The 1983 Code of Canon Law on the matter of religious congregations speaks no longer of "charism" but of "spiritual patrimony." Canon law requires congregations to adhere to their "spiritual patrimony," but patrimony arises not simply from a foundational gift granted a founder at one moment in time, but comes from many sources, emerging and developing in history to be eventually discovered and validated by Church authority. To have been founded by a disreputable founder is therefore not disqualifying, and, in any event, the Legionaries are not in this respect unique in history. Father Maciel, at least at the beginning, had a legitimate and good intention in his act of foundation and that fulfills 1983 Canon 578, which requires the intention of the founder as a component of the spiritual patrimony. Nor was the need to revise the Legionary constitutions unusual; every congregation's constitutions needed revision in the aftermath of the Vatican Council.
Several canonists I spoke with explained to me that this theory is not an ad hoc invention with which Church authorities solved the founder problem in order to preserve a congregation they wished to preserve for other reasons. (Reasons such as: the Legionaries have extensive infrastructure on the ground in Mexico; they have been effective in combatting evangelical Protestantism; there are too many institutes founded by problematic founders to deal with severely and to do so would reflect badly John Paul II, who championed movements.) If conservative critics wanted the Legion to disappear after the scandal on the grounds that a fraudulent founder could never have conveyed a valid charism, that was too simple and old-fashioned a view.
This new, post-traditional understanding - that foundation of religious institutes does not occur in a single moment of time or in the mind of a single particular person, that "charism" is a process, emerging over time in the lived experience of the members of an institute - was an original perspective of Paul VI, according to Rev. Francis G. Morrisey, O.M.I., professor of canon law at Saint Paul University in Ottawa. It was expressed first in the 1971 apostolic exhortation "Evangelica Testificatio; On the renewal of the religious life according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council."
There Pope Paul wrote, "the Council rightly insists on the obligation of religious to be faithful to the spirit of their founders, to their evangelical intentions, and to the example of their sanctity," but that "in reality, the charism of the religious life, far from being an impulse born of flesh and blood, or one derived from a mentality which conforms itself to the modern world, is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (11)." Accordingly, "many exterior elements, recommended by founders of orders or religious congregations, are seen today to be outmoded. Various encumbrances or rigid forms accumulated over the centuries need to be curtailed. Adaptations must be made. New forms can even be sought and instituted with the approval of the Church. (5)"
Although speaking repeatedly of "fidelity to the founding charism," John Paul II in "Vita Consecrata" (1996) spoke also of some institutes' need to reassess their apostolate and update their way of life. "Thus it is necessary to distinguish the historical destiny of a specific Institute or form of consecrated life from the ecclesial mission of the consecrated life as such. The former is affected by changing circumstances; the latter is destined to perdure. (63)"
This new approach is a beautiful development in the Church's understanding of religious life, Morrisey told me. He is happy that it saved a congregation as numerous as the Legionaries and gave them a second chance to realize their vocation and fulfill the mission they have in the church.
Dr. Eileen Jaramillo, professor of canon law at Siena Heights University and Detroit Mercy Law, author of "Evolving Into a Vibrant Religious Institute: When Charism Harmonizes With the Catholic Church" (2014), speaks similarly. She told me the charism of consecrated life is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit given to individuals for the sake of others and "signifies communion as arising from the relationship among the persons of the Trinity." When the Code speaks of "spiritual patrimony" or the "wholesome traditions of an institute" it means just this, "the life-giving breath of charism." "Since the world is constantly undergoing many changes, the charism or gift is also being received in a new way. Hence, charism is never a static gift but a lived reality."
Code of Canon Law 578 (drawn from the Conciliar Perfectae caritatis 2b (1965)) says: "The intention of the founders (fundatorum mens) and their determination (proposita) concerning the nature, purpose, spirit, and character of the institute that have been ratified by competent ecclesiastical authority, as well as its wholesome traditions (sanae traditiones), all of which constitute the patrimony (patrimonium) of the institute itself, are to be observed faithfully by all." Therefore, Jaramillo said, "It asks that institutes know their legitimate history. This includes the founder or foundress as well as the graced developments since the time of the foundation. It also includes the legitimate historical changes as distinguished from historical accretions. Tradition in the Catholic Church has included handing on not only the content of the faith but also time proven ways for living out the faith. Within a religious institute, the same can be said regarding the searching out of wholesome or authentic traditions."
Jaramillo said that "in emphasizing the return to the original charism of the founder or foundress, some institutes discovered that there was no particular original charism, but rather a response to a particular need at the time of the foundation," offering for example an institute founded in a particular place in the United States to serve immigrants there. "Research into the intentions of the founder or foundress and their plans needs to include putting these dynamics within the proper context of ecclesiastical, historical and cultural needs." This is what the Code means by referring to "wholesome traditions" in canon 578 rather than charism. "The intention to respond to the particular needs may remain similar, while carrying them out may entail the establishment of a different apostolate."
Altogether, then, according to this view, the Legionary charism can be recognized by the Church in whatever was wholesome or authentic in the lived experience of the membership over the decades, entirely apart from (though still in a way inspired by) the person of Father Maciel. The double life of the founder and cultishness in the lived experience of the members, now apologized for, can be construed as encumbrance outmoded for decades; the congregation's dubious historical destiny can be distinguished carefully from its valid ecclesial mission. If the particular ecclesial needs to be served at the time of foundation were those in Mexico in the 1940s, adaptations have been made. The constitutions are renewed to enable a new charism, born of the Holy Spirit, who availed himself of a surprisingly corrupt instrument, to achieve a different apostolate, a more universal evangelizing purpose, conducted now in greater freedom and with more ecclesial responsibility.
God can write straight with crooked lines, or so Legionary defenders love to repeat, and the Church does embrace both saints and sinners, but even so, the Legionary position on their restoration has not satisfied everyone, though those respectful of Church authority keep their questions to themselves. It isn't simply, some feel, that all congregations' constitutions needed revision after the Council; the Legionaries had already revised theirs twice before, in 1970 and 1994.
It isn't that their traditions had become encrusted and deadened over the centuries, but only in the very years in which they were winning approval with the decreta laudis of 1965 and 1983 from the Congregation for Religious. Can the intentions of Paul VI and John Paul II on the reform of congregations with long histories be accurately applied to a congregation with a problematic founder founded only in the last few decades?
And the "fundatorum mens" remains for all that an element of Canon 578. Jaramillo says that the founder's intention "is a gift to the founder or foundress as well as their own way of understanding and making concrete the following of Christ. It is a gift which the members must embrace if it is to become a communal reality and not just the mission of one person." Legionaries claim that Father Maciel had legitimate intention at least at the time of foundation, however badly he behaved subsequently, and who can know otherwise?
In assessing its founder's intention, it will be necessary work for any institute with a problematic founder to distinguish carefully, and accurately with historical evidence, between founders with human flaws (as even sainted ones must be), founders with goodness and right intention who later lapsed, and (potentially) founders who from the start were never any good.
It should not then remain a tacit, unexamined historical assumption that the Legionary founder whose life the Apostolic Visitation found "devoid of scruples and authentic religious meaning" had possessed upright intention on January 3, 1941, and then lost it as time went on. Maciel, then aged 20, had already been dismissed twice from seminary, once by his uncle, Bishop Saint Rafael Guízar y Valencia (1878-1938), whose angry bout of screaming at his 18 year old nephew may have contributed to a fatal heart attack the next day, June 6, 1938. Jason Berry and Gerald Renner in "Vows of Silence" (2004) give reason to suspect as constructed fiction Legionary stories of Maciel's heroism during those years, including accounts of the special call from God that had him founding and instructing members of a congregation before completing seminary studies of his own. In 1949 he was a man capable of wearing a hat with a bullet hole, as if nearly shot to death by communists, as a prop to impress seminarians and potential donors.
And is it true that there are other examples in history of spiritual frauds whom the Holy Spirit chose to grace the Church? Previously as archbishop of Brasília, as he said in 2011, Cardinal João Braz de Aviz was not a Legionary supporter, suspicious of "the lack of trust in the freedom of the people I saw in it. Authoritarianism that sought to dominate everything with discipline. I had already removed the seminarians of Brasília from their seminaries…" But, when coming into office as prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and therefore Curial supervisor of the Legionary restoration, he also said, "Certainly it's painful when you see the expansion of an institution that presents itself as charismatic, and then the unworthiness of its initiator emerges. How it is possible remains a mystery. The Legionaries are not the only case." He had in mind the Franciscan Fraternity Toca de Assis, founded by the Brazilian priest José Roberto Lettieri.
Legionaries mention the continuing good work of Life Teen, a Catholic youth apostolate, founded by a former priest who was discovered as an abuser, laicized, and excommunicated, or that of Food for the Poor, the scandal of whose founder did not negate the good purposes of the charity. But these are clubs and programs, not religious congregations.
Mentioned too are sainted founders, who through ecclesiastical miscomprehension lost connection with the congregations they founded, which then went on without them: St. Joseph Calasanz, St. Alphonsus Liguori, Blessed Mother Marie-Anne Blondin (1809-1890), Venerable Mother Elisabeth Bergeron (1851-1936). Yet it is mortifying to invoke the same pattern of persecuted founders that the Legionaries invoked in the old days when defending Father Maciel from calumnies that proved to be true. Legionary Father Patrick Langan, co-formulator of the new Legionary charism with Legionary Father Owen Kearns (see Kearns and Langan, "The Quest for the Core of the Regnum Christi Charism" (Legion of Christ, 2014)), edited "Founders; Cross and Resurrection in the Life of Some Founders" (Circle Press, May 1997) as part of the Legionary response to the first revelations about Father Maciel in the Hartford Courant in February 1997. I have not yet been made aware of an adequate analogue from history to the foundation of a congregation of pontifical right with a universal mission in the Church by an unscrupulous founder.
Toward the future
The new Legionary Constitutions have removed excessive detail from the old, but this means that many detailed guidelines for Legionary lifestyle are still to be legislated in future, destined perhaps to receive less public scrutiny. The well-known Legionary rules governing, say, the eating of fresh fruit (grapes and cherries excepted) with a knife and fork, or of pasta, bread, and fish, were in the "Norms of Urbanity" (262, 179-265), not the previous Constitutions. The new constitutions will be implemented by "secondary legislation" (n232) - a "Ratio institutionis" (the overall formational program implementing the charism of the congregation), a "Ratio studiorum" (the educational plan), and practical norms of conduct - that all will be bound to observe. The 2014 Chapter meeting envisaged three years for the completion of the formational program with the educational plan taken up after that.
(On sexual abuse policies and procedures, in place since at least 2011 has been a "Code of Conduct And Other Directives Pertaining to Safe Environment Issues in North America for the Legionaries of Christ" (December 2013, online here). The adoption of this code is part of the Legionaries' compliance with safe environment policies, accredited and audited periodically by Praesidium, Inc., a consulting, public relations, and management firm on matters of sexual abuse. But the "Code of Conduct" is not a document of ecclesiastical governance.)
The most fundamental issue still pending is, as mentioned, a new "canonical configuration" for Regnum Christi: how will canon law accommodate the religious Legionaries with laity in the larger movement? John Paul II's "Vita consecrata" acknowledged such new forms of consecrated life: "The originality of the new communities often consists in the fact that they are composed of mixed groups of men and women, of clerics and lay persons, of married couples and celibates, all of whom pursue a particular style of life. (62)"
The Legionaries were a congregation whose recruitment rhetoric could include the thought that marriage implies a compromised lack of generosity with God. Some Legionaries will still paraphrase "Vita consecrata" to the effect that only celibate religious are fully committed to an unblocked union with God. The Legionaries, if in fact they will privilege the baptismal as the common vocation of laity and religious, have the opportunity to vindicate a crucial Conciliar perspective.
In the monastic tradition of "contempt for the world," the new Constitutions legislate a suspicion of its dangers when going outside their religious house (n43) or of getting involved in temporal affairs when visiting family (n45). Indiscriminate use of media can be a serious obstacle to fidelity (n46.2), echoes of the past when internet browsing was prohibited to Legionaries lest they discover uncensored coverage of their founder. Yet this is the same world that Regnum Christ laypersons must inhabit without undue suspicion. Should a Conciliar emphasis on the common baptismal vocation also imply an attitude of less hostility to the world?
Also pending is Legionary "intellectual formation." The previous Constitutions had much more specifically to say about education than the new. They required internal undergraduate studies, but of such a quality as to enable getting valid diplomas and certificates and study at civil universities (p88, 104). Humanities were to convey a "broad knowledge and deep assimilation" of the values of Greek and Latin authors (Epicureanism? The imperialism of Roman Legionaries?) (p106.1). Higher philosophy and theology in Legionary centers were to follow Aquinas and be taught and studied (somewhat optimistically?) in the Latin language (p111.1-2), though, at the same time, "taking into account the most recent research and latest advances of science (p112.1)." Study of theology was to avoid a "false intellectualism (p126)."
The new constitutions give only the broadest indications for the still to be written "Ratio Studiorum." Intellectual preparation is meant to be "solid, deep, and select," involve humanities and sciences, philosophy and theology, in an intense academic atmosphere, at the level of university degrees, a professional training to defend church teaching. (n96-7)
Legionary education will still be practical: "All the formation of a Legionary must have an apostolic focus, oriented to communicate Christ and his message. (n100)" This does echo John Paul's "Pastores Dabo Vobis" (1992), which asked for a priestly education in service to "the challenge of the new evangelization (51)." But it remains to be seen, when the new "Ratio studiorum" appears, how open Legionaries will aspire to be in academic dialogue and the discovery of partial truth in modern thought and culture, a personal strength of Popes John Paul and Benedict, and, in different ways, also of Pope Francis. Legionary contemplativeness does not by constitution include the study of truth and beauty for their own sake, an activity not so foreign to John Paul's understanding of the new evangelization.
The Legionaries are by constitution bound to leave behind all preoccupation with temporal things (n20.2), but some temporal considerations have proven necessary to Legionary survival. Things like holiday gift giving to supporters, marketing techniques for fundraising and development, or consulting firms to manage and accredit compliance with child and youth protection policy. Or like lawyers, which the Legionaries made use of to defend themselves in two cases in Rhode Island, civil suits alleging coercive and deceitful fundraising tactics applied to elderly donors. They settled one in December 2014, on terms they then did not disclose, and won dismissal of another in January 2015 on a legal technicality. Or like canny public relations management, as when the Legionaries' public admission that a novice instructor from 1982 to 1994 at their seminary in Cheshire, Connecticut had abused at least one novice, was timed to coincide, the same day, December 5, 2013, with the even more arresting public announcement of the wedding of a prominent former Legionary.
Reports on the new Legionary constitutions have emphasized the legislation against abuse as if it were a response to the scandal, but those sorts of things were already forbidden in the 1983/1994 constitutions. It wasn't only Father Maciel who transgressed the Constitutions previously in force; in many areas, it was the whole congregation. The Legionary Chapter documents of February 2014 (details in previous article) acknowledged deficiencies that the previous Constitutions had not prevented even when explicitly forbidding.
So we are reminded that Constitutions are law, an idealized vision, and do not of themselves guarantee good behavior. If the scandal did not destroy the Legionaries and they have survived on the theory that a charism, a reason for existence, can emerge and develop over time, by the same token, the approval of new Constitutions does not definitively reconstitute them. Indeed, Father Morrisey told me that even while it is a great thing for religious communities to be able to recover or reestablish a charism, years are still needed to see if that recovery is good or not. If valid new charisms can emerge over time, the Legionaries will still have to prove themselves, live up to the new Constitutions, and vindicate their own new charism.
What "Vita consecrata" asks of bishops and new forms of religious life emerging in their dioceses - "wisely evaluate possible weaknesses, watching patiently for the sign of results ('From their fruits you will know them.' (Matthew 7:16 )), so that they may acknowledge the authenticity of the charism (62)" - applies to the new Legionaries and their new charism. Vigilance is still called for.
Though Pope Francis has been mostly silent about the Legionaries, he has recently sounded both supportive and vigilant. The Curial champions of the old Legion are potentially among those suffering from the spiritual illnesses he diagnosed in his Christmas greeting to the Curia in 2014.
In October 2015, Francis granted the Legionaries and Regnum Christi a jubilee year, with the possibility of a plenary indulgence for members, to observe the 75th anniversary of their founding. The timing of the jubilee, still influenced by traditional understanding, presupposes that the foundation occurred at a moment in time in the mind of a particular person, the date the Legionaries keep of their foundation by Father Maciel, January 3, 1941. But the indulgence is no more than what is offered to every Catholic in the Jubilee year of Mercy or, indeed, at any time.
As he spoke to reporters on the plane returning from Mexico, February 18, 2016, Pope Francis also emphasized that old accounts are still being reviewed and that supervision is still in place over the Legionaries in the persons of a vicar and two councilors. He said: "…an intervention took place and today the government of the congregation is not yet fully autonomous ("el gobierno de la congregación está semi-intervenido," [i.e., the process is ongoing, not yet completed]). That is, the superior general is elected by the [Legionary] council, by the [Legionary] general chapter, but the vicar is chosen by the Pope. Two general councilors are elected by the council, the general chapter, and the two others are elected by the Pope. In this way we are helping to review the old accounts."
(As I write, on the page of the Regnum Christi website identifying the five members of the Legionary General Council, only one, Gianfranco Ghirlanda, is identified as "at the choice of the Holy See." The vicar general and first Councilor is among the five, Legionary Juan José Arrieta.)
Institutes recovering from scandal will face the challenge of distinguishing the wholesome from the corrupt in their history. As the Legionaries recover from theirs, they have been both comforted by continuity and challenged by reform. The senior Legionaries who must administer the congregation with a new spirit under new constitutions were formed under the old constitutions. Legionary Father Owen Kearns, defender of Father Maciel in the pages of National Catholic Register, has gone on to become the co-deviser of the new, approved Legionary charism, recently expounding it to the delegates of the Regnum Christi renewal convention at Mundelein and preaching them a retreat.
There are other ironies. The Legionaries, whose previous constitutions expressed hostility to labor unions, in part owe their survival to a "liberal" interpretation of charism advanced by Paul VI, who supported labor unions in "Octogesima adveniens" (1971).
And after such well-known public loyalty to Pope John Paul, the Legionaries' reliance on their emerging charism has worked to annul the John Pauline theme of unity of life. To John Paul writing in "Christifideles Laici," "Holiness must be called a fundamental presupposition and an irreplaceable condition for everyone in fulfilling the mission of salvation within the Church. (17)" the Legionaries have provided a counterexample in the person of their founder. The proponents of an "integral" formation must continue to claim as part of their spiritual patrimony Father Maciel's disintegrated life.
The Legionary scandal has furthermore provided material, in the end ambiguous, with which to take up the absorbing theological question as to whether the Church's approval of a religious order is irreformable. So also will the developing stories of other ecclesial communities with disgraced founders that had been granted approval. That such approval is irreformable has been theological norm from the 17th century, though one that has been questioned by more recent theologians examining the scope of infallibility as it applies to matters beyond revelation itself, the "secondary object of infallibility." The Legionaries were sustained immediately in surviving the scandal by the traditional view - their decreta laudis were granted them infallibly and so it was impossible for Church authority to dissolve them - even as they now owe their continuing life to the newer theology of an "emerging charism."
Legionaries would do well to answer the privately expressed criticisms of their restoration by adding two things to their self-explanation: a thorough, public airing and application of the theological and canonical theory on which their restoration is based and an answer to the question of whether Father Maciel is unparalleled in Catholic history or paralleled only in recent history within the epidemic of problematic founders. This would assist both critics to feel reconciled with a Church administrative decision they find difficult to understand and members of smaller communities with founder problems who may not command the same high-powered canonical legal advice as the Legionaries, experienced as they are in the arts of survival. It would benefit all if the rationale for the Legionary restoration were more than a theological and canonical technicality devised in private by professionals.
It would also benefit all if the vexing question as to how it is that (in Father Maciel's case) a man devoid of religion conveyed a good gift to the Church were to be faced more plainly and receive an explanation fuller than that of Cardinal Braz de Aviz, "How it is possible remains a mystery." Or fuller even than that of Pope Benedict in "Light of the World" (2010), "To me Marcial Maciel remains a mysterious figure. There is, on the one hand, a life that, as we know, was out of moral bounds-an adventurous, wasted, twisted life. On the other hand, we see the dynamism and strength with which he built up the congregation… That is the remarkable thing, the paradox, that a false prophet, so to speak, could still have a positive effect."
To refute accusations against their founder the old Legionaries used to allude to Scripture: a bad tree could not have borne good fruit. Now to restore themselves and strive again for new life, the new Legionaries effectively rewrite Scripture, as will other communities with a founder problem, as will the whole Church if it accepts that bad founders can make good foundations. Bad trees, however paradoxically, may indeed bear good fruit.