I was thinking some time ago about doing a post on the Legionaries of Christ, whom I never put in the list of suggested Catholic religious communities, due to serious concerns regarding them. Occasioned by the Apostolic Visitation just beginning now, this interview with Fr. Thomas Berg, who left the congregation in April 2009, is a fitting occasion to say a few things.
The disordered life of the founder, Fr. Maciel, is not simply something that can be left aside. Some legionaries seem to have hoped that this could be done, that their rule of life, approved by the Church, was not essentially tied to Fr. Maciel, and therefore could be basically just retained. However, the Church's approval of the rule, an approbation of it as a suitable means for living a life of Christian charity, is first, not infallible, and second, the approbation of a rule does not strictly imply that there are not substantive defects in it. And in fact, there seem to be a number of legionary practices criticized over the years (and rightly so, in my opinion) that are not entirely incidental to Fr. Maciel's problems.
One of the most obvious of these is the "vow of charity," a vow not to criticize superiors and to report those who do so. According to the Legionary web page (available at the Internet Archive–page has been taken down from the live web site), the vow covers something that would be obligatory anyway, namely the avoidance of slander. However, the website does not give the actual text of the vow–apparently it is a secret, despite the denial that the vows are secrete. The text of the vow is, apparently "I, (Name), promise and vow never to criticize any act of governance of the superior, nor his person, and to inform the superior if I am aware that anyone has broken this promise." I could be wrong, but it seems to me that this vow is simply invalid, and never truly bound anyone. A vow is "a deliberate and free promise made to God concerning a possible and better good which must be fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion" (Code of Canon Law n. 1191). "Not to criticize" is not simply speaking a better good. If one were to say "imprudently criticize" or "wrongly criticize" than it would be, and such a vow valid. It seems the real purpose of the vow may have been more to protect the reputation of the congregation and of Fr. Maciel than to foster charity among its members. (It could be that Fr. Maciel thought to himself that its purpose was charity–it is a characteristic in many cases that persons who commit such abuse are actually guilty of self-deception as to their true motives in pursuing relationships, maintaining good reputation, etc.)
Fr. Berg mentions four problems: (1) the inability of the legionaries as a body to engage in honest and objective self-critique, an inability "to see and honestly recognize the flaws and errors that so many people outside the Legion are able to see"; this problem is connected with (2) a mistaken understanding and living of religious obedience, an excessive dependence on the superior, and the prohibition of criticizing one's superior. Fr. Berg critiques this as follows:
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.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.
…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.
(3) the continuance of seeking vocations as usual; Fr. Berg's suggests the Legion should call a halt to vocational work during the apostolic visitation, or even longer, until it clears up its critical problems; this is not a easy question, but he may well be right. (4) the deprivation of seminarians of honest information concerning the Legion: "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."
Regarding the last two points I would add my own thought that for a long time the vocational practice of the Legion seemed ordered more to "recruiting" and keeping vocations than to fostering true human development. In this respect it is not surprising if it continues a drive to recruit and keep "vocations."
The biggest question Fr. Berg raises is whether there is a genuine charism in the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, or whether the work of God in the Legion has been only drawing good out of a merely human and fundamentally flawed project. This is indeed a question. As pointed out above, it would be wrong to suppose that there must be a true inspired charism, just because the Church approved the institute. While the guidance of the Spirit guarantees that the Church on the whole and in the long run acts wisely in its approbation of forms of life, individual decisions are not infallible.
Related: see the Legionaries' communiqué of March 25, 2010.