"The Catholic Church has zero tradition of institutes of perfection being founded, directly or even indirectly, by predatory charlatans," the U.S. canonist Edward Peters, a consultant at the Vatican's high court, recently wrote on his blog.
E. Christian Brugger, professor of moral theology at the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado, said religious orders like the Jesuits or the Franciscans allow the faithful to follow Christ in a special way inspired by the order's founder. Maciel's fraud "throws into profound question the genuineness" of that inspiration, or charism, that attracted so many people to the Legion, he said.
The Legion's spokesman, the Rev. Benjamin Clariond, noted that several Vatican officials have said over the years that the Legion is a work of God. But he acknowledged that the charism was one of the "central issues" that will be discussed by the upcoming meeting.
De Paolis, 78, has essentially declared "Mission Accomplished." During his Dec. 14 homily to ordain 31 new priests into the order, De Paolis praised their tenacity, saying they had remained faithful to their vocation in the Legion as other Legion priests left when the going got tough.
Francis has already said De Paolis' term will not be renewed, but it remains to be seen what he will do with the order itself. Any more Vatican intervention would further tarnish the legacy of Pope John Paul II, a top Maciel defender whom Francis will canonize in April.
There's no timeframe for Francis to approve the outcome of the meeting, and he could opt to grant provisional approval. Legion officials expect a decision within a few months.
Many of those voting this week have been implicated in some the Legion's problems.
—One was accused of sexual abuse by a former member. The Legion insisted it couldn't corroborate the claim but restricted his ministry to keep him away from children.
—Another was implicated in U.S. court documents that found the Legion used undue influence to persuade an elderly widow to give $60 million to the order.
—And yet another, the current director general, admitted he knew that the Legion's public face, Thomas Williams, had fathered a child of his own and yet was allowed to continue teaching and preaching morality for years. Williams recently married the daughter of one of Francis' top advisers, the former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon.
A leading moral theologian, German Grisez, in 2009 wrote an open letter to his friends in the Legion, urging them to continue their service to the church but not in the Legion, which he said should be terminated and its members reconstituted into a new religious institute.
In a telephone interview last week, Grisez said he couldn't evaluate if the reform process had essentially accomplished what he had recommended.
"I don't think this is ideal," he said. "It may be that the process has been virtually the re-founding that I thought was necessary. But I don't know that that was the case."
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield
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