Patterns of Scandal in New Ecclesial Movements, Part Four: Q & A with Pete Vere

Most Catholics know they need to educate themselves about their faith; but surely one of the major lessons to be learned from the Maciel scandal and the various controversies over practices in the LC/RC and other new ecclesial movements is that we should also make the effort to familiarize ourselves with Canon Law. One of the best introductions to that challenging subject is Pete Vere’s two-volume Surprised by Canon Law. Hoping to get some clarification on canon law as it relates to the crisis in the LC/RC, I put the following questions to Pete, and he has very kindly responded with his usual charity, thoroughness, and good sense:

Murphy: The new ecclesial movements that have developed in the last fifty years have been a great gift to the Church, particularly, I think, for lay people seeking a greater sense of community with other Catholics with whom they share a spiritual sensibility or sense of personal vocation. But the downside, because these are indeed “new” movements, has been a certain “Wild West” atmosphere; enthusiasm, immaturity, charismatic leadership, and a belief that the group (or leader) has received a special grace from God have also occasioned problematic practices, disciplines, devotions, and attitudes surprisingly resistant, at times, to legitimate ecclesial oversight. What do you think has enabled this within the context of canon law?

Vere: This is something the Church has witnessed throughout her history. New movements have always arisen in response to different situations facing the Church. As new needs arise, so too do new movements. For example, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic were contemporaries responding to the lukewarmness that had set into Medieval Catholic society.

The 20th Century saw an onslaught of secularism and atheism within society. The Church was not immune from the effects of what was happening in society. This is seen, for example, by the number of pro-abortion Catholic politicians as well as Catholics who practice contraception. Thus several new movements arose to present clear, orthodox Catholic teaching in a world that would prefer to ignore God.

Canon law has historically been more reactive than proactive in some aspects of its response. Canonists cannot predict what new charism or canonical structures the Holy Spirit will introduce to the Church. As one of my professors once joked, the Holy Spirit keeps canon lawyers in business. Whenever we finally have everything sorted into nice neat categories, He comes along and introduces something new. For example, the Franciscans and Dominicans broke the previous practice of incardinating — that is, tying their members — to a specific monastery. It was through these two orders that the idea of incardination to a religious order, rather than a geographical location, was introduced.

Likewise, Opus Dei introduced the structure of personal prelature. In Canada, the Companions of the Cross form seminarians in parishes, rather than in the seminary. All of these structures were innovative ideas at the time, based upon the charism of the movement through which the Holy Spirit inspired a structure previously unforseen by canon law.

On the other hand, not all new ideas are healthy. Some are quite dangerous to the spiritual welfare of the individual, and must be rooted out. Canon law affords the competent Church authorities the power to discern what is from God and worth keeping, and what is problematical and poses a danger to the faithful.

What canon law is presently in place relevant to the new ecclesial movements, and do you think they are sufficient for the problems at hand?

Vere: Canon laws have different levels of approval, so that a new movement’s charism is continuously tested, and re-examined in light of the Church and her needs. For example, a movement will generally start as a private association of the faithful, which means the membership retains hold of the group’s possession should the group fail. From there it may receive approval as a public association of the faithful, where its possessions become the property of the Church in case the Church needs to intervene. Once a certain stability and membership is reached, if the group wishes for a deeper relationship between members, it may become an institute of consecrated life (religious order, secular institute, or society of apostolic life) of diocesan rite. And once another stability and level of membership is attained, it can then become an institute of consecrated life of pontifical rite. In Surprised by Canon Law II, my co-author and I devote an entire chapter to explaining the processes and various differences between these different types of structure within the Church. Suffice to say, at each level the Church is investigating and re-evaluating the movement’s charism.

Having said that, there are some warning signs that a movement is either not from God, or seriously troubled. These warning signs are not law in the strict sense of legislation, but more common sense based upon the Church’s historical experience with new movements. With the help of one of my former professors who specializes in canon law as it applies to religious life, I’ve assembled the warning signs into an essay published here.

Murphy: Was anything lacking in canon law, or lacking in the implementation of canon law, that would allow (for example) a group as large and lauded as the LC/RC to reach such a crisis point? In your view, are there any additions to canon law regarding ecclesial movement which you think might be appropriate?

Vere: I don’t think there was something lack in the law so much as lacking in the application of the law. The allegations against Fr. Maciel and criticism of certain aspects of LC/RC go back decades. However, everyone was looking at some of the discrepancies in the testimony of Fr. Maciel’s initial accusers. This happens when someone is victim to abuse, psychologists have told me. Victims of abuse apparently think with a different part of their brain, so their experience does not always come out in the correct chronology, or certain details get fragmented and confused. Not being a psychologist I don’t understand the details. Nor do I have access to the details of Rome’s first investigation. However, it is too easy in these situations to simply dismiss the accusation as false, which may be what happened. Today, especially after the recent sexual misconduct crisis to hit the Church, I think we have a better understanding of the victim’s psychology.

Also, people were looking at the good fruits of the LC/RC — lots of vocations to the priesthood, schools, tens of thousands of orthodox Catholic laity — and saying how could any of this negative stuff be true? Unfortunately, abusers aren’t concerned with orthodoxy or heterodoxy. They’re concerned with gaining, protecting and concealing access to victims. They will play whatever role helps them to gain and maintain this access. And an abuser will groom both his victims and other adults around him to prevent his abuse from coming to light.

Murphy: As you know, immense pressure (by way of promises, vows, admonitions to secretiveness vis-a-vis “outsiders who don’t understand our vocation” has been put on group members to “put up and shut up.” Those who do find the occasion or courage to pose objections, even about uncanonical practices, have been shunned or vilified. I have talked to a number of people from different groups who felt themselves completely isolated, with no one to turn to. What recourse does a faithful Catholic, troubled by doings in their own organization, have within the Church?

Vere: First of all, pray. Second, you can always approach the Church hierarchy with your concerns. For most people, this would be diocesan authorities — including the bishop, vicar general, episcopal vicar or judicial vicar. You can also approach your parish priest if this is happening on a local level. This is why these rights exist in canon law. If an apostolate or movement is truly Catholic, it should never fear recourse to the Church hierarchy.

Third, laity need to instruct themselves on their rights within the Church, so that when something like this happens they know where to turn and how to vindicate their rights. This is one of the reasons my co-author and I wrote Surprised by Canon Law, volumes one and two, to help laity better understand their rights within the Church.

Murphy: How much formation do diocesan priests receive about the issues surrounding new ecclesial movements? Do you think it is sufficient?

Vere: I don’t know if seminaries keep records of this or where one would obtain them, so I cannot answer the question with any certitude. However, I imagine it would depend on where the diocesan priest received his formation, as well when he received his formation. Certainly, in a post-Vatican II Church that has seen an increase in the number of new movements, it would make sense for seminary formation to provide future priests with training on this subject.

Murphy: Some groups which have developed uncanonical practices, such as unregulated vows and the imposition of confessors and spiritual directors who are also the penitent’s superior in the exterior forum, have notwithstanding received all sorts of hierarchical support, from the ad hoc mentoring of specific bishops and cardinals, to official recognition as Associations of Christ’s Faithful or Pontifical Institutes. Indeed, the leadership in those organizations will often point to that very support as a sort of “Good Housekeeping Seal” when members complain that their situation is irregular or abusive. It’s possible that the hierarchy does not always know the gory details, since the questionable practices are likely not written down in the group’s institutes, and some leaders are very canny about keeping visiting hierarchy away from any but the most “loyal” members; but that’s hard to believe with a group which has endured as much long, drawn-out controvers as LC/RC. What do you think is going on with this, and how is it to be remedied so as to prevent this kind of organizational meltdown?

Vere: One of my former canon law professors, who had dealt with a lot of these types of crisis to hit the Church, use to say: “The Church can usually avoid trouble when she follows her own rules. It’s when she fails to follow her own rules that she finds herself in trouble with the secular authorities and the laity.” This demonstrates why it is important to always be open and honest in one’s dealings with competent Church authorities. No founder or superior within a movement is above the law that binds all Catholics, or the obligation to submit to competent ecclesiastical authority.

Murphy: The admission of Fr. Maciel’s “double life” was made public by the LC almost four weeks ago, and yet we have heard nothing, or next to nothing, from the Vatican about it. Why, do you think, and what may we expect?

Vere: I don’t know Rome’s game plan, other than what has been reported in some Catholic media — namely, that Rome does not have any immediate plans to intervene directly. However, if the situation worsens or the LC/RC request it, I imagine Rome would intervene and take charge of the situation. However, Rome will often take a “wait and see” approach. It will wait to see whether the LC/RC can resolve the controversy internally, and make the necessary reforms on its own. If this fails, or if bishops join the chorus of those calling for a serious reform of the movement, then I would not be surprised if Rome steps in.

Murphy: A priest friend of mine, who was also a scholar of Church history, once commented that it had taken four hundred years for the great renewal launched by the Council of Trent to settle out, as it were, and become fully developed in the Church. Could we be looking at something like that here, with the Second Vatican Council and the new ecclesial movements? If so, given our current age of instant communications and the internet, and the Church’s historical tendency to “grind slowly, but exceedingly fine,” as the saying goes, what are the implications for the full integration of the new ecclesial movements, or at least preventing the kinds of scandals we’ve seen the last few years?

Vere: The average of age of any new religious order or institute of consecrated life that takes root is 400 years. So the time-frame of 400 years is certainly not without some significance. As the Church moves forward, certain lay movements will take root and carry out the mandate of the Second Vatican Council. Others will wither on the vine. What are the full implications for the Church? In the short term, these movements have helped reinvigorate the faith of the Catholic faithful in a culture that is increasingly hostile to Christ’s message. In the longer term, I’m not sure. History will have to play itself out, just as it did during previous epochs of the Church.

With regards to the LC/RC, who knows where this will end up? Certainly the Church will still be with us in the future— this is Christ’s promise to His apostles: “I am with you always.” But there is no guarantee that any individual movement or institute of consecrated life will survive along with the Church. Having said that, I think the LC/RC can survive this if they turn their focus to Christ and undertake a fundamental reform of the movement.

Murphy: As a final question, you’re not alone in calling for a reform or reconstitution of the LC/RC movement. What would you recommend?

Vere: With every passing day, this controversy has become more and more complicated. I sometimes think this is the way of the devil; he complicates the simple message of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus I recommend — and please keep in mind I am only one lay canonist located in the far reaches of the Church’s geography — a return to simplicity for the LC/RC.

To begin, the focus of the LC/RC response should be on Fr. Maciel’s victims. Not only is this the right thing to do, given that the victims have been doubly-victimized — first through their abuse at the hands of Fr. Maciel, and secondly by being branded publicly as liars by good people (acting in good faith) when the victims came forward with the truth. Thus there is an obligation in justice to acknowledge what was done to them and make restitution.

The victims are the primary concern of most people watching this from the outside. The victims are the ones with whom most people identify and sympathize. Thus any response from the LC/RC that does not put Fr. Maciel’s victims first will not be well-received by orthodox Catholics outside the LC/RC (and even many within the movement) as well as the world at large.

The second thing the LC/RC movement must do is apologize to the victims. The apology should be short, plainspoken, identify clearly the wrong done to them, and apologize for it. People become suspicious when apologies are overly complicated or couched in attempts to defend, justify or explain away what was done wrong. Admit the wrong. Apologize for the wrong. Don’t offer excuses.

The third thing, of course, is to offer prayer and restitution for the victims. And fourth, the movement needs to undertake a thorough reform, overseen by an outside party appointed by the Holy See, to purge itself of the practices that allowed this to happen. This reform should be open and transparent. In order to restore trust among Catholic faithful, the RC/LC need to tell us what they are doing to reform the movement and prevent similar occurrences in the future, and they need to follow through.

In the end, this is an extremely painful moment for the LC/RC. However, it is also a great opportunity for the movement to show a Christ-like example. A sincere apology to victims and a commitment to reform the movement will allow the LC/RC to move forward at the service of Christ and the Church.

God calls us as concerned friends of the LC/RC to play a very delicate role. Like an alcoholic in the gutter who recognizes he needs help, we cannot kick them while they are down. As Christians we don’t laugh at the drunk in the gutter, we try and help him. Thus we must offer our RC/LC brothers and sisters the support they need during this difficult time.

But we must also hold them accountable to a Christian standard and not allow them to fall back into the old patterns of behavior that allowed this scandal to happen. In other words, after rescuing the drunk from the gutter you don’t drop him off at the nearest bar or allow him to blame others for his alcoholism. You pray for him and you help him seek the treatment he needs.

This is true charity for souls. This is what Christ is calling us to do.


Catholic novelist ("The Mystery of Things") and publisher of Idylls Press, founded in 2005 with the mission of "publishing the Catholic imagination."

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