By Father Michael Orsi
Chaplain and Research Fellow, Ave Maria School of Law
Over the past few weeks, the Catholic Church has once again been roiled in scandal. This new controversy was sparked by revelations of a double-life led by the late Father Marcial Maciel Degollado (1920-2008), founder of The Legion of Christ. After an internal investigation, the congregation discovered that Father Maciel had fathered a child, a daughter now in her twenties. Other reports from a former financial officer of the order tell of the founder taking large sums of money with him, for unexplained reasons, whenever he left Rome.
All of this follows years of accusations about sexual improprieties and the Vatican’s 2006 “invitation” to Father Maciel to retire from leadership of the order and lead a life of “prayer and penitence.”
The Legionaries have issued a very terse official statement: “We have learned some things about our founder’s life that are surprising and difficult for us to understand. We can confirm that there are some aspects of his life that were not appropriate for a Catholic priest.”
The statement’s lack of specificity in even confirming details of the charges has led to widespread calls for greater transparency, about both Father Maciel and the operations of the organization itself. Catholic media, in particular, have been aggressive in calling the Legion to task, perhaps because of the order’s high-profile presence on the religious-communication scene as owner of The National Catholic Register and other Catholic information outlets.
This story raises three critical questions which need to be explored: (1) Should more be revealed? (2) What does Father Maciel’s life teach us about God? (3) What does it teach us about ourselves?
Somehow it has become a common assumption that putting every aspect of a person’s life up for public scrutiny is a good thing. Especially so those aspects that have to do with sexual matters — the stuff of tabloids and “reality” TV — concern for which, in former times, would have been dismissed as voyeurism. Who can forget the coverage Prince Charles and Princess Diana received over their extramarital sex lives, or for that matter, the media frenzy about what Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski were up to in the Oval Office?
The question is: Are we better off for knowing all such sordid details? I think not. Those revelations hurt the individuals involved, their families, and their respective nations. They also led to interminably salacious and less-than-edifying conversations, tempting us all into the sin of gossip.
There is much speculation about the identities of Father Maciel’s mistress and daughter. But for them to be “outed” could be a devastating experience. It could also cause needless and unfair suffering to others not directly involved in the situation but close to it. Relentless probing would certainly bring further hurt to the many excellent Legionaries and all the men and women of Regnum Christi, the lay apostolic movement associated with the Legion.
I have often reflected on the words of a pastor who, when confronted with information about the foibles of others, would ask, “How does knowing that bring me closer to Christ?” There are some things we don’t need to know.Transparency in governance would undoubtedly be a good thing for the Legion as a religious community. An investigation of the order’s protocols by a Vatican appointed visitator is appropriate. This should include careful attention to accountability for Legion finances. Donors have a right to know how their money is being spent. But, the extent of a person’s sins and the sordid details of a person’s sex life (whether that individual is alive or dead) is never necessary, and more often than not, merely promotes the sin of detraction.
The Legion’s founder may indeed have been a radically flawed person, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Legion itself is flawed. God often works through very weak and sinful human beings — a truth which the Legionaries may want to emphasize as part of their reflection for renewal. St. Paul was painfully aware of this when he preached on God’s grace, which as he said, acts through earthen vessels to deliver God’s message and bring about good.
Scripture is replete with examples of how God works through some very unsavory people. For example, King David, an adulterer and a murderer, was beloved by God and, to this day, is honored as the greatest of the Jewish Kings. The late Scripture scholar Raymond Brown astutely pointed out that there are some very tainted women in Jesus’s genealogy: Tamar, who had a sexual relationship with her father in-law, Judah; Ruth, who was a despised Moabite; Rahab, who was a prostitute; and Bathsheba, an adulteress. From these came the Christ!
The old saying, “God writes straight sentences with crooked lines,” comes to mind. Just because Father Maciel was flawed, doesn’t mean the charism of the Legion must be. In fact, the proverb most applicable in this situation is: “By their fruits you will know them.” My experience with the Legion (and the experience of many others) has been greatly rewarding spiritually. The work of Legionaries with priests and laity has borne much fruit. In particular, their defense of Catholic doctrine and the life issues is most commendable (in this regard I highly recommend the work of Legion priest, Father Thomas Berg, LC, director of The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person).
I have a cousin who became addicted to researching his genealogy. He spent a fortune seeking information from a variety of resource groups, most of which charged fees for their forensic services. Although the findings rarely matched, one theme appeared consistently in their reports: My cousin was descended from royalty, and his ancestors were all heroes. Common sense might confirm the lie, but they told him what he wanted to hear.
The fact is that we all have some monkey on the family tree (or a screwy Uncle Looey). That doesn’t mean we’re tainted by our ancestors’ presence in our genealogy, that we’re responsible for their wrongdoing, or that we’re doomed to repeat their questionable behavior. In some instances we may even profit from it. The life of Old Joe Kennedy still has many questions surrounding it, yet his clan is considered American “royalty.” There is one thing we do inherit through our family line, however: Original Sin. But God knows our human weaknesses. That’s why he sent Jesus, who gave us the sacraments to help overcome the proclivity to sin.
The sexual concerns that sent Father Maciel into retirement before his death were related to allegations of pedophilia during the 1950s. Because of the time lapse, charges could not be proven beyond doubt, but the reports seemed plausible enough to require intervention by the pope. I think Benedict acted wisely and pastorally. He gave Father Maciel an opportunity to make things right with God before he died. One can only hope he made the most of it — in which case, we should all be so graced.
It would appear that Father Maciel committed acts that were horribly wrong. But, his life and legacy were (and still are) valuable to the Church and to the order he founded. Like my cousin, we all wish to believe we come from a long line of wonderful people. Similarly, those in religious life would like to call their community’s founder a saint. We have no way of knowing that Father Maciel isn’t one. The penances he performed at the end of his life might have been efficacious in ways we will never know.
Perhaps this strange, sad episode is part of God’s plan for reconstituting the Legion of Christ into a more effective ministry. In the end, it may turn out to be a moment of grace for all of us.
[Father Orsi penned this essay for the OSV Daily Take. This viewpoint offered differs from some of our previous coverage on this blog of the Legion scandal, and we welcome its contribution to the conversation. Don't hesitate to leave a comment below.]
Update: A moral theologian replies and says, yes we do need some sordid details.