February 23, 2009
One of the big stories in Catholic circles is the dying gasp of any effort to resuscitate the legacy of Fr. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ and its lay affiliate, Regnum Christi. There’s been bad news about Maciel for many years, but the recent revelation has crossed the tipping point.
We now hear that Fr. Maciel had a mistress with whom he fathered a child, probably did some hanky panky with the finances, and created a culture in his cult-like world where he could cover his double life under a cloak of phony baloney piety. None of this is as bad as the stuff be did back in the seminary, which (against loads of evidence) Legion apologists sometimes dismiss.
The unique thing about the recent news is that the Legion admits to it. They were fooled by their beloved founder, and this has caused a crisis in the Legion and RC, and has raised questions about the future of those organizations.
They’ve quit defending Maciel, and some Legionary priests have been decent enough to apologize for the fact that they’ve been defending this creep and attacking his (now justified) accusers.
And did they ever defend him!
Those of us who believed the accusations against Fr. Maciel were scolded and lectured in self-righteous tones from on high, with brows furrowed in anger and the accusing finger wagging. We were told that Fr. Maciel was being persecuted by people who hated the church, but he, saintly fellow, was taking it all in stride, bearing it like Jesus, glad to be a martyr and take his part in the sufferings of Christ.
Disgusting? Words fail. But people fell for it.
And that raises a lot of questions that are far more serious than Fr. Maciel or the future of the Legion.
Specifically, what does this story tell us about movements, leaders, followers, charlatans, con artists and enablers of various sorts, and how does that affect our reckoning of the history of the church and the evidences for Christianity? How were so many people, including Pope John Paul II, fooled by this guy?
This is not an idle question for Christians, for although it’s certainly true that Fr. Maciel’s sins say nothing directly about the truth of Christianity, they have indirect but important implications for Christian apologetic and epistemology, and I think these implications haven’t been seriously addressed.
Most Christian apologists will deal with the Fr. Maciel genre of story along familiar lines.
“We’ve always known that Christians are sinners.”
“Peter denied Christ — this is nothing new.”
“Remember that Judas was one of the apostles.”
The point being that the sinfulness of the messengers doesn’t affect the truth of the message.
Well … maybe.
This kind of response boils down to what I call the “this is no worse than” defense. If someone is scandalized by the mediocrity of the bishops, he’s reminded that the apostles weren’t the brightest bulbs either. And if someone else expresses concerns about divisions among churches, he’s reminded of divisions in the New Testament church. And on it goes in a familiar refrain. The pattern goes like this — the modern problem is “no worse than” problems in the early church, so don’t worry about it.
The defense says “you accept B, and A is no worse than B, so you should accept A.” The obvious problem with that defense is that it assumes you’re completely sure of B.
In other words, this defense works re: Maciel and other issues for people who are unwilling to entertain second thoughts about the foundations of Christianity. “After all,” they think, “if I’m willing to accept that Jesus founded the church on the dimwitted apostles, why am I complaining about the modern bishops? And if I’m willing to accept Peter’s sin, and Judas’ treachery, and all these other things, why should I be worried about Maciel?”
But for many people — maybe for most people — the progressive effect of the “no worse than” defense is not to pacify concerns about the modern problem, but to raise concerns about the foundations of Christianity!
If Maciel was able to deceive the pope, 800 “holy priests,” 1300 seminarians and 70,000 devoted laymen (according to the figures often quoted) doesn’t that raise a much larger issue? Doesn’t that prove that charlatans and impostors can win a devoted and devout following? Doesn’t it prove that the testimony of believers — even exemplary, orthodox, serious and committed believers — isn’t always worthy of belief?
Of course it does. But — now stop and think — what other pieces of Christian epistemology rely on this very same sort of reasoning?
For example, on what basis was the Revelation of St. John included in the canon of Scripture? On the testimony of believers. In fact, the history of those who gave us the New Testament and who formed the basics of the accepted faith and practice of the church relied heavily on this whole “deference to the witness of holy authority” business.
Did the church fathers — with no Internet, no free press, no investigative journalists — know more about their heroes than Pope John Paul II and the Vatican knew about the living, breathing Maciel? Doesn’t it seem that the church fathers were more likely to be deceived than a modern investigator? And doesn’t that turn the “no worse than” argument completely on its head — into a “no better than” argument?
We might construct this axiom:
The ability of the early church to detect fraud in charismatic leaders is certainly no better than the ability of modern people, which pretty much stinks.
Of course the truth about Maciel did come out. He wasn’t canonized. The future of the cult he founded is in doubt. So someone could just as well take the Fr. Maciel episode as a vindication of the church. Jesus promised to guide the church into all truth, someone might say, and here’s an example. But such a conclusion wouldn’t be based on the actual facts of the case, but on a confidence that transcends the case.
Furthermore, Christian apologetic uses testimony as a witness to various kinds of things, and they’re not all the same. Sometimes testimony refers to facts (the resurrection), to beliefs (the deity of Christ), to the sanctity of objects (relics, Scripture, etc.), or to the sanctity of persons (saints). The Maciel story only affects that last category, and that’s why the canonization process has careful rules, a “devil’s advocate,” and so forth.
So it’s not as if Maciel single-handedly destroys the evidential basis of the Christian religion. It’s certainly possible to look at this story from different angles and to draw different conclusions.
But shouldn’t the fact that Fr. Maciel was able to deceive a very large number of committed, serious, orthodox Christians — including the pope, for heaven’s sake — put a big “maybe” next to so-called evidence from the testimony of believers?
Yes, it should.
One other point has to be made about Maciel and the impact of his story on evidence for the Christian faith.
Many Maciel supporters deflected accusations against their hero by pointing to all the great work that he did. It seems to me that much of that “great work” amounted to self promotion and collecting followers who worshiped the soles of his shoes, but, to be fair, he did found an organization that did some good things. Because of this, and partly because of the force of his personality, I suppose, some important people were very impressed with his piety and alleged spiritual gifts.
Now, after the Maciel story has sent the church into a tizzy, we should know (if we didn’t know it already) that seemingly great spiritual works can be accomplished by complete frauds.
Again, this is nothing new. Christians have long debated whether Judas was able to cast out demons and heal the sick along with the rest of the apostles, so the challenge of the wolf in sheep’s clothing has been with us for a long time.
However, let’s not brush this aside too hastily. There have been times in church history where the line between Orthodoxy and heresy came down to one or two forceful personalities. Athanasius comes to mind.
If a manifest fraud like Macial was able to deceive so many people into an almost ecstatic enthusiasm about his person, work, zeal, mission, dedication, orthodoxy, and — I really love this one — “charisms,” how can we be so sure about men of the past, to whom most of our access is through the writings of devoted followers?
What would have happened if the Legion had been successful in their efforts to silence every critic? Can anyone doubt that faithful Catholics 100 years hence would be reading about the Great (if not Saint) Father Maciel?
I’m pushing this argument a bit to make a point, and the point is this.
Christianity was spread by personal testimony. There was no Wall Street Journal or — God forbid — New York Times to verify the information. People believed the Christian testimony because they respected the lifestyle of the people they heard it from.
This is an important equation that lies at the root and foundation of Christianity — i.e., the fact that you live a decent life makes me want to believe what you say about God.
This equation was fundamental to the people who defended Maciel. And that’s the problem.
That equation has been shown to be unreliable. No, not for the first time. Of course not. But how quickly we forget!
And when you hear the apologist say “this is nothing new” and “sure, we’ve known about this all along,” ask yourself this — why did Maciel’s admirers — including the pope! — fall for it?
That is the true significance of the Maciel story.