As the Legionaries of Christ wrestle with the news that their founder led a double life, a debate is taking place over the order’s future. Canon lawyer Ed Peters argues that the Legion could dissolve itself and reconstitute under a new charism. But Pete Vere, a canon lawyer who specializes in movements, argues that a reform of the order, not dissolution is the answer.
Earlier this week, news that Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ and the lay Regnum Christi movement, had a mistress, fathered a child and led a double life was confirmed by the Legionaries.
Pete Vere, a canon lawyer who is an expert on movements within the Catholic Church, spoke to CNA about how he believes the news will affect the future of the congregation, and the role the Church can play in helping the Legionaries move forward.
Q: In reacting to the revelations of Father Maciel's double life, some have been calling for nothing short of the dissolution of the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi.
Vere: I can agree with a reorganization. Something like this is going to hit hard. I also think that given institutes within the Church take their charism, which is their way of doing things -- their gift to the Church -- from their founder, the Legion is going to have to take a close look [at itself].
My understanding is that they've been doing this already and that they've been working with Rome to make some changes. More changes will have to be made, and these changes come at a very difficult time for them as they are coming to grips with this news. I don't see the necessity of dissolving the Legion.
I think if they were being resistant, if they were refusing, if they were trying to defend the founder's actions, that would be a lot different.
Rome generally takes three approaches when dealing with their wayward children. The first approach is to try and convert and to try to get them to do better. If that fails, then Rome will attempt neutralizing, where basically they pen them in and don't allow them to do anything, to do anymore damage. Then, and only then, will Rome go in for dissolution and crack down heavily.
All indications are that while there are certainly people in the Legion that are having a difficult time with this, and are asking questions, as well as in Regnum Christi, they are trying to do the right thing. Will they necessarily get everything right the first time? No. Will there be questions asked? Absolutely. This is stunning news. This is very difficult news. But, what people in the Church want to see is progress. And we can't expect everything to fix itself overnight. That's my take on that.
Q: In dealing with the news about its founder, where can the Legionaries of Christ and the movement turn?
Vere: We need to keep in mind that no founder in the Church has been perfect, except Jesus Christ. And this is why it is important as members of Catholic organizations and as members of Catholic apostolates and groups, that we always maintain our connection to the Church, that we always turn to the Church when we are going through difficulty, and sometimes we have to say this is beyond our ability as a movement or organization to fix on our own. We need the Church's help here. By the Church I mean our pastors, our shepherds, the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, as well as the local bishops who are pastors within the diocese. And I also mean Jesus Christ and his blessed mother, who give us the grace, and in whose name we carry on in the apostolates. There is no shame in asking for help from the Church and the wider Church community.
Q: Can the movement go on without a founder?
Vere: Without a founder, no. But being honest about the founder, and saying that the founder made mistakes and that maybe the founder did things for the wrong reasons, and maybe some of the things we did were wrong ... I think that type of openness and transparency will allow them to go on.
Obviously given the size and given the effect they've had on the Church, there is something good there, but that something good has also been clouded by this scandal as well as some of the practices.
Having worked on the tribunal [as a canon lawyer], one thing you learn is that where there is abuse -- especially sexual abuse -- it becomes a family secret and [the family] turns in on itself. It becomes sort of suspicious of the outside world, and you become paranoid that the secret is going to get out and what will people think.
To a certain extent you try to deny this is going on, then when it breaks people say "ha, ha, I told you so." There's also the effect of blaming the victim, [telling them they] didn't do enough. So then one becomes more inward because [of that]. So that's unfortunate.
What's needed here is transparency. And this is a criticism that I have made of the Legion and of Regnum Christi in the past, is that quite often they operate without the local Church's knowledge. There seems to be something secretive. Christ told us not to hide our light under a bushel. Christ told us to preach in the open. So I think what the Legion has to work on is openness, they have to work on transparency. They have to be honest about what has happened. And if they do that, with sincerity, I think, God will give them the grace to move on. And I think the Church has the resources to help the Legion and Regnum Christi to move on with this.
Christ talks about being the good physician. And we refer to the Pope as the Holy Father. And as any good parent or physician, you can't heal the problem if you don't know what it is and it's hard to know what it is if certain symptoms or ailments are being concealed. So that's what I think. I think absolutely the Legion can learn and grow and continue from this. But, they have to show that trust in the Church.
Q: How should other members of the Church react to the news?
Vere: I think for the rest of us, it doesn't do well to play blame the victim. Catholicism is a big family, and like any family, our members sometimes will go through some rough patches and suffer some crises, and the rest of us have to be there for the family. We need to reach out and realize first that most rank-and-file members of Regnum Christi are sincere Catholics who are trying to live a Catholic life, and we need to be understanding of that. We also need to reach out to them and let them know we are praying for them. We also need to reach out to former members of the Legion and Regnum Christi who raised these concerns and ignored them, and we need to apologize to them too. In doing this, I think, we can all get beyond this and grow in holiness, and the Legion and Regnum Christi can return to being a vibrant part of the Catholic Church.
Q: What do you know about the charism of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi?
Vere: I've been following the Legion and Regnum Christi for several years. There were several Legionaries and members of Regnum Christi who helped me through my reconciliation with the Church. I know that their charism was "serve the Church." But, to serve the Church you have to be a part of the Church, and I think this is often where the Legion and Regnum Christi got into trouble in the past, and I think they are working on this, to bring about more openness.
Certainly, the fact that they've brought this forward, and knowing the disappointment they would face shows they are trying to reform and carry on with their mission and charism.
Q: Is there awareness that while the founder was held in high esteem, the charism of the Legionaries of Christ is centered on the person of Christ, and has as its mission to serve the Church in obedience to the Pope?
Vere: I think this has been some of the problem of the past is that they've followed this but the rest of the Church hasn't been aware of what the Legion does, and I think the Legion in the past has been reluctant to share some of this. And I think this is an opportunity for them to open up and say: "Here's what we do, here's how we do things. If there's anything we should be doing differently, or if there's anything we could do better to serve the Church, please let us know. And please take this opportunity to correct us and help us move on."
And certainly, I've been a part of other lay movements that have gone through a reorganization process after the death of the founder, or early on in the foundation, and were moving in the wrong direction and the Church stepped in and reorganized and they've become very, very productive within the Church, serving the Church. And today nobody would question their charism or their authenticity, as part of the Church family.