No, Marcial Maciel was not like Mary Magdalene, at all - UPDATED

Don't miss Jason Berry's lengthy update on the Legion of Christ's ventures in the Holy Land, in the National Catholic Reporter this week. How has the order coped with diminishment and disgrace following the belated exposure and censure of its founder, serial sexual abuser and all-around con artist Marcial Maciel? Oh, you know, they're working on it.

"Marcial Maciel's initials are also MM, just like Mary Magdalene. She had a problematic past before her deliverance, so there's a parallel. Our world has double standards when it comes to morals. Some people have a formal, public display and then the real life they live behind the scenes.

"But when we accuse someone else and we are quick to stone him, we must remember that we all have problems and defects. With modern communications so out of control, it is easy to kill someone's reputation without even investigating about the truth. We should be quieter and less condemning."

Berry quotes the above from a booklet promoting the Legion's new project, the $100 million Magdala Center at the Sea of Galilee. (Learn more at this website -- but be warned, there's a startling autoplaying introductory video.) The author is Fr. Juan María Solana. [UPDATE: Solana has apologized and the booklet has been withdrawn: see below.]

When the allegations against Maciel were first surfacing in the media, I remember hearing that rank-and-file Legionaries themselves were shielded from the worst of it. That, at least, was the excuse offered for why some priests didn't leave the order sooner. Given the amount of control Maciel and his fellow leaders exerted over the lives of their recruits, it seems plausible. But Maciel is dead; his corruption and crimes are definitively exposed; the order is supposedly reforming itself under Rome's supervision. So what's the excuse now for someone in a leadership position with the LCs to be referring to Maciel as having had any kind of "deliverance" (when, in fact, he and the order denied the allegations against him to the end of his life, even after Benedict removed him from ministry and ordered him to a life of repentance), or using his story as an example of how "We should be quieter and less condemning"?

I understand how awkward it must be for anyone who remains with the Legion of Christ to talk about their founder, given that the order itself has always been directly based in the spiritual leadership of Maciel. But if you can't talk about him honestly, non-defensively, with a sense of shame and sorrow and not self-pity, then maybe just don't talk about him at all.

It is hard to believe that any person would apply that last paragraph of Solana's to Maciel, given how he escaped censure for so very long, and how in fact it was his accusers, and those who broadcast their stories, whose reputations were attacked. Andrew Sullivan compiled a helpful reminder of just how widespread defense of Maciel was among high-profile Catholics, and how vituperative their attacks on people like Jason Berry could be. I have tried to find an original source for some of those comments, but as near as I can tell they were mostly gathered from a collection of supportive letters posted on a site run by the Legion -- legionaryfacts.org -- which is now inactive. But Richard John Neuhaus's lengthy defense of the Legion and Maciel in First Things, from March 2002, is worth reading in full, and still online here -- scroll down to "Feathers of Scandal," and keep on reading through several more subheds. He goes back and forth between attacking the journalists who'd reported on Maciel's past and praising the holiness of Maciel's person and project, always, of course, maintaining the tone of one who's above all this sordid business but must reluctantly stoop to explain it. There's even a swipe at the Jesuits along the way. It's really vintage stuff.

Berry's article details the Legion of Christ's diminished presence in the United States and elsewhere, including the sale of a number of properties (at least one "at a fire-sale price") and the closings of schools and seminaries. Fundraising goes on, however, for this Holy Land project. I can't imagine who, at this point, would have the LCs at the top of their philanthropic giving list. But raising money is one thing the founder was indisputably good at.

I also have to wonder why, if the Legion is naming its new complex after St. Mary Magdalene, their notion of who she was and what she stands for seems so constrained and frankly out-of-date (at least based on the excerpts Berry cites from the booklet Magdala: God Really Loves Women). All we actually know about her story before she began following Jesus is that she was named by Luke among "some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven spirits had gone out" (Lk 8:2). Her traditional association with the woman taken in adultery and/or the woman who washed Jesus's feet with her hair is, basically, an error in scriptural interpretation that, helped along by a misogynistic tendency to associate women with sexual sin (and not much else), became the standard take for too many years. But that approach has been discredited for a long time, and she is now lauded as "Apostle to the Apostles," one of Jesus's most faithful followers, the first witness to the resurrection. Not a bad figure to hang a ministry on. (And that ministry may be more appropriate than Solana's reference to "women who have suffered tremendously because of moral problems" makes it sound. When I looked at the project site for more information, I found only this description: "The location of Magdala and the person of Mary Magdalene in the Gospel inspire us to have a center which highlights the role of women as seen in the gospel and in religions as well.") But a very bad figure to compare to Marcial Maciel. Even if, as Fr. Solana begins by observing, "Marcial Maciel's initials are also MM, just like Mary Magdalene." The sad thing is, he would have sounded much less foolish if he'd just stopped there.

UPDATE 8/28: I have just received a statement via email from the Legion of Christ's communications director, Jim Fair, apologizing for the comparison of Maciel and Mary Magdalene in the Magdala booklet. I will paste it here:

Dear friends in Christ,

The past five years have been a time of challenge and change for the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi. We have faced the disappointment of horrible scandal – and embraced the hope of renewal.

We have undergone an intense self-examination and revision of our constitutions and statutes. We are firmly set on a path of reform that I believe will make us better servants of Christ and His Church.

Unfortunately, this week we experienced what must feel like a detour from our path forward. It is not.

I want to assure you that we are, indeed, determined to stay on course. And I want to share this response from Fr Juan Solana, director of the Magdala Center:

"I personally and profoundly apologize for my reflections in the booklet, Magdala: God Really Loves Women, published this summer by the Magdala Center in Jerusalem, which is managed by the Legion of Christ. The passages in question suggest a comparison between Mary Magdalene and Legion Founder Marcial Maciel, which clearly is inappropriate and poorly chosen. I was trying to make a point about compassion and forgiveness in light of the Legion’s history, but realize now that my words were awkward and suggest a reverence for our founder that we clearly reject. Again, I’m sorry for any hurt this has caused. And we are no longer distributing the booklet. – Fr Juan Solana LC"

I have known Fr Juan for many years and appreciate his response. Please keep him in your prayers and continue to pray for the success of the Magdala Project, which draws support from Christians of all denominations, Jews and Bible scholars from around the world.

Yours in Christ,
Fr John Connor LC

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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