maciel's accusers say the 1998 complaint is that of absolutio complicis, giving absolution to one's own partner in sin, and the Communication frames the situation in terms of the document Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, whose provisions include, but are not limited to, violations of the Sacrament of Penance. Maciel's 2002 statement says, "I never engaged in the sort of repulsive behavior these men accuse me of," but does not further specify the accusations. It is probable, though not certain, that the investigation which the CDF conducted concerned violations of the confessional, and that its findings (risultanze) and the consequent decision hinge on these delicts.
Maciel was "invited" to relinquish all public ministry. On the assumption that he was deemed guilty of violations of the confessional, this seems oddly incomplete. On one hand, the crime brings with it an automatic excommunication (whose remission is reserved to the Holy See: C. 1378); on the other hand, forgoing public ministry would presumably leave Maciel free to hear private in-house confessions -- doubly odd under the circumstances. This makes me wonder whether the CDF didn't come to further decisions (and restrictions) that have not been communicated publicly: i.e., perhaps we're only getting the non-confidential part of the judgment and sanctions.
Those inclined to believe Maciel innocent haven't been done any favors by the LC communications squad, which regularly manages to increase the very suspicions it sets out to allay. Case in point: Maciel's censure has been an open secret in Rome for two months; yet when John Allen asked for a reaction to the censure on the eve of its publication he got the reply, "We have nothing to say. We don't know anything about this." The first sentence would have sufficed.
Equally frustrating to a just assessment of the situation is the LC requirement "never to make outward verbal criticism, written or otherwise, of any act of governance or of the person of any rector or superior of the Congregation, and to inform forthwith the immediate superior of the member who has made such a criticism." Many religious communities have rules that discountenance grumbling; the LC's stricture is not simply another rule, but is undertaken as a vow: that means the member risks damnation if he acts against it, and it binds his conscience in a uniquely comprehensive and final way. Ironically, this vow makes the LC's support of Maciel epistemically valueless -- I'm not saying it's morally valueless, simply making the obvious point that testimony in favor of a man is shonky when offered by a witness who has vowed a priori, and under pain of mortal sin, never to speak ill of him.
Writing of the 17th century cleric Miguel de Molinos's reaction to ecclesiastical censure, Ronald Knox wrote, "I confess I find in this curious outpouring a perceptible echo of that hysterical humility which meets you, everywhere, in the writings of Madame Guyon. It seems to have been a fault of temperament with the Quietists -- and I do not except Fénelon -- that they could not take things quietly. Every slight, every set-back in their careers had to be dramatised and exclaimed over; they resign themselves to their loss not (as we might expect) with a pious shrug of the shoulders, but in a roaring ecstasy of self-abandonment." Granted that the investigation and decisions regarding Maciel are more than a mere set-back, there's also more than a touch of this "hysterical humility" in the LCs' language about the serenity and tranquility with which Maciel is carrying the cross of Christ, etc. It's edifying to the point of disedification.
Several people have reacted to the decision by positing the following syllogism: If Maciel were innocent, it would be a gross injustice for the CDF and Pope Benedict to impose restrictions on his ministry that invite us (even if they don't require us) to believe that he is guilty. But we have no grounds for thinking the Pope and the CDF have the motive, still less the character, to visit such an injustice upon Maciel. Therefore, he's not innocent. I find this reasoning persuasive. But it leaves a lot of questions hanging. Are we to imagine Maciel's punishment apportioned to his proven guilt, or apportioned to his unproven but evident guilt, or not apportioned to his wrongdoing at all but based on factors such as his health, or the containment of scandal, or the good of the LCs? Does the Holy See recognize an obligation to address the pastoral needs of the accusers, to the extent that their injuries have been shown well-founded?
Robert Bork, who is an ex-Marine as well as a former judge, was once asked whether, were he a defendant in a criminal proceeding, he'd rather go before a military or a civilian court. He made the formidably trenchant reply that, if he were guilty, he'd rather be tried by a civilian court; if innocent, by the military. However you parse that judgment, it doesn't reflect well on civilian courts, and it would seem to apply a fortiori to ecclesiastical justice. Had you been charged with the atrocities Maciel was charged with, and it was decided to forgo a trial and commit you to life of private penance, in which situation, i.e., guilt or innocence, would you find that a satisfactory conclusion? Exactly.
Many of us know personally Legionaries of Christ or members of Regnum Christi who lead lives of sincerity, integrity, and exemplary virtue. It's painful to consider how much of their good will and wholesome piety has been spent in defense of Maciel, and how much of what remains may be jeopardized by his disgrace. To us spectators, the Maciel Affair has been particularly exasperating because it brought into conjunction two vexing traditions of (shall we say) "abbreviating the truth" -- the LC's, in service of its institutional defensiveness; the Holy See's, in service of what may be charitably termed charity and less-charitably termed saving face: la bella figura. It's time for a change. Just as Pope John Paul II permitted some of the ugliness and weakness of age to be put on view, the better to witness to its inherent dignity, perhaps the Holy See, and orders such as the Legionaries, can risk more candor about the ugliness and weakness of their human endeavors, the better to witness to God's grace at work.
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