Friday, February 6, 2009

Cults Of Personality

I think if the Fr. Maciel story is intended to teach us anything it's that personal infallibility and absolute clerical authority are poor places to anchor spiritual integrity. They are instead, good ideas on which to anchor cults of personality whose leaders are given free reign to let their egos run amuck. When there are no checks and balances on leadership, one does not practice leadership, one practices tyranny.

I keep returning to the photograph of John Paul II blessing Fr. Maciel. It haunts me for a number of reasons. The first reason: I find it absolutely unbelievable that JPII had no idea of just who this man was that he is blessing. My mind returns to Cardinal Ratzinger, when he was head of the CDF, slapping a European journalist for asking questions about the Maciel investigation. For Cardinal Ratzinger, to emotionally lose it, signalled that Maciel was a very uncomfortable issue for the then head of the CDF. He knew, and either couldn't or wouldn't, take the appropriate action. If he knew, then JPII knew, and JPII refused to take the appropriate action.

There's a number of similarities between Maciel and JPII.---and no I'm not implying JPII was a sexual pervert. Both of them though, thought nothing about encouraging a kind of cult of personality around themselves, especially in the sense of targeting youth. Neither of them had people around them who would or could call them out on anything. Even Cardinal Ratzinger held no sway over JPII, which is perfectly indicated by his frustration over Maciel.
Interesting then that Maciel is somehow so entangled in the two papacies which have done everything they could to restore the monarchical Vatican. It's almost like Maciel is the perfect symbol of what is wrong with abuse of ecclesial power in the greater church. Actually, Maciel is the perfect symbol of what's wrong with the abuse of power in the greater church.

In that sense it will be very interesting to see how the Vatican deals with the Legion. It represents an opportunity to overhaul a secretive authoritarian structure and return it to some sort of transparency and accountability.

I believe that hits too close to home, I'm positive the Vatican will leave the Legion in the hands of the superiors who covered up and enabled Maciel's double life--for the good of the Legion don't we know. But really it will be to protect clerical authority, to avoid any explanation as to why the Vatican allowed Maciel to operate for so long under such suspicion. It allows the Vatican to avoid apologizing to all of Maciel's young male victims who have been vilified by the Legion and to the thousands of L of C and Regnum Christi members who have also suffered abuse in the process of Legion formation.

More than any of that though, the Vatican will leave this to current Legion leadership because to do otherwise threatens to make the Vatican look fallible. Something they won't take kindly too after the international flap caused with rescinding the SSPX excommunications. Not that they've taken kindly to that embarrassment. Right wing mouth pieces are claiming the SSPX fiasco was a lesbian conspiracy. Really, check it out here, and over here on Bilgrimage.

I would laugh about the lesbian conspiracy thing, except I know just how powerful denial is as a defense strategy. When people place too much of themselves in another person they are highly motivated to defend all that energy. That's the trouble with fostering cults of personality, adherents have a tough time accepting any truth which casts their leader in a less than perfect light.

The Vatican has been fostering a cult of personality around the papacy for the last forty years. It's been the primary strategy to curtail the full implementation of Vatican II. Lest we forget, the Legion along with Opus Dei, the Neocats, and other neo conservative groups, were sold to us as the embodiment of the reform of the reform by JPII and now BXVI. Let us also not forget each of these groups were formed around specific personalities who wined and dined with JPII. Birds of a feather.

Maciel is more than just a priest gone bad, he really is the perfect symbol of what's gone wrong with the Church since Vatican II. He is the perfect symbol of the evil of unchecked power vested in one man. No wonder that picture haunts me. It should haunt any Catholic who believes their faith should be grounded in Christ and that the Church is more than a cult of personality.


  1. I agree with your identification of personality cults as a problem in the Church, but not your prescription.

    It would be helpful to become familiar with the criticisms of the cult of personality made by Catholics who identify as traditional. A strong argument can be made that personality cults become more likely as tradition is lost as the cohesive force. This is a significant factor in Neo-Conservative Catholicism: elevation of authority and personality of the leader over principle (tradition). This is why Pope Benedict has made of point of telling us that as Pope, he is the servant of tradition. He is trying to distinguish himself from his immediate predecessors and steer us back to sanity. By the way, the hand slap was unfortunate, but is it really that big a deal?

    So I think that your suggestion that we need to "fully implement" Vatican II is mistaken. Vatican II is reflected in its documents. Period. The "spirit of Vatican II" is a euphemism for your aspirations. They have gone the way of bellbottoms and mood rings, after having done a lot of damage. Including the grasping for poor substitutes for tradition, like personality cults, Opus Dei, Legionaries of Christ, and papolatry.

  2. Timothy, I agree with a great deal of what you have written here, especially the part about Benedict wanting to emphasise tradition over cultic personalities.

    I had thought about making that point myself, but wanted to keep the focus on JPII.

    As to the slap, that was very signigicant because of the context in which it happened. Maciel's situation had definitely gotten on Benedict's nerves as it was totally out of character and he was not a happy camper.

    It wasn't surprising to me that the first couple of things Benedict had the CDF do was sanction both Maciel and another priest from Italy, his name escapes me at the moment, who also had quite the cultic following amongst Fatima fans and also multiple charges of sexual abuse.

    My idea of fully implementing Vatican II is wrapped up in the notions of collegiality and transparency. Not exactly hippy notions those, but very very important from an integrity and credibility standpoint.