Manipulating Virtue to Build a House of Cards - Reflections on LC/RC
What is the most that Catholic parents can give their children? An appreciation for who they are as children of God, to know the name of their Redeemer and the price He paid for their sins, a good, solid family life in the Domestic Church, and an understanding of the grave battle of good versus evil that will prevail in our midst unto the consummation of the world. It would seem that these things are enough, but they are not – for unless a person also understands his free will and how to discern his vocation amidst all the confusion of the world, he may fall prey to those who would even misappropriate the truths of the faith for a dubious end.
I note these observations as a wife and mother, a Catholic familiar with the Legionaries of Christ for over a dozen years in a variety of locations, and a former member of the Regnum Christi lay Movement. What led me to the following conclusions is not so much my catechesis in the faith, which is quite thorough, but actually my brokenness and human malformation which finally has made clear where some of the defects of the spiritual direction lie. Let me first be clear in stating that there is nothing unorthodox about the faith as proposed by life in the Movement, nor would they ever offer any teaching contrary to the Magisterium of the Church – herein lies the attraction this group holds in the eyes of Catholics weary of liturgical abuses and timid shepherds. Neither would I ever accuse any particular member of duplicity or lack of sincerity in his zeal for souls or enthusiasm for strengthening the Church at large. Virtually every member I have met on every level has been burning with love of Christ and earnest in his or her desire to bring Gospel values to a thirsting world. The problem rather lies in the methodology and its manipulation of “virtue.”
Charity and Unity
The watchwords of the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi Movement (for brevity, from herein, I will refer to the “Movement” to indicate both the clerical and the lay sides) are charity and unity. Clearly, these are two key virtues and they indicate the priority that Christ put on love, as the only supernatural virtue that would last and His great desire for unity among His followers, as indicated in His Final Discourse. The only drawback possible in speaking about charity and unity are the way in which they are lived in the Movement.
The prime vice to be fought at all cost in the Movement is negativity – found in speaking forthrightly about the defects of others, discussing the actions of others in anything less than positive words, repeating details of unfortunate events or conversations that have taken place, or relaying any information that does not speak well of persons, apostolates, or institutions. I received this teaching as Christ-centered and tried to live up to always speaking positively of people and events. It was even stressed that to recount a sin was to commit that sin again in the telling, and we were to console Christ by living charity in this way.
It took me years to see that defining charity in this way led to harm on several levels. First of all, it was impossible to truly gauge what was happening in some apostolates and sections because honest assessments were not allowed. Assuming the best of intentions and putting a positive spin on events made for upbeat conversations, but they were ultimately based on an inherent dishonestly. After years of only speaking well of everything and hoping that the appropriate fraternal corrections were being made by the right people, each member of the women’s section found herself isolated in her frustrations, alone in her assessments, and unable to clarify what was truly wrong with the apostolic work she was trying to achieve. Forbidden from frank speech because of the tenor and charism of perpetually happy conversations around her, she has been taught it is a grave sin against charity to speak – dare we say, honestly!
Having been raised in a dysfunctional home and being familiar with the duplicity of alcoholism, it is evident that pretending all is well and refusing to name certain wrongs can be part of enabling behavior. To feed lies in the name of unity and to preserve peace at any cost is a way of life that many are familiar with – and yet it can be a sign of strikingly unhealthy life. Repeating expected responses, parroting platitudes, and creating perpetually positive environments is unrealistic and unsettling to the observer. One wonders about the authentic individuality that is sacrificed for the ideal, even when the ideal is supposed to be Christ. The similarities between ignoring the proverbial “elephant in the living room” and the honest realities of day to day life in a fallen world leave much room for thought to the honest person.
The harm to children can be immense when they are encouraged to ignore their feelings of dislike, their very instincts that are instructing them to back away from a person or an activity for whatever reason. Not all people are likeable, many perfectly acceptable activities are unpalatable to some people, and the unique characteristics of all must be respected. Thus, children are undermined in an important way when they are constantly told to be positive, to embrace everyone cheerfully, and to participate in group activities generously against even their own maturing instincts. This is not charity but plastic happiness; children who are perpetually unable to express dark feelings or negative reactions in a misguided attempt to “fight sin” will not know themselves as Christ would want them to which is essential to maturing and deepening real charity in their lives. Feelings are not sins and authentic reactions have to be respected in their own right for the sake of the dignity of the child.
On both the child and the adult level, the unity forced by this type of charity is not authentic either but forced and superficial. On a theological level in dialogue between denominations, there are members of the faithful who want to share Holy Communion with others outside the Catholic Church as a step towards unity of all Christians, and yet the Church says no. Her firm teaching is that unity will flow from sharing in the fullness of the truth first, not that outward appearances of unity will lead to mutual understanding. In the same way in the Movement, we see that such unity based on inhibition of true feelings, lack of honest dialogue, and less than total respect for authentic relationships is not real unity but lockstep conformity, cookie cutter spirituality, and false joy. The disparity will finally come out in one form or another, and indeed does in one disillusioned member after another leaving the group.
One of the most dangerous approaches to the discernment of vocations – both to the consecrated life and the priesthood – is generosity. Though countless anecdotes and testimonies, it is clear that all young men and women who are received into the Movement’s houses of formation for discernment are encouraged to be generous with God. Who could dispute the need for that! But with young souls who have been well-catechized in the truths of their faith, this virtue has a tendency to be manipulated. It would appear – granted, from the outside looking in – that the default mode is that all persons are assumed to have a vocation; it is simply then a question of generosity. Elbow to elbow with zealous young Catholics, the young person is compelled to forget himself, to sacrifice his or her comforts, and to give all to God, Who cannot be outdone in generosity. Even letters from home may encourage the same attitude and discourage negative thoughts or the possibility of leaving as “giving up.” Honest doubts are interpreted as temptations of the devil which have to be banished.
To suggest that one may not have a vocation is simply to cease to be generous with God and a sign of failure. This is not authentic discernment but coercion and group-think. Truly, heroic examples of virtue among one’s peers can spur on the faint-hearted but my assessment after many years on the atmosphere of these houses is not one of freedom and honest recollection but manipulation of piety and love of God to shame youngsters into stepping into vocations that may not truly be their calling. In allowing the child at a tender young age to live in this “atmosphere of discernment,” the parent is only exchanging one peer-group (the typical secular self-absorbed “mall rats”) for another peer-group – granted one that is focused on piety and virtue, but it is a peer-group none-the-less and has all the same tendencies to discouraging individuality and self-knowledge.
It is also evident that women are invited to consecrate themselves after a remarkably short association, with the understanding that their private promise is as binding before God as the vow of a religious sister. The difference is simply canonical in that her promise is to her superior rather than to a bishop. Many a young woman has “married Christ” within the structure of the Movement with less than a year of formation or discernment on the basis that others can “see her vocation,” even if she cannot. Knowing that the world is thirsting for chastity and eschatological signs of purity, surrounded by “generous” souls who compete in games of virtue, and guided by superiors who are encouraged to meet quotas, the young woman considering her vocation is prey to manipulation which, despite appearing to “build the Kingdom,” does not respect her freedom and latitude to really consider her future. She then joins a hierarchy of women who recruit others into their houses of formation and the cycle continues through schools, youth groups, and spiritual direction of other youngsters too immature to see possible manipulation of their good intentions. This is not to dispute the need to build the Kingdom of Christ, or the need to counter the widespread licentiousness with purity – but the atmosphere in the Movement is not free of coercion and peer-pressure of the very young to choose a way of life before they really can know themselves.
The guilt and anguish of women leaving this way of life is intense since they feel they have failed Christ, lacked in generosity, and reneged on a promise to God Himself. They cannot see that they were encouraged to take the promise without enough prior formation or that it was not entirely freely given. Like any person reeling after a divorce, the feelings of these people are dark and confused, with enough sorrows to last for years.
This virtue is extremely hard to discuss properly by lay persons who have not taken vows outside of marriage, thus I will give impressions solely concerning the docility of lay members of the Movement who receive spiritual direction in Regnum Christi. I speak here from first-hand experience as well as from a wide array of testimonies given in confidence when I say that it is enormously difficult after a while to trust direction given by an organization that has clearly defined goals that are based on numbers and pre-ordained avenues of apostolates. One is invited to join Regnum Christi after a very short introduction, sometimes within the course of a week-end retreat, and immediately told that “God saw you from all eternity as Regnum Christi.” One is taught that this is not an addition to one’s way of life but the very foundation of it and that there is a way of doing everything through the methodology. In fact, it is said that the methodology is blessed to the point that, like the Magisterium, one can never go wrong when using it. It is sufficient for holiness, it is comprehensive in scope enough to color one’s entire life, and integration with this methodology is a key pursuit of all members from that point on.
While in the Movement, I didn’t mind “the way of life,” which can be similar to the habits of any particular family (the way to say the rosary, which prayers to say at various points of the day, the vocabulary used for discussion, etc.) but what this subtly does is to allow the tentacles of the methodology to touch all aspects of prayer life until the Movement becomes essentially the gatekeeper between the soul and Christ. Since the normal daily, weekly, and monthly acts of piety are simply those of a serious Catholic, they cannot be seen as excessive, but appropriate to the life of any lay faithful. The problem becomes simply confusion over “ownership.” It becomes a “trademark” of sorts, as though these acts of piety performed (in a slightly unique way) become Movement property and cannot exist without the methodology afterwards. (After leaving, many acts of piety have to be dropped and picked up one by one in a fresh way, to appropriate them for their own beauty and value once again.)
Spiritual direction, based on a Program of Life, seems at first glance to be a marvelous way of pursuing self-knowledge and growth in virtue, but unfortunately as many have seen, it can be a subtle form of manipulation which ultimately serves the Movement and not necessarily the particular soul. We were told that the Holy Father specifically wanted the Regnum Christi Movement to grow a hundred-fold and thus recruitment was stressed at every turn. If one could see the good in one’s life that the Movement had helped to bring about, then one would want to share that good with everyone. Friends were targeted for recruitment, relationships were pursued for their possible help with the apostolates, and contrary to all teachings about the dignity of the human person for his own sake, all relationships were mined for “building Kingdom.” Souls were being lost, evil was permeating society, and no stone was to be left unturned in culling vocations to the Legion or Regnum Christi.
The greatest casualty of this zeal is the “domestic church” – the family. Children are encouraged to join youth groups according to age and sex where formation would take place, women would form women, men the men, business leaders the business leaders, college students the college students, and so forth. Each of our children had streamlined activities to the point that there was little family time left. If we were not at a meeting, performing a particular act of piety, on a retreat or at a recollection, we were praying over a list of potential recruits that would have otherwise simply been known to us as our friends or acquaintances. We were trained in Covey’s techniques of “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” for the sake of the Kingdom, and there was little genuine interaction left since, out of obedience and integration, all was for The Cause.
Thus spiritual direction no longer was a method of going deeper, being still with God, or climbing the ladder of perfection, it was a manipulative tool to serve an organization whose lifeblood was always new recruits and new sources of donations of money and precious time. Mothers became worn out and their children often took a back seat to Movement business. Discerning children tried to withdraw from their clubs and groups as a way of rebelling against the people who were causing the family to fray at the edges and yet their parents – through the same spiritual direction – clamped down against “sin and selfishness.” Obedience to this spiritual direction out of misguided virtue led to disobedience in the family and often was the very cause of such disharmony. “Putting on Christ” and outdoing one another for “all those souls” tragically has more than once undermined the souls closest to us and alienated them from the Christ they really need.
These brief reflections on some key virtues have been made to allow some to see the Movement from another perspective – from the point of view of a woman who did her best for many years to live the methodology and integrate her life according to how she was told that “Christ saw her from all eternity.” The freedom I felt at leaving the Movement was enormous and certainly unanticipated when I considered breaking away. I had anticipated suffering from guilt about letting Christ down, in imagining the souls that would perish due to my lack of generosity, and I knew that the compilation of testimonies gathered across the miles was defined as “backbiting” and “negativity” in Movement terminology. But there also came a tremendous freedom in speaking clearly, honestly, and forthrightly after so many years of gloss and spin. One can only really see the big picture when one does step out and ask for one’s real experiences with team life. What is astonishing is the similarity of experiences across the board, and it becomes evident that “charity and unity” – as used by Legion methodology – have become clever tools for what is essentially isolation and ignorance.
I love Christ, I am a faithful member of Holy Mother Church, and I want nothing more than to become a saint, but with the manipulation of virtue in the Movement, for whatever end-game, the house of cards of Regnum Christi cannot be one of the Mansions mentioned in the Gospels. The house I want is built with honesty, sincerity, and integrity which, in due time, I found that here are unfortunately in short supply.
To contact this author further about her testimony or with questions, please write to GiselleSteMarie@yahoo.com
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