In our egalitarian, self-governing society, built on the shoulders of hard-working individuals and “justice for all”, there’s something creepy about receiving free and unearned gifts from an omnipotent being who seeks your utter allegiance and will bind you to a destiny for all eternity. Either we’re talking here about an aspiring (and not-so-remote) socialist dictator, or a King that is not of this world.
In the theological context, “grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” (CCC 1996) It is a participation in the life of God, a distinct Other who has an intelligence and a will of his own, who makes plans of his own and executes them as he sees fit.
Grace is not always foreseeable because it is given, not earned. It is not a commodity that can be manipulated or service that must be rendered. It does not obey statistics or shift with the public opinion polls. No one, not even the holiest of saints, can stand at heaven’s gate and demand grace on his own merits. The sacraments and other means of sanctification are entirely God’s initiative. It stuns me to see devout young Catholics, wishing with all their heart they could enter the consecrated life, turn away because God is not calling them. So, every gift of grace implies that an Other is wholly present as protagonist and calls man to a mysterious life beyond any human experience.
Part of this mystery is how God only permits evil if he knows a greater good can be drawn from it. Violence, remarked Flannery O’Connor, is strangely capable of returning people to reality and “preparing them to accept their moment of grace.” Perhaps because violence strips, exposes, and debilitates the soul, preparing it to acknowledge its inherent weakness and its utter dependence on Someone greater. All of us would prefer that grace not arrive packaged in pain. But if it did, would we recognize it?
In March of 2011, Jesuit priest Gianfranco Ghirlanda gave a conference to the Legionaries of Christ in Rome on several topics dealing with charism and constitutions. Among them, he addressed the question of how it is possible that the grace of a charism could come through a corrupt and immoral founder.
The standard experience in our Christian life is that the presence of grace is somehow linked to holiness and virtue. We all know how the “you will know them by their fruits” argument was widely used as a defense for Maciel prior to 2009. The Catechism itself says that God’s blessings in our life are a guarantee that grace is at work in us (2005). Dom Chautard, in his popular spiritual work The Soul of the Apostolate, deems it impossible that a “false Christ” perform good works:
“Setting aside everything that works upon souls ex opere operato, God owes it to the Redeemer to withdraw from the apostle who is inflated with his own importance, all his best gifts, and to reserve these for the branch that humbly recognizes that all its life-sap comes from the Divine stock. Otherwise, if he were to bless with deep and lasting results the work filled with the poison of this virus we have called the Heresy of Good Works God might seem to be encouraging this abuse and favoring its contagious spread.”
And even though we know that the graces of the sacraments come to us independently of the holiness of the minister, we still feel cheated of grace when we confess to inattentive priests and attend sloppily celebrated Masses.
Ghirlanda’s conference was pivotal because it delved into the details necessary for analyzing a case as complex as Maciel’s: the key is to distinguish the types of graces and how each one works. The text of this conference, being an internal document, is not published for the public but Ghirlanda kindly gave me permission to cite it for this blog.
Ghirlanda turns to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas (Part I-II, question 111, and Part II-II, questions 171 and 172) to explain the workings of grace. Aquinas distinguishes between gratia gratum faciens, or sanctifying grace, and gratia gratis data, or “grace given freely”. Ghirlanda explains that the first is the grace “that unites man to God or permits him to acquire personal perfection”; it is grace given to make the receiver holy, to enable him to reach his final end. The second, however, is a means to this final end; it is grace given to one for the benefit and holiness of others. The Catechism also mentions these special graces, or charisms, which the Spirit gives to the faithful to make them “fit and ready to undertake various tasks and offices for the renewal and building up of the Church.” (798) These include the personal charisms –such as prophecy, curing and the discernment of spirits- and the collective charisms received by persons who found new religious institutes.
It makes sense that sanctifying grace is lost when a soul falls into a state of mortal sin. Charisms, on the other hand, are “given freely”. Paraphrasing St. Thomas, Ghirlanda notes that
The gratia gratis data, exceeding the natural faculties and going beyond personal merits, does not require the preliminary dispositions; a sinner can also receive it and not lose it by his faults: this even confirms its‟ character of gratuity.” The gratia gratis data, as for example prophecy, can exist without charity (cfr. 1 Cor. 13: 1-2), and thereby it can be in a person without sanctifying grace, that is, without good morals, and be of use to the Church, not having been given directly to the person because of their union with God. That is how prophecy, for example, can exist in those who do not belong to God by means of grace.
This explains that enigmatic passage in the Gospel of Matthew:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’” (7: 21-23)
Ghirlanda continues, “The mystery is in the fact that God can also use unworthy instruments to achieve his ends. The Spirit gives the charisms, but those who receive them can instrumentalize them for their advantage and not exercise them according to the will of God, but this does not mean that the gift of the Spirit in its origins has not been authentic.”
So now we come to a tough question: does this mean that it really made no difference that Maciel was not a saint? Is all his evil excused under the cover of gratia gratis data? Isn’t Dom Chautard right when he says “God owes it to the Redeemer” to make sure that bad people aren’t credited with good works? Don’t the Legionaries and Regnum Christi members deserve better than Maciel?
Nothing could be further from the truth to say that it made no difference. I’ve seen too many humiliated, depressed, bewildered, and tear-stained faces in the past four years to say there would have been no difference between a holy founder and a perverted one. Obviously, the great conundrum and tragedy is that Maciel did not incarnate the gifts he was given to give to others. Obviously, his case is exceptional and all means should be taken so that it does not repeat in the future on such a massive and detrimental scale.
Ghirlanda explains that “St. Thomas differentiates when a gratuitous grace comes given together with sanctifying grace, for the benefit of the one who receive it together with that of the others, producing friends of God and prophets at the same time; and when a grace comes given for the good of others, by which the person is only an instrument of God.” It is most fitting and most appropriate that those who receive charisms should be responsive to sanctifying grace, but St. Thomas does not dismiss the remote possibility that they be mortal sinners. He is not justifying bad behavior, but inviting us to explore the mysterious limitlessness and liberality of God’s action: we know that no founder can merit being a founder, but do we know it when a founder doesn’t merit being a founder?
In the end, anything that is good in Regnum Christi is from God, not from the founder or from the cofounders. But that would have been entirely true whether Maciel had been a great saint or a great sinner. His condition as a sinner just makes it easier to believe, and that is perhaps the good effect that God was hoping for.
(Next blog: Purifying the charism of the Legion and Regnum Christi)