Comment on the Comments
William Oddie FAITH Magazine July-August 2006
It had to be the lead story that week. The Catholic Herald reported it fairly straight, giving the bare facts with what seemed at first (and still seems to most) the inevitable conclusion: ‘Pope Benedict XVI has told the 86 year old founder of the Legionaries of Christ, one of the Church’s most dynamic new orders, to stop saying Mass in public following an investigation into charges of sexual abuse. Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado—who is regarded by his conservative followers as a living saint—will now spend his twilight years in disgrace.’ The next paragraph drove home the agonising dilemma facing the followers of a movement which has always been profoundly loyal to the papacy, most of whom were undoubtedly hoping for the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope John Paul’s successor: ‘TheVatican ruling, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, indicates that the Pope accepts that there is substance to the charges against Fr Maciel, some of which date back to the 1940s.’
There is, of course, an undertow to this story, which has to do with that word ‘conservative’; in some Catholic papers, though not, these days, The Catholic Herald, it has been over recent years almost a term of abuse. One very holy old Opus Dei priest told me he never used it. ‘What do you say instead?’ I asked; ‘Oh, just “faithful”.’ I know what he meant; but it does not avoid the polemical problem, merely moves it around.
There can be little doubt that in the Degollado case, the cause of ‘conservatism’ and of faithfulness to the Church’s Magisterium has sustained a major blow, though not one from which it will not already have recovered by the time you read these words. But papers like the American National Catholic Reporter (which has been on the warpath against Fr Degollado for years) have undoubtedly seen this not simply as a vindication of their stance in that particular battle, but as a victory in their general campaign against the way authority is exercised in the Church, and in particular against Pope John Paul II and his legacy.
Their very long editorial on the Vatican’s announcement about the future of Fr Degollado began, almost ostentatiously, more in sadness than in anger, professing the paper’s ‘sincere sorrow to members of the Legion.’ The paper continued: ‘We know all too well how we have pressed for judicial proceedings against Maciel on these pages, convinced that the truth would not be served unless the victims were given full and fair hearing at the highest levels of the Church... That said, we know that those differences notwithstanding, we all profess the same faith, and we love and claim membership in the same Catholic community. No division, then, is deep or wide enough to prevent a sincere expression of our concern for those who have dedicated their lives to the mission of the church and who nowhave to deal with the news of the Vatican finding.’ The paper even seems to express some understanding of Fr Maciel’s (still, strictly speaking, only alleged) actions, in its reference to ‘the growing understanding that the abuse is most likely the result of illness, not criminal intent.’
So, if the National Catholic Reporter was not gunning for Fr Maciel or the Legionaries of Christ, who was it gunning for? It takes little ingenuity to work it out. As so often in American perceptions, it was not the alleged offences themselves but the cover-up that was the real crime. That allowed the NCR’s guns to be turned on to an even larger target: ‘The cover-up is the product of secrecy, privilege and a lack of accountability that are major elements of the clerical culture in which the sex abuse scandal flourished... It was made worse because officials either ignored or downplayed the claims of victims and went to great lengths in many cases to protect the abusers.’
What followed had by now become all too wearily predictable: this case was nothing if not an irresistible opportunity for something which these days is more difficult to pull off than it used to be, without unacceptable levels of adverse reaction: a full frontal attack on the late Pope. ‘For all of the commendable achievements of Pope John Paul II’, the NCR continues, ‘his blindness to this cancer within the church and his unwillingness until the last years of his long reign to understand the urgency of the problem will be seen as serious flaws of his tenure. His inaction sent signals that he both tolerated and encouraged the debilitating culture of deceit... Vatican officials today explain that John Paul did not have the information with which to judge the case. That’s the very point,however. One can only conclude he failed to listen to the victims and believed for far too long that the scandal was the malicious work of those who opposed the Legion because of its loyalty to him.’
This attack on the late Pope continues unabated for several paragraphs; it is worth breaking off at this point, however, to ask a question: if it is true that the late Pope did believe that those loyal to him laid themselves open to attack from certain quarters simply for their loyalty, was there not very good reason for him to believe it? Certainly, it is true, looking back over the battle of the last decade, that those who took up positions for and against Fr Maciel tended to be those who also took up positions for and against Pope John Paul II, and it was Fr Maciel’s attackers who led the way in this. There was also the undoubted fact that the ‘new movements’ which the Pope supported—of which the Legion of Christ, with its lay wing Regnum Christi, was one of the mosteffective—were themselves deeply distrusted by those ‘liberals’ who preferred, rather than living lives of holiness and self-denial, to live out their apostolates in the more congenial ways of the national and diocesan bureaucracies, the groves of academe and the haunts of the bienpensant media.
In such circles, the Legion of Christ was a natural target—just as Opus Dei had been, just as the Neocatechumenate had been, the list is endless—whatever its founder had or had not done; it seemed natural to suppose that that was what really lay behind the campaign against Fr Maciel. As Fr Richard John Neuhaus put it in First Things in 2002, ‘Forty and fifty years after the alleged misdeeds, there is no question of criminal action. Even were there any merit to the charges, which I am convinced there is not, the statute of limitations has long since run out. And what can you do to an eighty-two-year-old priest who has been so successful in building a movement of renewal and is strongly supported and repeatedly praised by, among many others, Pope JohnPaul II? What you can try to do is to filch from him his good name. And by destroying the reputation of the order’s founder you can try to discredit what Catholics call the founding “charism” of the movement, thus undermining support for the Legionaries of Christ… Nobody would dispute that Legionaries are theologically orthodox and loyal to the Pope. Some of us take the perhaps eccentric view that that is a virtue.’ Fr Neuhaus was expressing his scepticism over the allegations of a recent book, Vows of Silence, by two journalists, Jason Berry and Gerald Renner, whose agenda was clear enough, and whose evidence was therefore discounted in advance by many ‘faithful’ Catholics who ought, arguably at least, to have taken it more seriously. As Michael S. Rose put it in the generallyantiliberal New Oxford Review, Vows of Silence should be one of the most important books in more than a decade for conservative Catholics in the U.S. and beyond. Alas, it will not be. [The authors]... undermine their own effort with their openly stated liberal Catholic agenda. Moreover, the subtitle of the book, “The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II” gives a pretty good indication of the authors’ bias.’
The Tablet could scarcely contain its glee over this apparent “abuse” publishing a piece by Gerald Renner, co-author of Vows of Silence, under the cover headline “Scandal of Father Maciel”, and concluding its editorial “For too long the Vatican has been taken in by appearances, over– impressed by power and influence. There may indeed be libertines on the Left. But there are certainly dangerous men on the Right, and Maciel was one of them. And the very closed-mindedness that characterizes that type of Catholicism was one of his most formidable defences.”
Now the “type of Catholicism” labelled “Right” is what our Opus Dei priest above would call “faithful”. We should then remember a generic point concerning a certain human tendency to gloat over those whose faithfulness is sometimes seriously undermined by their actions. Sin does not undermine the case for orthodoxy—that is what the Protestant propaganda at the Reformation tried to argue. But neither does being orthodox make you automatically immune from failure.
The Tablet tends naturally to the former Reformation position. The Legionaries of Christ might now be risking the latter emphasis. The movement has substantially built itself on the cult of its founder. Most of its members believe fervently that he is a living saint. The wording of the CDF’s announcement, that it has decided ‘to invite the father to a reserved life of penitence and prayer, relinquishing any form of public ministry’, leaves it open to the movement to continue to believe that he has been unjustly accused. Perhaps he has. But what if he has not? To flourish, any movement has to be based on truth. The Legionaries are already making the CDF judgment part of Fr Maciel’s cultus: ‘Father Maciel’, they have announced ‘with the spirit of obedience to the Church that hasalways characterized him, has accepted this communiqué with faith, complete serenity and tranquillity of conscience, knowing that it is a new cross that God, the Father of Mercy, has allowed him to suffer and that will obtain many graces for the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi Movement.’
I wish the movement nothing but good, and hope that it will find a way to emerge from this truly terrible dark night, substantially unimpaired. I may be wrong, and hope that I am: but I have an uneasy feeling that they will not achieve this by seeing current events as further evidence of their founder’s special closeness to God.