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all things catholic | John L. Allen Jr.

Legionaries are Pope Francis’ problem now

Pope Francis left after his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Pope Francis left after his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday.

It’s a measure of how bad things have become for the scandal-plagued Legionaries of Christ that the first question a journalist feels obliged to ask the religious order’s new leader is, “Have you ever sexually abused anyone?”

For the record, the answer of Father Eduardo Robles Gil Orvañanos was, “I can promise, swear, whatever you want, that I haven’t.  . . it would make no sense at all for us to put someone in a leadership position with something to hide.”

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Robles spoke in a Feb. 14 interview with the Globe, his first with an English-language news outlet.

The Legionaries not so long ago were a Catholic powerhouse, a body of gung-ho priests enjoying the support of Pope John Paul II and other Vatican heavyweights and wielding vast political and financial muscle. The order fell from grace after revelations that its founder had lived a shocking double life, including having relationships with two women and fathering up to six children, as well as sexual abuse of young seminarians and, reportedly, even two of his own children.

The founder, Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, died in 2008. The bombshell about his misconduct, along with scandals involving other prominent Legionaries, makes the order the most polarizing symbol of the broader sexual abuse crisis in Catholicism. A recent Associated Press report described the Legionaries as “one of the most egregious examples of how . . . church leaders put the interests of the institution above those of the victims.”

Some critics, including some of the order’s former members, called for it to be abolished. Benedict XVI instead placed it under papal receivership in 2010, installing a papal delegate to promote reform. That process concluded with the Jan. 20 election of Robles, a 61-year-old priest and formerly the top Legionaries official in Mexico.

Given that history, it’s obviously relevant to wonder if Maciel’s successor has any skeletons in his own closet.

In his Globe interview, Robles insisted there aren’t. He also claimed he wasn’t in on the coverup regarding Maciel, saying that he’s spent his career in the field, mostly in Latin America, and that he only learned the truth in 2008 when one of the order’s officials told him.

Robles pledged that the Legionaries are now committed to zero tolerance for sexual abuse, including a rigorous commitment to transparency.

“We’re fully committed to creating a safe environment in all of our schools and in everything we do,” he told the Globe.

Whatever one makes of Robles’s guarantees, one point is crystal clear: The Legionaries are Pope Francis’ problem now.

Heretofore, one could fault Pope John Paul II for not taking the charges against Maciel seriously, or blame Benedict XVI for appointing a delegate, Italian Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, who has, in the eyes of critics, produced reforms that are more cosmetic than substantive. In any event, none of it could be laid in Francis’ lap.

Now, however, Francis has placed his fingerprints on the order’s future.

In May, he sent a letter offering “a word of encouragement,” and in August he named a prominent member of the Legionaries to the number two position in the Vatican City State. By ratifying the results of the recent elections, he’s signaled that the Legionaries are ready to get back to business, so from here on, it’s his reputation on the line.

Robles said Francis passed on a “very warm” message about his election, and that the Legionaries feel “totally supported” by the pope.

If the Legionaries are seen to have genuinely turned over a new leaf, relaxing their internal controls, collaborating more effectively with the rest of the church, and telling the full truth both about their past and their present, Francis will get deserved credit for engineering real change.

However, if the take-away is that the Legionaries remain mired in the old ways , that they haven’t absorbed the lessons of the Maciel debacle, then Francis has nowhere to deflect the blame.

In his own recent interview with the Globe, Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who enjoys a reputation as a reformer on the sex abuse front, insisted that Francis is “certainly aware of how serious this issue is.”

If so, the pope’s awareness had better include a keen grasp of how the future workings of the Legionaries of Christ looms as an acid test of his commitment. If anything could put a damper on Francis-mania, a perception that he’s half-hearted about recovery from the church’s child abuse scandals might be it.

Creative tension between Francis and his doctrinal czar

Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the Vatican’s doctrinal czar who will become a cardinal on Feb. 22, was in Milan on Thursday to deliver a lecture marking the opening of the academic year at the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy. If you closed your eyes and drifted back in time, you might have thought you were listening to another German doctrinal prefect — Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI.

Müller touched on many of Ratzinger’s favorite themes, particularly the danger of Catholic theology being skewed by “media pressure” and “mentalities incompatible with the authentic content of the faith.”

Taking up the sensus fidelium, a Latin phrase referring to the idea that teaching ought to reflect the beliefs of the church’s grass roots, Müller said it doesn’t mean determining truth by opinion polls or plebiscites. He insisted that the correct formula is sensus fidelium in Ecclesia, meaning that popular belief must be rooted in the “insuperable and indispensable” sources of the faith in Scripture, tradition, and the official teaching authority of the church.

Müller urged “critical rigor” in Catholic theology, as opposed to the “carelessness” that arises from taking one’s cues from the media and public pressure over issues such as “women in the priesthood . . . and access to the sacraments for those who are not in full communion with the church.”

That last point was a way of confirming Müller’s opposition to allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments, a position he already expressed in October.

Müller also seemed to question the value of a recent survey of Catholics around the world in advance of October’s Synod of Bishops on the Family, the results of which have been released by some bishops’ conferences and which show substantial numbers of Catholics breaking with official teaching on matters such as contraception and premarital cohabitation.

“There’s no one who can’t see the mistake and the myopia of using e-mail to indiscriminately sound out everyone’s opinions on the Internet,” he said.

In sum, Müller used this speech, delivered in the presence of Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, another heavy-hitter in the Catholic world, to draw some lines in the sand.

It may seem puzzling why a pope such as Francis, who seems to embody a fairly moderate doctrinal stance, confirmed Müller as the Vatican’s theologian-in-chief last September. Isn’t there a contradiction between Francis’ penchant for opening doors, and Müller’s apparent determination to slam them shut?

The same question used to arise under Pope John Paul II, particularly during the 1990s when he had a strong progressive organizing his own liturgies and an archconservative heading the Vatican department that set the rules for Catholic worship. Then, too, many observers saw that juxtaposition as mere incoherence.

Yet there’s another way of looking at things, inspired by an adage of Pope John XXIII who once said, “I have to be pope both for those with their foot on the gas and those with their foot on the brake.”

In his day, John Paul II wanted to push the envelope in his own liturgical celebrations, especially when he went on the road and tried to blend in elements of local worship in whatever society he was visiting. For precisely that reason, he wanted a hard-liner back in Rome making sure that the church didn’t throw the baby out with the liturgical bathwater.

This wasn’t incoherence, in other words. In John Paul’s mind, at least, it was a creative tension.

Something similar may be going on today vis-à-vis Francis and his doctrinal chief.

This pope knows that his spontaneous, shoot-from-the-hip style is occasionally going to shake things up, and that his emphasis on mercy will raise hard questions about whether traditional Catholic judgments still stand. He’s not going to rein himself in, but he may also want somebody to pull in the other direction, hoping for a sort of “Heraclitus effect” — stability through the balancing of opposing forces.

If that’s indeed the logic, so far Müller seems to be playing his part awfully well.

Nostalgia for Pope Benedict XVI

If proof were needed that some Catholic conservatives are feeling a bit nostalgic for Pope Benedict XVI, it came on Feb. 11, the one-year anniversary of his resignation announcement. Two striking essays from high-profile Italian writers, both of whom have a significant following in Catholic circles, make the point.

In a Feb. 12 piece in the Italian paper Libero, Antonio Socci floated the question of whether Benedict’s resignation was actually valid under church law — hinting that in the eyes of God, anyway, Benedict may still be the pope. At the same time, Robert de Mattei posted a piece on the website of his Lepanto foundation asserting that developments since the election of Francis, including his famous “Who am I to judge?” sound bite about gays, risk “a road that leads to schism and heresy.”

De Mattei also points to the Franciscans of the Immaculate, a traditionalist religious order devoted to the older Latin Mass whose leadership was deposed in December by Francis, as a case in which the pope’s emphasis on mercy is basically a sham.

Neither Socci nor de Mattei, to be clear, is a crackpot. On the contrary, they’re veteran voices in Catholic affairs who speak for important constituencies in the church.

Socci is associated with the powerful lay movement Communion and Liberation, probably the most important grouping of more conservative-minded Catholics in Italy. He’s worked for the state television network RAI, and is the author of best-selling books on topics such as John Paul II, the Capuchin stigmatic Padre Pio, and the reputed revelations of the Virgin Mary at Fatima. De Mattei is a leading figure in neoconservative circles in Europe and a former adviser to the Italian government under ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Socci and de Mattei would be considered fairly far to the right, perhaps, but definitely not the lunatic fringe. The fact that both are voicing misgivings about the new pope indicates that despite Francis’ astronomic approval levels, he may have some work to do in bringing along the stragglers in his own flock.

Socci’s piece is especially interesting for its attempt to resurrect Benedict XVI as a rallying point for the discontented.

Church law requires that for a papal resignation to be valid, it must be “made freely.” Socci speculates that Vatican mandarins may have twisted the pope’s arm to step aside in the wake of the spectacular leaks scandal of 2012, meaning that it may not have been a truly free act. Socci also asks if Benedict may have resigned only in “exterior” fashion, meaning that in his heart he still regards himself as the pontiff.

For sure, Benedict XVI has done nothing to stoke such a reaction. On the contrary, he’s kept himself out of the spotlight while privately signaling his affection and support for Francis.

Nonetheless, the Socci essay points to a plausible trajectory if right-wing backlash to Francis continues to mount. The church could end up with a majority of “Francis Catholics” and an influential minority of “Benedict Catholics.” That may not quite add up to a schism, but it’s still something to think about.

The ‘Italian problem’ in Vatican financial reform

A recent European Union study found that the price tag for corruption in the 28 member states each year is 120 million euros, of which 60 million comes in Italy. Another way of phrasing that result is that Italy, all by itself, accounts for half the corruption in the entire European Union.

The study found that 97 percent of Italians believe corruption is widespread in their country. Eighty-eight percent of Italians also said they personally have found that sometimes paying a bribe is the easiest way, if not the only way, to obtain public services.

Granted, the EU study noted that given the vagaries of reporting on corruption in the member states, estimates of its cost are no more than a guess. Still, it’s hard not to conclude that Italy’s got a real problem.

That’s worth remembering as Pope Francis prepares next week for his third meeting with his “G8” council of cardinal advisers, where Vatican financial reform is at the top of the agenda.

In my experience, many developments reported in the international press as Vatican stories are, when you drill down, really Italian stories — episodes in which Vatican officials are simply following the same playbook as their counterparts in Italy. That’s especially true when it comes to money management.

Here’s an example.

In 2010, Italian prosecutors announced that Italian Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe was the target of an anticorruption probe related to his term from 2001 to 2006 as head of the Vatican’s powerful missionary office, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Prosecutors suspect that Sepe gave Italian politicians sweetheart deals on apartments owned by the Vatican at the same time millions of euros in state funds were being allocated for remodeling projects at his congregation.

Even if the scenario prosecutors describe is correct, Sepe may not have understood himself to be doing anything wrong. Rather, he simply may have been doing what Italian power brokers of his generation thought they were supposed to do, i.e., taking care of their buddies.

This observation underscores the deep challenge to Francis’s financial glasnost, which is more cultural than legal or political.

The easy part will be preventing the sort of flagrant corruption, even by Italian standards, revealed in the recent cause célèbre surrounding Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, a former Vatican accountant charged with participating in a John le Carré-esque plot to smuggle millions in cash into Italy from Switzerland on behalf of a family of Italian shipping magnates. The scheme allegedly involved a private jet and a former agent of Italy’s equivalent of the CIA.

Scarano earned a modest Vatican salary of roughly 40,000 euros per year, yet he reportedly owned a network of expensive properties in his native Salerno and had a private art collection featuring originals by Chagall and Van Gogh. He was known in Rome as “Monsignor 500 euro” for his habit of flashing large banknotes. In this case, Scarano had to know he was playing fast and loose with the rules.

The deeper challenge is to change a culture in which many forms of corruption aren’t even perceived as such. Steering a contract to one’s friends despite an allegedly competitive bidding process, for instance, or not asking hard questions about where a senior churchman got the money he wants to deposit in the Vatican bank, are behaviors that many old-timers wouldn’t regard as corrupt but simply as time-honored ways of keeping things “in the family.”

One test of whether the reform measures adopted by Pope Francis are for real, therefore, is this: Will he promote a rapid internationalization of the Vatican’s financial personnel, breaking with the old guard?

At the top of the food chain, that process is underway. The president of the Vatican bank today is a German, the head of the Vatican’s antimoney-laundering watchdog is Swiss, and so on. The question is whether those changes at the top will breed a more international culture of transparency among middle management and the worker bees, or whether the day-to-day reality in the Vatican will continue to parallel the sometimes opaque patterns of il bel paese, the “beautiful country” of Italy.

John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. His column will appear weekly on bostonglobe.com, and, in shorter form, in the Boston Globe. He may be reached at john.allen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JohnLAllenJr, and Facebook, facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.
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