A crisis of faith for Mexico, A crisis of confidence for Benedict XVI


The success of Dan Brown’s DA VINCI CODE and the subsequent film version of the novel focused a great deal of public attention on the enigmatic Roman Catholic organization called Opus Dei.  Composed of both clerical and lay components and somewhat secretive with regard to its activities, popular imagination tended to seize on the movement’s more sensational aspects, such as its tendency to mix conservative politics with conservative dogma and some of its adherents’ zeal for  self-mortification.

Not nearly so well known but equally dedicated in its obedience to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is the Legion of Christ and its lay auxiliary, the Regnum Christi. Laying claim to more than 600 priests and 2,500 seminarians world-wide, the Legion of Christ was founded in Mexico City in 1944 by Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, a native of Michoacan who died last year in Houston, Texas. 

Members of the Legion of Christ take vows of obedience, chastity and poverty and further pledge to refrain from any criticism of the group’s superiors.  In its public proclamations, the Legion refers to its three loves: love for Christ, love for the Virgin Mary and love for the Pope.

In its mission-statement, the Legion presents itself as dedicated to working with the poor of the Latin American 3rd World.  However, it is probably better known for its educational pursuits, and particularly those associated with its exclusive boarding schools and institutions of higher education, such as Anahuac University in Mexico City. The order, mainly through its educational institutions, recruits boys as young as 10 years of age to begin studying for the priesthood.

Especially close to the late Pope John Paul II, the Legion founder was seen as a strong advocate of papal power and as an articulate defender of the unapologetic conservatism that marked Roman Catholic theology during the reign of John Paul.  Confirmation of Father Marcial’s status was seen in his accompanying the late pope on the three visits that he made to Mexico during his papacy.

Despite its remarkable growth, the Legion of Christ has suffered from allegations of former seminarians and Regnum Christi affiliates that irregular behavior was the norm for the cleric who led the order for more than 40 years. Especially troubling was a public admission last month by the Legion of Christ that its founder had engaged in an illicit affair and had fathered a child out of wedlock. This disclosure by the order itself seemed to give credence to the many accusations that pursued Father Marcial throughout his ecclesiastical career.

During an early posting in Rome, it was generally known that Father Marcial was addicted to pain-killing drugs, and that seminarians frequently were sent to procure medications for the founder from nuns serving in church-run hospitals. Then, in the 1990’s, 9 men came forward to charge that Father Marcial sexually abused them while they were students or seminarians in Spain and Italy.  8 of the accusers were professionally successful Mexicans or Mexican-Americans.  The 9th was a Spaniard and former Legionary priest and university president who, in a death-bed statement in 1995, accused the order’s leader of abusing him when he was a youngster.

Having previously failed in efforts to take their allegations through church channels during the 1960’s and 1970’s, the 9 making the complaints claimed that they had no further recourse except to go public.  They maintained that from the 1940’s to the 1960’s, Father Marcial had sexually abused more than 30 boys, and that he rationalized his behavior by saying that it was approved by Pope Pius XII as a form of pain relief.

As related by the accusers, their experience in the Legion was marked by mind-control, with every minute of their lives having to be scrutinized.  All telephone calls to the outside world were monitored, and contact with their families was minimized.

The disclosures of the 9 implied that, because of the close relationship between Marcial and the Papacy, their allegations were not sufficiently investigated.  However by 2004, near the end of the papacy of John Paul II, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), who headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reopened an examination of the allegations; and, subsequently, Father Marcial announced that he was stepping down from his leadership position in the order.  By May of 2006, Ratzinger, who had been elected Pope Benedict XVI, instructed Father Marcial to relinquish his ministry and retire to a life of prayer and atonement, thus sparing the then 86-year-old cleric an ecclesiastical trial.

Worthy of note is that the young Father Joseph Ratzinger served as a key theological adviser to liberal cardinals during the Second Vatican Council.  Now, in a time of strong challenges from evangelical and fundamentalist faiths in Latin America, it will be interesting to follow Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI to ascertain whether 21st century Roman Catholicism will revert to the openness espoused by John XXIII and Vatican II, or if it will continue to allow the archaic wing of the church, as represented by such groups as the Legion of Christ, to hinder the Church as it seeks to be relevant in the rapidly changing world of the 21st century.

.Byline:  John Barham, who retired from the University of Missouri in 2006, has had a long career as an instructor and administrator in colleges and universities in the United States and abroad.  He is a frequent lecturer in Mexico for Elderhostel International.