Patterns of Scandal in New Ecclesial Movements, Part Three: Conscience and Canon Law

In a sex-abuse scandal such as the Maciel case, the nature of the abuse is clear and horrific, and its impact on the victims well-nigh immeasurable; but even when no obvious crime such as sexual abuse is present in an ecclesial movement or group afflicted by the "cult of personality," there is too often another form of abuse present — far more subtle, to be sure, but touching one of those deep and mysterious places in the human heart where the human person encounters God: the conscience.

Conscience in Canon Law

As a convert who came into the Church at the age of nineteen in large part because of the writings of Cardinal John Henry Newman, it was with pleasure that I noted that the section on conscience in the Catholic Catechism (part 3, article 6) opens with a quote by Newman from his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk , written on the occasion of the Vatican I definition of papal infallibility. (In the Letter, Newman defended English Catholics, as only he could, against the familiar charge that they couldn’t in good conscience be good Catholics and loyal citizens of England at the same time.) Here’s the quote:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment… man has in his heart a law inscribed by God… His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.


The Catechism proceeds to describe, among other things, the necessity of judging according to one’s conscience and the necessity to form one’s conscience by means of the Word of God and the teachings of the Church. But there are two principles worth repeating in the context of this discussion:

1782 . Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. "He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters." [Dignitatis Humanae , Pope John Paul II]

1789. Some rules apply in every case:

* One may never do evil so that good may result from it.

* The Golden Rule: "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them."

* Charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience: "Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience… you sin against Christ." Therefore "it is right not to… do anything that makes your brother stumble."

In my novel, I relate a conversation between the protagonist and Lionel Krato [cf. part one of this series] about the nature of conscience, how it is properly formed, and its connection to Beauty. Here’s a relevant paragraph:

… It was the aesthetic element, he [Lionel] went on to explain, which had been neglected in these last utilitarian centuries, but was understood by the ancient philosophers and the Fathers of the Church. To them and to Lionel, Truth, Goodness and Beauty were one, a seamless garment, and where there was no appreciation for beauty there was liable to be little for truth or goodness either. Lionel then quoted Newman to the effect that Truth had two attributes: Power and Beauty. Real power, he added; power to attract, not to pressure or force. Force he said, quoting Simone Weil, turned persons into things, and was one of the sure signs of the diabolic. Or, to use the language of the police, Lionel said, forced entry is the sure sign of crime.

Beyond the sex-abuse charges against Fr. Maciel (some of which have been admitted by the LC to be true, though their nature and extent is as yet unclear), there is the issue of potential cover-ups. And connected to the issue of potential cover-ups, there is the fact that many ex-Legionaries and Regnum Christi members have spoken publicly about LC/RC practices which, given the nature of conscience and the statutes set up in the Code of Canon Law to protect its exercise among Christians, are disturbing: namely, practices which impose uncanonical restrictions on members’ exercise of conscience, spiritual direction, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation; practices imposed ostensibly to maintain charity and unity, but which also serve, conveniently, to silence legitimate questions or challenges; practices which are intended to prevent outsiders from finding out what goes on within the organization; practices that intend to maintain a public persona, whatever the "inside" reality, of piety, holiness, success, and the production of "good fruit."

Such practices were doubtless what prompted the recent comments of Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, “[I]t’s clear that from the first moment a person joins the Legion, efforts seem to be made to program each one and to gain full control of his behavior, of all information he receives, of his thinking and emotions…. This is not about orthodoxy,” he said, as reported by his archdiocesan organ, The Catholic Review . “It is about respect for human dignity for each of its members.”

Among the alleged practices: taking vows not only to obey Fr. Maciel, but also never even to criticize him; restricting (even prohibiting) members’ visits to non-LC/RC family and friends; shunning ex-members and attributing malicious or diabolic motives to critics and ex-members; discouraging or even forbidding members from seeking confession or spiritual direction from non-LC/RC priests; imposing spiritual directors and confessors on members, even with the spiritual director is also the member’s "boss" in some official capacity in the organization. (More on this, later.)

I could go on.

Some of this stuff, whenever true in any organization, is just plain vicious, un-Christian and manipulative; when it occurs in a Catholic association it also transgresses clear norms of Canon Law. For example, regarding 1) the rights of every Christian, lay or religious, in the exercise of their conscience, and 2) the proper way to manage ecclesial associations. For specific norms, check out the following canons:

* 212, 219-221, 223

* 305

* 325

The problem is, judging from personal experience and speaking with others from a variety of ecclesial movements (some well known, some not; some with canonical status, some not), these are not uncommon practices. If so, this latest scandal will not be the last connected to a new ecclesial movement.

False Conscience and its Bitter Fruit

As I suggested in the previous section, even beyond the immediate victims of an abusive Group or Founder, consideration must be given to the predicament of that far larger group of good people who find themselves "second-hand" victims of an organization afflicted with cultish attributes — those ordinary priests, consecrated and laity who do the bulk of the "praying, paying, and obeying", as the old saying goes, in a new ecclesial movement. What breaks the heart is that these second-hand victims are invariably among the most idealistic in the Church, the most generous in spirit and fervent in faith. Indeed, it is their very virtues of idealism, generosity and fervor, coupled as they often are with youth, inexperience, and spiritual and/or psychological immaturity, that render so many of these good Catholics vulnerable to groups promising an inside line on God’s will and the Church’s blessings.

A priest-friend once commented that it can take the Church centuries to integrate and "normalize" the kind of revolution/renewal in the liturgy, canon law, and religious life one saw after the Council of Trent. He predicted a similar time-frame for the Church to fully implement Vatican II and integrate the new ecclesial movements. (This prediction was made almost a quarter of a century ago, before our “new age” of instant communications.)

Either way, centuries are a very long time and unfortunately we, who are still in these frontier "Wild West" decades of the new ecclesial movements, are too often forced to learn the hard way that good intentions, fervor, and ostensible orthodoxy are not enough to protect us from serious abuses; that sometimes even the apparent blessing of the Church — that "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" granting some form of canonical status to a new movement — is not enough. Bishops, as we in America have had reason to learn in the last few decades, sometimes fall down on their job of protecting the faithful from wolves in shepherds’ clothing; nor even is papal support, as other commentators on the Maciel scandal have pointed out, among those "faith and morals" decisions which fall under the assurance of infallibility. As the history of the Church proves, when the laity rely solely on their immediate leadership to discern spirits and the signs of the times — when they truly do nothing but "pray, pay, and obey" — they are likely as not to be led astray.

I wrote in my previous post about the methods some groups use to control their members; but many who have never suffered this kind of experience still wonder how it is possible that so many good, intelligent people take so long (if ever) to recognize the manipulations and deceptions.

The flip answer is often, "brainwashing!" While that’s no doubt off the mark in most cases, there is one way at least in which the notion of "brainwashing" may be instructive: that is, in the propensity of imbalanced groups for "forming" their members in a manner which will sooner or later inevitably place them in a situation of "false conscience": where obedience to the group’s methods or leaders conflicts with fundamental principles of charity and the teachings of the Church. In this excruciating moral "double-bind," a member will either resist, thereby suffering feelings of guilt and confusion, as well as the displeasure of the Group; or else will submit his will and do what is asked of him, even though he knows, in his heart of hearts, that what he has been asked to do is wrong. Whichever decision the person makes, his human and divinely bestowed dignity suffers tremendously, and that suffering can be acute.

In his classic Apologia pro vita sua , Cardinal Newman, relating the story of his conversion from childhood Evangelicalism to youthful Anglicanism and finally to Catholicism, describes his own struggles with a case of "false conscience" derived from absorbing contradictory theological notions at an early age:

Now I come to two other works, which produced a deep impression on me in the same autumn of 1816, when I was fifteen years old, each contrary to each, and planting in me the seeds of an intellectual inconsistency which disabled me for a long course of years. I read Joseph Milner’s Church History , and was nothing short of enamoured of the long extracts from St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, and the other Fathers which I found there. I read them as being the religion of the primitive Christians: but simultaneously with Milner I read Newton on the Prophecies, and in consequence became most firmly convinced that the Pope was the Antichrist predicted by Daniel, St. Paul, and St. John. My imagination was stained by the effects of this doctrine up to the year 1843; it had been obliterated from my reason and judgment at an earlier date; but the thought remained upon me as a sort of false conscience. Hence came that conflict of mind, which so many have felt besides myself; — leading some men to make a compromise between two ideas, so inconsistent with each other, — driving others to beat out the one idea or the other from their minds, — and ending in my own case, after many years of intellectual unrest, in the gradual decay and extinction of one of them…

In new ecclesial movements exhibiting cult-like attributes, the double-bind situation of "false conscience" arises when a Group undertakes to form its members to accept, unconditionally and simultaneously, two potentially contradictory "absolutes" that go something like this:

1. The Church is the Body of Christ and the means by which Christ gives us the ("ordinary") grace of salvation. It is our duty as Christians to obey the teachings of the Church in all matters of faith and morals.

2. The group (or the Founder, by way of his charism) is our group’s special ("extraordinary") means of grace. By God’s will, it/he is the means given to us to fulfill our Christian vocation. Therefore it is our duty as members of the group to work tirelessly for the Group/Leader; to trust that it/he has received special graces of discernment which we cannot share or even understand; to obey our Founder and Group superiors in all matters, even when we think they are wrong.

Now, number 1, of course, is the teaching of the Church herself; the sine qua non of Catholic ecclesiology and the basis for our moral system and the proper formation of conscience. But number 2 is an exaggeration of the Church’s understanding of the special ("extradordinary") charisms an individual may receive from God by means of a community or form of spirituality. For those who believe they have a call, the practice of a certain spirituality within a specific community may indeed be their particular way of living out the universal Christian charism; but it is not sine qua non (required for salvation), and can never (should never attempt to) contradict or usurp the ordinary means of Grace, or the Church’s universally established teachings on faith and morals.

To most of us, the notion that a Founder’s charism might give him (or his group) "special" permission in "special" circumstances (because of "all the good it does") to keep a mistress, or abuse young men, or misuse funds, or cook the books, or lie (even to the Vatican and members of the Curia) to maintain appearances, or hide crimes and malfeasance from legitimate authority, or vilify critics and ex-members, or insist that members receive spiritual direction only from "loyal" priests, or demand the kind of absolute obedience, reverence and freedom from criticism that not even the Pope could or should enjoy, is complete (and malignant) nonsense. Unfortunately, the more the group resembles a cult, whatever its originally Catholic mission, and whatever its canonical status (which is never "once and for all", incapable of being withdrawn) the more the importance of the Group or Founder’s "charism" is exaggerated; even to the pointing of trumping, as it were, the Church’s teaching on its own nature.

The Group/Founder with an exaggerated, even Narcissistic, sense of its/his own grace and mission will accomplish this dangerous control of otherwise good Christian consciences by means of the methods mentioned in an earlier section. They/he will also do it by imposing the constant repetition of slogans and prayers referencing the Group’s or Founder’s charism; by ceaselessly assuring members that the approbation the Group/Founder has received from the hierarchy is sufficent cause for trust that everything the Group/Founder does or demands is "of the Holy Spirit"; by constantly referencing the "good fruits" achieved by the Group in terms of conversions, growth in membership, or support (especially financial) from famous or important Catholics. Every community meditation is on the glories of the Group/Founder, and how members should serve and be grateful to it/him; every homily is about the Group/Founder and the graces received from it/him.

Given the power of human concupiscence, with its temptations to lust, greed, pride, anger, or the desire for power, if this sort of overheated and imbalanced "spiritual formation" goes unchecked by legitimate ecclesial authority, disaster and scandal in some form is inevitable. It is also likely to overshadow, to say the least, all the "good fruits" for which members have offered up countless prayers and sacrifices. The whole Church suffers.

The False Conscience in a Concrete Situation

As I have been proposing in this series, these types of uncanonical practices are, alas, hardly exclusive to the Legionaries or Regnum Christi. They flourish in other movements as well and carry the same potential for serious abuse. Even when the abuse does not reach the extreme of covering sexual crimes, the damage done to individual Christians — to their faith, conscience, and trust in the goodness of God — can be severe. The fact that the patterns of abuse can go on for years, without ecclesial intervention (whether because of ignorance, or indecision, or turning a blind eye because “so much good is being done”), extends the damage to the whole Church.

The crux of the problem of the creation of “false conscience” in abusive movements is the attempt to impose a model of religious obedience that in any given situation trumps all other considerations, including the Church’s own standards for operating set down in canon law, obligations due legitimate authority “outside” the movement, whether ecclesial or secular, and even Church teachings and the plain meaning of the Gospel. In a manner reminiscent of war criminals excusing their behavior with the “I was just obeying orders”, abusive spiritual leaders will often misappropriate and exaggerate concepts of religious obedience for their own ends — e.g., by taking literally the Ignatian dictum that one should “be a corpse in the hands of his superiors.” In so doing, abusive organizations put their members in the absurd and spiritually damaging situation of being made to feel guilty for doing good or for refusing to do evil; for following one’s conscience, even when one’s conscience is in accord with the teachings of Christ and the Church . Like Cardinal Newman, who in spite of all his learning and wisdom was troubled by the deeply ingrained “false conscience” that the pope was the Antichrist — this, for years after he knew on every rational and theological level that it was nonsense — it may take years for the victim of an abusive organization to free himself emotionally and spiritually from the truly evil notion that one can do no evil as long as it is commanded by a superior and is intended for the furtherance of an organization which aims to “save souls”.

As a reminder that the Legionaries are far from being the only group accused of this kind of warped and warping formation, I’d like to share a friend’s story told me some years ago, which occurred in a different movement.

A well-educated cradle Catholic who had undergone an intense “reversion” experience, my young friend joined a Catholic lay organization with canonical status and an evangelistic mission. Eventually he took a paid position at the organization’s headquarters. This involved uprooting his young family to another state; but though initially excited to be given the privilege of earning a living, however modest, while working “for the Church”, the young man quickly discovered, however, that in this new ecclesial movement, twelve and fourteen hour work days, six and even seven days a week were the norm. The young man’s work was largely oriented towards recruitment and fundraising activities, and the long hours were intersperse with lengthy chapel prayers and retreats, led by the group’s Founder, whose primary purpose at the pulpit seemed to be to stir his followers to increasing levels of commitment and obedience to “the charism of the Founder”. At all times, what “was good for the organization” was equated with what was good for the Church.

Whatever the Founder’s “charism”, however, far from inducing a joyous or prayerful Christian atmosphere in the organization, the Founder’s temperament, even at the lectern, was so angry, negative and paranoid in tone that work became a living Purgatory — this, while the Founder waxed thoughtful, meditative, pious, and self-deprecating among visiting prelates or long-distance members on retreat. According to my young friend, the “cognitive dissonance” he experienced on a daily basis was acute.

Moreover, as the young man (and others who worked at the center) soon learned, the Founder’s strict Catholic faith did not prevent him from “playing hard ball”, as he liked to put it, both within the organization, in his treatment of underlings, and in business dealings with members or vendors in the local and wider Catholic community. This “hard ball” was excused by comments like, “even the saints had faults”, or “if you think this is tough, try the Legionaries or Opus Dei”, or by a constant name-dropping of all the ecclesial higher-ups who supported the organization’s mission, but who (of course) had no idea how things were run on the ground. (Visiting clergy and hierarchy were kept busy doing promotional video shoots and steered clear of potential contacts with lower-rung members who could not be trusted to be discreet.)

According to the young man, the Founder once claimed that “24 hours of a member’s day belong to the organization”. He made the message stick by putting families “under obedience” to send their children to certain schools, or to live in the neighborhood of his choice. The primary role of spouses and families, according to the Founder, was to “free up the member for his vocation”, primarily by not complaining when wife and children never saw their husband/father. Single or married, all members were admonished never to discuss group issues with “outsiders”, even their parish priests in the confessional.

Eventually, the Founder began choosing members’ “spiritual advisors” for them, and often this person, usually a layman, was also the member’s work supervisor. As may be imagined, our young man began to feel as if a noose were tightening around his neck, and that of his entire family, and began to question whether the organization was as much “of the Holy Spirit” as he had originally thought. When the young man discovered, much to his Founder’s chagrin, what was in the code of canon law about how ecclesial movements should be run, or how the volunteers under his supervision should be treated, he began to see the handwriting on the wall. In this troubled state of mind he prayed for guidance, for some “sign” as to what he should do, especially since he had learned to be afraid, given the Founder’s tendency to make public Judases out of anyone who crossed him, of what would happen if he tried to leave. In desperation, the young man began a nine-day novena to the Divine Mercy.

While this was taking place, the young man had been set to work on an advertising insert for the organization, to be placed in a widely circulated Catholic newspaper. Part of a very expensive media campaign, the group’s Founder was very excited about the fundraising possibilities from the insert, and was expecting a large return on the organization’s investment. But in the course of his work, the young man had been warned by the advertising specialist who was printing the insert, and who had much experience with Catholic media campaigns, that such inserts rarely produced enough even to cover expenses. The young man informed the leader of the advertiser’s warning, both in person and in a written memo, and the potential for failure was discussed in meetings with the Founder and several of the administrative staff; but the leader overruled all objections, so convinced was he that God was going to bless the group with a great fundraising success.

The media insert did indeed turn out to be a miserable failure in terms of fundraising, and the organization was suddenly faced with thousands of dollars of debt, some of it owed to the newspaper, some of it to the advertiser who had printed the piece. Rather than accept the consequences of his executive decision, however, the Founder tried to blame the failure on his staff’s lack of faith and negative attitude. Then he ordered my young friend to write a letter, in the young man’s name, not the Founder’s, stating that the advertiser — the very man who had warned them all of the likelihood of failure if fundraising was the objective — had given him “positive assurances” that the organization would at least get back its investment on the project. My young friend, who believed that the Founder was intending the proposed letter as a preliminary to refusing to pay what was owed, and possibly even to setting him up as a “fall guy” if things devolved into legal action, reminded the Founder that not only was what he was suggesting a lie, but that the advertiser was himself a good Catholic and conscientious business man with a young family to support, and shouldn’t be out thousands of dollars because of the organization’s actions.

Notwithstanding, the Founder insisted that the letter he was asking for was all “standard business practice” and that the young man should be able to write the letter in good conscience. (The Founder, by the way, had recently made himself the young man’s “spiritual adviser” as well as his boss.)

This confrontation took place on the last day of our young man’s novena to the Divine Mercy. As dreadful as it was, he was almost relieved to receive so clear a sign as to the nature of his situation, and whether something was terribly wrong in that organization, and he realized he needed to figure out how to get out of there as soon as possible. He refused to write the letter, of course, and told the Founder, who was not pleased, that if he felt that was the truth in his conscience, he would have to write the letter himself. (He never did, as far as my young friend knew, nor did he ever find out what went down with the advertising debt.)

I don’t want to make this episode sound like it was a simple matter of conscience for our young group member, because by his account, it was excruciating, a true dark night of the soul. He was only able to “do the numbers” finally about the organization because a situation had arisen with a (to him) crystal clear moral resolution, whatever his Founder’s insistence that it was an ordinary business matter, or that it was spiritual pride on his part to insist on his own discernment over that of the Founder of an organization that enjoyed so much ecclesial support. But by this time my young friend had already given several years of his (and his family’s) life to the organization, and the pressure subsequently put on him, before he could finally extricate himself, was intense. It included variations on shunning, the back-chatted circulation of calumnies, and even the suggestion on the part of a priest attached to the group that the young man needed an exorcism to dispel a spirit of rebellion. (This same priest, who reported directly to the Founder, had a disturbing tendency to ask my young friend, during their confessions/conferences, whether “we are still in the seal of the confessional”. On at least one occasion my friend heard the Founder repeat something to him that he had only told the priest, and in what he thought had been the context of confession.)

After that, the young man told me, he was in so much spiritual pain that the next time he went to Mass, when he remembered that his Founder (and the too-compliant priest) went to Communion every day, he could barely summon the will to go to Communion himself, and the Body of Christ tasted like ashes on his tongue.

(Some of my readers may recognize part of this from my novel: the young man’s story made such an impression on me that I ended up using it in a fictionalized form. I mean, who could make this stuff up? )

I’m not sure what religion this is, but anyone who thinks that it is in this manner that souls will be led to a salvific encounter with Christ are tragically mistaken. Moreover, movements such as these, however much they tout their spiritual success, tend to display a pattern of revolving-door memberships, a small cadre (”Gideon’s Army”) of no-matter-what devotés, and a trail behind them littered with spiritual and psychological casualties — ex-members who are too battered or frightened to raise the general alarm, and wouldn’t know how to do so even if they had the will for it. The problem is, too many of our young people and laity, even priests, are simply not well formed enough (outside the hothouse environment of the movement itself) to discern the difference between true religious obedience and the abnegation of one’s personal spiritual or moral duty when a “superior” comes between.


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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