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Can good come of evil? - The case of Father Marcial Maciel

Published:Sunday | March 20, 2016 | 3:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
Father Marcial Maciel
Members of the Legionaries of Christ in prayer.
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Oftentimes, we hear the expression, "an apple doesn't fall far from the tree," or "a chip off the old block". These are proverbial ways of saying the product always has a likeness in form and substance to its producer.

But we cannot always reduce life to set formulas. If only life was so simple. Theologians and philosophers have wrestled with the question: Can good come out of evil? And it is a subject that still haunts the Legionaries of Christ, a magnetic and powerful Roman Catholic Order.

Founded by Father Marcial Maciel, the group has reversed the trend of religious apathy and a shrinking priesthood.

Maciel proved the consummate strategist, galvanising, energising college students in faith and morality, turning young intellectuals into priests - Legionaries of Christ.

By 2008, the Order boasted some 2,500 priests and a lay order (Regnum Christi) of close to 40,000 faithful in 30 countries. With schools and universities, and a budget in the hundreds of millions of US dollars, Maciel wielded overwhelming power and influence beyond the parameters of the Order he created.

 

MACIEL'S EXCESS

 

But rumours soon began to swirl of Maciel's excesses. There were allegations of paedophilia and a cult-like control he had over members. And there was talk of graft and malfeasance. But he was shielded and the complaints fell on deaf ears.

His Order dismissed the allegations and defended their leader with unswerving fervour.

But the loss of Maciel's protector in the Vatican due to illness and later death exposed the depth and incredulity of his sins.

He used four aliases to mask his double life, sexually molested his biological son born from one of the secret relationships with multiple women; owned private apartments in several countries to facilitate his multiple lives; and channelled money to personal accounts.

Pope Benedict XVI, who banished Maciel to a life of prayer and penitence, opting against a Canonical Tribunal, described him as a man "out of moral bounds", and having lived "a wasted, twisted life".

With his hagiographic stature crumbling before their eyes, his loyal follows were unable to defend the indefensible. They painfully admitted to his crimes, denouncing "the magnitude of the evil", and their "deep sorrow for the abuse of minor seminarians, the immoral acts with men and women who were adults, and the arbitrary use of his authority and material goods".

The Legionaries of Christ was thrown into a tailspin as 40 per cent of its priests fled while its lay branch saw a sharp drop in membership. Many called for the Order to be disbanded.

 

NEW CONSTITUTION

 

Eight years have passed since this tragedy. There is now a new constitution and restructuring continues. Still, the wounds are slow to heal.

While in Rome recently, I spoke to some of its priests and participated in an evening of prayer and reflection at its Eucharist gathering, a solemn hour of silence punctuated with hymnal tones that rippled through a contemporary chapel. Hundreds gathered - novitiates, postulants, and seasoned priests.

The selfless work undertaken by these priests and volunteers of Regnum Christi is exemplary and best encapsulated by a member of the lay order: "All that work, all that blood, sweat and tears, waking up in the middle of the night ... I changed that one life, and if that's all I did, it was completely worth it."

"In precepts 12 and 13 of St Thomas Aquinas' 16 precepts of acquiring knowledge, we contemplate on the following: 'Never mind from whom the lesson drops, (and) Commit to memory whatever useful advice may be uttered'."

Here the wisdom of St Aquinas cannot be challenged. A message of light conveyed by an evil instrument remains innately incorruptible. Yes, the one-time followers of Maciel spoke with humility, their yearning to uphold Christian values were evident. I have no reason to doubt what I experienced.

However, a problem, an evil emerges when we view a message as inseparable from the messenger. In other words, believing that someone who preaches goodness and compassion must possess these attributes. The blurring of these lines takes away our ability to reason and discern.

We erroneously see ministers, gurus, priests, pundits, imams, and spiritual advisers as the embodiment of what they preach, and oftentimes we are hurt, confused and bewildered when they fall short.

We defend their innocence because if they fall, we fall with them. And the members of the Legionaries of Christ paid a hefty price for surrendering their identity to its founder.

Interestingly, no one bothered to question the shady, grey past of Maciel, twice banished from seminaries as a young man in Mexico. Why?

 

GOD'S ROLE

 

Equally troubling was the priests' reflection of God's supposed role in this tragic turn of events. But why inject God into this narrative?

As I listened, I couldn't help but recall Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics that examines volition and choice. It reads: "Ethical virtue is a habit disposed towards action by deliberate choice ... and defined by reason as a prudent man would define it."

And in the same vein, free will and choice are at the root of detestable acts such as maliciousness, adultery, theft and murder.

Never did Maciel employ the philosophical, theological or psychotherapeutic tools available to him. He made a choice. God didn't.

Painful lessons are instructive, no doubt. We are cleansed, potentially becoming wiser and more experienced. But to view God as a puppeteer, using defected instruments, such as Maciel to teach us lessons, makes little room for our natural faculty of reason. We make our reality, for good or bad. Period.

n Dr Glenville Ashby is the author of 'Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend' and 'Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity', available at Amazon. Email feedback to glenvilleashby@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby