The pope's envoy running the disgraced Legion of Christ religious order says the 1,000-plus rules governing the cult-like life of some of its members are invalid and will be whittled down to a core set of norms.
The rules that the Legion's consecrated women and men live under cover everything from how to eat a piece of bread (tear off bite-size pieces, don't bite into it) to what they can watch on television to how they interact with outsiders and family members.
Pope Benedict XVI took over the Legion last year after the order admitted its Mexican founder sexually abused seminarians and fathered three children. A Vatican investigation determined he was a fraud and discovered serious spiritual and psychological abuses within the Legion and its consecrated branch _ abuses the pope's delegate says he's now trying to fix.
The Legion scandal ranks as one of the worst in the 20th century Catholic Church since Pope John Paul II held the Legion's late founder the Rev. Marciel Maciel up as a model, even though the Vatican knew for over a decade about credible allegations he was a pedophile.
One of the greatest scandals concerning the Legion's consecrated members is that for years they were told that the 1,000-plus rules they lived by had been approved by the Vatican, when in fact only 128 general statutes had been approved.
Former members have complained that they were told that disobeying any one of the rules was tantamount to disobeying God's will _ a heavy onus that created an unhealthy striving for perfection over the most meaningless of norms.
But in a Nov. 21 letter, the pope's delegate for the Legion, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, said the rules had no legal status since they were never officially approved. He said a small commission would be formed soon to "extract" from the rules only those that are "strictly necessary" for the life and governance of the group.
This core set of rules will guide the consecrated until their whole governing statutes are revised, he wrote. Significantly, this revision process will be carried out almost independently of the Legion _ part of the autonomy De Paolis envisages for the consecrated members.
The rules aren't public but were at one point posted on Wikileaks. The etiquette norms specify how to eat specific types of food: an orange (with a knife and fork); spaghetti (cut, not rolled around a fork) and chicken (with a knife and fork, except on picnics when it can be eaten with fingers).
Members have defended the rules as a way to create unity in an international movement with people from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Critics have said the excessiveness of rules masks a lack of spirituality and constitutes a red flag about the cult-like nature of the movement.
Mary DeGoede, a consecrated woman at the Mater Ecclesiae College in Rhode Island, recently blogged about some of the "idiosyncrasies" of her life in the movement, including living in a dorm of 18 women and shooting out of bed at the crack of dawn.
"When was the last time you used a fork and knife to eat an orange? How about a buffalo wing?" she wrote on the movement's blog. "I find myself alternately amused and alarmed that this type of behavior no longer strikes me as the least bit strange."
She said her family and old friends tease her about the rules she follows "but I find these odd habits endearing. Maybe it's because they're a sign of the deep unity that underlies our life together."
The consecrated women live like nuns, teaching in Legion-run schools and running retreats, youth programs and other initiatives to raise money and attract new members to the Legion's lay branch Regnum Christi.
They have no legal status in the church, however, since they're not members of a religious order like nuns are and aren't members of an independent institute of consecrated life.
In his Nov. 21 letter, De Paolis said members must now reflect on what type of canonical status they should have as an autonomous movement from the Legion.
Some "dissident" Legion priests and many former Legionary priests have complained that De Paolis isn't moving decisively enough to reform the order and that none of the Legion's superiors have been disciplined for having covered up for Maciel.
Dozens of priests, more than 200 seminarians and hundreds of consecrated women have left the movement since the scandal broke in 2009.