John Heard: Maciel’s legacy poses all questions

18 Feb 2009

By The Record

“What takes away your peace of soul cannot come from God.”
– St Josemaria Escriva

John Heard

The news that Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel lived a “double life…not appropriate for a Catholic priest” shocked me. Of course, the details of Father Maciel’s crimes – at least one child, a mistress, multiple accusations of sexual misconduct against seminarians – floored Catholics all over the world, not least those thousands who found in Maciel’s spirituality and witness something worthy, and true.
I have had next to nothing to do with Maciel’s movements, but they have touched my life. The respected newspaper National Catholic Register is published in the United States by individual members of the Legionaries of Christ, and its editorial board has endorsed my online outreach to other same sex attracted Catholics.
There are also many other good, holy men and women who operate under the banner of the groups Maciel founded. Today, their grief must be great indeed.
The Legionaries, however, will try to go on, and they must have our prayers during this time of trial. The details of the reckoning, cleansing, and re-ordering they face will become clear in the years ahead. There is an opportunity for institutional reform, and there will be a time for personal and public accounting.
In the meantime, however, I want to echo and explore the sentiments of Father Owen Kearns LC, the publisher of the National Catholic Register, who wrote that he was “saddened and humbled” by the revelations.
Saddened, sure, but why humbled?
That word, the very idea that someone associated with Maciel, but otherwise unaware of his failings, would be humbled nonetheless, is important. I might submit that it is extremely important, for it tells us something about Christianity.
Indeed, to go further, I might even reveal that I was deeply humbled by this news. Not, of course, because I had spent time – like Father Kearns – defending Maciel against the mounting accusations. Rather because – again like Kearns, I’m guessing – I must recognise in Maciel’s failings something like the mystery of evil (mysterium iniquitatis) that Pope John Paul the Great discussed in 2002.
I am humbled because that recognition cannot save me from a linked understanding. This is the Christian’s acknowledgement that he is always a flawed servant of Christ, and that my sins are as real and terrible as any other man’s. God help me, indeed, they might be worse.
Certainly, those who defend the Church and work for her good have need for caution, and we must cultivate prudence. A revelation like this gives all of us cause to re-interrogate ourselves.
For, even laymen can come to think that as long as our public statements are doctrinally correct, and our witness is appropriately Catholic, it doesn’t matter so much what we do “off the record”. The truth is, of course, that our private actions, and our personal lives – while not properly the focus of prurient public interest – obviously will count for or against us when the general account of our lives is rendered before God.
In my line of work, face-to-face with my same sex attracted brothers and sisters, the requisite disclaimers – “of course, I am no saint”; “we are all sinners”; “I am no better than anyone else” – can come too easily to hand. What begins as an honest acknowledgement of personal weakness, a necessary reckoning with one’s failures and sinfulness – what was solidarity and love – too often becomes a near-impenetrable shield.
I am guilty of using this shield to delay, suppress, or otherwise thwart a more profound personal reconversion to the standard of the Gospel.
Worse, I am guilty of using this shield to dismiss, silence, and pre-empt those who would call me to a more enlightened discipleship.
I am guilty, my friends, of some variation of Maciel’s sin, if only entertaining the idea that a Christian’s life can be compartmentalised – for Christ here, and for something else there – as though He has not come to save us totally, as if He doesn’t demand our whole lives, for Him.
In this time of reckoning, experienced across the Catholic world, may we come to the peace that St Josemaria Escriva (the leader of another recent Catholic movement – albeit a mercifully untainted one) extolled. May we have right relations with a jealous God.
In death, may Father Maciel come to that same peace.
John Heard is a Melbourne writer.