Last fall, I wrote a piece on the progress of a Vatican-supervised reform of the Legionaries of Christ, the religious order founded by the late Mexican Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, in the wake of revelations that Maciel was guilty of various forms of sexual and financial misconduct.
At the time, I distinguished three currents with the Legionaries and their lay branch, Regnum Christi:
- “True believers,” who play down Maciel’s failures and see current events as a trial sent by God;
- “Realists,” who accept Maciel’s guilt and the need for reform, but who believe the vision and structures of the Legion are fundamentally sound;
- “Root and branch reformers,” who essentially want to start over, beginning with getting rid of the current crop of superiors.
Though official acknowledgment of Maciel’s “reprehensible actions” by the Legionaries in 2010 obviously constituted a massive blow to the “true believer” camp, a widely read blog this week from an influential Mexican member of Regnum Christi shows that it still has some gas left in the tank.
The blog came from Lucrecia Rego de Planas, a Mexican laywoman and editor of “Catholic.net,” one of the most popular Catholic web portals in Spanish. In the posting, she suggests that “there is something yet to be discovered” about the supposedly “incontrovertible proof” shown to Pope Benedict XVI demonstrating Maciel’s guilt.
Rego de Planas takes her cue from the words of Christ in Matthew 7:17: “Every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit.” She notes that Benedict XVI and other senior Vatican officials have repeatedly praised the zeal and deep faith of the Legionaries, and suggests that leaves only two options: either Jesus was a liar, or there’s something amiss about the case against Maciel.
She does not offer any specifics, but she indirectly suggests that the jury is still out on Maciel, saying the last word will not be spoken until “Judgment Day.”
It is sickening, saddening, and disheartening to learn that there are still members of Maciel's not-so-magic Kingdom who think that he died a persecuted saint, blameless and holy. While it is always good for Catholics and all Christians to cultivate a practice of thinking well of others, that does not mean that we're supposed to be foolish and deny the reality of evil, the ubiquity of sin, and the overwhelming evidence that Maciel was not ever a true shepherd, but a wolf in sheep's clothing.
Sickening, saddening, and disheartening, as I said. But not, alas, surprising.
We are, all of us, prone to the powerful temptation to think and speak well of those we consider our own--even when, and perhaps especially when, they are known to be guilty of some evil act or sinful conduct. We are equally susceptible to the temptation to think and speak ill of those who are not members of our particular tribe, even if they are guilty of lesser offenses. Above all of this, though, is the tendency--a bad one, indeed, for the serious Christian--to elevate certain people, whether priests, religious, or laity, to the status of rock stars or superheroes, and to close our ears and our minds should they have the misfortune by sin to slip away from the evanescent pedestals upon which we foolishly set them, and come crashing down all too hard into the mire of their own making.
By all reports, Maciel relished the human respect and fawning he was given in this life; had we had eyes to see, that alone would have been a sign to us to look away. People like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who shunned the limelight, abhorred special treatment, and sought Confession so very often for herself, set a much better example of how the soul sees itself the closer it draws to the Almighty God: as weak, foolish, helpless and sinful, not as strong, wise, powerful and holy. The surest sign that we still lag far away from holiness is that we think we might be approaching it, after all.
Yet among Maciel's followers there remain some--let us hope, a tiny handful--who took the man's assessment of his own holiness and worthiness of special treatment at face value, and who continue, even today, even when most of the worst sins of his misguided life have been revealed for all to see, to believe that all of that is mere falsehood, and that in the end their beloved Founder will be among the recognized saints in Heaven. I think we all must pray that there was some tiny spark of penitence in Maciel at the end of his life; but we must also realize that the merciful pope who ordered him to a life of penance before the end did not do so on a whim or on whispered rumors of evil things; the evil was real, and the damage to innocent victims was, and still is, terrible to behold.
Alas, the people who more than anyone helped Maciel avoid true repentance for however long he did so (even to the end, perhaps, though again our prayers must be that this was not the case) were not protecting their beloved hero, or standing with a saint against his evil scandal-mongering detractors. They were forcibly keeping him on that fraudulent pedestal, when perhaps some earlier and more substantial contact with the muck might have made him a model of real, public, humble, and sorrowful penitence before it was too late.