The Double Life and the Undivided Heart

Reflections on religious orders in view of the Maciel disgrace.

The name of Marcial Maciel now seems destined to become a byword for corruption of the most craven and cynical kind. Father Maciel (1920- 2008) already had been forced to live out his final years in prayer and penance as a result of credible allegations that he had sexually abused 20 or more boys and young men. Then, earlier this year, it came to light that Maciel had lived a “double life” for years and that he had fathered at least one child with at least one mistress. There are strong indications that Maciel also committed financial improprieties, and he is suspected of having committed the grave canonical crime of granting sacramental absolution to persons with whom he engaged in sexual sins (cf. canon 977, 1378 §1).

In the wake of Maciel’s disgrace, a lively debate has ensued over the future of the religious congregation that he founded, the Legion of Christ. Some charge that the Legion is bound so inextricably to the persona of its founder that it cannot continue and must be suppressed or merged into another congregation. But defenders of the Legion and its associated lay organization Regnum Christi argue against suppression, pointing to their good works and the undoubted existence of many faithful members who played no part in the Maciel fraud.

(It should also be noted that even before the latest revelations about Maciel several serious Catholics and bishops, such as Archbishop O’Brien quoted above, had raised questions about the Legion’s recruiting practices, fundraising methods, and spiritual formation. This subject would require a separate article.)

George Weigel formulates the central question: Can the good that has come from the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi be disentangled from the person and legacy of Father Maciel? (First Things blog, February 9, 2009.) This debate has occurred primarily on the practical plane so far, and the prospects for the Legion appear bleak. The Legionaries’ strong attachment to Maciel raises serious questions about the Legion’s ability to accept reform and cleanse itself of his corruption. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine that young men in the future will consider joining a community whose founder has been so thoroughly disgraced.

But the debate about Maciel and the Legion should not be confined to the purely practical plane. Rather, the Maciel disgrace also raises serious theological and canonical questions. This scandal provides an occasion to reflect on the meaning and purpose of religious life in the Church, and these reflections suggest that the theological and canonical obstacles facing the Legion are, if anything, even more daunting than the practical challenges. This becomes apparent when one examines the Legion’s arguments in favor of its continued existence.


Legion spokesmen argue that Maciel’s life of fraud has no impact on the Legion’s charism or future. The Legion’s arguments are not frivolous, but they are rather weak, and in the end, they do not withstand analysis.

One of the most frequent arguments is that the Holy See’s 1983 approval of the Legion’s constitutions amounts to an assurance that its charism is a valid path to holiness (cf. G. Matysek, Catholic Review, February 25, 2009 [quoting J. Fair]; T. Williams interview, February 5, 2009,; American Papist blog, March 19, 2009 [citing A. Bannon]). In the words of one Legionary priest, “We have the assurance of the Church’s Magisterium to rely on.”

This position is not entirely devoid of scholarly support, but it finds little or no basis in the relevant teachings of the councils (cf. A. Dulles, Magisterium, p. 78). The Magisterium is the Church’s teaching office (munus docendi), but the approval of a congregation’s constitutions seems quite clearly to be an exercise of the Church’s governing office (munus regendi) [cf. canon 576]. Such an approval represents a judgment in favor of the congregation, but it is by no means irrevocable.

History and canon law make this clear. The Church has indeed seen fit to suppress certain religious communities at various times (cf. Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Religious Life”). In fact, serious sexual misconduct like Maciel’s figured prominently in the suppression of the Piarist order in the 17th century (cf. K. Liebreich, Fallen Order). Moreover, the law of the Church expressly provides for the suppression of religious communities (cf. canon 584). Such a step is not to be taken lightly, but the obstacles to suppression are prudential and administrative, rather than doctrinal. As a result, there is no guarantee that a particular religious congregation will continue into the future.

In this particular case, the Holy See might well conclude that Maciel essentially defrauded the Church in securing her approval of the Legion’s constitutions. Suppression regrettably would cause pain to innocent Legionary priests and Regnum Christi faithful, but one certainly can imagine the Holy See reaching the conclusion that such a step is necessary for the undoing of the fraud and the prevention of future harm.


The key fact in the Maciel scandal is not that it was a priest who committed these sins and crimes, but rather that it was a founder of a religious congregation. Consideration of Maciel’s double life from the perspective of the meaning and purpose of religious life reveals its true significance.

It is not always easy for even serious Catholics to describe the basic purpose and meaning of religious life. It is clear that religious life does not pertain to the governance of the Church, which is the role of the clergy (some of whom, however, also belong to religious orders). Nor is religious life any kind of midway state between the laity and the clergy. Rather, Vatican II and canon law tell us that religious life belongs to the holiness of the Church (cf. can. 574).

However, if all the faithful are called to holiness (cf. Lumen Gentium, 40), then what is it that Jesuit priests and Franciscan nuns share in common as religious that is not shared by those of us who do not belong to any religious community? The answer is that they are public witnesses to the faith. Their witness does not consist only in words or even in deeds, but in the entirety of their lives. Mother Teresa understood this perfectly.

[W]e are not here for the work; we are here for Jesus. All we do is for him. We are first of all religious. We are not social workers, not teachers, not nurses or doctors; we are religious sisters. (Washington Post, September 6, 1997, p. A17)

Those in religious life give witness both to the world and to the rest of the Church (Mutuae Relationes, 11 & 14a). Their first duty is to this mission, even before the specific work of their own communities. “The apostolate of all religious consists first of all in the witness of their consecrated life” (canon 673). This is the reason that members of religious communities take public vows. The public nature of their witness is also the reason that the religious generally wear a distinctive habit. Father Benedict Groeschel, referring to his own Franciscan habit, put it memorably, “I don’t walk around looking like an ad for The Canterbury Tales for no good reason at all.”

But what exactly is the content of this witness? The answer is that the religious are a sign of the age to come (LG, 44; Perfectae Caritatis, 1; canon 607 §1). They are eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:12), and the meaning of their lives of perfect continence is a total gift of self to the Lord. That is, chastity represents dedication to him “with an undivided heart” (PC, 12). Observance of the Commandments is sufficient for salvation, but religious life represents an even “more generous” service to the Lord (MR, 8).

This higher standard is not merely a pious aspiration. Rather, it finds concrete expression in the law of the Church. For example, if a religious priest were to commit the canonical crime of homicide, dismissal from the clerical state would be a possibility (cf. canon 1336), but dismissal from his religious community would be mandatory (cf. canon 1397). This higher standard applies to religious life because of its public importance and its meaning as a sign of total self donation.

There is no greater mockery of the religious life than the spectacle of a founder leading a double life of cynical deception and predation. Legion spokesmen pile scandal on top of scandal when they refer to Maciel as if he were merely a weak man or a flawed instrument (cf. C. Wooden, CNS, February 9, 2009 [quoting J. Fair]). The outrage is not that Maciel was a sinner. Rather, it is that for years he led a double life, the very antithesis of the life of integrity that is the hallmark of the religious. He played the whole Church, including its cardinals and popes, for suckers. All the while, he not only demanded that his subjects take him as their model, but he also permitted them to defend him publicly and to venerate him as a living saint.

Legion spokesmen insist that God can write straight with crooked lines and that the Holy Spirit can use even flawed instruments to accomplish his purposes. True enough, as far as it goes. But how far does the argument go? The Holy See recently decided to subject the Legion to an apostolic visitation, and the visitation no doubt will focus on practical questions concerning how deep an imprint of his own distorted personality Maciel impressed upon the Legion.

Apart from the practical questions, however, I hope that the members of the visitation team will reflect profoundly on the meaning of religious life itself. Legion spokesmen are correct that Maciel’s sins and crimes, great as they were, did not prevent the Holy Spirit from working in the lives of Legion members. But does this necessarily mean that Maciel’s work can continue to wear the Church’s crown? For my own part, I have difficulty seeing how the Church can continue to hold up, as an example of holiness and integrity of life, a work wrought by a man whose life was a lie, a fraud, and a brazen counter-sign to authentic religious life.


Many believe that the future of the Legion will depend on its ability to separate itself from its disgraced founder. This would be difficult for any religious community, but it seems almost unimaginable for the Legion, given the members’ deep devotion to Maciel. His birthday was celebrated as a holiday, he was held up as a model of behavior, and his own writings are central to Legionary formation. Moreover, when the Holy See disciplined Maciel in 2006 and asked the Legion to distance itself from him, the Legion proved largely unable to do so and continued to venerate him as a hero (cf. L. Goodstein, New York Times, February 3, 2009; R. Zoll, AP, March 31, 2009).

Germain Grisez explains the significance of the fact that this scandal arises in the context of religious life. This matter, he says, is not comparable to a sexual scandal involving a diocesan bishop. Although the clergy of a diocese cease collaborating with a particular bishop once he leaves office, the members of a religious congregation never cease collaborating with their founder, even after his death (cf. American Papist blog, February 5, 2009).

Legion spokesmen are correct that they cannot go on without their founder, but they may have drawn the wrong conclusion from this. They conclude that they therefore will go on with their founder, but the correct conclusion seems to be that they simply cannot go on.

In a variation on the “administrative argument” discussed above, Legion spokesmen have asserted that the Holy See’s approval of the constitutions amounted to the Church taking the Legion’s charism out of Maciel’s hands. The scandal would be more manageable if things were this simple, but they are not.

Religious brothers and sisters live out their vocations in communities that are bound to maintain fidelity to “the spirit of the founders” (cf. LG, 45). “[T]he spirit and aims of each founder should be faithfully accepted and retained” (PC, 2). This was a central theme of Vatican II, and the Holy See has continued to emphasize it in the years since the Council (cf. MR, 8). Religious founders are described as “raised up by God” (Canon Law Digest 6, p. 463), and the charisms of religious communities sometimes are called simply the “charism of the Founders” (MR, 11). Moreover, canon law obliges the religious to “observe faithfully the mind and designs of the founders” (canon 578).

What would it mean to maintain fidelity to the “spirit” of Marcial Maciel? What would it mean to “faithfully accept” the “spirit and aims” of this man? Or to follow his “mind and designs”? To ask the question is to answer it.

This is not simply a matter of embarrassment. The Legion is in peril not because it has a scandalous episode in its past, but rather because it is saddled with a founder whose spirit and legacy provide none of the vitality necessary for a religious congregation to endure. A religious community almost inevitably requires reform at various stages in its history, and reform means, above all, a return to the founder (cf. CLD 6, p. 463).

A religious congregation’s traditions, its founder’s spirit, and the founder’s aims constitute the patrimony of the congregation (cf. PC, 2). This patrimony is a treasury that sustains it in all times, and especially in times of reform. In this sad case, however, Maciel simply has left the Legion with little or no patrimony. That is, his “spirit,” his “aims,” and his “mind and designs” provide nothing on which the Legion can rely. (Cf. In the Light of the Law blog, February 8, 2009.)


There are several possible futures for the members of the Legion who played no part in Maciel’s deceits. As individuals they could join other congregations or become diocesan priests. As a group they might discern whether they are called to form a new community, or they might seek incorporation into another religious community (cf. canon 582). However, my own opinion is that the congregation founded by Marcial Maciel, the Legion of Christ itself, cannot survive.

Some have expressed wonder that, despite Maciel’s duplicity and manipulation, good nonetheless could exist in the Legion. But this is no cause for wonder at all, for “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20). Maciel betrayed many, not least of all the faithful members of the Legion who had no part in concealing his crimes. Moreover, all throughout this long betrayal, their Lord remained always in their midst suffering the same betrayal. Though the Legion itself may not survive, the innocent Legionaries have reason to hope that the Lord in his mercy will prevent their own good work from being lost.


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About R. Michael Dunnigan 9 Articles
R. Michael Dunnigan is a canon lawyer and a civil lawyer, and he lives and works in Indiana.