Monday, May 22, 2006

my brain hurts...

On Friday, May 19, the press office of the Holy See issued a very brief statement making public the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith's decision regarding Fr. Marcial Maciel.

This statement either means something or it does not.

If it does not, we can pretend it never happened and go about our lives enthusiastically and optimistically as before, unworried that an essential part of all that we are and have been part of for many years - in my case, 2/3 of an existence - may have been tainted and discredited.

If it does, the question that haunts us now is: what does it mean?

Those who have had it in for Fr.Maciel from the beginning seem to have little doubt about the meaning of the Holy See's statement. It means that all the accusations, public and private, made against him were found to be true beyond a reasonable doubt. It means that his accusers are the brave and righteous victims and Fr.Maciel is the deceitful architect of an evil empire masquerading as a religious congregation and apostolic movement. This final indictment has finally and definitively pulled the mask off it all. It means he has been 'stripped of his priesthood' by a Pope who was unable to deny the solid and damning evidence of a case so airtight that we can only shake our heads in wonder that it took so long for judgment to be passed...

The ReGAIN mob, SNAP, Berry, Renner, the NCR and others have it all figured out. They know exactly what the Vatican statement means.

The Exorcist is not so sure.

In all truth, those of us who are convinced of Fr.Maciel's innocence regarding the charges of sexual abuse and violation of the sacrament of reconciliation have tougher issues to grapple with when we try to understand what the statement really means. Perhaps that is why the LC has limited itself to a very succinct official response, saying basically that Fr.Maciel accepts and will comply with the conditions dictated by the Holy See.

The only ones that can afford the luxury of an easy answer are those who were convinced of his guilt to begin with. For them, the intentionally guarded Vatican statement has become the umbrella endorsement of their catalogue of crimes and grievances.

For the rest of us, there's way too much at stake to go the easy route.

To begin with, the issue of Fr.Maciel's guilt or innocence is circumvented both by the wording of the statement and the elimination of the possibility of a canonical process. Nothing is said about the allegations themselves: whether or not any of them were found to be more or less credible, whether the decision of the CDF was ultimately even related to the stories of the 9 ex-LC, etc.

Obviously, the Vatican statement is neither the resounding exoneration nor the ringing endorsement of Fr.Maciel that many of us would have preferred to hear. It is disapproving in tone and discplinary in content and that is extremely concerning.

But the unspecific reference to the accusations at least leaves the window open for admitting a certain complexity in the motives that prompted this decision of the Holy See. It is not a question of splitting hairs. It is the need to understand what the statement really says. And I would venture that things are not as cut and dry as Fr.Maciel's adversaries would have us believe.

The recognition of Fr.Maciel's denial of the publicized accusations and the nod to the merits of the LC and the RC attenuate the tone of the statement. The invitation to refrain from exercising public ministry can be read either as a prudential measure or as lenient a penalty as could be found. The specific affirmation that the Pope has signed on to the decision tells both sides that this thing is over.

But, like I said above, those of us convinced of Fr. Maciel's innocence can hardly turn this into a positive. The media's interest in this business will be short lived. As soon as Britney Spears drops her baby in the toilet or Paris Hilton buys a new poodle this apparently anti-climactic bit of ecclesiastic arcana will pass. But the internal grasp of what has happened and what it means down the road for us LC/RC folks is the real, lingering drama to unfold.

Simply stated, two fundamental tenets of LC/RC life and spirit have been assailed: papal approval and the person of our founder. The questions that arise have confounded the Exorcist. To wit:

1. Why was any statement issued at all? I think pretty much everyone, accusers and believers alike, was resigned to this whole thing going to the grave someday with Fr.Maciel. If this statement is 'proof' that the CDF and the Pope deem him guilty because of 'overwhelming evidence', why not say it clearly and hammer him with the full force of Canon Law? If the CDF statement was brought about by the allegations of things that supposedly happened 50 years ago, how were they suddenly verified? The complaints of those 9 ex-LC have been out there forever. Were there issues unrelated to the old accusations? Is a message, entirely different from the one most assume to be evident, being sent to the LC?

2. How do we, who have always put such high stock in even the most insignificant signs of papal affection or approval - his greeting at an audience, a picture taken with him in Paul VI Hall, a postcard from some papal visit - deal with this low key but undeniable sign of disapproval? The only way we can claim that Fr. Maciel is being persecuted or unjustly treated is to tread the slippery slope of saying that the Pope was pressured into doing something he didn't personally agree with. Even suggesting that Fr.Maciel accepted the CDF's reproval to spare the LC or the church some greater damage is like juggling swords.

Are we to think that the many signs of approval given the LC/RC in public and private by Peter's successors - especially John Paul II - were false or have somehow now been overturned?

How are we supposed to deal with this? Some have suggested that we look to the future when, with history's hindsight, Fr.Maciel's name will be cleared and he will be officially recognized as the great man many of us truly believe he is. That, they say, has been the case with many saints who were vilified in life, but vindicated after death.

I suppose we could sit around and pray for the prompt election of Pope Norbert I and at some stage campaign to turn this thing around, but that does little to help us right now. Perhaps our best - and only - option is to hang our heads, take it on the chin and work twice as hard in our apostolates and service to the church. Our perseverance and dedication are, in the long run, the only way to erase the negative effects of this ordeal and turn it into a plus for the LC/RC.

3. What about the internal image of Fr. Maciel as founder and inspiration of the LC/RC and its spirituality? One can argue, as the CDF statement so painfully observes, that the congregation and the lay movement can be considered and even revered independently of the person of their founder. Anyone who belongs to the LC/RC knows that this kind of mental separation is not only impossible, but flies in the face of everything we've lived and been taught in the Movement since the beginning.

I, personally, feel a great debt of gratitude to Fr.Maciel - not because someone's brainwashed me, but simply because I have received so much. He is venerated in the LC/RC and often allegiance and fidelity to one's vocation are confused with personal loyalty to him. His story is told and retold; the LC/RC history with him at its core has been written and rewritten; he becomes, for all our members, a figure that is larger than life. Critics call it a personality cult. I prefer to think of it as a mix of institutional exuberance, cultural folklore and youthful hype...

For all of this and many other ways in which the person of our founder is inextricably enmeshed in the very fiber of LC/RC life, the CDF statement is an industrial-sized fly in the ointment. What are we supposed to do now? Pretend it doesn't matter? Tell the story up to May 17 2006, then close the book quickly and say "...and they all lived happily ever after"?

Or perhaps we're being challenged to make the act of consumate honesty: to say with our hearts, our words and our continued service to the church that the LC/RC never really was about Fr.Maciel (even in the throes of our over-enthusiasm!). That the congregation and the movement really are 'of Christ' as their names imply. That even the blemishes or eventual failings of everyone from the founder right down to the newest member don't undermine what HE does and will continue to do through us...

Does it mean we have to disown Fr.Maciel as if he had been convicted of some crime?


It means we have to be totally, starkly truthful with ourselves and with everyone else. Things are what they are. And if our congregation and lay movement are truly instruments of evangelization, with us or in spite of us they will continue to grow, to mature in spirit and to do Christ's work.

These are some of the things that have been going through the Exorcist's head of late.
I'm not alone. Not by a long shot. I have been speaking, often into the wee hours, with our people in Italy, Mexico, the US and South America. Most of them have kept their thoughts to themselves, but it doesn't mean they're not thinking, not asking themselves the same questions. I would expect no less of them.