Friday, July 17, 2009

Fr. Thomas Berg On The Legion Investigation

The Vatican investigation of the Legion of Christ officially got underway on Wednesday. The visitor for North America is Archbishop Chaput of Denver. His selection should have made North American members of the Legion and Regnum Christi breath a little easier. Archbishop Chaput is a big supporter of obedience driven conservative lay apostolates such as Opus Dei, the Neo Cats, and the Legion. I see his appointment as analgous to having selected Sr. Joan Chittister to over see the LCWR investigation. Like that happened.

In the interests of giving a fair and balanced assessment of what should happen with this investigation I offer the insights of Legion trained priest Fr. Thomas Berg. The following exctracts are taken from an article written by Sandro Magister of the Chiesa Espresso web site. It's lengthy, but well worth the read.

Q: When you recently left the Legion, you expressed in a statement your sympathy for the congregation in which you were formed as a priest. What are your hopes now that the apostolic visitation to the Legion of Christ has been announced?

A: I, like the vast majority of persons in the Church, try to remain positive and hopeful for the Legion and Regnum Christi movement. We only want the best for our brothers and sisters in Christ. We understand that this might involve taking some tough medicine, but I believe it is possible for a majority of these wonderful men and women will rise to the occasion because they really do have a profound love for Christ in their hearts. I would like to insist again that I bear no hatred, anger or resentment toward the Legion. Much less, do I spend every waking hour thinking about the Legion. I am getting on with my life. Nonetheless, your initiative in posing these questions has afforded me the opportunity to say a number of things that in conscience I believe need to be said at this juncture.

Q: What would be your suggestions to the five visitors?

A: I will limit myself to one overall suggestion: help the Legionaries to engage in an honest and objective self-critique. What I have found most unsettling of late is the kind of group-think that has settled in among the Legionaries: "We really don't think there is anything wrong with the internal culture of the Legion, but if the Holy See tells us to change things, we will." The docility to the Holy See, though laudable and correct, masks a huge internal flaw: the Legion's corporate inability to engage in a healthy self-critique. This is no time for a business as usual approach, but that has been the impression one generally gets from the Legionaries over the past five months of the crisis. (This inability to self critique perfectly mirrors the founder.)

That inability to see and honestly recognize the flaws and errors that so many people outside the Legion are able to see speaks volumes. The Legionaries should be reminded that it is not the task of the Holy See to reform the Legion. The Legion will only be genuinely reformed when it reforms itself from within. But that can only begin with a self-examination that arises from within the Legion and owns up to the Legion's errors.

Q: How would you suggest dealing with the centrality given to the writings, the person and the figure of the founder, Marcial Maciel?

A: I hope that the Legion will very quickly accelerate its disavowal of, and disassociation with, Fr. Maciel. On that point, I see no other way forward. All - and I mean all - the pictures of Maciel yet hanging in Legionary houses have to go. They have to stop referring to his writings in public (I understand that at one recent Legionary community mass the homilist still saw fit to quote from one of Maciel's letters). A simple step in that direction, by the way, requires the immediate abrogation of their custom of referring to Fr. Maciel as "nuestro padre" or "mon père" - terms of endearment whose use he allowed and fostered. Amazingly, many if not most Legionaries still insist on using the term.

Q: What are the issues you think should change in the internal culture of the Legion, especially related to the recently suppressed "vow of charity", meaning the vow not to criticize one's superiors?

A: At the core of serious problems in the internal culture of the congregation is a mistaken understanding and living of the theological principle - in itself valid - that God's will is made manifest to the religious through his superior. The Legionary seminarian is erroneously led to foster a hyper-focusing on internal "dependence" on the superior for virtually every one of his intentional acts (either explicitly or in virtue of some norm or permission received, or presumed or habitual permissions). This is not in harmony with the tradition of religious life in the Church, nor is it theologically or psychologically sound. It entails rather an unhealthy suppression of personal freedom (which is a far cry from the reasoned, discerned and freely exercised oblation of mind and will that the Holy Spirit genuinely inspires in the institution of religious obedience) and occasions unholy and unhealthy restrictions on personal conscience. (I have yet to come across one of these conservative new movements which doesn't insist on this same form of mindless obedience to superiors. This is not formation, it is purposeful brain washing.)

Furthermore, Legionary norms regarding "reporting to," "informing," "communication with," and "dependence on" superiors constitute a system of control and conformity which now must be considered highly suspect given what we know about Fr. Maciel. They furthermore engender a simplistic, and humanly and theologically impoverished notion of God's will (its discernment and manifestation) that breeds personal immaturity. (This is so on target.)

More seriously, the lived manner in which Legionaries practice obedience is laced with the kind of unquestioning submission which allowed the cult of personality to emerge around the figure of Maciel in the first place and covered for his misdeeds. Legionary seminarians are essentially trained to suspend reason in their obedience and to seek a total internal conformity with all the norms, and to withstand any internal impulse to examine or critique the norms or the indications of superiors.

Granted, the primary motivation behind such living of obedience is the ideal of total "immolation" of oneself for the love of Christ as embodied in the relentless living of all norms and indications of the superiors. This "immolation" of intellect and will is at the heart of the "holocaust" that the Legionary is invited to live for love of Christ and the Church. While the motivation is valid, and generations of Legionaries have pursued this in good faith, in the long run it not only proves profoundly problematic, but also explains the negative personality change which many, if not most, Legionaries undergo over time: the shallowness of their emotional expression, the lack of empathy and inability to relate normally to others in so many contexts, the general sense of their being "out of touch," etc. Only exceptionally do Legionary priests move beyond this, but only thanks to the multiple talents and human gifts they brought with them to the Legion.

Q: What elements do you find more disturbing and in need of special attention from the visitors?

A: Just to name a couple. Why, for example, were approximately 25 Legionary priests convoked yet again - as groups are every year - to a two-month long "spiritual renewal" at the Legion's center for spirituality in Cotija, Michoacan Mexico, housed in the very house (now retreat center and museum) that Fr. Maciel grew up in? Why there? Why in Cotija? Why now?

Why, furthermore, has the Legion continued to engage in vocation work? Now? In these circumstances? It would be a very honest gesture for the Legion of Christ to simply call a halt to all vocational work at least for the duration of the canonical visitation, and even better until it finally gets its house in order.

And one of my deepest concerns is that current Legionary seminarians are not presently in a position to adequately discern what Christ is calling them to do. And this is because they are systematically deprived of the kind of information they not only have a right to know but a fundamental need to know: a complete presentation of the basic facts of Fr. Maciel's double life; the understanding that the religious life, with its norms and internal discipline, they have come to live is deeply problematic and in need of thorough scrutiny and review; a thorough presentation of the reasonable criticisms that have been leveled against the Legion and Regnum Christi; and an honest admission on the part of the major superiors of the Legion's errors.

We should all find it deeply disturbing that most Legionary seminarians - and the same can be said of consecrated members of Regnum Christi - to this day live their daily lives largely unaware of most of these things, shielded as they are from virtually all negative information about the Legion and Regnum Christi. Consequently, they lack the requisite interior freedom to genuinely discern God's calling in their lives at present. This is something to which the visitors need to pay careful attention.

A much deeper issue, of course, is the question of the charism. I personally feel the need for the Church eventually - in some formal way - to reaffirm the validity of an institutional charism in the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi. Regnum Christi members especially need to know from the highest Church authority whether there ever really was a genuine charism inspired by the Holy Spirit at work in the Legion and Regnum Christi, or whether what the Church has witnessed in the sixty-eight year phenomenon of the Legion was rather God simply drawing much good out of a primarily human and deeply flawed enterprise.

This question - whether there is a genuine institutional charism present here or not - is very serious and, as it presents itself in the case of the Legion, unprecedented in the history of the Church. I hope that the visitors will turn up useful information that will assist the Holy See in discerning the answer to that question.

Finally, I fear there may be more victims of Fr. Maciel out there. Their welfare has to become more clearly a palpable and obvious priority for the Legionary superiors. I am hopeful that the major superiors of the Legion who may be now have acquired much more information in this regard will be entirely forthcoming with the visitors.

Q: Do you think that the current leadership of the Legion is too closely associated to the founder to continue directing the Congregation?

A: That's a valid question. The Holy See might weigh in on it, but ultimately it seems the proper answer to that question would have to arise from a general chapter of the congregation which, in my opinion, should be conducted under the close supervision of the Holy See and suspending the current dispositions for a general chapter as outlined in the current constitutions of the Legion in a manner that would allow broader participation by a diversity of members, especially those who are not or have not been in leadership positions.

Q: Can a congregation such as the Legion survive without the "model" provided by a founder?

A: God can do all things. The Holy Spirit could surely raise up a group of Legionaries - cofounders who have disassociated themselves interiorly from Fr. Maciel - who, under the Spirit's inspiration, could provide model lives for future members and direct a new generation of Legionaries to draw from the rich treasure trove of religious spirituality which is the Church's patrimony. This could also be transmitted to the Regnum Christi movement.


I've been doing a lot of research this past year into the various "new lay apostolate movements"
which were so well received and supported by John Paul II. These groups like the Legion, Opus Dei, Miles Jesu, Neo Cats, and a whole host of smaller copiers, may indeed be the one big legacy JPII has left the church.

All of these groups are centered, one could say fixated, on one charismatic leader whose unique interpretation of Catholicism is passed on verbatim, without question, in secrecy, with no financial transparency, a very compartmentalized leadership system, and an aggressive insistence on obedience and loyalty. They are all from the same cookie cutter, almost all Spanish in origin--fascist Spanish--and none of them have had any real Vatican supervision once the money started rolling into the Vatican bank. The Legion just happens to be the group whose narcissitic charismatic leader was also a pedophile. It maybe the real Holy Spirit driven charism of the Legion is to expose the cultic and dehumanizing nature of these parallel forms of Catholicism. Every single criticism Fr. Berg has of the Legion can be laid at the feet of almost all of these movements.

The other thing I've noticed is that there doesn't seem to be any such thing as heresy on the right, no matter how far out on the right one gets. It seems to me there is a lot of heresy in the notion that one particular person is idolized as if they were Jesus Himself. To ask the Legion to get rid of their adoration of Maciel is going to be as difficult as it would be to ask Opus Dei to get rid of their adoration of the now Saint Escriva, or for the Neo Cats to disavow Kiko Arguello. It won't happen because all these groups don't seem to be as much charism based, as personality based. Their founders made sure the charism was well blended with their own personhood. The two are equated and consequently impossible to separate.

I'll have more on these groups in future posts, but I'll make this prediction. The selection of Archbishop Chaput as the North American Investigator for the Legion would seem to insure the Legion will come out of their investigation with few substantive changes and a lot of thanks from the Vatican. The LCWR will not be nearly so lucky.

On a more personal note, I will be taking off on a working vacation for the next two weeks or so, and while I will try to keep up a daily post on this blog, I'm making no promises. Change is in the winds and it's all very exciting. One of the things I hope to do is to make the Pax Christi vigil at Los Alamos the first of August. I have my daughter convinced it's the Catholic thing to do. Maybe I'll get an interview with Fr. John Dear--or not.


  1. "The Legionary seminarian is erroneously led to foster a hyper-focusing on internal "dependence" on the superior for virtually every one of his intentional acts (either explicitly or in virtue of some norm or permission received, or presumed or habitual permissions)."

    A lot of fundamentalist comments in NCR are from people who have this sense that religious authority and dogma should not be questioned and if you do you are marked as a heretic. It makes me think they are from these types of groups. Their many responses indicate a retardation and straight-jacketing of personal and spiritual maturity, a lack of empathy and charity towards others, and the disintegration of faith and denial of free will itself.

    True faith cannot be grounded in immaturity and reliance and submission of one's own free will and conscience and thought processes replaced by another's. They end up reciting the same mantra that was taught to them and they speak with one voice that is the echo of their superior's thinking and it is a voice that shows the disintegration of faith in God to mere obedience to authority. They have not learned to think on their own. They are led around and are on a sort of spiritual leash that is the shadow of their superior's thoughts and intentions. They are not creating pillars for the Church to stand by this form of leading.

    It is as you say, Colleen, a brainwashing.

    Archbishop Chaput, I seriously doubt, has any intention of ending this cloning of the "faithful" and in the process creating a world in his image and likeness of what "faithful" is. There seems to be no idea of using Free Will developed in the seminarians, but rather the Will of the superior is developed into them to use as their own. This process bypasses a relationship with Jesus as being superior and makes the religious superior, superior to Christ in the mind of the seminarian.

    This is very dangerous. This makes seminarians into mere shadows of themselves and what God designed for them to become, an identity which is underdeveloped and starving in which their own freedom and free will is incapacitated or destroyed.

    One whose own freedom and free will are repressed or destroyed can not identify with the freedom and free will in others, or have any mercy towards others. They are taught to think that thinking itself is wrong and disobedient.

    These seminarians will be incapable of truly being and experiencing being human and will be incapable of relating to other human beings.

    I really doubt that Chaput understands that creating automatons to carry out fundamentalist intentions or agendas creates aggressors and people unable to be truly Christian. But that is what he does need to begin to understand in order to create the circumstances for life and not suppression of the Holy Spirit.

    Seminarians need to be enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Religious want to be, however, too many superiors suppress the Holy Spirit by imagining that forcing their faith and conclusions upon others creates justice, but it creates injustice in the world and in the Church.

  2. Colleen, have a good break, and don't pressure yourself about the blog (though you'll be very much missed).

    And you're right on target about these new lay movements under JPII, and their general roots in the fascism of the Spanish Catholic church, as well as the extremism that never seems to get condemned by Rome, where it would immediately be squelched if it were on the left.

    I think one reason for that--for Rome's welcome of these groups, no matter how fringe they become--is that somewhere deep inside all of them is the claim that they are countering the big bug-bear of socialism. Another reason is $$$$.

    Many of them have attracted well-heeled followers, as well as money from the coffers of right-wing groups who don't care a lot about religion, but who want religious groups to lean right.

    But a lot of the money streams are hidden, because that's how these groups typically function--through hidden channels of influence at the top of societies, in government and the business sphere.

    Not much different, come to think of it, from the Family in the U.S., which has been in the headlines lately due to all the scandals associated with people who have been part of this secretive top-end group in D.C.

  3. I find the connection you make between these groups and JP II very interesting.

    At the risk of speaking negatively about a recent icon of the Catholic Church, JP II, isn't this a similar kind of obedience he wanted from his bishops?

    Maybe that is what is wrong with the church in the US. Maybe the whole church needs a visitator, but not someone like Archbishop Chaput!

  4. I saw that similarity as well, Bill.

    After awhile the study of these conservative religious groups gets pretty predictable. The Family is not all that different from any of the Catholic versions. There might be some theological differences but the one real difference is the Vatican and it's bank and diplomatic corps.

    The agenda appears pretty much the same though, which is a culture that is ruled, not governed, by self identified religious elite of 'Christian' persuasion.

    The good thing is that all these groups have secrecy at their core and in this society, that is a fatal flaw. It's old old energy which can't sustain itself in the age of the internet.

    The Family is certainly showing their vulnerability to that flaw.

  5. Butterfly, you wrote:

    "One whose own freedom and free will are repressed or destroyed can not identify with the freedom and free will in others, or have any mercy towards others. They are taught to think that thinking itself is wrong and disobedient."

    Enculturating this in people in a democracy is a great way to undermine a democratic society. It leads to exactly what we have which is a Republican party in lock step, unable to say any other word but no, and quite willing to bully and villify any one who disagrees with them, but also quite willing to overlook fundamental failures in their own.

    Those on the 'in' will always be forgiven and taken care of, and 'others' will be used, abused, and perpetually damned.

    Wild hair, I think Bill Lyndsey hit on the reason that JPII supported these groups. He saw them as vehicles to thwart the spread of communism and socialism and they have access to a lot of money. They also have an enormous amount of control on their followers, and all put supporting the papacy at the top of their agenda. What's not to like?

  6. Excellent comments all-and I fear you're right, Colleen, about the outcome of the visitation of the LCWR and the Legionaries of Christ. UK author Gordon Urquhart wrote an excellent account of the personality cults of the Catholic right in his 1995 book "The Pope's Armada." Urquhart is a former member of Focolare, and tended to focus more on Focolare, Neocatechumenate Way, Communion & Liberation, and touched on Opus Dei and the Legionaries.

  7. The whole church needs a visitator!

    Veni creator Spiritus, Mentes tuorum visita...

  8. Colleen, you make a good point in your reply to me. You say that secrecy is an old, old energy that can't sustain itself in the internet age.

    That strikes me as very significant. It's as if the penchant for secrecy in these groups is a kind of anti-energy, sapping real vitality, and causing them to be dead weights on the life of the church as a whole, at a time when a very different response to the world around us is demanded.

  9. Hi, been in the neocat movement for the last 10 years. Off late have been very disillusioned with it. It seems to be me they are robbing money from the poor people. Would appreciate it is someone would do a through investigation on this movement.