History's Greatest Sinner?
by William Cleary
The poor, gifted Mexican priest who founded the Legionnaires of Christ 50+ years ago may end up being a candidate for the greatest sinner in history.
Whoa! What was that?
And I'll say more: perhaps the moral "guidance" of church tradition was his downfall.
Hold it! Full stop! It sounds like two preposterous exaggerations. Explain.
The misguidance, I would say, was religious celibacy thought of as a sacrifice made in imitation of Jesus: except that we really have no evidence of Jesus' celibacy. Scholarship is actually divided but most think he had to be betrothed in childhood as was prevalent at that time. Wives aren't generally mentioned in the Gospels, so Jesus' wouldn't be either..
As for Father Maciel's sins, poor fellow? He took a seminarian to bed with him every night, we are told, (and more than 20 have testified to this 50 years later) then in the morning gave the youngster absolution of the sin – this absolution being a prohibition and sacrilege so heinous in Canon Law that only a bishop can absolve it.
But "greatest sinner in history?"
We have to imagine in poor Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a man of colossal gifts, an angel of imagination, a speaker of power, an heroic man of prayer and a person of exuberant affectivity. Young bed-mates – of any sex -- is a pattern through human history. Humans have seen little harm in it. Except that in Christianity, solemn vows of purity and sexual abstinence were taken by these men – and sworn to before God and the community.
The ordinary spirituality of celibacy makes sex morally neutral in itself: saints can be married or single. But in practice religious celibacy (not just non-marriage) has – according to modern psychologists -- had terrible effects: creating unmanageable, giant-size egos, drawing sexual minorities too heavily into church leadership, suppressing experience of the goodness and richness of coupling and family life, promoting dishonest, double-lives – because most people apparently find sexuality and exchange a crucial part of their spiritual and human existence.
Poor Maciel apparently found himself lacking the insight or wisdom to really understand what celibacy and the sacraments was supposedly about, how it worked. I imagine him as thus really lacking faith – yet he was able to act out the faith as almost no one else.
But our church should not have offered him a celibate way of life at all, I believe. He could have been heroically saintly and devout without it, caring for the poor, deeply faithful to a beloved savior and prophet in Jesus of Nazareth, and honest with everyone.
Alas, the church did not offer him that. Instead, on sand he built a mammoth congregation of men and women, 600 priests to date, 2500 seminarians, many thousands of lay members: wealth, universities and high schools, then ended as a personal friend and lunch-companion to the pope, surrounded and admired by celebrity churchmen and scholars.
I think we should view him as essentially a victim himself, then victimizing others, utterly destroyed in reputation now after 60 years of service. A great sinner? Yes. Think through what he did day after day, night after night, year after year: the sins of weakness, the sins of indulgence, the sins of despair – plus the soul-murder of so many seminarians, perhaps making some of them abusers. In the end dishonestly denying it all to a world that knows better. Likening himself to the suffering Christ with no self-defense, he said recently: "Before God and with total clarity of conscience, I can categorically state that the accusations brought against me are false."
We must ultimately forgive him, but thank God for those faith-filled accusers who held out for 30+ years. Thank God for a courageous new pope who was open to the truth. Thank God for Father Thomas Doyle and all in leadership who are forcing our church to finally be utterly honest about celibacy. By and large it just doesn't work.