Pope Francis has a problem, and his name is Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò. Hand-picked by the Holy Father in 2015 to head the newly created Secretariat for Communication of the Holy See, Viganò’s tenure has been rocky from the get-go. After nearly three years on the job, and until last week, the great achievement of Viganò’s tenure was an anemic new web portal still in beta testing. That mighty jewel of an accomplishment has now been supplanted by a major scandal, revealing the Prefect’s tenuous grasp of personal relationships, professional ethics, moral obligations to the public, and common sense.
What happened? Even the bones of the story are difficult to lay out succinctly but the nutshell version is that the Prefect of the Secretariat for Communications botched a book launch. That’s the sort of thing that can happen to anyone, even to highly competent and well-intentioned publicists. It is also too short by more than half.
The controversy — scandal is neither too strong a word, nor inaccurate — began on Monday, and brewed all week (I first posted about it on Wednesday). The details of it are impossible to rehearse succinctly. The broad strokes of it are that Msgr. Viganò tried to score a trifecta: a publicity coup for a series of books published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana (which is under the control of the SpC) on The Theology of Pope Francis, a tactical media coup to give his principal a boost, and a rhetorical coup in the debates over the nature and scope of Pope Francis’ ongoing project of reform in the Church.
Viganò’s grand design began to crack when it emerged that he had not only quoted selectively from a letter from the Pope-emeritus, Benedict XVI, responding to a solicitation from Viganò himself for a “brief dense theological page” engaging the theological content of the books—both during the press conference he had called to launch the book and in the press release announcing the launch—but had also altered a publicity photo in a manner that made pertinent portions of Benedict’s letter impossible to read and ran afoul of the AP’s professional ethical standards.
On Saturday, in the wake of increasingly intense public pressure and media scrutiny, the Vatican Press Office — heretofore not directly involved in the mounting controversy — released the letter from Benedict. At that point, it became apparent that Viganò was not simply using lemons to make lemonade. The full text of the letter from the pope emeritus contains a paragraph that Viganò neither read during the press conference, nor quoted in the press release:
Just as an aside, I would like to mention my surprise at the fact that among the authors figures Professor [Peter] Hünermann as well, who during my pontificate distinguished himself [It. si è messo in luce] for his having headed anti-papal initiatives. He participated in a relevant manner in the release of the Kölner Erklärung [the Cologne Declaration], which, in relation to the encyclical letter Veritatis splendor attacked in a virulent manner the magisterial authority of the Pope [i.e. St. John Paul II], especially on questions of moral theology. Also, the Europäische Theologengesellschaft, which he founded, was initially conceived by him as an organization in opposition to Papal magisterium. Subsequently, the ecclesial sentiment of many theologians impeded this orientation, rendering that organization a normal instrument of encounter among theologians.
I am certain that you will have comprehension for my refusal, and I salute you cordially.
So, it is not only that the Prefect of the Secretariat for Communication of the Holy See was using Benedict to prop up Francis. It is not only that the Prefect of the Secretariat for Communication of the Holy See makes selective use of words of his betters when it suits his purpose. It is not only that his purpose in doing so this time was threefold and underhanded: to hawk books and to score points in a major ecclesial debate and curry favor with his current boss. All that is true, and all that is distasteful.
The upshot of all this is that the Prefect of the Secretariat for Communication of the Holy See, Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò, has a communication problem. Specifically, he has a hard time telling the truth. That is indeed a problem for Pope Francis, who put Msgr. Viganò in the job. More importantly, it is a problem for the universal Church. Whether the problem admits of a remedy short of Msgr. Viganò’s severance from the department he currently heads is beyond the scope of these considerations, the purpose of which has been merely to say what happened. Res ipsa loquitur.