George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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Saving What Can Be Saved

In May 2006, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) made public its decision to “invite” Fr. Marcial Maciel, founder of the religious order the Legion of Christ and the lay movement Regnum Christi, to “a reserved life of penitence and prayer, relinquishing any form of public ministry.” The CDF decision was approved by Pope Benedict XVI. From that date forward, both before and after Fr. Maciel's death in 2008, senior officials of the Holy See have insisted that this action was intended to “save the Legion and Regnum Christi,” as one such official put it to me.

Assuming, as we can and must, that this remains the Holy See's intention, it must now move without delay to address the accelerating train-wreck-heading-toward-the-cliff that the Legion and Regnum Christi have become over the past ten days, as credible reports appeared in the blogosphere that Fr. Maciel had lived a life of sexual and financial scandal, probably for decades.

The reports have emanated from those who had been advised of the Legion's own investigation of Maciel, but there is still no formal statement from the leadership of the Legion as to what its internal investigations have uncovered. There has been no full disclosure of what is known about Fr. Maciel's corruptions. There has been no disclosure as to the nature and extent of the web of deceit he must have spun within the Legion of Christ, and beyond. And there has been no public recognition of what faithful, orthodox, morally upright Legionary priests believe have been grave corruptions of the institutional culture of their community.

The letter from Fr. Alvaro Corcuera to the faithful of Regnum Christi, distributed last week and immediately available online, was completely inadequate in naming these sins for what they were. Public statements by Legion spokesmen in Rome and in America have been just as bad, due largely to failures by Legion leadership and to an institutionalized culture of defensiveness.

Two courageous Legionary priests, Fr. Thomas Berg and Fr. Richard Gill, have issued personal statements that face the facts as we know them, while not shying away from their implications in respect of any assessment of Fr. Maciel. Another Legionary priest, Fr. Thomas Williams, manfully confronted the truth of this wickedness on EWTN this past Friday night. Fathers Berg, Gill, and Williams have also conceded, admirably, their own failures to see through the web of deceit spun by Fr. Maciel. Their words reconfirm what those of us who have benefitted from the friendship of Legionary priests have known for years–there is great good here, as there is among the faithful members of Regnum Christi.

The question now is, how shall that good be saved?

It can only be saved if there is full, public disclosure of Fr. Maciel's perfidies and if there is a root-and-branch examination of possible complicity in those perfidies within the Legion of Christ. That examination must be combined with a brutally frank analysis of the institutional culture in which those perfidies and that complicity unfolded. Only after that kind of moral and institutional audit has been conducted, and has been seen publicly to be a clean audit, can the Legion of Christ, and the broader Church, face the questions of the Legion's future–which are, candidly, open questions:

• Can the good that has come from the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi be disentangled from the person and legacy of Fr. Maciel?

• Can the Legion be reformed from within, after those complicit in the Maciel web of deceit have been dismissed?

• Must the Legion be dissolved, with perhaps a core group of incontestably honest former Legionaries re-forming a religious congregation dedicated to the ideals that have been fouled by Fr. Maciel's sins and by a manifestly wounded institutional culture?

None of these questions can be thoughtfully or prayerfully answered until there is a full audit.

And, as the flailings and failures of the past ten days have made clear, that audit cannot be conducted by the Legion leadership, which is likely beset by a maelstrom of internal and external pressures. It must be mandated by the pope, and it must be conducted by someone responsible to the pope alone–not responsible to the relevant parts of the Vatican bureaucracy, not responsible to the cardinal secretary of state, but responsible to the pope alone. There is simply no other way open to an accounting that will be both scrupulously honest and publicly credible.

To take an image from corporate law, the Legion of Christ must be immediately put into receivership: A personal delegate, appointed by the pope, must be empowered to take over the governance of the Legion of Christ and to conduct the moral and institutional audit required. The papal delegate would be instructed to report his findings, both interim and final, to the pope alone, and he would be instructed to make recommendations (again, to the pope alone) addressing the possible futures, including dissolution or dissolution-and-reconstitution, of the Legion.

Why not work through the normal curial processes with, perhaps, an apostolic visitation of the Legion being mandated by the pope and run through the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life (typically called the Congregation for Religious)? Because, according to reliable sources, senior curial officials resisted that solution in the years leading up to CDF's 2006 action, and the Congregation for Religious has been resisting it ever since the latest Maciel firestorm broke.

Such reluctance hardly befits any curial office for a supervisory role in a credible moral and institutional audit of the Legion. Moreover, the last several weeks of curial chaos, confusion, and incompetence in the wake of the lifting of the excommunications of four Lefebvrist bishops have made clear just how dysfunctional the curia remains in terms of both crisis analysis and crisis management. A curia in which no one in authority had the sense to Google “Richard Williamson,” and no subordinate had the nerve or capacity to compel the superiors to pay attention to a potential landmine, is not a curia capable of getting to the roots of the Maciel betrayal. Nor, candidly, is it a curia capable of conducting an investigation that can command public credibility. It is regrettable that this is the case, for there are many honorable people working in the Roman curia. But it is the case.

What should be the qualifications of a man empowered by the pope to assume the governance of the Legion as papal delegate and to get the bottom of the Legion crisis? He should be a priest and a vowed religious, who knows the dynamics of religious life, both for good and for ill. He should, obviously, be a man of recognized probity. Perhaps not-so-obviously, he should have had experience in dealing with financial and sexual scandal in a forthright, courageous, and effective manner; ideally, he would have been involved in the reform of a religious house, seminary, or community that had suffered a fall from its professed ideals. He must have good Spanish, for much of the paper trail here will be in that language; he should also have good Italian and English, so that he can conduct his investigations and interviews in the principal languages of Legion life. He must know something of canon law, and he must know competent canon lawyers.

Men with these qualifications exist. One of them must be given this difficult, onerous, but essential task–and soon–if the good that remains among faithful Legionary priests and among the members of Regnum Christi is to find a path toward the future, for the sake of the entire Catholic Church.

–George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

This article was originally published on First Things: On the Square

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