Is It Time to Dissolve the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi?

By Damian Thompson
March 2, 2009

Fr Maciel (left) meeting young Legionary supporters

The Vatican is taking far too long to sort out the crisis caused by the collapse of the Legionaries of Christ and their lay arm, Regnum Christi, following the revelation that their supposedly saint-like founder, Fr Marcial Maciel, led a double life. Why has Pope Benedict XVI said nothing?

Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of Baltimore, America's oldest diocese, last week advised Catholics against joining the Legion or Regnum Christi. He said he was worried that the order "stifles the free will" of its priestly members and lay affiliates - not least, by encouraging the cult of Fr Maciel, a Mexican priest who abused seminarians and siphoned off money from the faithful to support his mistress and daughter.

"It seems to me and many others that this was a man with an entrepreneurial genius who, by systematic deception and duplicity, used our faith to manipulate others for his own selfish ends," Archbishop O'Brien told The Catholic Review, Baltimore's archdiocesan newspaper.

This situation is an utter disaster: 800 priests and 70,000 lay people find themselves caught up in a religious movement which, incredibly, still promotes the "charism" of its founder. Such behaviour is absolutely typical of sectarian movements; so, too, is the problem of the sexually incontinent charismatic leader. But this is the Catholic Church we're talking about here, not some jungle cult or storefront Pentecostal ministry.

Clearly, the current Mexican leadership of the Legionaries is not up to the challenge of dissociating the organisation from the sexual and financial wrongdoings of the founder. This may be because senior Legionaries helped conceal his double life; but also, at a more basic level, because the nature of the cult of Maciel makes such dissociation impossible.

Pope Benedict XVI moved against Maciel before the latter's death, sending him into exile: he knew then that some of the allegations that he abused seminarians decades earlier were true, but judged (I think rightly) that public humiliation was the right punishment for a frail and ill old priest.

Now, however, the Pope faces a far worse problem: what to do about thousands of faithful Catholics who are in denial over the true nature of the Maciel cult. Preserving Maciel's "charism" while recognising his sins might be an option if his deceit had not been sustained for so long, with the collusion of other Legionary priests. As it is, the Legion's half-hearted, slippery response to these staggering revelations is positively offensive.

Vatican observers were expecting the Pope to take the Legion into administration last week; no one is sure why that didn't happen. But, even if the Holy Father had authorised this move, would it have gone far enough?

In the long run, it's hard to see what alternative there is to dissolving the Legion and Regnum Christi and perhaps founding other organisations for former members. That will go down very badly with the Legion's powerful and wealthy patrons; but, in the end, they are members of a universal Church in which any congregation or order can be dismantled by the Supreme Pontiff for the good of the whole. The pressure for Benedict XVI to do just that is growing by the day.


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