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Katie van Schaijik

De-personalizing, cultish tendencies in the Church

Jul. 13, 2009, at 3:50pm

Former Legionary, Fr. Thomas Berg, in an interview today (hat-tip life-after-rc) offers his insights into the central disorder of Legion spirituality.

At the core of serious problems in the internal culture of the congregation is a mistaken understanding and living of the theological principle - in itself valid - that God’s will is made manifest to the religious through his superior. The Legionary seminarian is erroneously led to foster a hyper-focusing on internal “dependence” on the superior for virtually every one of his intentional acts (either explicitly or in virtue of some norm or permission received, or presumed or habitual permissions). This is not in harmony with the tradition of religious life in the Church, nor is it theologically or psychologically sound. It entails rather an unhealthy suppression of personal freedom (which is a far cry from the reasoned, discerned and freely exercised oblation of mind and will that the Holy Spirit genuinely inspires in the institution of religious obedience) and occasions unholy and unhealthy restrictions on personal conscience.

Furthermore, Legionary norms regarding “reporting to,” “informing,” “communication with,” and “dependence on” superiors constitute a system of control and conformity which now must be considered highly suspect given what we know about Fr. Maciel. They furthermore engender a simplistic, and humanly and theologically impoverished notion of God’s will (its discernment and manifestation) that breeds personal immaturity.

More seriously, the lived manner in which Legionaries practice obedience is laced with the kind of unquestioning submission which allowed the cult of personality to emerge around the figure of Maciel in the first place and covered for his misdeeds. Legionary seminarians are essentially trained to suspend reason in their obedience and to seek a total internal conformity with all the norms, and to withstand any internal impulse to examine or critique the norms or the indications of superiors.

It sounds like a more extreme version of what I witnesses of the Covenant Communities in the ‘80s. It likewise brings to mind the clericalism and lay passivity that allowed the priests’ sex scandal to get as bad as it did. Truly Catholic education has to focus much more on developing a proper sense of adulthood, freedom, responsibility, and self-standing in its members.


Scott J • Jul 13, 2009 - 5:07 pm

(I’m using a different computer here so the auto info isn’t showing)

I agree Katie. I think another way of saying what you have stated here, is that an education and formation in virtue is greatly needed. (especially prudence, which is the virtue operative in the application of all the others; as well as discernment)

I think it is also quite interesting that (at least in my personal experience) with the most ancient religious orders (pre-Reformation) that are still very much alive in the Church (e.g. Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines), the understanding of obedience is very different than the sort of blind obedience that Fr. Berg describes above.

In my life as a Dominican, it was actually expected, as a part of one’s service to the community, to make your honest opinions known to your superior. Frank and open discussion, including disagreement, was welcomed so long as it was respectful and the final decision of the superior, once made, was respected. I have also found that especially among the ancient orders, there is a healthy regard for the authentic self-possession of the individual. I have never heard of a contemporary Franciscan, Benedictine, or Dominican, being expected to exhibit blind, unquestioning obedience. Perhaps this has happened, but it is not the norm. This can make for a little more “untidiness” from a certain point of view. But, in the long run, it is more healthy. Another way of stating this is that the ancient orders have learned over the centuries a high deference for the right of the individual to keep his or her “internal forum” private.

Katie van Schaijik • Jul 13, 2009 - 7:45 pm

There are other key differences too, if I am not mistaken.  The ancient orders have ways of carefully protecting the freedom and dignity of the members, including, for instance, making sure that a person’s confessor was not his spiritual director.  Also, aren’t superiors in the ancient orders elected by the members? 

I wouldn’t express the point about virtue differently, because I think there is, in our day, a call for a new, more personalist understanding of virtue that the traditional accounts and maybe even the term itself doesn’t quite capture.  Newman’s “illative sense” (see Grammar of Assent, chapter 9) strikes me as a personalist re-thinking and deepening of the traditional notion of prudence.

Scott J • Jul 14, 2009 - 2:44 am

(see below as well) In my copy of Grammar (Notre Dame Press), the top of p. 278 (under c. 9, no.2, “The nature of the Illative Sense”) reads very much to me like a rather classic description of prudence. It is quite similar to traditional virtue language in Thomas or Aristotle, except he doesn’t use the word prudence or virtue. He does, however, specifically use the term virtue on the next page (p. 279).

At the bottom of p. 278, and again in the 2nd to last paragraph on p. 280, it is evident that Newman is using the intellectual process involved with discerning the virtuous act (specifically, phronesis as a comparison to explain the intellectual process involved with discerning truth (which he calls ratiocination).

So, at least upon taking a brief look at chapter nine, I don’t think I would agree that the illative sense is a re-thinking of prudence. Rather, Newman uses prudence (and all the virtues in general) as a comparison to help explain the illative sense.

Actually, it seems to me that with the illative sense, we have something very akin to the traditional, scholastic understanding of inductive reasoning (as contrasted with deductive reasoning).

To my knowledge (and I could certainly be wrong), the scholastic thinkers did not attempt much in the way of a detailed analysis of how inductive reasoning works. Perhaps, with Newman’s illative sense, what we have is a more detailed, interior and subjective (phenomenological) exposition of how inductive reasoning works. Am I crazy here?

Katie van Schaijik • Jul 14, 2009 - 7:57 am

My never-completed MA thesis was to have been on this point: a comparison of Newman and William James on the role of the will in religious belief, showing how Newman overcomes the voluntarist temptation.  It involved comparing N.‘s illative sense with classical accounts of prudence, trying to show their similarities and and where N’s work, as I saw it, represented a development and an improvement.
But that was many years ago.  I couldn’t make the case now, I fear, without a thorough restudy.  Perhaps a year from now, after I’ve sat in on Jules’ Newman class. :)

Scott J • Jul 14, 2009 - 3:03 am

I think there is, in our day, a call for a new, more personalist understanding of virtue that the traditional accounts and maybe even the term itself doesn’t quite capture.

Hmm. I would like to suggest another view on this (following what I was taught at DHS). Virtue, as explained in its full breadth and depth by St. Thomas, has not (and was not, especially in the pre-Vatican II era of the resurgence of teaching St. Thomas in seminaries that had begun in the late 19th century), with some exceptions, been taught. What has been taught of virtue from the old (early 20th century) manuals (attempting) following Thomas, is really a very poor imitation—a deformed and truncated shadow—not the real thing.

A fuller and more robust recovery of the beautiful exposition of virtue as Thomas himself actually taught (not through reductionistic, Jansenistic, nominalistic, legalistic lenses), is marvelously in harmony with a personalistic philosophy! In fact, this, to me, is what makes Thomistic virtue so appealing. That it is in such beautiful accord with a robust view of the dignity of the human person! This is what Fr. Pinckaers did such an admirable job of pointing out: the difference between the caricature of Thomas, and Thomas himself, in regard to moral theology and the nature and role of virtue in human life.

Katie van Schaijik • Jul 14, 2009 - 8:02 am

Insofar as personalism is true, it will be in harmony with everything true and good that’s come before.  And there are many Thomistic personalists.  To a certain extent, JP II was one.  So was Jacques Maritain, Josef Pieper, Norris Clarke…
My argument is with those who would imagine or claim implicitly or explicitly that there is nothing new and good and true in personalism and/or modern thought that is not already present in Aquinas.

Teresa Manidis • Jul 13, 2009 - 11:00 pm

I’m right with you on this one, Katie.  Although it is a common temptation - whether in religious life, in a ‘cult’ or community setting, or even within the confines of marriage - to ‘check your mind at the door’ - that is, to expunge yourself from the (awesome) responsibility of any further decision making processes, and to abdicate that power to another person - this flies in the face of free will and, to be honest, nullifies the entire crux of this life.  To say I will never again, myself, choose differently from, or oppose or even question the will of another fallible human being whose control I am under is, in the end, a kind of cosmic ‘cop out.’  True, I will never get the credit for my good deeds if I go this route; but, much more attractively for those making this choice, I will never, ever be responsible for any mistake, or any evil that I do in this life.  For many, this is a bargain.  How impersonal.  And, to me, how horrible.

Scott J • Jul 14, 2009 - 2:17 am

Katie, having the confessor and spiritual director be the same is no problem (often encouraged). Did you mean to say that the superiors of communities cannot require the members of their community to come to them as confessors? This is actually a requirement of canon law of all religious institutes of consecrated life. Canon 630, section 4, reads, “Superiors are not to hear the confessions of subjects unless the members request it on their own initiative.” (and I would add that in practice, making such a request is discouraged unless circumstances make it necessary).

In looking quickly at ch. 9 of Grammar, it seems to me that prudence (virtue itself, actually), is used by Newman as an analogue to how the illative sense works. The virtuous act, in a particular concrete action, is indicated by a sense of phroneseis (from Aristotle) which is particular to that virtue and guides the person toward right action. Similarly, Newman describes how the illative sense guides the person in a particular intellectual quest for truth to indeed find and recognize truth in that intellectual quest. The illative sense—in a way that is wider, above, and prior to mere logical reasoning—enables an individual to attain knew knowledge of what is true and to grasp and hold it confidently. It seems to me Newman is saying that this is similar to (in that it “works” similarly) though not the same as that sense which guides a person to right action in the moral sphere.

That being said (and in this way is similar to St. Thomas), Newman seems to recognize a deep interconnection between the intellectual acts of finding truth on the one hand and discerning right actions on the other. Indeed, there is a way in which the illative sense plays a role in the overall process of discerning right action in the moral sphere. But this does not thereby blend the illative sense and the moral sense of right and wrong together.

Honestly, though I think there are great points here in Newman’s analysis, I find the analysis of moral reasoning in St. Thomas to be much clearer.

Katie van Schaijik • Jul 14, 2009 - 8:06 am

I was very sloppy.  You are right, Scott.  It is a provision of canon law.  It was utterly violated in the Legion, and, if a book about its founding I’m reading now is to be believed, in Opus Dei.

Scott J • Jul 14, 2009 - 4:42 pm

Here is something that is worth noting about this provision in canon law: it does not apply in the same way to that category of ecclessial communities called secular institutes of consecrated life. (see canons 710-730)

[As a brief background, there are three basic categories of formal ecclessial communities in the Church (prescinding here from personal prelatures): Religious Institutes of consecrated life, secular institutes of consecrated life, and societies of apostolic life. They are covered under Book II, part III of canon law.]

Members of secular and religious institutes both take vows. However, whereas living in common and a separation from the world proper to the institute is constitutive of religious institutes (CIC 607), these are not integral to the nature of secular institutes (the may live some type of common life, but it is not constitutive of their nature as it is of religious institutes). Likewise, common life is also constitutive of societies of apostolic life.

The canon about not requiring community members to confess to their superior (CIC 630, section 4) also applies to members of societies of apostolic life (CIC 734, which refers specifically back to 617-633).  But, a reference to canon 630 is not included under the title (Title III, of Section I, of Part III of Book II) that specifically treats secular institutes of consecrated life. I think this has something to do with the fact that living a common life is not integral to the character of a secular institute. For both religious institutes and societies of apostolic life, because common life is integral to both, it makes sense there has to be a provision such as CIC 630 section 4 to protect members from spiritual abuse.

What relevance is all this??? Well, it is this: for any ecclessial community that is considered a secular institute of consecrated life, or, is some other type which is not either a religious institute or a secular institute, canon 630 does not specifically apply.

I think this means Regnum Christi, for example, does not come under canon 630 (nor would Opus Dei). Just what category RC is, is vague to me. It is confusing to try to figure out. And they don’t clearly state on their web site what category of community they are under the organization of the Church. It seems to me that their consecrated members—the single men and women who take vows for life—are members of a secular institute of consecrated life. However, lay RC members who do not take vows cannot be members of a secular institute (they would be more analogous to the lay third orders of the ancient religious orders). One of the confusing things is the RC and the Legion seem to lump all RC members (consecrated or not) under one umbrella, calling it a “movement.” But, there is no category of “movement” in the Church. There are secular institutes, personal prelatures, and lay associations of the faithful. But no “movements.” So, this is confusing. At any rate, I think I can confidently say that canon 630 section 4 does not apply to members of RC in the same way that it does to members of religious institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life. [The Legion, however, I am fairly sure is in the category of a religious institute of consecrated life, so this does apply to them.]

I should remark finally, that even given the above, the particular constitutions and statues of a particular ecclessial community (the formal documents governing their life which have been approved by the Church) always apply and are binding for each member. The constitutions or statutes of RC could have something included about not confessing to a superior and it would then be binding. However, I doubt this is actually relevant. Why? Because RC is a lay movement, and as such, I doubt that priests (LC or otherwise) can be superiors over the formally enrolled members of RC. As a lay movement, I would be very surprised if their superiors are not also lay men and women. The priests are closely and heavily involved, but probably do not hold, officially, direct positions of authority over the RC members (except perhaps at the very top level, i.e. the major superior of LC may have certain types of authority over RC).

I am thinking of a parallel here to my experience of the Dominican Third Order (lay men and women formally associated with the Dominican Order). The OP Third Order actually goes back to the 13th century. OP priests work with them as advisors, consultors, etc. However, an OP priest who is the advisor for a particular 3rd order chapter does not have direct authority over them. He is not formally a member and has no place in their hierarchy. So, he can suggest things, but if they want they are free to tell him to go jump in the lake. Ultimately, major changes to the Third Order worldwide do require consultation (approval? I’m not sure) with the major superior of the Dominicans. But this is an infrequent thing and does not effect their day-to-day activities which are mostly autonomous to themselves.

Scott J • Jul 14, 2009 - 4:53 pm

Oops made an error. I wrote,

for any ecclessial community that is considered a secular institute of consecrated life, or, is some other type which is not either a religious institute or a secular institute, canon 630 does not specifically apply

I was sloppy in the latter part. This should read,

“for any ecclessial community that is considered a secular institute of consecrated life, or, is some other type which is not either a religious institute or a society of apostolic life, canon 630 does not specifically apply”

Teresa Manidis • Jul 18, 2009 - 11:05 pm

By the way, just had a chance to look over Father Berg’s entire interview (thanks, Katie, for the link), and found it very interesting reading.  For one thing, I was impressed with how very calm and even-handed he seemed, especially given the volatile subject matter.  And his insights into the nature and ‘charisma’ of both the Legion in general and Regnum Christi in particular was invaluable, given who he is.  Thanks again for posting it - it was well worth the read!

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