Charisms Don’t Make You a Saint

Date: August 10, 2011
Category: Other

by Mark P. Shea

One of the big puzzles that many Catholics have grappled with in recent years is the baffling phenomenon of some charismatic figure (one thinks of a Rev. Marcial Maciel, for instance) who can, for years, inspire or otherwise offer blessing and solace to good and decent Christians who are full of faith and obedient to the Church. Said figure can preach or write clear and engaging explications of the Faith. He can do all sorts of wonderful things that help struggling souls find healing, that give new purpose to the hopeless, and that help the lost discover the riches of grace in Christ. He is beloved by his devotees– and not without reason.

And yet that charismatic figure then turns out to be bound up with very serious sin or even shown to be, as in Father Maciel’s case, a monster of diabolical proportions.

It’s a question that haunts people in the wake of the Maciel debacle and of similar falls. On the one hand, you had people — aware of the evidence pointing to a radically duplicitous life — pointing and waving at the flashing red lights and loud warning klaxons that were sounding with ever greater shrillness while the evidence piled up that the Beloved Hero was an utter fraud.

On the other hand, you had lots of people, very good people — a blessed pope, even — trusting men like Father Maciel and simply unable to bring themselves to believe that the people waving their hands and shouting warnings could possibly be right. Some of them even attacked the critics and whistleblowers as enemies of the Church, motivated by evil spirits or malice or worse. And oftentimes the (very reasonable) thing holding them back from so much as letting themselves suspect the fraud was, in part, that Jesus Himself had said:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Mt 7:15-20)

“So there you are!” said the defenders of “solidly orthodox” scoundrels like Father Maciel. “His fruit” — by which they meant orthodox preaching or writing, inspirational talks, various things done that they found helpful, illuminating, moving, healing, or motivational –”is good. I’ve experienced his fruit in my own life! He was an instrument of healing and conversion for me. He saved my soul! He brought me into the Church. He taught me my faith straight from the Catechism, and it changed my life. I will be grateful to that man till the day I die. So he can’t be a bad tree! Anybody who says otherwise simply has to be motivated by hatred of the Church, envy, or just plain Satan.”

And then it all comes out. The guy was a fraud. He’d been playing his adulators for suckers for years, lying to them all and even using them as human shields to protect himself while he subtly worked them into a fury against his critics, investigators, and accusers (all while adopting a properly martyred pose of patient resignation to persecution, of course) and sent them out to shout down and destroy the whistleblowers and witnesses to his perfidy.

Everybody is stunned. They have to work through all the stages of dying to reach the place where they really do admit to themselves that they were not just suckers, but suckers who persecuted whistleblowers on behalf of the guy who suckered them. How could they have gotten played so badly? There is a period of mourning — and then we move on to believing completely in the next guy with a gift of gab or a knack for writing snappy prose/singing catchy Christian tunes/making popular Christian movies. Pretty soon we have that guy on the fast track to canonization, and if somebody says that there’s something sketchy about him… well, just look at his fruits! How can he possibly have something seriously wrong with his credibility?

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…

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