Spring 2009, Vol. 12, No. 1

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Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Our Excellent ARIS Adventure

The Madoff Disgrace

Keeping the Faith-Based

Dolan Does Gotham

No Friends on the Right

A Buddhist Bishop in the UP

Breaking Up Is Hard to Adjudicate

Praise God and Pass the Diapers

Haggard Agonistes


New books

No Friends on the Right
by Andrew Walsh

Sometimes, as Pope Benedict XVI discovered over the winter, your friends can cause you more trouble than your enemies. From late January through the middle of March, the pope suffered a siege of public embarrassments that left him apologizing and many of his friends publicly debating whether the Vatican bureaucracy is actively incompetent or merely maladroit.

All three damaging stories that bedeviled Benedict called into question the way he and his predecessor have sought to revitalize the Catholic church by channeling it in a more conservative direction.

The two popes focused on rebuilding the episcopacy by appointing more “orthodox” bishops who were loyal to Rome. They also offered preferment to a cluster of active and growing traditionalist organizations and religious orders, hoping that their dynamism and fidelity to traditional Catholicism would serve to leaven the lump of lukewarm Catholicism, especially in Europe.

In the first, and loudest, of the year’s explosions, the pope’s attempts to reconcile an ultra-traditionalist schismatic group misfired on January 21 when one of the four bishops whose excommunication was lifted by Benedict was immediately revealed to be a fairly notorious anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. The second involved the failed appointment of an unpopular conservative as an auxiliary bishop in Austria.

The third was the lurid meltdown of the Legion of Christ, a conservative religious order much favored by both John Paul and Benedict. The order admitted in early February that its revered and controversial founder, the late Rev. Marcial Maciel, had lived “a double life” and had fathered at least one child.

The Vatican spent much of Feb-ruary and March in fumbling efforts at damage control, especially in attempts to deal with Jewish outrage and the irritation of moderate and liberal Catholics. The reaction of the press and of bloggers to the series of scandals was profoundly critical. “In Scandals Swirling Over the Vatican, Questions of Where the Pope’s Focus Lies,” a New York Times headline snapped on February 17.

“Close on the heels of the pope’s rehabilitation of a group of schismatic bishops, including one who denied the Holocaust, a second scandal has compounded a debate within the church over whether Pope Benedict XVI’s focus on doctrine and his perceived insensitivity to political tone are alienating mainstream Catholics and undermining the church’s moral authority,” the Times’ Rachel Donadio wrote.

The first crisis began almost as soon as the Vatican announced Benedict’s decision to lift the excommunication imposed in 1988 on four men who had been consecrated as bishops without the pope’s permission by rebel Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Lefebvre, who died in 1991, was the founder of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), which broke from Rome over the liturgical and theological reforms of the Second Vatican Council and which has some strength especially in France and Brazil.

Reaction came first from Sweden, where one of the four bishops, Richard Williamson, had given a November television interview in which he expressed skepticism about the reality of the Holocaust.

“Pope Benedict XVI has now moved the Roman Catholic Church to the right in order to accommodate and rehabiliate [the Lefebvrists],” exulted professional atheist Christopher Hitchens in Newsweek on February 9. Williamson, Hitchens noted, rejected the pope’s own oft-repeated teaching on the horror of the Holocaust and “furthermore, suspects the Bush administration of having orchestrated the events of September 11, 2001, in order to afford itself a pretext for war.”

Global reaction made it clear that lots of people, ranging from former seminarians to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, knew about Williamson and his anti-Semitic views. On February 20, the Boston Globe’s Michael Paulson quoted a student of Williamson’s during the 1980s at a seminary operated by the Society of St. Pius X in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

“I have a sizeable nose and he would say to me, ‘Rizzo, are you baptized or are you a Jew?’” the Rev. John Rizzo told Paulson. “There was another seminarian named Oppenheimer, and he would say, ‘Oppenheimer, I don’t like your name. If you keep it up, there’s a gas chamber waiting for you at the boathouse.’” Both men eventually left the Society of St. Pius X and now serve in orders loyal to Rome.

Rome’s first reaction to the news about Williamson was silence. This didn’t sell well with the press. “Display of papal fallibility,” thundered the headline on a Los Angeles Times editorial January 28. “The Vatican’s tin ear is troubling,” echoed the February 6 Chicago Sun-Times.

After more than a week of silence, Benedict issued a statement decrying anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, and saying he had no idea that Williamson had been traveling the globe making anti-Semitic statements. The Vatican then demanded that Williamson issue a retraction. Williamson was removed from his current post of rector of a seminary in Argentina and issued a brief apology, which the Vatican had to say was not good enough.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkle, whose nation actively prosecutes Holocaust deniers, issued a sharp call for clarification from the Vatican. And 50 Catholic members of the U.S. Congress complained jointly to the Vatican about the dangers of rehabilitating anti-Semites.

Many of Benedict’s American friends were publicly furious with the Vatican bureaucracy. In early February, Catholic scholar George Weigel used his blog in First Things to criticize the Curia for its “chaos, confusion, and incompetence.”

The pope and his senior advisers were apparently unaware that Williamson was a Holocaust denier, even though “bloggers and Internet literates from the Antipodes to Zimbabwe had the full, nasty truth,” Weigel wrote in the April issue of the British magazine Standing Point. “The entire Lefebvrist mess was preventable: if the pope had insisted throughout his pontificate on competence and taken forceful measures to rectify incompetence.”

Likewise, the salty Catholic journalist Philip Lawler laid into the Vatican bureaucracy in a March 2 column in USA Today: Because of the Curia’s cult of secrecy and incompetence, it had utterly failed to quickly explain the reasons why Benedict had lifted the excommunication on the SSPX bishops—as one small step in a lengthy process of luring the small dissident group back into the bosom of Rome, and not as a conclusive act of reunion with Rome.

“Neither Williamson’s original excommunication in 1988 nor the pope’s decision to revoke it, were related in any way to his extreme political views,” Lawler wrote. “Under the canon law that governs the church affairs, excommunication is a rare disciplinary action, used only for specific offenses (such as, as in this case, ordaining a bishop without approval from the Holy See). The church does not formally excommunicate members for their political views, even when those views are repugnant to Catholic teachers, as for example, in the case of Catholic politicians who favor unrestricted legal abortion.”

It took the Penn State historian Philip Jenkins, usually a fan of conservative Christian movements, to explain the limitations of that defense.

“Benedict and his associates simply misjudged the degree of extremism and manic conspiracy theory circulating in the SSPX,” Jenkins wrote in a Foreign Policy blog February 4. “The sect’s eccentricity went further than simply holding quirky or reactionary views. Lefebvre and his immediate circle reacted radically and fundamentally to the Vatican’s 1960s reformism. Theirs was not simply suspicion of modern decadence, but rather a fundamental belief in the evil forces subverting the modern world—which included the Jews.”

Ultimately, Jenkins continued, the curia couldn’t take the entire rap. “Pope Benedict erred in seeing the Lefebvrists as simple traditionalists or reactionaries whose views slotted into the right wing of the acceptable European political spectrum. Some, at least, were far more extreme, and the Vatican’s attempted embrace of them will probably cause lasting damage both inside the church, and in relations with other faiths.”

The second wave of the crisis hit at the end of February, when Austria exploded over the appointment of a conservative priest as auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Linz. The Rev. Gerhard Maria Wagner was noted for having blamed residents of New Orleans for causing Hurricane Katrina because of their tolerance of sexual immorality. He had also described Harry Potter as “a work of Satanism.” 

The Vatican spurned consultation with Austrian church leaders before the appointment. In the wake of the Williamson controversy, the Austrian church was deluged with criticism while the priests of the Linz diocese voted to oppose Wagner’s consecration—a borderline act of rebellion.

After a meeting of the nation’s bishops to discuss the crisis, their leader, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna—one of Benedict’s key allies—had to “call for understanding in the wake of a turbulent period,” reported Austria Today on March 13. “Many people find it impossible to understand recent decisions by the Vatican, which have made some of them angry,”Schoenborn said. “I understand their reaction.” Amidst the uproar, Wagner asked to withdraw his nomination.

Writing in rueful tone to his bishops, Benedict admitted again on March 14, that the Vatican had not been as well informed as it should have been. “I have been told that consulting the information available on the Internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on,” Benedict was quoted by Rachel Donadio in the March 15 New York Times. “I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news.”

The third controversy opened on February 3, when the Legionaries of Christ chose the middle of the Williamson controversy to release their own bad news. “Catholic Order Jolted  by Reports that its founder led a double life,” the New York Times headlined its story on February 4.

Reporter Laurie Goodstein quoted the order’s American spokesman Jim Fair as confirming that “[w]e have learned some things about our founder’s life that are surprising and difficult for us to understand. We can confirm that there are some aspects of his life that were not appropriate for a Catholic priest.”

An internal investigation had uncovered evidence that the founder, Marcial Maciel, had fathered a daughter, now 22, at about the same time that he was emerging publicly as a friend of Pope John Paul II and the ultraconservative order was achieving a public reputation for vitality and growth that contrasted sharply with the declining membership of most Catholic religious orders.

Under John Paul, the Legion and Regnum Christi, its affiliated lay movement, were singled out with a handful of other groups—most notably Opus Dei, the Italian movement Foccolare, and the Spanish Neocatecumenate—for special praise and institutional preferment. The Legion, founded in Mexico in the 1940s, grew rapidly under Maciel, a gifted fundraiser and organizer who built an organization that included a global network of schools, seminaries, institutes, and other Catholic institutions funded by an annual budget of more than $650 million.

Inside the order, Maciel was called “Nuestro Padre” and treated with utmost reverence. And, like the founder of most religious orders, his ideas and sense of mission shaped the identity of the order.

“Father Maciel was this mythical hero who was put on a pedestal and had all the answers,” the Rev. Stephen Fichter, a member of the order for 14 years who left it to become a diocesan priest in New Jersey, told Goodstein. “When you become a Legionary, you have to read every letter Father Maciel ever wrote, like 15 or 16 volumes.”

The news that Legion leaders had concluded that their founder had led a double life created a profound crisis among his followers, but it was hardly the first controversy weathered by the order. Since 1997, Maciel and the Legion had been dealing with charges that Maciel had sexually abused seminarians over the course of several decades, first reported in the Hartford Courant by Gerald Renner and Jason Berry.

The order responded vigorously, denying the charges and attacking those who questioned Maciel and the order. Prominent Catholics were enlisted to defend Maciel, including William Bennett, the Rev. Richard Neuhaus, and Mary Ann Glendon. But in 2005, Maciel retired as head of the order and the next year the Vatican announced the imposition of disciplinary measures that required him to withdraw from any form of public activity.

The National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen reported then that complaints about sexual misconduct by Maciel had been received from “more than 20 and less than 100” accusers and that there were also complaints of financial irregularities lodged against him. The Vatican’s public communiqué declared that no canonical trial would take place because of his advanced age and delicate health. While the communiqué invited Maciel to follow a “reserved life of penitence and prayer,” it praised the Legion and Regnum Christi and made no mention of the victims.

For its part, the Legion made no apology of any sort: “Father Maciel, with the spirit of obedience to the church that has always characterized him, has accepted this communiqué with faith, complete serenity, and tranquility of conscience….Following the example of Christ, he decided not to defend himself in any way.”

In effect, the order denied the accusations. All the more powerful, then, was the impact of this year’s revelation that Maciel had fathered a child in his 60s. A letter from a prominent Legionary to members of Regnum Christ burned up the web in early February: “I know personally that so many of our priests, section directors, have been working for hours on end, working with groups of Regnum Christi, first to break the horrible news and then to accompany them, often themselves reduced to the point of tears,” the Rev. Thomas Berg wrote in a letter eventually posted on the American Papist blog on February 10.

“I understand your feelings of betrayal. For twenty-three years I have loved and tried to follow Christ in the Legion. I can say before God, in spite of my many human failings, I have been faithful. I have also, more than many of you, to be honest, gone out on limb after limb, trying to defend Maciel,” Berg wrote.

“You feel betrayed? You feel rage? I can only say that the rage and raw emotions that I have felt over the past days (the hardest days of my entire life, emotions like I have never experienced) are only glimpses of the unspeakable hell that victims of priest abuse must go through.”

Berg’s letter caused a sensation on the conservative Catholic blogs—not least because he forthrightly criticized his superior’s handling of the Maciel crisis—this in an order that had required members to take a vow never to criticize a superior until the Vatican struck it down in 2007.

Berg apologized for the “disastrous response” given by the Legion’s leaders. “The thing I am most pained about—I share this as a brother—is the near absence of but fleeting suggestions of sorrow, and of apologizing for the harm done, both to alleged victims of Maciel and, frankly, to all of you.”

On May 7, the Catholic News Agency reported that Berg had left the order to become a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

Outside the Legion, prominent American Catholics—almost all of them conservatives, called for a careful examination of whether the Legion could be saved or had to be dismantled.

“It can only be saved if there is full, public disclosure of Fr. Maciel’s perfidies and if there is a root and branch examination of possible complicity in these perfidies within the Legion of Christ,” George Weigel wrote in a blog on First Things on February 9. “That examination must be combined with a brutally frank analysis of the moral and institutional analysis of the institutional culture in which these perfidies and complicities unfolded.”

The Rev. Raymond L. DeSouza, long a staff member of the Legion-owned National Catholic Register, followed with another First Things blog on February 16, calling on the Register to cover the scandal fully and openly, and not omitting its own previous false defenses of Maciel.

Ignorance of the founder’s conduct did not, DeSouza wrote, let the newspaper off the hook because “it chose not to pursue the truth with any vigor. Even to this date, it has never reported the full extent of the accusations against Fr. Maciel. Worse still it published what was false….In November 2001, Fr. [Owen] Kearns [the Register’s publisher] wrote a substantial defense of Fr. Maciel, questioning the professional integrity of the reporters who wrote the original stories and the honesty of Fr. Maciel’s victims. Those words must now be retracted.”

For Catholic insiders, the great question was whether the order could stand when its founder was revealed as a fraud. At issue was the Legion’s distinctive mission or charism, as it is called in Catholic institutional language.

A few, like blogger Austin Ruse of The Thing, held out that the Legion could and should continue: “There are souls in Heaven because of the charism of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi. This means there are souls in Heaven because of the spiritual insights and writings of the Legion’s founder Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado. The participation these saints in the beatific vision will not be revoked because of his repugnant and hypocritical behavior.”

Others were less confident. Weigel called for a formal Vatican investigation by a skilled investigator responsible to the pope alone. A Vatican investigation, called a visitation, was announced by the Catholic News Service on March 31.

That seemed likely to suit at least the American bishops, many of who have struggled with the Legion. At least six American bishops already forbid the Legion to work in their dioceses, and a seventh, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore, came to the threshold of a similar decision last summer before Vatican officials asked him to negotiate with the order.

At the end of February, O’Brien, a prominent conservative, began making public statements expressing grave reservations about the Legion. From Rome, he told his diocesan newspaper that he had told the leader of the order that he could not in good conscience “recommend that anyone join the Legion or Regnum Christi: “It seems to me and many others that this man was an entrepreneurial genius who, by systematic deception and duplicity, used our faith to manipulate others for his own selfish ends.”

All three of these cases illustrate the perils of attempting to “re-establish orthodoxy” in a church where the majority of members are reconciled happily to most aspects of the modern world. When you start preferring traditionalists, it’s hard to keep out the nuts.


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