Monday, June 28, 2010

The Legionaries of Christ: How is it That Good Priests Can Come From a Poisoned Seed?

Dawn Eden, over at Headline Bistro, wrote an interesting article, "The Holy Ghost in the Machine: Amidst the Legion Crisis, A Sign of Providence."

I plunged into making a comment after the article, only to find there is a 1500 character limit. My comment was considerably longer. So, I am publishing it here on my blog. The issue I wanted to comment about was, how is it that good priests were indeed able to be formed in the midst of a system that we have now learned had serious flaws, that was established by a man who can now be considered a manipulative, narcissistic sociopath?

I don't claim to have anything near to a full explanation of this. But here are a few thoughts that may at least shed a little light on this enigma. . .

I spent a few years (five) in the Navy. One of the things that is apparent during the experience of boot camp is that some young men are simply not constitutionally able to handle military life. Some of them leave or are weeded out during boot camp. But, there are also some young men who not only can handle military life, but thrive on it. Such men blossom in a disciplined environment of daily physical and mental rigor. The typical military man of this sort is not likely to be very interested in what is going on with the upper echelon leaders. He is simply eager to attack the challenges of the day and glad to be able to go to bed with the knowledge of a job well done, the day's obstacles overcome. Such a man loves the sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps that comes with living and working alongside other men who are eager to go into battle against great obstacles and overcome them--stronger, harder, tougher men in the end. There is something of this, I think, in every man. But some more than others seem made to embrace the masculine call to a life of self-sacrificing hardship in the form of military life. And it's not merely an eagerness for hardship and to do battle against evil--it's about entering a brotherhood, a brotherhood forged and toughened by a kind of shared adversity (and this must include physical adversity) that I'm not sure women quite understand (perhaps they do, though perhaps in a different way than men).

Why do I speak of men who thrive in the military brotherhood in the context of Dawn's article? In my opinion, there is a lot of explanatory light here.

The Legionary formation process was (still is?) presented in a way that calls very strongly to the sort of young man who would thrive under the hardships of military life. If a young man was pious, loved the Catholic faith, loved the Church, and would also be the sort to yearn for that kind of brotherhood forged between men doing battle side-by-side, he would probably find Legionary formation highly attractive.

I went on a Legion vocations weekend myself back in the 90's. And I have to say, I recall thinking to myself that it was very much like boot camp. But, boot camp forming men to fight in the army of Jesus Christ--to do battle, side-by-side, against Satan and his minions. There was a very military-like discipline and the sort of mental and physical rigor that the best American soldiers would love--strict silence, getting up promptly at the same time, showering and getting ready for the day in mere minutes, etc. The strict schedule of prayer, study, physical work, meals, physical play (often soccer) had a very military feel.

Also, consider this against the background of what I understand was a more typical American Catholic seminary life of the 60's, 70's, and into the 80's. Seminarians during that era, at least many of them, lived a rather less-disciplined life than the Legionaries. Physical hardships were not many. It was, as I understand it, in many cases a rather soft, cushy existence. I'm not speaking so much of the rigors of study and prayer, but in other ways (such as general discipline, physical labor, sports, and just a certain masculine vigor and energy of life) seminary life, at least from what I have learned of that era (and I'm sure there were exceptions), would not have been particularly attractive to an energetic, vigorous man of the sort who might have thrived in military life.

Now, what I am speaking of here is a natural attraction many pious young Catholic men would have had to the Legionary life (and I refer here mostly to their formation years because this is what seemed to be emphasized to prospective vocation candidates) simply because of its external form and its apparent camaraderie-forged-in-shared-hardship character. But, a natural attraction and a supernatural calling are not the same. They may overlap and complement each other, but they are not the same.

And, also recalling my military days, it is amazing what a merely natural disposition for military life can do to prepare for bringing forth certain natural virtues in those who become professional military men. I have had the privilege of witnessing men who had developed incredible abilities of leadership, courage, and physical and mental toughness through their military training and experience.

Place the same sort of man, who also loves Christ and His Church, in the Legionary formation of the past, and regardless of the bad seed at the top echelons, he might similarly succeed in developing at least some of the same kinds of natural virtues as a good soldier. Now, if this be a man of real and genuine faith, and eager to pray, you still have the potential for producing a priest of many fine and admirable virtues. After all, there is no lack of examples of Saints who had far less than ideal formative circumstances. The daily reception of the Eucharist, a deep prayer life, and frequent reading of Scripture, can shield a person from a lot. And I think for a man, that very yearning for a special brotherhood that can only be forged in shared struggle might have played a role in his not noticing the serious problems in regard to individual freedom of will and liberty of conscience that have since come to light as serious issues in Legionary formation.

Grace transforms nature. If there is a lot there on the level of at least some natural virtues (even though seriously lacking in important ways), there is much there to be transformed by grace, even as there still remain serious holes.


  1. Scott, thanks for a thoughtful post - I think you make an excellent point. The "militaristic" gung-ho approach fostered by Maciel was what attracted and motivated so many Legionaries in my time. Indeed, the camaraderie, the sense of brothers fighting together for the Church was what gave the Legion its distinctive flavor. As you point out, that "flavor" was not to be found in most other seminaries (particularly diocesan) of the 1960's. A corollary of this is that it is a little too simplistic to suppose that (a majority of) Legionary priests could transition to diocesan work in the face of the current debacle. While it is true that there are serious deficits in Legionaries understanding of the vow of obedience and emotional maturity, I think some commentators on the Legionary phenomenon overestimate the theological and spiritual preparedness of both diocesan clergy and some other religious congregations. I am with you - the Legion can still be transformed by grace. But the all important step is for the congregation to admit, to themselves, the radical nature of the required change. Despite the camaraderie, each Legionary is an island - mostly unaware of what his brothers really feel and think, very much out of touch with external perceptions. This is a major obstacle. Anyway, the topic is endlessly fascinating and challenging - I've written a much longer version of this comment in my memoir about my life in the Legion. It's called "Driving Straight on Crooked Lines: How an Irishman found his heart and nearly lost his mind." You have struck a fertile point about why the Legion was attractive too young men. I hope you pursue the theme using your experience of the military.

  2. Eye on the Legion7/1/10, 10:19 PM

    You add something of value to the debate, and make a good distinction between natural attractions and supernatural additions. I would like to take your military analogy a step further. The meaning of my parabol will be obvious.

    A young man inherits the throne of a small city-state in a nation of many city-states, and this duke, wanting to be fondly remembered in the history books of the nation, decides he must make his city great. For that, he decides that he needs a GREAT army; unfortunately, he had no military experience. Nonetheless, he has had some superficial contact with military life. So this duke calls out patriotic youth from throughout the surrounding region, and promises them that if they join his army, they will become great soldiers who will make the nation great. The duke himself will be their drill sergeant. As you can guess, the life of the recruits is very difficult, but their hope for greatness propels them on. On parade days, the army looks great in their uniforms. Neighboring cities take notice, some being nervous of his saber rattling, others desiring to make alliances. Some complain that he is taking their youth from their farms, others that he is taking youths from the armies of their own cities. But with a barbaric horde threating the borders of the region, many in the region are glad for the disciplines army this duke has assembled.

    Needless to say, when the barbarians surge across the regions border, the duke's great army is slaughtered, for despite all their discipline, they had no one to instruct them in the martial arts.


Thank you for civil and well-considered comments!