Cloaking Maciel in a Capuchin Hood

The search for historical parallels to the scandal involving the Legion of Christ is dubious.

Father Marcial Maciel (1920-2008), the founder of the Legion of Christ, was a vicious sexual predator, a child abuser, and so cynical and ambitious a manipulator of Church offices that he has evoked comparisons with the Borgias.

The Holy See released a statement in May 2010 declaring that Maciel’s behavior amounted to “real crimes,” and that his immoral and criminal conduct now has been established “by incontrovertible testimonies.” In fact, the totality of the evidence reveals in Maciel “a life devoid of scruples and authentic religious sentiment.”

The chief difficulty now for the religious community that Maciel founded is whether such a community can survive after crime, scandal, and depravity have so utterly disgraced its founder. This is a question of truly historic significance, not only for the Legion of Christ, but for all Catholics in religious life and indeed for the entire Church.

The primary role of religious communities in the Church is not to staff hospitals or to teach in schools, or even to care for the poor. Rather, the essential meaning and purpose of religious life is to present a uniquely public witness to the faith for the benefit of both the Church and the world (cf. canon 673; Vita consecrata, 20). The meaning of the uniquely religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience is to present a living image in this world of the age that is to come, that is, the heavenly marriage between Christ and the Church (cf. Perfectae Caritatis, 12, hereafter PC).

In living out this witness in a particular religious community, the person of the founder is crucial. This always has been the case, but the Church has accentuated the importance of religious founders even more in the Vatican II era (cf. Lumen Gentium, 45; PC, 2b; canon 578; Mutuae Relationes, 11). Thus, the Church constantly urges religious brothers and sisters to be faithful to the spirit and aims of their founders. As moral theologian Germain Grisez has noted, the position of a religious founder is unique in the Church. The reason is that the members of a religious community collaborate with their founder not simply during his tenure in office nor even for the span of his earthly life, but even after his death and for the entire life of the community, generation after generation.

In the case of the Legion, however, the founder turns out to have been an unfit model for either man or community. Can a religious community finding itself in this situation survive? For two years, the Legion’s defenders have been mining Church history in search of previous episodes that might provide cause for hope. It is entirely understandable that they would do so, and indeed, one of the great blessings of membership in our ancient Church is the opportunity to seek the counsel of a long and eventful history.

But which way does history in fact cut? The communities in whose history the Legion’s supporters have sought assurance are the Carmelites and the Capuchin Franciscans. Does this history uncover a previously trodden path leading away from scandal and forward into a thriving future, or does it rather reveal that the Legion remains in the midst of historically unprecedented difficulties?

Shortly after the definite revelation of Maciel’s double life in early 2009, Legion supporter Marjorie Campbell, writing for a blog run by Deal W. Hudson, appealed to the history of the Carmelites to provide encouragement to the Legion. This history demonstrates, she suggested, that a religious community can survive without a founder to provide inspiration (cf. M. Campbell, “American Papist Punk?” Deal Hudson blog, March 10, 2009).

The Carmelites have a history that is not only interesting, but almost certainly unique. The actual historical founder of the Carmelites and the date of the community’s founding have been lost to history. The earliest written record of the community is its rule. Albert, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, composed it for the Carmelites between 1206 and 1214. However, the Carmelites took Elijah the Prophet as their spiritual founder, claiming to perpetuate an ancient tradition of holy men living on Mount Carmel (cf. W. McGreal, At the Fountain of Elijah [1999], 19-20, 37-38).

The appeal of Carmelite history for the Legion’s supporters is that it demonstrates a community’s ability to survive and prosper for centuries even without an identifiable historical founder. But is the absence of a certain founder the same thing as the certain presence of a disgraced founder? The question almost answers itself.

In fact, the situation of the two communities is entirely different. The historical founder of the Carmelites is unknown, but the founder of the Legion is known all too well, and is known to have been a child abuser and a total fraud as a religious. As a result, the Carmelite solution of concretizing the tradition in the person of Elijah is unavailable to the Legion, first, because there simply is no doubt as to the Legion’s historical founder, and second, because the Legion never in fact claimed to perpetuate a specific, pre-existing religious tradition. If the Legionaries are to find support in Church history, they must look elsewhere.


Some Legion supporters make a bolder and more significant argument on the basis of the early history of the Capuchin Franciscans. They assert that the founders of the Capuchin branch of the Franciscan order engaged in gravely sinful and scandalous behavior, and argue that the Capuchin history proves that a religious community can overcome the deficiencies of its founders to become an exemplary community.

As an aside, the pedigree of the Legion’s Capuchin argument is curious. Following the definite revelation of Maciel’s double life in early 2009, the Capuchin argument appeared in many places. As far as I have been able to determine, however, throughout 2009 and for most of 2010, the argument remained “below the radar.” That is, it never appeared in a signed article, but instead was confined to informal personal conversations, website comment boxes, and meetings between Legion officials and Regnum Christi, the lay organization affiliated with the Legion. It was only in August 2010 that a signed article making this claim appeared. The piece was by Joan Kingsland, a member of Regnum Christi, and was posted on Regnum Christi’s blog (cf. J. Kingsland, “The Hawthornian Angle,” live.regnumchristi. org, August 16, 2010).

The essence of this argument has remained unchanged, although it has appeared in numerous places over the last few years: The Legion may be experiencing difficulties as a result of its founder’s vice, but even greater strife attended the founding of the Capuchins and that community nonetheless was able to survive and flourish. This argument certainly is more to the point than the Carmelite argument, and it deserves serious consideration.

The founding of the Capuchins was indeed marked by strife and turmoil, chiefly concerning adherence to the original Franciscan notion of poverty and simplicity. The original community of St. Francis dates to the 13th century, and the Observant Franciscans arose out of various 14th-century reforms seeking to recover primitive Franciscan simplicity. (In contrast to the Observants, the Franciscans not adhering to the reform were called the Conventuals.) In 1415, the Observants were recognized as a quasi-distinct branch of the Franciscans, and in 1517 as fully distinct (cf. New Catholic Encyclopedia, “Franciscans, Conventual”).

In time, however, the Observants came to relax the strictness of their adherence to the rule. In reaction, Matteo da Bascio sought and received the pope’s permission in 1525 to “observe the rule to the letter,” to wear a more primitive habit, and to live as an itinerant preacher. The primitive habit featured a long, pointed hood, or cappuccio, which would give its name to the new Capuchin community (cf. Father Cuthbert, The Capuchins [1929], vol. 1, pp. 17-20, 32-33; Catholic Encyclopedia, “Capuchin Friars Minor”).

Two other Observants soon joined Matteo. They were Ludovico da Fossombrone and his brother Raffaele. Ludovico eventually would cause serious difficulties for the Capuchins, but in the early days, he made many contributions and assumed responsibility for the governance of the community. Ludovico’s juridical role undoubtedly was important, “but all looked to Matteo as the father of the Reform” (Cuthbert, vol. 1, p. 52). This was the case despite the fact that Matteo never intended to found a new order, but rather sought only the freedom to adhere to the rule in its primitive integrity (cf. ibid., pp. 42, 59).

Matteo was elected the first vicar general of the Capuchins, but he resigned soon afterward to pursue his vocation as a wandering preacher and turned over governance of the Capuchins to Ludovico. Matteo eventually would return to the jurisdiction of the Observants, but he continues to be honored by Observant and Capuchin alike (cf. ibid., pp. 55-59, 106-107).

Ludovico presided over rapid growth of the movement, but he accepted brothers indiscriminately, even against the wishes of their superiors. In addition he ruled in an autocratic manner. “He gave the impression that he was merely an Observant in revolt rather than a true Capuchin” (ibid., p. 90). In 1535 the Capuchins elected Bernardino d’Asti vicar general in preference to Ludovico and excluded Ludovico from the leadership entirely. Ludovico reproached them, refused the customary obeisance to the new vicar general, and began to engage in intrigue against the Capuchins. The Capuchins expelled him for disobedience in 1536, and the pope excommunicated him (cf. ibid., pp. 93-99, 104-105).

The second brother to cause great harm to the Capuchins in the early years of the reform was Bernardino Ochino. He was the greatest preacher of his day and was elected to succeed Bernardino d’Asti as vicar general in 1538. However, some Church authorities came to suspect him of embracing Lutheran doctrines, particularly on justification. The pope summoned him to Rome, but rather than appear to answer the charges against him, Ochino fled to Geneva to join the Calvinists. His apostasy brought discredit upon the entire Capuchin movement, and it was widely assumed that the community would be suppressed (cf. ibid., pp. 135-138).

However, the new vicar general, Francesco da Jesi, prevailed upon the pope to spare the Capuchins, and Francesco, together with Bernardino d’Asti, led the movement to recovery from the scandal and renewal in the Capuchin vocation (cf. ibid., pp. 142-149; Catholic Encyclopedia, “Capuchin Friars Minor”). Although the Capuchins had been subject to the jurisdiction of the Conventual Franciscans since their establishment in 1528, the pope eventually would recognize them as an autonomous branch of the Franciscans in 1619.

Thus, turmoil certainly did attend the early years of the Capuchins, but this history provides no real refuge for the Legion. Two of the first five vicars general caused scandal and brought discredit upon the community, but the other three, including the founder Matteo, were holy men and caused no scandal. Moreover, both the actual founder and the man sometimes considered the true founder, Bernardino d’Asti, lived exemplary lives and are considered “Blessed” among the Capuchins (cf. Catholic Encyclopedia, “Capuchin Friars Minor”; New Catholic Encyclopedia, “Franciscans, Capuchin”).

Kingsland is indeed correct that scandal and strife harmed the Capuchins, but in sharp contrast to the Legion of Christ, the founder was not the source of the scandal—neither the actual founder, Matteo, nor the so-called “true founder,” Bernardino d’Asti, who shepherded the Capuchins through their early crises.

The Legion’s supporters can turn the Capuchin history to their advantage only by identifying all of the early Capuchins— Matteo, Ludovico, Raffaele, Bernardino d’Asti, and Bernardino Ochino—as founders, but this very tactic explodes the analogy between the Capuchins and the Legion. Even if it were legitimate in the case of the Capuchins to identify a circle of three or five brothers as founders, the fact is that the founding of the Legion was entirely different. The Legion was the vision of a single man, and that man was such a dominating figure that no other “true founder” could be identified except by falsifying history.

There is yet another difference between the Capuchin reform and the founding of the Legion that is even more essential. Moreover, it is one that vividly demonstrates the essential role of a religious community’s founder. Although the Capuchins were blessed with a holy founder (or possibly two holy founders), their movement was not so much a founding at all as it was a return to the original vision of St. Francis. Pope Paul III, despite his anger at the Capuchins over Ochino’s apostasy, acknowledged this reality. “‘You deserve to be wiped out from the Church,’ he told them, ‘but you have one who pleads in your favor, even your father, St. Francis: God wills to save you’” (Cuthbert, vol. 1, p. 142). The Legion, by contrast, did not aim to reform, or claim to belong to, any other religious community or tradition.

Some Legion supporters appeal to Capuchin history to argue against the necessity of a spiritual patrimony bequeathed by a founder, but in fact, this history demonstrates precisely the opposite. That is, it reveals the unique and crucial role of the religious founder. Moreover, it shows that a holy founder such as Francis can lavish a patrimony of such bounty on his children as to sustain them for century upon century, and of such splendor as to inspire them to ever more intense fidelity to his mind and spirit.


Thus, the history of neither the Carmelites nor the Capuchins provides the historical parallel that the Legion’s supporters seek. There simply is no earlier example of a religious congregation of pontifical right surviving the complete discrediting of its founder. (A couple communities of diocesan right have been visited with scandals involving their founders, but these communities are much smaller than the Legion and their cases are so recent that it remains unknown whether the communities will in fact recover from their scandals.)

However, there is one parallel with the Capuchins that should indeed provide some measure of comfort to the Legion. Although several commentators (including this one) have called for the suppression of the Legion in the wake of the Maciel disgrace, the Holy Father determined instead to appoint an apostolic delegate to accompany the Legion and Regnum Christi on a “journey of purification.” It seems that the Legionaries, like the Capuchins before them, are to be spared papal suppression.

However, the success of a reform of the Legion is by no means certain. In the 16th century Pope Paul III conceded that the Capuchins had a saint in heaven interceding for them, but in the 21st century the Holy See expressed its att itude toward the Legion without such assurance, but rather in terms of a “wager” (Sandro Magister, “The Big ‘Wager’: How to Remake the Legion from Scratch,” Chiesa blog, May 3, 2010).

The reasons for the Holy See’s wager regarding the Legion’s future are the fact that many Legionaries demonstrate enthusiasm for the faith and missionary zeal, and the fact that most were unaware of Maciel’s double life. Of course, the negative implication of this latt er observation is that even if most were unaware, some were indeed aware of the truth about Maciel. In fact, the Holy See acknowledged in its May 2010 statement that Maciel created a “system of relationships” within the Legion to conceal his crimes, to ensure “silence from his entourage,” and to discredit and ostracize those who questioned his behavior.

And what has become of Maciel’s entourage? What has become of the system that concealed his crimes, discredited his victims, sued his critics, and impiously compared Maciel to Christ before Pilate when the predator fi nally faced Church discipline in 2006?

In late 2010, Pope Benedict XVI’s delegate to the Legion, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, imposed some changes on the Legion governing structure, but for the most part, those who made up Maciel’s entourage remain in place. De Paolis succeeded in reducing the number of positions held by Father Luis Garza, the Legion’s powerful vicar general and one of Maciel’s closest collaborators. However, vaticanista Sandro Magister suggests that the papal delegate achieved this reduction of Garza’s responsibilities only with considerable difficulty (cf. Magister, “Fuori uno. Esautorato l’uomo forte dei Legionari,” Settimo Cielo blog, November 23, 2010). Moreover, a month earlier, De Paolis seemed to allude to a power struggle within the Legion when he warned that resistance to reform and a determination to impose one’s own ideas will result in “certain shipwreck” (cf. De Paolis, Lett er to the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, October 19, 2010).

Legion critics and supporters may disagree about the meaning of the early history of the Capuchin Franciscans, but all would agree that the Capuchins demonstrated a remarkable vitality and a striking capacity for reform, even in the midst of tremendous upheaval. Indeed, the Capuchin leadership proved itself to be an engine of communal selfcorrection. In turning to the governance of the Legion, however, what does one see? The will to survive is unmistakable, but how apparent are the spirit of reform and the passion for self-correction that first marked the humble friars in the pointed hoods?

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About R. Michael Dunnigan 9 Articles
R. Michael Dunnigan is a canon lawyer and a civil lawyer, and he lives and works in Indiana.