Blood from a Stone

This has been a tough month for Catholics. I’m keenly aware of the time, because I have been straining at the leash wanting to write about the Legionaries of Christ. In lieu of articles, I’ve subjected my friends on the phone to fully formed paragraphs of commentary till they cried uncle — and devoured the excellent coverage to be found at the American Papist, helpfully linked from InsideCatholic.
But I couldn’t take the time to write. I had to take a month off from both my weekly columns in order to finish a 1,000-page book I edit — the snarky, snooping, informative Choosing the Right College (see funny promotional animation here), a bible for conservatives sifting schools for themselves or their kids. Okay, it’s not really a bible (although the entry on Wesleyan University does bear an eerie resemblance to portions of the Apocalypse); it’s more like the Syllabus of Errors (the really fun one, Pius IX’s). In it, our reporters reveal what they’ve heard whispered by student and faculty contacts about their dumbed-down and multiculturated curricula (Toni Morrison shoves out Shakespeare), the latest "sex workers" symposium for Valentine’s Day, or the tambourine-banging Newman club chaplains wearing Chia vestments for Earth Day. (Try to guess which one of those outrages I made up. Go ahead, try.)
Of course, we print good news as well, like the rise of schools such as Wyoming Catholic and Southern Catholic colleges; the increased theological focus at "niche" schools like the funky, artsy, orthodox place where I teach writing; and the Romeward movements occurring at "establishment" schools such as Notre Dame and Boston College. But face it — good news is dull. Accentuate the negative, I say. If it bleeds, it leads. I can’t really complain about a job where I get to title the entry on Holy Cross "Give us Barabbas!" and the one on Georgetown "Ignatius wept." Who could?
It requires a certain schadenfreude to edit such a book, lest I trade in my job as a writer for that of a sniper. Some people are scandalized to hear that; I answer that it’s a healthy defense mechanism that every decent person has the right to call upon, to fend off despair and avoid being "perpetually scandalized, forever a child" (Flannery O’ Connor).
But to muster schadenfreude concerning the Legionaries of Christ would take a more cynical, hard-boiled cuss than me. I know hardcore fans of Malachi Martin who greeted the passing of Joseph Cardinal Bernadin by dancing around and singing, "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead!" Even they’re not laughing now.
Too many good people have suffered and will hang on a kind of cross for months or years. Old colleagues and friends of mine are being forced, at spiritual gunpoint, to reexamine the works and inspiration that consumed their lives for decades. They must face the fact that they formed their consciences and spiritual lives according to the words of a hypocrite, a liar, perhaps a sociopath.
Even I can’t make that funny.
Let’s be clear and avoid evasions: Rev. Marcial Maciel was credibly accused by a group of former seminarians of sexually abusing them while they were still pubescents. Of claiming that he had permission to engage in these perversions from Pope Pius XII. Of absolving those with whom he’d sinned — a sacrilege so serious that in canon law it has no statute of limitations. (In civil law, only crimes like murder can claim the same.) Of invoking the Vicar of Christ to seduce young men, then standing in persona Christi to absolve them of the sins he had suborned. If true, these are not merely "sins of the flesh" but of the spirit. Indeed, they suggest the potent influence of one spirit in particular: the one who "roams the earth seeking the ruin of souls."
The accusations were clear and specific, the accusers sober and sane — and amazingly, mostly still believers and friends of the Church. Given the torrent of squalor that has sprayed the faithful, thanks to the negligence of their bishops, we had every reason to believe them. What convinced me, among many others, to discount the likelihood that these stories might be true?
Is the question really what? Or is it, rather, who?
I’ve never seen anything inspiring in Father Maciel himself. (Has anyone read his books who isn’t ordered to, under religious obedience? His 14 or so volumes of correspondence?) Friends of mine who spent years in Legionary seminaries — where the only lectio divina permitted them, they said, were the Bible and the works of the Founder — complained how derivative and dreary his writings were. If he offered any special insights into the spiritual life, they haven’t filtered out to the rest of the Church. His genius, if he had one, was organizational. He was good at getting younger, impressionable people to trust him and follow his orders. At building an organization, and motivating followers to engage in a common work — despite the objections of their families, the contrary winds of a culture, and the temptations and distractions of a turbulent time in the Church. He was very, very good at keeping control of an organization and keeping it focused and disciplined, responsive to his commands.
These talents can come from and be used in the service of God: St. Ignatius had all of them. In Father Maciel’s case, they attracted earnest Catholics who saw the Church subjected to persecution from without and within. Mexicans who remembered their governments’ slaughter of the Cristeros flocked to his standard. So did Americans in the 1970s and 1980s — a time when Modernists in mitres were backing apostate organizations like Call to Action, when the "Lavender Mafia" routinely purged seminaries of heterosexuals, and pious folk who preferred the Latin Mass were treated like biblical lepers. Remember all that? If you don’t, you need to read back issues of The Wanderer, or better yet, Ann Roche Muggeridge’s The Desolate City — and say a prayer of gratitude for the work Pope John Paul II did in cleaning up the American church, slowly enough not to provoke a schism that might have lasted for hundreds of years.
The Legionaries, as I remember the saintly Rev. John Hardon, S.J., telling me and a high school friend, were the "one religious order I feel really comfortable telling young men to investigate." How many other holy priests like Father Hardon told young men to eschew the local (corrupt and corrupting) seminary and look into the Legion? For two decades at least, the Legionaries seemed to be virtually the only game in town. In places with terrible, borderline heretical bishops — and Pope Paul VI’s late, unlamented papal legate Archbishop Jean Jadot made sure that they covered most of our map — the manly Legionaries in their swirling cassocks, with their firm grasp on the essentials of the Faith and their refusal to engage in gossip or sniping at Church authorities, seemed like emissaries from a Church that had almost disappeared. I remember comparing them to Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell, the Jesuits who snuck into England to keep alive the Faith when apostate clergy were leading the effort to snuff it out.
So the Legionaries collected, by default, many of the best vocations in the country. Many of these men were ordained, and I can’t think of one who isn’t an excellent priest. Their lay groups drew thousands of earnest lay Catholic men and women — who have founded exemplary families, who do pro-life and apostolic work we all admire. There are schools like the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, and papers like the National Catholic Register (where I worked for over three years), and dozens of lower-profile projects, from Theology on Tap chapters to campus ministries.
All these good people, all these good works. Whether they realize it or not — and some of them are even now wrapping their minds around this monstrosity — they were Father Maciel’s other victims. He used them as his camouflage. The flowers of faith, hope, and charity that they cultivated in the wasteland that was the American church were watered by their obedience to this man. When we looked at him skeptically, we didn’t really see Marcial Maciel, the secretive Mexican aristocrat and religious entrepreneur. We saw some solid, orthodox priest who gave us wise advice about marriage and NFP — neither lax nor scrupulous, but solid. We saw that nice young homeschooling couple we’d met at Mass. We saw these folks, and they told us they believed Father Maciel, so we believed them.
We assumed that whatever "charism" could help form people like this must be of God. That the system of sanctification he had discovered, even if it wasn’t to our taste, must be legitimate. It had sanctified these people, so it must have been real, an original contribution to the spiritual treasury of the Church. Which meant that the man who’d developed it, who vouched for its effectiveness, who’d forged it in the crucible of his own prayer life, must be the real deal. Or at any rate, a practicing Catholic.
So we swallowed it, some of us — right up until the moment Pope Benedict XVI silenced Father Maciel. Would this pope allow an unjust decision to stand against an innocent man? Would any pope willingly wound one of the only orders he could rely on? It was hard to believe, which is why only men and women trained in the Legion and Regnum Christi’s rigidly self-abnegating discipline believed it. They clung to every ambiguity in the verdict like White House loyalists during Watergate, pretending that the 18-and-a-half missing minutes in the tape consisted of Nixon singing the Ave Maria.
The house of holy cards crumbled with the revelation that Father Maciel really was a father — of at least one child (maybe more), and that he’d kept a slush fund in cash to cover his "extracurriculars." Which forced even loyalists to ask themselves: What else was he lying about? Suddenly the stories we’d all put out of our minds backflushed like a bus station toilet. The stomach-churning tales of predatory sodomy and sacrilege that rank among of the worst of all the "filth" that Pope Benedict bemoaned has infected the priesthood. This man, this Maciel, who some had ranked alongside saints like Loyola and Escriva, really belonged in the company of Paul Shanley and John Geoghan.
Or of two pedophile Latin Mass priests who snookered me, Carlos Urrutigoity and Timothy Svea. I met both men, and thought each one was surely a saint. When I heard Svea speak in New York City, I actually said to myself: "This is what St. Paul must have sounded like." There is indeed a spirit that can make itself like unto an angel of light. I have met this Enemy, face to face.
But what explains the Legion’s success, all the real and tangible holiness that permeates the members of an organization founded by such a man? On the natural level, the Legionaries were working with excellent raw material — thousands of the best young seminarians and Catholic couples to be found in America. Many of them had nowhere else to turn, given the heresy and scandals that plagued their local churches. These people were pretty much incorruptible; we are not yet (I trust) in the end times, when even the Elect can be deceived. Since the market he served was orthodox Catholics, Father Maciel made sure he delivered them the goods that they were seeking. He didn’t transform the Legion into a network of pedophiles but kept his vices secret. He plundered the heritage of orthodox spirituality to furnish spiritual uplift he couldn’t practice and didn’t understand to better Catholics who could and did.
What is more, from all I have witnessed, he used in his lay movements a modern technique mostly employed in political groups. I learned of it from a book by Douglas Hyde, Dedication and Leadership, in which the author (a former Communist converted to the Church) sorts out the methods of Leninists, searching for those that are morally neutral and highly effective, which could serve the Church. (I read this book at a right-wing activist camp, so I know that others are using it, too.) The key to making people commit themselves to a movement, the Communists learned and Hyde revealed, was to keep them busy. To make them work harder and longer than they’d ever thought possible — even at tasks that don’t really need to be done. A person’s devotion to a cause, Hyde coolly explained, is proportionate not to what he gets from it but what he puts into it. So don’t make things too easy. Make people feel useful, and keep them digging up holes so others can fill them up. (It’s telling, perhaps, that Hyde rejoined the Commies and died outside the Church.)
If you look up "non-joiner" on Wikipedia, you’ll see my picture, so I never got involved with Regnum Christi. But from what I have heard from friends who did, the organization is big on such busywork. (Its meetings and methods sounded mind-numbingly tedious to me, and I came up with the snarky nickname Boredom Christi.) But now I think I understand what was working and why: Out of trust in the saintliness of their founder, these holy men and women spent much of their free time praying — and hunting snipe.
No errand, however futile, undertaken for the greater glory of God goes unrewarded. (Think of the great St. Louis and his utterly botched Crusade.) Our Lord, who reads our hearts, poured countless graces on thousands of souls — not because of, but despite, the efforts of Father Maciel. And the pope knows this. He knows that whatever is good in the Legionaries and Regnum Christi comes not from anything originally contributed by Marcial Maciel, but the sacred sources on which he drew, and the people he attracted — and the Grace that flowed from Jesus’ side, around and over him, but left him dry as a stone.

John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of the graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor and is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He writes weekly for


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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