Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Let the one without sin cast the first stone


The Legion of Christ religious order was hit today by another scandal after one of its best known priests, the Rev. Thomas Williams, an American moral theologian, prominent author, lecturer, and television personality admitted he had fathered a child.

Fr. Williams said  in a statement he was "deeply sorry for this grave transgression" against his vows of celibacy and that he would be taking a year off to reflect on what he had done and his commitment to the priesthood.

The Legion has been beset by scandal following revelations that its late founder, the Rev. Marciel Maciel, fathered three children and sexually abused his seminarians. Maciel died in 2008 and in 2009 the Legion admitted to his crimes.

Williams, the author of "Knowing Right From Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience," taught theology, promoted his books and lectured.
His personal website, which lists his numerous books, speaking engagements, articles and appearances as a CBS commentator, has been taken down. Fr. Williams, who is currently undergoing medical treatment for a form of cancer, said he’s likely to spend his year with his parents in Michigan.

In an email sent to all Legion priests that accompanied Williams' announcement, Fr. Luis Garza, who heads the Legion in the U.S., said he was relaying the news with great sadness given the Legion's recent turmoil. He said, “I hope that you will join me in praying for all those who have been affected by his actions, and for Father Williams during his time of prayer, penance and renewal of his priestly ministry.’ Fr. Oscar Nader, the territorial director for Italy, (Williams resides in Rome), sent a similar message.

I don’t have much to add except to say:

I wish the Legionary superiors would have been as immediate and forthright in their communications about the scandal caused by their founder, Fr. Maciel. 

A priest, especially one who is as well known as Fr. Williams, who has gravely sinned in his ministry is a difficult challenge.  Trust has been broken. Spiritual lives may have been destroyed.  The hierarchy, Legionary superiors, and his fellow priests now have to live with and help their "fallen" brother.  In marriage both parties are married "for better or for worse."  A priest is part of his community for better or for worse.  So, just as spouses have to try to love each other even despite grave failings, so must the Church, through the Bishops, superiors, and the rank and file faithful love their "fallen" priests back from sin.

Fr. Williams has contracted serious responsibilities with his child and the child’s mother. As a parent he must do what is right for the child. It will be no less a challenge to work for reconciliation with the Church family as well.  No easy task.

Hence, I note that I appreciate Fr. Garza asking others to join him in prayer for Fr. Williams and for those affected by his actions. We have heard much from the Catholic Church hierarchy regarding the need for healing and reconciliation for the victims of priests and for their accusers. We rarely hear of prayer requests for brother priests who have fallen yet we glibly profess in our Creed that “we believe in the forgiveness of sin.” 

More than one priest has been heard to exclaim “God always forgives; man sometimes forgives; the Church never forgives.” That cannot make us proud.

Some of those who comment on the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi have already unleashed predictable mudslinging and are engaging in judgmental analysis of Fr. Williams, a case that provides more grist for their mill. I’d like to suggest that we are dealing with a tragedy: a mother, a child, and a priest-father who no doubt have been going through a living hell for the past three years.  In “Driving Straight on Crooked Lines” I wrote, “In the Gospel of John, in the New Testament, we read the story of a woman caught in adultery. This story, beloved for its revelation of God's mercy, is found only in John. It was almost certainly not part of his original Gospel. The law condemned the woman’s sin, and therefore people condemned her. However, Jesus didn’t condone her sinful act - instead, he called for the one without sin to cast the first stone. In this, Jesus invites us to reflect on ourselves, before we dare to judge others. It reminds me of Saint Augustine’s comment, pointing out we’re in danger from both hope and despair - we can have a misguided optimism that tells us, "God is merciful, do as you please," or a despair that says, "there’s no forgiveness for the sin you have committed." John’s story shows we should keep these two tendencies in balance. Jesus doesn’t explicitly forgive the woman, but by not condemning her, and telling her not to sin again, forgiveness is implicit.” 

With regard to our criticism of individuals involved with the Legionaries of Christ, I say let’s sober up and stop dethroning God from the judgment seat. Let’s reflect on our own human frailty before we so arrogantly choose to dare to judge others.

Frankly, I think it’s despicable to use Fr. Williams in order to engage in more puritanical muckraking and self-righteous criticism of a religious congregation that Benedict XVI explicitly wants to save. Do the Legionaries have serious problems? You bet! Was Fr. Maciel a criminal?  No doubt! Has Fr. Williams messed up big time? Obviously! Is the Legion undergoing a process of deep reform? Apparently so. Does all of this give a bunch of whining “Holy Joes” free license to vent their anger, frustration, and personal problems in the name of “healing” and “recovery?” No way.

As I recall, Jesus advised that “the one without sin cast the first stone.” It is indeed a challenge to advocate forgiveness and reconciliation in this Church of ours. It is said that “Priests carry a treasure in vessels of clay.” Sometimes those vessels get broken. They need healing too.


Anonymous said...

thank you for this balanced insight. We are all weak, and there is never a time for 'see I told you so' as some over on Life After RC are jumping to. I heard once 'after you sin the devil tries to give you back your shame, yet to get you to sin he takes shame away.' God bless all of us involved in LC/RC, past, present and future.

Anonymous said...

I agree this situation is very sad. It's always sad to see a priest suffer such a humiliation. The scandal is yet another blow to the Church.

It would be interesting Monk if you could offer an organizational perspective on how this was handled/could have been handled.

I agree that we are all weak. However, it's hard not to focus on the hypocrisy of a moral theologian who has written books such as "Knowing Right From Wrong". I know when I suffer humiliation, I usually have to concede it was deserved/necessary. If Fr TW is feeling shame, maybe it's just what he needs, and God knows it and has allowed it. Maybe he'll emerge from this crisis a better man and priest.

Anonymous said...

What Fr. Williams did is obviously wrong and a great scandal to both the Legion and the Church. Yet I empathize with Fr. Williams and his parents and siblings - I would never want my sins to be known by all, much less by my immediate family. What a terrible burden that would be. That burden is certainly part of his punishment, but it remains a terrible burden nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

I would never hope for my sins to be known by all either. I hope you hold this sentiment every time you hear about the fall of any public figure - actor, athlete, politician.

Fr TW is a public figure, known for speaking and writing about matters of morality. We held him up as a moral authority and spiritual guide. Learning about his moral indiscretions is therefore very compelling. It's like a pro athlete, admired for his skill and sportsmanship, later revealed to be involved in steroid use, or gambling. It is shocking. This is what we do when our heroes let us down. We talk about it.

If we're going to preach at people about how they ought to respond to the shameful revelations about Fr TW, we better be prepared to respond in a Christian manner every time a public figures stumbles.

poman said...

Monk, thanks again for a thoughful and balanced insight, once again. I've pretty much quit reading most blogs, but yours I still go to immediately. I like that you never shy away from legitimate criticism, but do so with a good dose of humility and charity.

As someone who has been in RC for awhile, and continues to be, this is a tough blow. I expect to see ripple effects in the membership. Some will leave out of disillusionment, and some out of fatigue. Ultimately, we need to pray for Fr. Thomas, the mother and child, and all whose faith is being affected.

Anonymous said...

It is a good analysis, but i belive it is too radical.
If the superiors have so much responsibility, neither Santa Teresa, or St. Francis or St. Ignatius of Loyola or Santo Domingo, with all the experience as a founders or reformers, from this viewpoint, none could rule the congregation today.
I think it is important to believe that God has allowed its development with the help of many people in good faith

Frank said...

Excellent blog -- I just discovered it while searching for info about the Cristeros War.

But I question your assessment of reactions to Fr. Williams' "fall." True enough, cases like this spur many to a judgmental and puritanical attitude. And at a human level I do empathize with anyone who fails in the sexual arena.

But I also think we have no keep in mind the seriousness of what Fr. Williams has done.

--He not only fathered a child, but he denied his own child's existence.
--At the same time he relentlessly promoted himself as a public spokesman for the Church and LC.
--And on top of all that, he also continued to present himself as a teacher of morals and the spiritual life, even going so far, as you noted, to write books purporting to tell people how to discern right from wrong.

The hypocrisy and the heartlessness of this course of action are truly breathtaking. What man with an ounce of moral decency would not turn to his superiors and say, if nothing else, that he simply could not continue in his public role? Assuming Fr. Williams' child is still in fact a child, what did Fr. Williams suppose -- that the child would never know his father? Or that the child would be content knowing his own existence must be kept secret?

As a child abandoned by my own father, I frankly have no room for sympathy with a man who does this sort of thing.

And the fact that he did it as an LC priest!! Astounding ... truly astounding. Can anyone seriously deny that Fr. Williams must have learned well the lessons taught by his cult's founder? -- And by this I mean the implicit lessons of secrecy, hypocrisy, and deception Maciel taught in order to protect his own demonic lifestyle.

Anonymous said...

Nearly 6 months ago, the "public" learned of Fr. Williams' transgressions. Then, as now, I am saddened for him and for his family. My heart aches for him and for those he has hurt.

I am currently reading your delightful book, "Driving Straight on Crooked Lines". Wow. I hope to finish the book this weekend -- it is an easy read that is not easy to put down. With each turned page, I cannot help but wonder how similar Fr. Williams' experiences were. He entered the LC about the time you left. Had anything changed? As often as he was in NYC for television appearances, was he allowed to visit his family in Michigan? Or, was there still a limit on family contact?

As I read your book, and think about Fr. Williams, I pray he is, in fact, in Michigan with his parents. I pray they are deprogramming him from the brainwashing. I pray he can find happiness and tranquility -- peace.

And, you know, maybe someday down the road, Fr. Williams will write his own memoir so his public knows he healed and is OK. :)