THIS CATHOLIC’S VIEW
By Thomas J. Reese, S.J.
Thirteen years after the Hartford Courant ran an expose of sexual abuses by the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, the Vatican has finally imposed martial law on the order and mandated the rewriting of its constitution and the revamping of its spirituality and culture.
Nothing comparable to this papal intervention has occurred in the church since John Paul II appointed a pontifical delegate for the Society of Jesus in 1981 during the illness of its superior general, Pedro Arrupe, S.J. In the Jesuit case, the delegate was simply an interim leader since there was no papal criticism of the Jesuit constitution, its founder and his spirituality. The alleged crime of the Jesuits was not being sufficiently loyal to the pope.
The two interventions point to a fatal flaw in the papacy of John Paul II. John Paul trusted those who cheered him and tried to crush those who questioned his ideas or actions. This led him to trust Maciel and distrust questioning Jesuits.
Having grown up in a persecuted church where unity was a matter of survival, John Paul could not accept open debate and discussion in the church. Loyalty was more important than intelligence or pastoral skill. As a result, the quality of bishops appointed under him declined, as did the competence of people working in the Vatican.
This is not to downplay John Paul’s important role in world affairs. He was much more important to the peaceful fall of Communism than Ronald Reagan. He also did more to improve Catholic relations with Jews than any pope in history.
But the sad truth is that while he was good for the world, he was bad for the church. His suppression of theological discussion and debate, his insensitivity to women’s issues, and his appointments kept the church from responding pastorally and intelligently not only to the sexual abuse crisis but to other issues facing the church.
I have no doubt that John Paul is in heaven, but the effort to canonize him should be put on hold along with that of Pius XII.
There are those who criticize Pope Benedict for trying to save the Legionaries instead of simply shutting them down. These critics forget that there were two sets of victims who were exploited by Maciel.
First there were those he sexually abused. But there were also the hundreds if not thousands of naïve, idealistic, conservative Catholics who were fooled into believing that he was a holy man leading them to Christ. Instead, he was a sociopath who, the Vatican concluded, lived “a life entirely without scruples and authentic religious feeling.” Those who joined the Legionaries and Regnum Christi were betrayed and are also victims.
I feel especially sorry for the good young men who joined the Legionaries. These men, like soldiers who were betrayed by their general, deserve special sympathy and help. Whether the papal delegate can make the changes and do the healing required to save these men and the Legionaries as an order, remains to be seen. He will certainly have to replace all the top leadership who were either complicit with or too stupid to see the evils of Maciel. In either case, they should not be leaders in the order.
But the Vatican response needs to focus not only on the Legionaries but also on itself. Why did it take 13 years for the Vatican to intervene? Why did the Congregation for Religious not investigate the numerous accusations against Maciel? Why did it approve such a defective constitution in the first place? Is it true, as Jason Berry alleges in the National Catholic Reporter, that Maciel used Legionaries’ money to buy influence with cardinals in the Vatican?
If the pope wants to deal with the core issue, he should hire an outside management consulting firm to answer these questions and to make recommendations on improving the Vatican curia. The sexual abuse crisis was not only caused by bad priests, it was compounded by bad management at the diocesan and Vatican level.
It will be too easy to blame John Paul for these failures without recognizing that the Vatican has systemic flaws. First among these is a culture that prizes loyalty above competence. The Vatican still acts more like a royal court than a modern bureaucracy. Cardinals and bishops in the Vatican act like and are treated like papal nobility and princes rather than civil servants. There is no theological reason why any Vatican official needs to be a bishop or cardinal.
The Catholic Church encourages the faithful to examine their consciences. The pope and the Vatican need to examine why the church failed as an institution to respond appropriately to the sexual abuse crisis. Such an examination must lead to repentance and change.
Thomas J. Reese, S.J., is a Senior Fellow, Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University.
By Thomas J. Reese |
May 3, 2010; 4:18 PM ET
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