The unprecedented resignation en masse of the Chilean bishops earlier this week sent the entire Catholic world into ferment. Speculation abounds regarding whether Pope Francis will accept any or all of the resignations — and whether he ought to accept them — as well as what it all means and what comes next. Those are questions touching not only the good of the Church in Chile, but also the common weal of the whole Church. They call for sober, informed reflection. Certain recent events may well provide some guidance for those needful considerations, in particular the recent scandal at the highest level of governance within the recently created dicastery for communications.
There and then, Pope Francis appeared to take swift action, though how much really changed is still not clear. The situation within the communications dicastery as well as the Church’s central governing apparatus more broadly considered is arguably one not unresembling the driver of Il gattopardo, the famous historical novel by Lampedusa: Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi (“If we desire that everything remain the same, it is necessary that everything change.”).
Earlier this year, the Prefect of the Secretariat for Communication, Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò, resigned his post as head of the dicastery in the wake of a fake news scandal dubbed “Lettergate”. In his resignation letter, Viganò wrote of his desire, “to step aside,” though he promised he would be, “available,” should the Holy Father decide to make use of him in some other capacity.
The Pope allowed him to resign, but immediately — indeed, in the very same letter by which he accepted Msgr. Viganò’s resignation — created a new position for him within the very same Secretariat for Communication from which he was resigning. “Assessor” is what the Pope called his new position: a Vatican catch-all that does as a sort of shadow minister or minister without portfolio (a “Pope’s man” in a department) somewhat outside the regular chain of command, but vested with as much or as little effective power as the Pope decides to give — and Pope Francis actually listed him as the #2 man in the dicastery he used to head.
One may be forgiven for having the impression that the moves at the Secretariat for Communication fit something of a pattern: the announcement of the new Commission for the Protection of Minors was greeted with much fanfare, but the Commission itself was born toothless and has proven ineffective. The promise of a special tribunal for trying wayward and negligent bishops, too, eventually got jettisoned, while the much-ballyhooed judicial reforms supposed to make the trial of such prelates easier still has not been tested. Pope Francis often says the right things: he grabs the headlines and starts out well enough, but he does not follow through — and the details of a few significant cases of this lack of follow-through (e.g. Msgr. Viganò’s case) might make one wonder whether he ever really meant to follow through at all.
In any case, Msgr. Viganò remains very much the public face of the dicastery and of the Pope’s vision for Vatican communications, despite his missteps. That is at any rate a reasonable surmise, if Viganò’s public engagements of late are any indication.
The Catholic News Service featured Msgr. Viganò in a piece published earlier this week looking at what happens when “Hollywood meets Holy See” in connection with a location shoot at the Vatican for an upcoming Netflix movie, The Pope — a fictionalized account of the relationship between Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and his successor, Pope Francis. Several news outlets including Crux (where you can find the piece published in full, though it is behind a subscription paywall on the CNS) picked up the story, which was a friendly and informative peek behind the curtain at what happens when movie productions bump into the Vatican gatekeepers:
The Vatican receives many requests for “images of the Vatican Gardens, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s,” said Msgr. Dario Vigano, the former prefect of the secretariat, who currently serves as a top counselor to the office. “We are the reference point for these requests from various international production houses.”
The CNS story goes on to discuss the recent Wim Wenders documentary on Pope Francis:
Until the Wim Wenders documentary Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, which premiered in early May at the Cannes Film Festival, the current pontiff was never directly involved in any motion picture. Francis often “told me that he isn’t an actor and doesn’t want to be an actor,” Vigano explained.
On that basis, he said, the Vatican had always denied requests from production companies to make a day-in-the-life film of Francis, as had been done with Pope Pius XII and St. John XXIII. But the Wenders documentary “was a little different. Why? Because (the pope) was in front of a very poetic director, a Christian director, of great sensibility,” Vigano said. “We had a guarantee to be present in the production step by step.”
All things being equal, it makes more than a little sense to have Viganò be the go-to guy for this sort of thing: he is a trained cinematographer and film critic. He also caused the worst Vatican media scandal in recent memory — a “fake news” scandal that gravely diminished the reliability of the dicastery he once headed and gutted his personal credibility. It bears mention as well, that it was Viganò’s very peculiar and selective representation of one important aspect of the relationship of the former pontiff to the currently reigning one, that was at the heart of the scandal that led to his resignation.
It was also rather surprising when, late last month — not two full months since his resignation — he appeared on a panel addressing “fake news” and gave a talk on the subject under the panel heading, “Fake News and the Ethical Responsibilities of Media”, during which he discussed the importance of transparency and likened journalists’ ethical responsibilities to physicians’. “The journalist, like the doctor, has the ability to poison their readers [but] with one difference, which is that the journalist can poison more readers than a doctor can patients,” the Catholic News Agency reported Viganò as saying during his talk.
We can only suppose the former prefect has taken fully to heart the maxim recorded in Luke 4:23.
All this is perplexing: mixed signals and double standards are things of which the Vatican and Pope Francis personally have arguably less need now than at any other time in recent memory. With the resignation en masse of the bishops of Chile at the end of the working week, the world is watching to see what Pope Francis will do. If the “resignation” of Msgr. Viganò is any indication at all of what awaits, then one may reasonably expect acceptance of the resignations — in part or in toto — to mean very little one way or the other.
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