Perhaps the most glaring example of religious hypocrisy and a secret, hidden life, at least within the Catholic Church, is that of the founder of a relatively new religious order, Marcial Maciel and the Legionaries of Christ.
For those who are not Catholic, a religious order is a group of men or women devoted to lead a consecrated, religious life. Some of the more famous and ancient orders would be the Benedictines, Franciscans, or Jesuits, as well as any number of orders devoted to female consecrated life, i.e., nuns. Basically the members take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for their lives in order to better follow their religious calling. These groups may seem a bit strange to many modern observers, but their existence for thousands of years, not only in Christianity but in other religious traditions as well, is a testament to their validity and ongoing relevance.
Newer religious orders in the Catholic Church are always arising, and one of these was the Legionaries of Christ. Founded in 1941 by Maciel, this is an extremely orthodox, or conservative, order within the Church. Loyal to the Pope, to Church teachings, to Church traditions, the Legion set itself up as a bulwark against all the decadence of the modern world, as a bastion of traditional Catholicism amid a decaying civilization. They were considered by many one of the great lights of modern Catholicism in the battle against confusion and heresy. Their founder, Maciel, was favorite of Pope John Paul II, and the Pope even referred to him as “an efficacious guide to youth.” He was an orthodox star within an often troubled and confused post Vatican II church. By the 1990’s the Legion wielded great power and influence within the Church and today it is estimated to be worth around thirty three billion dollars.
However, the man lead a completely double life. In 2004 Maciel was sent into spiritual exile, and told to live a life of prayer and penance by the Vatican. He died in 2008 at age 87. After his death the real facts of his double life came out: he had a long history of child molestation, going back to the 1940’s, fathered a few children himself (one of whom said they abused him) and was also said to be a drug addict. He often used the enormous wealth the Legion acquired to fund his own private trips around the world, usually to visit one mistress or another. Often he would tell them he was a secret agent or a traveling salesman who some other lie. On his deathbed he was said to have completely lost his faith and preferred to be with his daughter and her mother than anyone else. Perhaps at the very end he finally decided to be honest with himself and those around him. Who knows.
What is so bizarre about this man is the extremes of his life: puritanical in public, debauched in private. Why I am mentioning it in this blog is because I think it relates one of my main themes: the struggle between spirituality and sexuality. Here was a man who in public promoted himself as a pious and holy individual, whose followers nearly worshiped him as a living saint, yet in private lead a life of sexual excess, lies and manipulation. Further, I think he is the most extreme example of something much more common and problematical in the Catholic Church: the secret sexual subculture within the mandatory celibacy rule. As most people can figure out, a Church cannot publicly promote one thing among its clergy, namely celibacy, while they are violating that rule in large numbers. The contradictions are too extreme. There can be a tendency towards a kind of sexual puritanism within the Church and this can often lead to maladjusted individuals attaining positions of great power. The recent sexual abuse scandal of the last decade is proof of that. Neither priests, bishops or even cardinals were spared.
I won’t get into the strange nature of the religious order he founded, the Legionaries of Christ, except to say that it has many cult like characteristics and seems to be unhealthy and even dangerous. Why it is not disbanded immediately by the Church baffles my mind. Don’t they understand that you simply cannot allow a religious order founded by a child molester to survive? What are people going to say, “Oh yeah, here is this great and holy religious congregation whose founder raped boys, including perhaps his own children.” Don’t they know how bad this looks for the whole Church? As a Catholic I find it extremely distressing. It seems that most things this man created is tinged with an evil that is far more corrosive than any of the nuttier, fruitier trends that Vatican II produced. Evil under the guise of Catholic orthodoxy is the most dangerous spiritual evil of all. The Legion, with its militaristic, cult like orthodoxy, attracts many naive young men, who then unfortunately later in life realized the damage such an organization inflicted on them. There are currently 800 priests in the order and another 2,600 studying for the priesthood. Their affiliate lay organization, Regnum Christi, has around 75,000 members worldwide. They also run a number of schools and universities worldwide too.
But again, what I find most interesting here is an example of the sexual double lives that so many people lead, not just clergy, but so many people in general. Often this comes out in public, especially for public figures. I often say to myself, why not just be honest? Why not just approach sex in an honest and natural way? As humans we are corporeal creatures. Why must there be this eternal division between sexuality and spirituality. Does it all go back to Saint Paul’s writings on the spirit vs. the flesh and the badness of the flesh vs. the goodness the spirit? Must we take everything so literally and extremely in the Bible. It seems this ancient division leads to more harm than good in people, promoting double lives, lies, guilt and anxiety over sex. I don’t offer any answers here, only questions. But it seems to me a healthy integration of sexuality and spirituality is what is needed; balance, not conflict among two extremes. Is Saint Paul right about everything? He was just a man, was he not? Where do you draw the line between what is considered the word of God and what a man wrote? The Catholic Church, as well as most Christian denominations, says the Bible is the infallible word of God. But what does that mean exactly? Do we take everything literally? What things do we interpret more figuratively? I know these are fairly deep theological questions for which I do not, nor cannot, offer easy answers. But I have to ask the questions.
I am not trying to trash those who feel a legitimate calling to a religious life or to wholly devote themselves to God. There are many good and sincere people in bad organizations, especially bad religious orders. Nor am I criticizing the value of celibacy. Both these things are extremely important elements of Catholicism in particular, and spirituality in general. What I am questioning is the hypocrisy and sexual subculture which exists and which few in the Church seem to want to acknowledge. I think one way of dealing with this honestly is to simply allow priests to marry. And with a clergy shortage, there are many priests who did marry and who would gladly come back to serve, and many men who would be more willing to serve in the Church if this rule were done away with. One interesting thing to note is that in the Eastern Orthodox churches, which are as old as and were once part of the Catholic Church for a thousand years until the Great Schism of 1054, clergy (except Bishops and monks) are allowed to marry and have always done so. And no one questions the deep spiritual traditions of Orthodoxy.
But as far as sex and eroticism, the overall theme of this blog, life offers many example of the strange sexual secrets in the world around us, and I will have plenty more to write on in the future.