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Flourishing religious movements are the best hope for the future of the Church

Many religious communities must rediscover their sense of unity of purpose

By on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, the papal delegate in charge of governing the Legionaries of Christ, leaves after concelebrating a Mass to open the congregation's general chapter in Rome earlier this year (CNS)

Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, the papal delegate in charge of governing the Legionaries of Christ, leaves after concelebrating a Mass to open the congregation's general chapter in Rome earlier this year (CNS)

The recent news that Cardinal Velasio de Paolis has completed his mandate to reform the troubled Legionaries of Christ, while good news, should not be taken as drawing a line under the whole sorry affair of the scandals associated with its founder. The Cardinal is a distinguished canon lawyer, and he had a three year period in which to supervise the drawing up of new rules and constitutions for the Legion and its lay movement, Regnum Christi. It is important to note that the abuses perpetrated by Marcial Maciel were facilitated by a set of constitutions that did not have the necessary safeguards against an overmighty superior. Indeed, if the Legion was a sort of personality cult based on the persona of its founder, that was largely the fault of the Legion’s rules, that should have guarded against that sort of thing. Perhaps they did, and were not properly applied. But if they did not have the proper safeguards, why were those rules approved by the Vatican in the first place?

Now the Legion has a new set of Constitutions, which is important, but what follows is equally important: will the Legionaries, those who have stuck with the order, make these new Constitutions work? That remains to be seen. Let us hope they do. The single best hope for the continuing vitality of the Church in the present age are the various new religious movements. That was why the fall of the Legion was such a catastrophe not just for the Legionaries themselves, but for the whole Church. Just as the period of the Counter-Reformation saw the renewal of the Church spearheaded by new religious movements such as the Jesuits and the other new apostolic orders, so the present age will see renewal come, I feel sure, from the new religious movements.

If the new religious movements provide us with the green shoots of recovery, the old religious orders typify all the problems that the Church today faces. The Second Vatican Council was supposed to usher in a period of renewal in religious life. Instead of renewal, though, we have seen many religious orders of the traditional type decline inexorably towards extinction. You never see a nun on the streets of Britain these days, and the once familiar religious habits are almost a thing of the past. This is not true for all orders, but it is for most.

But the problems in religious life should provide us all with an opportunity for learning something. I have reflected on this, and I have had the experience of 25 years in religious life as well. Religious life has declined almost to the point of disappearance in many parts of the Church for many reasons, the chief of which is a loss of a sense of unity of purpose in religious communities. Once the common mission goes, everything else, very slowly, decays. But part of the decline has been canonical as well: the decrees of the Vatican (such as the document Vita Consecrata) have been dead letters, and many of the rules of the orders have been ignored by their members, especially the superiors.

Marcial Maciel was an astonishingly bad man, both in the way he flouted the law of God, and the rules of religious life. But you do not get away with that without a lot of help from your friends. Lots of other people turned a blind eye to his sins, and lots of other people knew or should have known but chose not to know. Proper supervision was lacking, in addition to the fatal mistake of placing an abuser in a position of power. This has happened on a much smaller scale elsewhere, for the case of Maciel is not unique. There have been lots of little Maciels, and they have done immense damage. Let us hope that Cardinal Velasio de Paolis’s work has lasting value, and that this will be the start of a true cleansing of the Augean stable. This could be a key moment in the renewal of the Church. Let us hope and pray it is so.