With Elite Backing, Catholic Order Has Pull in Mexico
Legion of Christ Targets Rich and Has Friends in Rome; Priests As Society Stars
1,000 'Consecrated Women'
By José De Córdoba
Wall Street Journal
January 23, 2006
[See PDF of front page.]
MEXICO CITY -- Two years ago, a handful of Latin American billionaires and some of the world's top financiers gathered at New York's Plaza Hotel. They were honoring Mexican plutocrat Carlos Slim and raising money for schools for poor children run by the Legion of Christ, a fast-growing conservative Roman Catholic order.
Among those giving speeches at the black-tie gala were the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the 85-year-old Mexican founder of the Legion, and Citigroup Inc. Chairman Sanford Weill. Within hours, the diverse group of 500 well-wishers raised $725,000.
The Legion was in its element. Founded in 1941, the order concentrates on ministering to the wealthy and powerful in the belief that by evangelizing society's leaders, the beneficial impact on society is multiplied. Like the Jesuits who centuries ago whispered in the ear of Europe's princes, the Legion's priests today are the confessors and chaplains to some of the most powerful businessmen in Latin America.
"The soul of a trash collector is as important as the soul of Carlos Slim, but if Slim is converted, think of the influence and power for good he would wield," says Luanne Zurlo, a former Goldman Sachs securities analyst who organized the benefit. Mr. Slim, Latin America's richest man with a fortune estimated at $24 billion, says he's not a highly devout Catholic but is helping the Legion create 50 low-cost universities in Latin America.
The Legion has become an important player in promoting the Vatican's social agenda and defending Catholicism's Latin American heartland from inroads made by evangelical Protestant groups. When the church was struggling to find priests in Germany, the Legion recruited German-speaking seminarians from Brazil to fill the gap. In Rome and Mexico City, Legion universities offer advanced degrees in bioethics that stress the limits morality should put on science.
The Legion's critics charge that its focus on the wealthy reinforces the sharp class divides that have long held Latin America back socially and economically. They say the Legion fosters intolerance and social climbing rather than devotion to Christ's gospel. Some in Mexico, instead of referring to the order's followers as Legionnaires of Christ, call them the "Millionaires of Christ."
More troubling for the Legion, Father Maciel, the order's founder, has been dogged for nearly a decade by widely publicized accusations that he sexually molested at least eight teenage seminarians from the 1940s through the early 1960s. Father Maciel denies the accusations. Many Catholic activists, angry with the church over cover-ups in priest sex-abuse cases, believe the Vatican has protected Father Maciel because of the Legion's reach and power.
The Legion operates in some 20 countries, including the U.S., Chile, Spain, Brazil and Ireland, but its influence is greatest in Mexico. Here it runs the country's fastest-growing network of Catholic schools for the well-to-do, and each spring mobilizes 20,000 volunteers to travel to remote towns and urge wavering Catholics to keep the faith.
Catholic orders such as the Legion, the Franciscans and the Jesuits are largely independent of the church's diocesan governing structure and answer to their own directors based in Rome. To be active in a given diocese, however, they must obtain permission from the local bishop and are subject to his authority.
Even as the church struggles to recruit priests, the Legion's nine seminaries have turned out 650 ordained priests, many of whom come from wealthy families. That is up from 210 priests in 1990. The Legion's ranks also include about 2,500 seminarians studying to be priests and 1,000 "consecrated women" -- lay nuns who pledge to remain chaste and poor -- as well as some 65,000 lay supporters, in a group known as Regnum Christi.
Charitable works make up about $50 million of the Legion's $650 million yearly budget. It operates a network of 21 Mano Amiga schools for some 13,000 poor children, whose parents pay about $20 a month in tuition. Regnum Christi members have started many of Mexico's leading charitable efforts, such as a program through which supermarket customers donate money for a national food bank. In El Salvador and Mexico, the order has built small towns for disaster victims complete with schools, churches and medical facilities.
"The Legion is the only Mexican multinational in the world of religion," says Dionisio Garza Medina, chairman of Alfa, a large conglomerate in Monterrey, Mexico, and brother of the Legion's vicar general, the Rev. Luis Garza Medina. A sister of the two men is a consecrated woman.
Controversy often follows the Legion as it expands into new countries. Two years ago, Legion priests were barred from working in the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis after St. Paul Archbishop Harry Flynn said he worried that the Legion was building a "parallel church" behind the backs of local priests.
In 2004, two Baton Rouge, La., Catholic schools warned parents about the Legion's "questionable methods." Members of Regnum Christi paid for Baton Rouge students to fly to Los Angeles for a screening of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" without notifying the schools. A spokesman for the Legion says the incidents were "misunderstandings" caused by the Legion's relative youth and overzealous Regnum Christi members.
The Legion was a favorite of Pope John Paul II, who liked its mix of religious fervor and conservative doctrine. Over the years, the late pontiff often praised Father Maciel's work. "John Paul used to talk about the Legion all the time, holding them up as examples while reading us the riot act," says the Rev. Vincent O'Keefe, a former deputy director of the Jesuits, a prominent order which fell into papal disfavor due to the liberal beliefs of some of its members.
Soon after John Paul II ascended to the papal throne in 1978, he made it known he wanted to become the first pontiff to visit Mexico, the world's second-biggest Catholic country after Brazil but one whose government was stridently anticlerical. Father Maciel wrangled an invitation by appealing to the then-president's devout mother and sisters, according to papal biographer George Weigel. That trip eventually led Mexico to establish diplomatic relations with the Vatican. In recent years, Father Maciel arranged a private audience with John Paul for President Vicente Fox's first wife, who worked in Rome for the Legion for a year.
Mr. Maciel today writes warm letters to Marta Fox, the president's powerful second wife, according to two friends of Marta Fox. One friend says the letters address her as "Mi muy querida Martita," or "My very dear Martita." Marta Fox's office didn't respond to a request for comment.
The Legion's close ties with the elite are most evident in Monterrey, a city of four million that has long been dominated by businessmen in the so-called Group of Ten. For decades, Jesuits played a major role educating the children of the wealthy there, but the order veered leftward and was expelled in 1968 by the local bishop, who accused Jesuits of backing a strike at a local university. Since then, the Legion has set the social and intellectual tone for Monterrey's wealthy through a web of schools, clubs and charitable organizations.
Many of Monterrey's entrepreneurs and executives send their children to single-sex Legion schools where they make connections that last a lifetime. "They are very good educators," says Mr. Slim. "My children studied with them."
Middle-class parents struggle to pay the high tuitions of nearly $900 a month, convinced that their children will benefit from school ties, says David Martinez, a former member of Regnum Christi who studied in Legion schools and is now managing director of the New York-based hedge fund Fintech.
At the Legion's after-school youth clubs, where the catechism is mixed with soccer and games, "vocation hunters" recruit candidates to become priests or consecrated women. As a first step, teenagers are encouraged to donate a year to the Catholic Church by volunteering for the Legion's world-wide operations. Around Monterrey, Legion priests dress in smart double-breasted black suits and sport cufflinks along with a clerical collar. Consecrated women wear ankle-length dresses.
In October, Monterrey's establishment turned out to see a newly ordained priest, the Rev. Benjamin Clariond -- whose father and uncle are former state governors -- celebrate his first mass in the city. The event was amply covered in the society pages of Monterrey's leading newspaper, which put 64 photographs of the event on its Web site.
Like the Clarionds or the Garza Medinas, almost every prominent clan in Monterrey has a son who is a Legion priest or a daughter who is a consecrated woman. Talk at dinner parties of the "movement" or the "kingdom," referring to Regnum Christi, is common. Mr. Martinez, the hedge fund manager, says Father Maciel is "worshipped" by Mexico's upper class because for 60 years he has made Mexico's rich feel as if "Christ loves them more than other people, and is using them as part of a divine plan."
The Legion's influence extends to the workplace, too, where many companies pay for Legion evangelists to lead weekly discussions on Catholic values. At Grupo Novem S.A. de C.V., a water-systems company owned by a family of Legion supporters, employees are urged to attend one-hour seminars on such subjects as marriage and human cloning. Message boards in the building extol the "Moral Value of the Month."
The order's critics say the Legion creates an oppressive climate for those who don't follow orthodox Catholic teaching. Jose Zumaya, a psychiatrist who counsels couples in Monterrey, says some of his upper-class clients suffer from what he calls "Legionary syndrome," referring mainly to a dread of social ostracism if they get divorced. "They feel their children will have to leave school, they will lose all their friends, and there will be consequences for the husband at work as well," says Dr. Zumaya.
In December 2004, the University of Monterrey, a private Catholic institution that isn't affiliated with the Legion, fired five professors and a dean, most of whom taught women's studies. The fired dean blamed Mr. Garza Medina, a strong Legion supporter who in addition to his business interests serves as chairman of the university's board of trustees. Vice Rector Victor Zuniga denies that the chairman played a role and says the dean was fired for poor performance. The Legion says it had nothing to do with the firings. A spokesman for Mr. Garza Medina says the university had no links to the Legion of Christ, and also cites poor performance as the reason for the dean's firing.
Mr. Zuniga says a theology professor was fired around the same time because many parents disliked her questioning such topics as papal infallibility. He defends the decision, saying such questioning was akin to challenging President Bush's patriotism at a Texas university after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Legion points out that it serves more than Latin America's wealthy bastions. One day last summer, in San Francisco, a sweltering thatched-roof hamlet of Maya Indians in the southern Mexican state of Quintana Roo, premedical students from the Legion's Anahuac University, under the direction of a young doctor, examined a long line of children and dispensed medicines. Other college volunteers played with dozens of barefoot children and taught catechism lessons.
"How many sacraments are there?" asked Pablo Orvananos, a bearded tourism major. "Seven," answered a little girl, getting a lollipop as a prize.
When he started the Legion in 1941, Father Maciel was an ambitious 20-year old, the scion of provincial Catholic aristocracy. Three of his uncles were bishops and a fourth led an army of peasants against the Mexican government during the 1926 Cristero War, a struggle over state control of the Catholic Church that raged on and off until 1941 and cost some 250,000 lives. According to the Legion's official history, Pope Pius XII ordered Father Maciel in 1946 to recruit Latin American leaders and said the congregation should be like an evangelizing "army in battle formation."
Constantly traveling, Father Maciel proved to be adroit at raising money from rich Mexicans, in particular Flora Barragan de Garza, the Monterrey widow of one of the wealthiest men in Mexico at the time. One technique: Seminarians would write affectionate letters detailing their financial needs to Mrs. Garza, whom they addressed as their "mother." Mrs. Garza responded generously. She bought a Mercedes-Benz for Father Maciel and land in Mexico City that the Legion used to build its first school, Instituto Cumbres, or "The Heights," in 1952.
From 1956 to 1958, Vatican investigators relieved Father Maciel of his position while they looked into a range of charges about his conduct, although allegations of sexual abuse weren't raised at that time. Absolved by that inquiry, Father Maciel regained command of the Legion in 1959.
In 1997, eight men went public with complaints, made previously through informal church channels to the Vatican, that Father Maciel had abused them when they were seminarians in the 1940s and 1950s. The Vatican unit that investigates such charges -- then under the direction of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- quickly tabled a formal complaint, filed with church authorities in 1998. In Mexico, leading media companies also ignored the allegations. When a small cable-television station ran a documentary about them, leading businessmen organized an advertiser boycott that almost drove the station into bankruptcy.
The investigation into Father Maciel seemed dead until last year, when it emerged that Cardinal Ratzinger had revived the probe in the waning days of Pope John Paul II's reign. In January 2005, soon after the probe began, Father Maciel resigned as head of the Legion, citing his advanced age. In April, a top Vatican investigator went to New York and Mexico to interview Father Maciel's accusers. The same month Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI.
Today, the investigation remains open. The Legion is under the direction of the Rev. Alvaro Corcuera, a 47-year-old Mexican, who says he'll continue to govern "in the strictest fidelity" to the spirit of the founder.
The accusations against Father Maciel appear not to have damped the fervor of the Legion's well-to-do followers. In November, some 10,000 Regnum Christi members gathered under a huge tent in Guadalajara, Mexico, where they gave Father Corcuera a rock-star's welcome. As a guitar-strumming Legion priest sang a song honoring Father Maciel, Father Corcuera praised the founder's mother, Mama Maurita, whom the Legion is lobbying to be made a saint.