The Future of the Legion and the SSPX

There are two big questions hanging in the air among my friends:
  • What will happen to the members of the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi?
  • What will happen between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X?
These issues keep our attention for a shaggy passel of reasons, ranging from heartbroken concern for wounded souls and the fate of the Church to gossipy, prurient rubbernecking. It’s hard to look away. Don’t worry, we aren’t obliged to. Instead, we need to train our gaze to look for the right things and through the proper set of lenses. The Irish monsignors (remember them?) used to talk about "custody of the eyes," and that’s one virtue each of us might think about cultivating this Lent.
I’m mentioning these movements (the Legionaries and the SSPX) together not simply because they both grabbed the headlines in the same month, but because they share essential elements in common: Each became important because it served as a refuge for confused and persecuted Catholics from local pastors and ordinaries who neglected their duties as shepherds — some of whom proved to be wolves. So baptized Catholics who’d kept the Faith "fled the occasion." They abandoned the parishes where they were being scandalized, and sought alternative sources of wholesome, untainted teaching and reverent worship. Some clung to the ancient form of the liturgy, others to the veneration of the person of the pope. (The fact that Catholics had to choose between these is a scandal for which high clerics will answer to Christ.)
Since I’m not the kind of person in whom high Vatican officials tend to confide, I have no answers to the big questions I posed above. But as a long-time lay activist and apologetic writer (that is, a buttinsky who types really fast), I can think of some likely scenarios, and the pastoral pros and cons that would pile up from each of them. In other words, I have suggestions.
One thing we Catholic laymen know is that the parish suggestion box feeds straight into the shredder — and maybe that’s as it should be. But I hope that any readers who are involved in either of these troubled, promising movements will think over the prospects laid out here, and pray for the wisdom and prudence of our duly appointed leaders.
As I implied in my last piece on this subject, the Legionaries and Regnum Christi face a crisis of identity: Centered as they were so fixedly on the personality and, above all, the techniques of a single man, they’re threatened with simple dissolution. Not by some decree issued in Rome, but rather by the private, anguished decisions of thousands of members. The longer the leadership of these groups clings to the illusion that they can simply take Nuestro Padre’s picture off the wall, but go right on using the methods they learned from him, the worse the damage will be in the long run to souls and to the Church.
If they wish, as they should, to rescue the rich treasuries of what is good from the contaminated heritage of the man who manipulated them, they have to be bracingly honest with themselves: They have to face the likelihood that much of what they learned from Father Maciel — even that which still seems to them innocuous or second nature — was tainted, distorted, or twisted. A very smart, faithful Jesuit has written on how the Legionaries misread St. Ignatius’s notion of obedience. I encourage every person who was formed in the Legionaries or Regnum Christi to read that article prayerfully, and fight against the temptation to follow old habits of mind. Consider, really consider, whether these movements gave due respect to the human dignity of their members.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the many testimonies of ex-LC and RC members who use words like "cult" and "mind control." I’m not qualified to weigh their assertions against those of seemingly happy, healthy priests and laymen still in the movements. But think about this: The man who crafted these techniques of internal discipline was struggling himself with wild, unruly temptations to acts of appalling evil. To what degree was Father Maciel’s interpretation of Catholic discipline and obedience conditioned by his dark cravings?
Interpret his cult of secrecy and obedience as you like: See these things as the fruit of a control freak with a secret, or of an orthodox Catholic addicted to a perversion who projected his weakness onto others. Either way, it can’t have produced a wholesome anthropology of the person. The spirituality that followed from such a fundamental distortion must itself be skewed and misleading — despite the many solid and serious elements that it borrowed from the writings of the saints. All this needs to be dragged out into the light and interrogated.
Men and women who want to save all the good things they built, all the spiritual progress that they made, can only manage that if they’re willing to face the question honestly — as honestly as John Henry Newman, in middle age, had to question his longtime Anglican faith. No aspect of the Legionary or Regnum Christi structure or apostolate should be off the table. What is healthy can well withstand the noonday sun. In fact, it has suffered too long the dankness of secrecy and the close proximity to sin.
Ironically, the widely vilified and long-exiled Society of St. Pius X is undertaking, it seems to me, precisely the kind of purification the Legionaries need. In preparation for a hoped-for reconciliation with the Holy See — and pressured by revelations of the political extremism of one leader and some of its members — the leadership of the SSPX has removed the reckless Bishop Richard Williamson from his position at its seminary, suppressed anti-Jewish articles that offered scandal, and disciplined at least one other priest.
While it hasn’t renounced its claim to view critically non-dogmatic statements of Vatican II, this need not prove an insuperable obstacle to reunion. (Think of how many Catholics in formal union with Rome question timeless dogmas!) Its founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, remains above moral reproach and will surely retain the veneration of its members when (not if) Pope Benedict XVI is satisfied with its progress and welcomes the SSPX as a legitimate Catholic order. But the group still has much work to do, healing the "weirdness" that crept into the culture of these isolated Catholics who felt (often rightly) that they were the victims of selective clerical persecution. The feeling among traditionalists, amidst all the controversy, is one of deep gratitude and hope.
Meanwhile, the thousands of deadly earnest Catholics who joined Regnum Christi, the hundreds of solidly orthodox and holy Legionary priests, are suffering as you read this a real Dark Night of the Soul. They need and deserve our prayers. The Church must be stern with their organization; we Christians must treat them with kindness. Their healing will happen fitfully, and some will never entirely recover. It’s our job to help them keep their Faith and Hope — through our Charity.
What will Pope Benedict do? He surely knows best, and has shown (especially in his forthright handling of this case) that he deserves our trust. I imagine that he is considering even now whether it is wise to keep in place the organizational structure of either the Legionaries or RC, and appoint external authorities to step in and try to re-found these groups. If he did this, I imagine he’d purify their practices and reorient the groups toward a purer form of the Ignatian spirit they’ve always claimed — eliminating the distortions and exaggerations introduced by Father Maciel. Of course, that poses the problem that the priestly group that would result would seem like a second Jesuit order, in unfriendly competition with the first. While the Franciscans and Benedictines have long had branches emerging from their central trunk, the Dominicans and Jesuits have not — and creating a new Ignatian order might prove impolitic.
An interesting alternative is the following: Incorporate the existing members and seminarians of the Legionaries directly into the Society of Jesus — with careful oversight on the part of the Holy See to ensure that the culture clash didn’t drive the newcomers out, or cause excessive strain on the Jesuits. The Regnum Christi movement would serve not quite as a third order of the Jesuits (there’s no tradition of that) but could be organized along roughly similar lines.
The Ignatian approach has the advantage of hewing close to the legitimate aspects of the existing Legionary/RC spirituality, and offering continuity to people who have proven they’ve got the taste for a centralized, militaristic organization. But therein lies its danger: If the fundamental flaw, as many observers have aptly noted, in the methods of Maciel was their callous disregard of the natural gifts and human dignity of the person, then shifting people who weren’t formed in the balanced Ignatian spirit into the Jesuits (or keeping them separate, but treating them as Jesuits) doesn’t treat the wound. It simply ignores it. So here’s a more radical alternative — which, I’d wager, based on my reading of the man Josef Ratzinger, would appeal to a mind like his:
Incorporate the Legionaries, in small groups, into the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. This highly decentralized group stands at the opposite end of the organizational spectrum from the Jesuits — placing as it does the highest premium on individuality and variety, within the bounds of fidelity to the Church. It’s no accident that John Henry Newman chose the Oratory as his home when he joined the Church, and it would have proved a more congenial home for Gerard Manley Hopkins than did the Jesuits (a point Newman made to Hopkins when he begged him to reconsider his self-abnegating decision to join the Society of Jesus).
What is more, the Oratory has proven a solid bulwark of orthodoxy in many places. Both Britain and Canada have been blessed by oratories that stood almost alone in preserving reverent liturgy and solid catechesis through decades of apostasy and confusion. Might small groups of Legionaries, with lay supporters drawn from Regnum Christi, profit from their example? The key advantage, to me, of this alternative is that it would address the most serious charge against the Legionary/RC spirituality — its caricatured insistence on depersonalizing obedience and bureaucracy.
The last alternative I’ll offer is my own, and is probably a terrible idea for a long list of reasons that wise readers will write me. But I can’t resist airing it here. What if Pope Benedict decided that the wisest course of action was to take two groups with radically different strengths, and complementary weaknesses, and lean them against each other? The Legionaries are very, very good at obedience — to a fault, we can all agree. They are weaker in their grasp of popular devotion, small "t" tradition, the cult of the saints, and most of all in their appreciation of beauty. For all their orthodoxy, they are unrelentingly modern — to the point that they long banned seminarians from even attending the Roman rite in its historic form.
Conversely, the SSPX has a deep appreciation for Catholic history and a firm commitment to the special form of reverence that is proper to the liturgy. It clings to the musical and artistic heritage of the Church — even in the grim circumstances to which its members sometimes were reduced. (I’m thinking of an SSPX chapel in Louisiana located in the back of a laundromat, where the Roman chant competed with the sound of the dryers behind the divider.) On obedience . . . well, they have "some issues."
There is historical precedent for this idea, emerging from equally ugly circumstances — the merger of exonerated Templars into the Knights of St. John Hospitaller. The fruit of that union still exists: the noble Knights of Malta.
So there it is, my nuclear option for healing at one bold stroke both wounds in the Body of Christ: A merger of the Legionaries and the SSPX. The former can teach the latter how to read the documents of Vatican II through the hermeneutic of continuity, and the latter can teach the former how to wear Roman vestments and celebrate Solemn Mass. Each group would enrich the other, even if the members began by driving each other crazy.
Like I said, there’s a reason they don’t put the laity in charge.

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.

    Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

    Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

    Email subscribe inline (#4)

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...