The Legionaries are approved as a congregation of pontifical right, with a nihil obstat in 1948 under Pius XII, first decretum laudis in 1965 under Paul VI, and final decretum laudis in 1983 under John Paul II. In the way they speak, Legionaries assume that that judgment is irreformable and that their charism, embodied in the approved constitutions, is therefore a concrete reality outside all interference. As Legionary Director of Vocations Rev. Anthony Bannon told donors on March 18, “Our constitutions were approved 25 and a half years ago. At that time it was like the Church took what we were, our constitutions, our charism, out of our hands. It was seen as a charism that came from God… What the church has guaranteed as a valid charism, it also protects.” In an August 2007 lawsuit, the Legionaries claimed their constitutions “proprietary” and “for internal dissemination only” against ReGain, an internet discussion site on which the constitutions had been discussed openly and not treated with the respect due a sanctified object.
The assumption that the approval of the congregation is irrevocable underlies the serenity with which the Legionaries have met disgrace. Father Maciel’s duplicity embodied “the great mystery of how the Holy Spirit can play beautiful melodies on a broken instrument… We count on the closeness and support of the Holy Father and Cardinal Rodé and many other churchmen who appreciate [our] charism,” according to the post-scandal “Guidelines for answering some questions.” Legionary spokesman Jim Fair has said: “whatever our founder's failings, the Holy Spirit somehow delivered the charism to us through him.” Legionary Father Thomas Williams has said that the founder's writings are "an integral part of the charism of the order, which the Church has approved as authentic." Or as all this filtered down to one Regnum Christi member, who wrote, representatively I believe, in an internet comment, “Whatever happens, the Legion and Regnum Christi are approved by the Church. As a Catholic, I trust in the pope's infallibility and in God's mysterious plan.”
To understand what theology Legionaries rely on when they make such assertions and teach others to make them we need to go back in history. It was the Church’s legitimizing, of all things, a new form of religious life, the radical poverty of the mendicant friars, beginning in the late twelfth century, that stimulated formulation of the doctrine of papal infallibility, according to Brian Tierney’s Origins of Papal Infallibility (1972).
Before Innocent III (pope 1198-1216), bishops would approve religious life in their dioceses. After him, the pope approved them for the whole Church, one among many ways in which Innocent regularized Church life, as, for another example, with the canonization of saints. Many groups experimenting with radial Gospel witness, lay and religious, confronted Innocent, who, organized and legal-minded, sought to keep them in the Church after examination and approval. His reconciliation by 1212 of elements of the separated Poor Men, begun in Lyons in the 1170s, was a turning point. Innocent’s administration assumed, if implicitly, that approval of religious groups was exclusively the responsibility of the apostolic see. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) forbade the further founding of new religious orders and the Second Council of Lyons (1274) confirmed the ban, suppressing any previously unapproved.
Francis of Assisi, whose radical poverty intended no obvious subversion of papal authority, sought approval for his new way of life from Innocent in 1210 and Gregory IX (1227-1241) granted approval formally with Quo elongati (1230). Successive papal bulls privileged the Franciscans, exempting them from episcopal oversight; if ever in conflict with a bishop, they could claim the support of the pope, who had authorized their activities. Nicholas III (1227-1280) solidified the Franciscan position with Exiit qui seminat (1279), something of a second foundational constitution, which approved the Franciscan way of life and affirmed it as the way of perfection that Christ had taught the apostles.
Was Exiit irreformable? John XXII (1316-1334) thought not. In Cum inter nonnullos (1323) he condemned the radical Franciscan theory of evangelical poverty, that neither Christ nor the apostles owned anything, which prompted Franciscan theologians, in defense of their charism, to defend Exiit as an irreformable judgment. If Franciscans needed a doctrine of papal infallibility to protect them from Pope John, they revived in its favor the innovative arguments of Franciscan Pietro Olivi (1248–1298), which, according to Tierney, were inextricably bound up with his desire to see Francis’ teaching authenticated. An infallible papacy protected Franciscan charism. As the notion of papal infallibility developed after the fourteenth century, the notion of infallible or inerrant papal approval of a religious institute developed as part of it, becoming the widespread theological opinion.
Dominican theologian Melchior Cano (1509-1560) disputed it and held, in writing about the authority of councils in De Locis Theologicis (5.5.5, 1563), that the Church could err in judgment on mores (both “morals” and “ways of living,” that is, the “secondary object of infallibility”):
The approval of religious orders surely pertains to mores… Undoubtedly some orders have been approved not only uselessly, but even harmfully. In so many orders and institutes religion has been so set back that, among the other remedies for evils, pious men would have rightly and properly expected also this one from a general council: after a few select religious orders have been kept, the others should be ushered off the stage. Church officials are sometimes wrong and imprudent about mores and sometimes the Church approves what it ought not to have approved.Jesuit theologian Francisco Suárez (1548-1617) here thought Cano gravely mistaken and his cogent and long refutation in De virtute et statu religionis (2.15-18 (from 1608)) and De Fide Theologica (5.8.9 (1621)) remained normative in Catholicism for almost 400 years. Suárez is the foremost theologian of the view that “the Pope cannot err in the approval of a religious order.”
By approving an order, Suárez says, the Church, “after sufficient examination declares that this mode of life is holy, without any error or superstition, and that both in its end and in its means provides a way to perfection.” If earlier forms of religious life, such as that of Augustinians and Benedictines, had been approved locally by local bishops and possessed a universality in the observance of a rule, but not by a universal centralized government, orders after Innocent require papal approval because they were now “instituted for the universal Church, that they spread throughout the whole Church.” Universal approbation can only imply papal approbation.
For the authority of that approbation, Suárez cites distantly Augustine Epistle 118, “to dispute that what the universal Church is doing should be done is an act of the most insolent craziness.” He cites Aquinas in Contra impugnantes Dei cultum et religionem, “Since some religious orders… have been established by the Apostolic See [for many benefits and good works], anyone who tries to condemn one such clearly incurs condemnation himself,” which cites the 465 synodal allocution of Pope Hilary, “It is improper and hazardous for anyone rashly to judge divine constitutions or decrees of the Holy See.” He also cites the agreement of his contemporaries, Jesuit theologians Juan Azor and Gregorio Valencia.
Papal approbation of a religious order is infallibly authoritative because analogous to the canonization of saints, also assisted by the Holy Spirit. The contrary is unthinkable:
If the approval of sanctity by public Church declaration is necessary that saints be honored publicly and universally without danger of error or superstition, similar approval is no less necessary for a congregation and mode of life that the Church proposes as holy and useful for attaining perfection… This special privilege of the Pontifical dignity [approving religious orders] cannot be delegated; just as the Pontiff cannot delegate his power of canonizing saints or of defining some Catholic truth with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.Robert Bellarmine had noted in De Monachis 4 that the evangelical counsels obviously need no pope’s approval, but the individual modes of life in which those vows are undertaken do. Suárez continues that religious orders have a particular “charism” and that is why they need approval:
[An order requires] the addition of certain observances that make it a particular order or way of life… otherwise there would be no distinction between religious orders… But the danger of error is imminent in what is added through human intention. To avoid this Church approval is necessary.Altogether Suárez concludes:
The pope’s approval [of a religious order] has divine authority from the special assistance of the Holy Spirit that he is believed to have lest he should err in so serious a matter and therefore the approval has an infallible certainty.Nineteenth and twentieth century manuals of Catholic theology perpetuated the opinion Suárez had codified. Joseph Wilhelm and Thomas B. Scannell in 1906, reporting Matthias Scheeben's Handbuch der katholischen Dogmatik (1873-87) to the English-speaking world held that the approval of religious orders was one among “many truths… inseparably connected with matters of morals… so connected and interwoven with Revelation that they cannot be separated from it.”
Charles Coppens, SJ in A Systematic Study of the Catholic Religion (1903) says:
…whether the Church utters explicit definitions, or simply performs her quotidianum magisterium, her daily office of instructing the faithful, she frequently judges… that certain systems of education are or are not injurious to faith and morals, that certain societies are immoral, that others are laudable, etc.; else she could not efficiently guide her members in matters necessary to salvation.Francis A. Sullivan, SJ in De Ecclesia (1962) on the eve of the Second Vatican Council wrote in the tradition of Suárez, to use his own English paraphrase:
the solemn approval of a religious order would be based on a doctrinal judgment that its rule was consonant with the evangelical counsels, and was such as would promote the striving for religious perfection. The underlying argument was that the harmful consequences of the solemn approval of a rule that was not consonant with the evangelical counsels would be such that the Holy Spirit would prevent such an error on the part of the magisterium.Msgr. Dominique Le Tourneau in “Infallibilty” in The Papacy: an Encyclopedia (1994, English 2002) wrote recently in quite the same terms:
If the magisterium of the Church had no power over [truths within the secondary object of infallibility], it could neither preserve or conveniently explain the truths of salvation that make up its first object. The truths virtually revealed – or secondary object – are: truths of a spiritual order, such as the preambles to the faith, certain truths of a historical order, like the legitimacy of a council or its ecumenical nature; the objective meaning of an article; the canonization of saints; the solemn approval of religious orders; the recognition of a rite and so forth. The Magisterium is infallible in each and every one of its acts.So to this day we hear the echo of Pietro Olivi: “It is impossible for God to give to anyone the full authority to decide about doubts concerning the faith and divine law with this condition, that He would permit him to err.”
This then is the tradition in which the Legionaries claim Church approval of their order irreformable. Theologians today, however, commonly recognize in that earlier view merely a long-standing theological opinion. Vatican I, confirmed by Vatican II, as is known, delimited the conditions for infallibly rendered judgment. Father Sullivan himself reconsidered the matter and 21 years later in Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church (1983) did not mention the approbation of religious orders as an example of a matter thought to pertain to the secondary object. He wrote there:
While the fact that there is a secondary object of infallibility is held by most Catholic theologians to be certain, there is by no means unanimity with regard to what is contained in this object… many manuals of ecclesiology prior to Vatican II reflected the broad description of the secondary object as ‘truths connected with revelation.’ The current trend would be to limit the object to what is strictly required in order that the magisterium might be able to defend and explain the Gospel.The careful opinion of Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ (1918-2008) in Magisterium (2007) has been cited often amidst the Legionary crisis and found wide agreement:
Some authors [apparently Suárez and his followers] defend… a kind of ‘practical infallibility’ in papal actions such as the approval of religious institutes. Although the common teaching of theologians gives some support for holding infallibility in these cases, it is difficult to see how they fit under the object of infallibility as defined by the two Vatican Councils.
Sullivan, theology professor at Boston College and past dean of the faculty of theology at the Gregorian in Rome, called my attention in an email to John Paul II’s addition with Ad tuendam fidem (1998) of a new paragraph to canon 750 of the Code of Canon Law that describes the secondary object of infallibility as “each and every proposition required for the sacred preservation and faithful explanation of the deposit of faith.” Sullivan said that in his opinion “a decretum laudis [the formal approval of a religious order] as such is not a doctrinal statement, but it does imply a doctrinal judgment that the rule is consonant with the evangelical counsels. To that extent I think it would enjoy some ordinary, non-definitive magisterial authority delegated from the Pope to the Prefect of the Congregation of Religious.”
A controversial new order gives the impression that the Church has apostatized and that they alone, inspired by the Holy Spirit, constitute the truth. Against the bishops they antagonize they claim for survival an infallibly granted papal support. Fourteenth century Franciscans or early twenty-first century Legionaries? Well, to their credit, the Legionaries never claimed John Paul for the anti-Christ, whose coming Pietro Olivi did fear any pope who relaxed Franciscan rule would hasten. Yet Father Maciel was no St. Francis. And here is one area where the Legionaries, while claiming the vanguard of the Second Vatican Council, maintain a theological view that prevailed before the First Vatican Council, with its counter-Reformation feel. The Council of Trent (in 1563) declined to hinder the Jesuits in any way, approved as they were by the Holy See. The Council of Constance (1415) had condemned the propositions of John Wycliffe that members of religious orders are not members of the Christian religion and that all religious orders were founded by the devil.
Historically the doctrine of papal infallibility has not been always discussed in the abstract, but by critics and proponents who have had a dog in the fight. Fourteenth century Franciscan theologians defended it to defend their existence and charism. John XXII opposed it to oppose a limitation on his sovereignty, his ability to reverse an act of his predecessor. Suárez was explicating papal approval of the Jesuits. In our day, those who feel that popes have decided incorrectly on, say, matters of sexuality and gender are motivated to discern the limits of infallibility’s secondary object. Conservatives who want the Legionaries abolished and re-founded are happy to cite that Avery Dulles passage. It is as paradoxical that rebellious Franciscans, not curial theologians, brought the theory of papal infallibility into the theological mainstream in the thirteenth century as it would be if the conservative Legionaries were to offer an irrefutable counter-example to the opinion that the secondary objects of infallibility include approval of religious orders.
Part of the drama of this apostolic visitation is the backdrop of that 800-year-old question. Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, an outspoken critic of the Legionaries, has said that abolition is something that the visitation may consider and Father Thomas Berg on leaving the Legion allowed that “the serious issues within the congregation will require its thorough reformation if not a complete re-foundation,” but neither was necessarily speaking with any more theological precision on the matter than the Legionary who tells you privately, it’s a good thing we were approved before all this came out, or repeats to seminarians the informal words of Cardinal Franc Rodé, “If the Legion stops practicing its charism, I’ll kill you.”
Father Williams himself has also said, “[We] need a reconfirmation by the church that [the Legion] is something that is good, that is a work of God, and that this has to go on, and not the contrary," though this is something more appropriately said to journalists than donors or the impressionable young. What did Pope Benedict imply on the matter when in 2007 he abolished the fourth Legionary vow never to speak ill of a superior, an element of the once approved constitutions added by an all too recognizable “human intention”? Young men and women who consecrated themselves within the Legion and Regnum Christi trusting it was “a way to perfection” without “error or superstition” and then left it abused, damaged, and faithless will think its Church approval to have been merely a fallible prudential judgment and be unimpressed with any defense of its charismatic constitutions as distinct from the way in which the constitutions were actually lived.
Many Legionaries are endeavoring to carry on with the charism, yet their charismatic obedience to the pope stops short of agreeing in advance to extinction if he should so decide. Evidently confident of their future, they have in recent months agreed to acquire Southern Catholic College in Dawsonville, Georgia, and watched Pope Benedict bless the cornerstone of their Magdala retreat house of the Pontifical Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center. They go on recruiting and accepting young candidates undaunted. When they link their own indefectibility to that of the Church, bishops and others who have felt the Legionaries prone to setting themselves as a parallel church will recognize a characteristic confusion. But if the visitation discerns that the Legionaries were founded “uselessly” and “harmfully” and that Legionary orthodoxy and good works have been merely the salesmanship of an “entrepreneurial genius,” in Archbishop O’Brien’s memorable phrase, and recommends an end to privilege for the foundation of a sexual abuser and hypocrite, the Church may, apparently, treat the approval of the Legionaries as reformable and reverse the decreta laudis without damaging the theology of papal infallibility, despite all the self-interested Legionary assumptions and assertions to the contrary.