David Gibson has a story that has been percolating on the web for the last few days, about the late founder of the ultraconservative Legionaries of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, who had been publicly sanctioned in 2006 by Pope Benedict XVI after an extensive investigation of charges of abuse levied by former members of the LC seminarians, now adults.
Now comes news that Maciel had fathered a child, and that the Legion of Christ is about to "renounce" him as their founder.
Here is Gibson: "The late Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the venerated and vilified founder of the powerful conservative Catholic order, the Legionaries of Christ, may have been a father in the biological as well. At American Papist, Thomas Peters confirms rumors circulating in recent days of scandalous news coming down the pipe about a prominent Catholic....Now it turns out Maciel may have fathered at least one child, a woman now in her early 20’s, and may have illicitly used funds to support his family and a ’double life.’ That’s on Gibson’s Pontifications blog here.
That portion of the story has been confirmed to me by a former Legionary member, who sadly described those LCs he still was in touch with as "shattered" by the news. The New York Times has the story here, though LC officials are not confirming it. However, as Laurie Goodstein reports, "[T]he order’s general director, the Rev. Álvaro Corcuera, is quietly visiting its religious communities and seminaries in the United States and informing members that their founder led a double life, current and former Legionaries said."
The news is doubly surprising.
For one thing, Father Maciel’s abuse was against young men, and so most probably assumed, when the abuse revelations were made public, that he was homosexual. Most psychiatrists and psychologists, however, say that sexual abuse against minors is not so much an indication of sexual orientation--whether homosexual or heterosexual--as much as it indicates a stunted or malformed sexuality overall. This is not to deny that most of the clergy sexual abuse was against adolescent boys and even men, and perpetrated by gay men, but rather to point out how the question of abuse is more complex than is usually thought, and whose solution is more complex than simply barring gay men from holy orders.
But the bigger surprise, if the reports are correct about the "renouncement" is this: For a religious order to "renounce" its founder is nearly unprecedented. Yet even a downplaying of the founder could be a serious blow to the order. (One of our bloggers commented on this part of the story: see below.)
The "charism," or guiding spirit, of an order comes from its founder. His (or her) writings, letters and spiritual practices are carefully studied and emulated by members of the order; such study makes up a large part of the members’ early training. Jesuits pore over the writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola; Franciscans of St. Francis of Assisi; Dominicans of St. Dominic. The founder or foundress is considered as the spiritual father or mother of the order. (Jesuits, for example, are often called "Sons of Ignatius.") Statues, portraits and holy cards of the founder abound in the communities and works of the order. The influence of the founder or foundress on the life of the religious order he or she founded cannot be overstated. This is one reason why canonization of the founder is so important to religious orders; it is an implicit approval of the order itself: the two are inextricably linked.
A few founders have run into difficulties after their orders were set up (St. Francis of Assisi was nearly kicked out of his own order by Franciscans who found his poverty too extreme), but in those rare cases, the order always welcomes back the founder as an essential--the essential--part of the history and spirituality of the order. As one example, note the photo above, from CNS, is captioned, "Legionaries of Christ take part in a Jan. 31  memorial service in honor of their founder, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, at the Irish Institute in San Pedro Garza, a suburb of Monterrey, Mexico." The Legionaries generally refer to Father Maciel as "Nuestro Padre."
It would be as if the Dominicans said, "We’re through with St. Dominic."
James Martin, SJ