It was early evening, not much past 6 o’clock EDT on Saturday, August 25th, 2018, when I got a message from a friend, asking if I knew anything about a letter from a nuncio. I didn’t know anything about any letter, but when I saw what my friend was talking about, my first instinct was to chalk it up to late summer sensationalism: Pope Francis was in Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, and the second half of August had already been dominated by headlines from the US side of the Church beat.
Still, I set about seeing what I could see.
It took a while for me to be satisfied of the letter’s authenticity, and then it was apparent that the business must have been coordinated. Archbishop Viganò had lots of scores to settle, and whatever the story was, heads needed to roll on every side of it. I recall shocked disbelief at the idea that Viganò had not kept the correspondence necessary to corroborate his claims. For a while, I had wondered whether the business wasn’t a fraud.
That night, I was working the story for two outlets: reporting for The Catholic Herald, for which I was trying to nail down one potentially significant detail regarding the “sanctions” — and what the erstwhile Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, either knew or didn’t know about them — and preparing a preliminary analysis for the Catholic World Report.
The CWR job was, in essence, to sort through Viganò’s claims and see what had substantial bearing on the circumstances of the Church. The next step was to see what — if anything — was proven, what was demonstrable, and what was going to be tripe in any case. For the purpose of analyzing the claims that first “testimony” contained, the question of Viganò’s motives was largely — though not entirely — irrelevant. The preliminary analysis came to this:
The testimony Archbishop Viganò offers is neither perfectly crafted, nor immune to criticism. In addition to its presumption of motive, it also speculates — not wildly, but — without foundation as firm as one would want with matters of such gravity. Archbishop Viganò’s letter is also intemperate at times. In it, Viganò names several men, at whose roles in the affair he can only guess. Among the men named are Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio and Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who, says Viganò, “belong to the homosexual current in favor of subverting Catholic doctrine on homosexuality,” along with Cardinal Edwin O’Brien and Cardinal Renato Martino. Those claims — without respect to their merit or basis in fact — in the absence of explicit and detailed discussion of their specific pertinence to the narrative, approach slander.
Nevertheless, there were serious, provable allegations in that first letter, which Archbishop Viganò concluded with a call for Pope Francis to resign. In late August of 2018, it seemed that it would be difficult to escape Viganò’s conclusion, should the allegations have been proven correct.
Too many people were ready to take the allegations at face value, and anxious to use Archbishop Viganò’s brief as a cudgel, with which to rid themselves of a pope they never liked and wanted gone for other reasons. Difficult as avoiding Viganò’s conclusion might have been, the transparent use of the former nuncio’s epistolary indictment to achieve that end has come to mean that Francis must not resign, even if he should be proven exactly as guilty of precisely the things Viganò accused him.
Weak popes, incompetent popes, bad popes, even popes who are rotten to the core: these are all par for the course. In the grand scheme of things, who is pope does not matter much. There is broad — though by no means general — consensus, across the spectrum of opinion in the Church, according to which the risk of catastrophic damage to the papal office that a resignation under such pressure would do, was and is too great to countenance.
In any case, many of Archbishop Viganò’s allegations have been proved correct. High-ranking Vatican officials, and at least three popes, either knew of Theodore McCarrick’s character and proclivities, or should have known. Pope St. John Paul II was informed of them before he put Uncle Ted in the See of Washington, DC. Benedict XVI put McCarrick under some sort of semi-secret precept, and when McCarrick called his bluff, Benedict basically folded.
Francis says he does not recall the substance of his meeting with Archbishop Viganò in 2013, in which Viganò alleges he told Francis about McCarrick. Whatever one thinks of that, Francis took McCarrick’s hat and eventually his mitre and his collar. That certainly wasn’t nearly enough, and might not have been even a start. Uncle Ted is a festering canker on the body of the Church’s hierarchical leadership, symptomatic of grave systemic malaise, requiring treatment that must go far beyond a balm or a scrape.
Nevertheless, Pope Francis did what his immediate predecessor failed to do, however inadequate it was as a correction of that, which Pope St. John Paul II directly enabled.
A great deal of other nasty business has come to light over the past year, too, largely despite Pope Francis’s promises — yet unfulfilled — to make a full report on an internal investigation into the Vatican side of McCarrick’s career. McCarrick himself got a secret trial (of sorts) and a public conviction, while Viganò kept writing, and Marc Ouellet — the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops — made himself Viganò’s correspondent, with an open letter written in exquisite curialese that may have given away the store.
Journalists thought that Francis’s only immediate comment regarding the first of Viganò’s letters was a warrant to go get the story (and the Pulitzer that would presumably come with it). On the return flight from Ireland, he said of Viganò’s letter, “[R]ead it yourselves carefully and make your own judgment,” asking that journalists “use [their] professional maturity in doing this.” As things turned out, Francis desired journalists dig up dirt on Viganò, at least as much as he wanted them vetting Viganò’s substantive claims.
In a wide-ranging interview with veteran Vaticanologist Valentina Alazraki of Mexico’s Noticieros Televisa that aired in May of this year, Pope Francis finally broke his silence regarding Archbishop Viganò’s allegations and enlarged on the sense of the remark he made on the plane:
NT: You recall when, eight months ago, they told you: ‘There is a statement from the former nuncio, Carlo Maria Viganò, who says he himself told you, at a meeting toward the beginning of your pontificate, who McCarrick was — and you didn’t do anything. You only said (ipsa voce): ‘I will not answer. You judge. I will answer in due time.” That silence has weighed a great deal, because, for the press and for many people, when one is silent, it is like between husband and wife, isn’t it? You catch your husband, and he doesn’t answer you, and you say: ‘Here something is wrong.’ So, why the silence? The time has come to answer that question, which we asked you on the plane: more than eight months have passed, Pope Francis.
PF: Yes, those who made Roman law say that silence is a way of speaking. This case of Viganò, I had not read the whole letter, I’d given it a once-over — and I already knew what it was, and I made a decision: I trust in the honesty of journalists. And I said to you: ‘Look, you have everything here, study and draw the conclusions’. And this you did, because you did the work, and in this case it was fantastic. I took great care not to say things that weren’t there, but three or four months later, a judge in Milan gave them when he sentenced him.
That “sentence” was a civil — not a criminal — judgment, in Italian court, over a long-standing inheritance dispute between Viganò and his brother, which did not go in the Archbishop’s favor.
NT: The question of his family, do you mean?
PF: Certainly. I kept silent because, [had I spoken] I would have been slinging mud. Let journalists find out. And you discovered it, you found that whole world. It was a silence based on trust in you. Not only that, but I also told you: ‘Hold on, study it, that’s all’, and the result was good, better than if I had started to explain, to defend myself.
In sum: Even if Pope Francis believes he is in the right, and that his conduct in office would be vindicated by honest inquiry, he nevertheless – and by his own admission — wanted journalists to do his dirty work. If that temporarily gave Archbishop Viganò the comparative moral high ground, the former nuncio was quick to relinquish it.
Several months after his original letter, Archbishop Viganò used an email interview with The Washington Post to make serious allegations against a high-ranking Churchman, replete with insinuations of that Churchman’s involvement in the unnatural deaths of two men decades ago in his home country. The Washington Post was not able to substantiate the allegations, and refused to publish them, but Life Site News was willing to bring them before the public. One does not simply bandy about allegations of that nature. One must have the goods — and when one does, one’s first call must be to the police — before one calls the press.
If it was not the case a year ago, it certainly is the case now: Archbishop Viganò should be cited to appear publicly, before an ecclesiastical tribunal, to answer for himself, on pain of excommunication. He would have all the rights of an accused person then, including: the right to counsel; witnesses; and compulsory process. That is precisely why it is so highly unlikely — all but unfathomable — that he will be cited.
Meanwhile, scandals continue to erupt, bishops retreat behind promises not even they take seriously, and an overworked, under-funded Roman investigative and disciplinary apparatus follows a trajectory that, unchecked, cannot end in anything but full-blown sclerosis. Promises of responsibility, accountability, and transparency go unfulfilled. The last item in that list — transparency — is little more than a by-word for the cowardly imbecility of Church leadership become a grim laughingstock.
Pope Francis has spoken of “many bishops” disciplined: who are they? We know not even the specific charges on which one of them — McCarrick — was found guilty. Another, Archbishop Anthony Apuron of Guam, was convicted of “some charges” but not of others, was stripped of his insignia and exiled from his island home. Nobody seems to know where he is. Rumors swirl about investigations into “several” US sees, but no one will say which, let alone what the investigations concern.
One looks at the efforts of senior clerics, and shudders to think how closely they resemble the half-hearted, halting attempts at “reform” that preceded the Council of Trent, which, despite its many great achievements, failed to secure its greatest object: the unity of the Church in the West.
If one judges more broadly, by the substance and tenor of the public debate in the Church, we are seeing the worst ecclesiastical leadership crisis in at least five hundred years play out as a popularity contest, a war of personalities, with the impossibly puerile shorthand that comes with such fare: “Team Francis” and “Team Viganò”. This is insane.
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