Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Apostolic Visitation Announced for the Legionaries of Christ

The Legionaries of Christ today made public a letter from Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone informing Legionary Director General Alvaro Corcuera that Pope Benedict XVI “has decided to carry out an Apostolic Visitation to the institutions of the Legionaries of Christ through a team of prelates,” in the aftermath of the scandal surrounding Rev. Marcial Maciel, the Legionary founder. Intentionally or unintentionally, the letter was dated 10 March 2009, Maciel’s birthday, which the Legionaries used to celebrate as a feast day of first rank.

“Apostolic visitation” is technical Vatican language for an investigation by an outsider to the congregation. The appointment of visitators, then, does not represent a judgment by the Church on the Legionaries, but the recognition that something is wrong in the congregation that must be investigated as preparatory to putting it right.

The stated purpose of the visitation will be, in Bertone’s words, that “with truth and transparency, in a climate of fraternal and constructive dialogue, [the Legionaries] overcome the present difficulties.”

The Legionaries also made public a letter in response from Corcuera, dated 29 March, which welcomed the visitation with gratitude and promised cooperation. Corcuera also said, “We are deeply saddened and sorry, and we sincerely ask for forgiveness from God and from those who have been hurt through this.”

According to the Legionary website, the team of senior churchmen who will serve as visitators has not yet been named, will commence work sometime after Easter, and will continue work for some months.

Some official Legionary or Vatican response to the scandal has been awaited since after it broke February 3.

It is significant that the matter is being handled by Secretary of State Bertone, and not by Cardinal Franc Rodé, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which oversees Catholic religious orders, and who would have been expected to take the lead. But Rodé apparently forfeited his objectivity by serving in the past as a partisan supporter of the Legionaries.

Rodé’s initial intention, reported February 8, had been to let the Legionaries work the scandal out for themselves without intervention. Rodé was then involved in the Legionaries’ attempt to issue an independent statement about their future on February 24, an attempt that was rebuffed. In early February both Germain Grisez and George Weigel called for an investigation independent of Rodé’s Congregation, which they thought could not be trusted with it.

The only way to read courtly Vatican documents is with exquisite nuance. Several things to consider:

Bertone praises the Legionaries and signals their survival in terms similar to those used in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Communiqué suspending Maciel from public ministry in May 2006 (“Independently of the person of the Founder, [their] worthy apostolate… is gratefully recognized.”): “I am pleased to remember that many people benefit from the works of education and apostolate which the Legionaries of Christ carry out in various parts of the world, moved by your desire to establish Christ’s Kingdom according to the demands of justice and charity, among intellectuals, professional people and those engaged in teaching and social action…”

He also signals that serious problems will be addressed. The visitation will promote “broadmindedness and an unsullied heart” and require “truth and transparency.” The post-scandal Legionary talking point: “There are some people who, out of respect, sensitivity, Christian mercy, profound gratitude, etc., don’t want to go into details about Nuestro Padre’s behavior…. We should respect and encourage this attitude, as much in ourselves as in others. The starting point is the acknowledgment and gratitude for all the good we have received.” seems now superseded.

Corcuera used the word “charism” in his letter, praying “that [God] will grant us the grace to continue to seek the holiness to which He is calling us, and that we will be able to bring to its fullness the charism He has entrusted to us.” The Legionaries have maintained that the approval of their congregation and recognition of their charism represents an infallible judgment by the Church, a judgment they rely on for institutional survival, but something the Visitation now must itself judge.

Bertone himself avoided the word “charism” in mentioning whatever be distinctive to the Legionaries: “Pope Benedict encourages you to continue seeking the good of the Church and society by means of your own distinctive initiatives and institutions.” The post-scandal talking point: “Cardinal Rodé [told us], ‘the Holy Father told me: “Tell them that I know them, I esteem them, and I appreciate them. Tell them that my blessing accompanies them; tell them to follow with great conviction the path marked out by the charism given to the Regnum Christi Movement, and to be great witnesses of Christ and of his Church in today’s world.’”’ has now been refined.

Also significant is Corcuera’s reference to “the grave facts in our father founder’s life that already were the object of the investigations by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which were concluded in May of 2006, and those which have come to light more recently.” At the time the Legionaries maintained publicly that Maciel had not been disciplined, but effectively cleared, as the Church had declined to conduct a trial. The post-scandal talking point: “There never was a trial, however, and the competent authority did not issue a verdict.” is more unrealistic than ever.

The Legionary website explains that “during the time of the Apostolic Visitation our life and apostolate will follow their ordinary course.” Business as usual, in other words, something the Legionaries have become good at, while ignoring the serious issues that have swirled around them for decades. The visitators may make that a little more difficult.


  1. Cassandra, the way I read that last part about their life and apostolate following "their ordinary course" is simply that they know the visitators will want to observe them "in action", rather than "in a still-life photo" or in a special assembly.

    It sounds more like "Come see us as we are; we aren't going to put on a plastic smile for you" more than "We're going to pretend that an investigation isn't going on."

    Thanks for your coverage of this event. It will be interesting to see how things unfold.

  2. I've been with some of them lately, and I am pretty sure they will be happy to do whatever the Holy See asks them to do. They had been, and will be, obedient to anything the Church tells them to do.

  3. Unfortunately, Gerardo, your experience is not universal. Many bishops have been distressed to see that the group works behind their backs and proceeds with apostolates even where banned. If they had always been as obedient as you claim, they wouldn't have arrived at this juncture.

    Prayers for transparency.