Viewpoint - The Vigano Letter

  • Fr John O'Brien
  • (Updated )

Fr John O'Brien

Fr John O'Brien

That there is opposition to the reforms of Pope Francis, among disgruntled elements in the slowly crumbling clericalist, power-structure who see their privileges and hollow self-importance under threat from the Holy Father's desire to return the Church to the simplicity of Jesus, is hardly news. But it seems that nostalgia and lust for power on their part, has now descended to a new low. How better to undermine Pope Francis and his all too necessary reforms, than by falsely implicating him in covering up sexual abuse? What better time to do it than when he is returning from Ireland, a country scarred by exposés of sexual abuse whose media while fearlessly and correctly upholding the rights of victims to justice, sometimes seem all too willing to seek to deride the Church at every opportunity.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó - former Nuncio to the USA - has written a letter replete with lies and half-truths aimed at undermining the authority of Pope Francis by falsely implicating him in the disgrace of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The letter, strategically released on the second day of Pope Francis' visit to Ireland, claims that dozens of high-level Church officials perpetrated a cover-up of allegations against McCarrick. It accused Francis of ignoring these allegations and called on him to resign in order to "set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick's abuses." The real purpose of this letter and the machinations that lie behind it, are indeed to force Pope Francis' resignation - but not for the reasons implied. The cabal behind this letter wish to block the Holy Father's programme of reform in order to regain its own previously untouchable power as well as the privileges and patronage, power promoted and concealed by that power. This letter which contradicts the historical record, is laced with ideological claims, and exposes a putsch against Pope Francis.

Quizzed by journalists in a press conference aboard the August 26 flight back to Rome after a two-day visit to Ireland, Pope Francis asked them to: "read the statement attentively and make your own judgment." "I will not say a single word on this," he stated, "I think this statement speaks for itself, and you have sufficient journalistic capacity to draw conclusions." "When some time passes and you have your conclusions, maybe I will speak," and he added, "But I would like that your professional maturity carries out this task." One can only hope that a search for the truth will win out over the temptation to score a few more sensationalist points over an increasingly fragile Church by denigrating a Pope who himself wishes all that is pretentious and self-serving in the governance structures of the Church to be replaced by something more evangelical, simple and prayerful, committed to service of the suffering.

Viganó is correct that Cardinal Angelo Sodano, long-time Secretary of State to Pope John Paul II, and previously a strong supporter of the murderous, Pinochet dictatorship, was a patron of disgraced former-cardinal Theodore McCarrick. He bizarrely - and falsely - alleges that Pope Francis lifted sanctions against McCarrick that had been imposed by Pope Benedict. The tendentious headline on the story that broke this fake news reads: "Ex-nuncio Accuses Pope Francis of Failing to Act on McCarrick's Abuse." On the contrary, Pope Francis most certainly did act. It was he who removed McCarrick from ministry in June 2018. Some may retort that McCarrick resigned, but it was no voluntary resignation. That can easily be verified.

A central focus of Viganó's weird allegations is the claim that Pope Benedict issued sanctions against McCarrick. He alleges: "the Cardinal was to leave the seminary where he was living, he was forbidden to celebrate [Mass] in public, to participate in public meetings, to give lectures, to travel, with the obligation of dedicating himself to a life of prayer and penance." On the contrary, during the Benedict papacy, Cardinal McCarrick celebrated Mass in public, and participated in meetings in the Vatican. If as Viganó incorrectly alleges, Pope Benedict imposed these penalties, he certainly did not apply them. He continued to receive McCarrick, continued to allow him to celebrate Mass publicly at the Vatican, even concelebrating with him at events like consistories. One can only assume [yes! It is an assumption], that either Pope Benedict was not informed of allegations against McCarrick or that he regarded them as unsubstaniated. But now, as Viganó falsely reconstructs the narrative, it is all Pope Francis' fault.

Viganó seems obsessed with homosexuality and names prelates whom he accuses of supporting efforts at "subverting Catholic doctrine on homosexuality." A recent article by James Alison [Homosexuality Among the Clergy: Caught in a Trap of Dishonesty,' Tablet, 1 August 2018] has begun a seminal exploration of these issues. Some Bishops sympathetic to views expressed by Viganó, speak about homosexual people so nastily that one wonders if what one is observing is a form of self-hatred behind a mask of institutional power.
Several US cardinals issued separate statements pointedly rejecting Viganó's allegations. Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, expressed 'shock, sadness and consternation' at the wide-ranging array of allegations published by Viganò. He added that 'the factual errors, innuendo and fearful ideology' of the "testimony" cannot be understood as contributing to the healing of survivors of sexual abuse.

Throw enough muck and some of it sticks. Vigano's tissue of misinformation will leave its mark especially as reported by journalists in search of sensationalist headlines who will not stop to ask basic questions or do sufficient research to get to the truth, omitting to undertake fundamental tasks like asking for corroboration or looking at the questions a text such as Vigano's poses. Joshua J McElwee [National Catholic reporter, August 26, 2018] unearths a few pertinent facts that demand serious investigation:

• Vigano says he must unburden his conscience now. Why now? Why did he not say anything publicly or at least speak to the bishops' conference when he was in the executive session of the bishops' meeting. Why not then?

• If, as he claims, McCarrick had such great influence with Francis, how does he explain McCarrick's rows with the Argentine bishops over Fr Carlos Buela founder of the Institute of the Incarnate Word? When the Argentine bishops, under the leadership of then Cardinal Bergoglio, refused to ordain the Incarnate Word seminarians, McCarrick stepped in to do it. In December 2016, Carlos Buela, was found guilty by a Vatican tribunal of sexual misconduct with adults.

• Cardinal McCarrick had nothing to do with the selection of Bishop Blase Cupich to become archbishop of Chicago, nor with Archbishop Joseph Tobin being appointed to Newark. These major sees were filled without the consent of Nuncio Viganó, something that indicates what Pope Francis thought of his judgement even before those recent sad and false imputations.

Viganó even tried to ruin a previous papal visit - one to the USA. It was he who in 2015, brought Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, to meet Francis and falsely presented her as a champion of religious liberty. The aim seems to have been to force the Pope to choose between suffering public embarrassment and endorsing Vaganó's agenda of imposing religious views on others.

Does Archbishop Viganó really care deeply about the victims of clergy sex abuse? Hardly, if as alleged, in Minnesota, he encouraged Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche to destroy documents relating to the investigation of Archbishop John Nienstedt. Hopefully those allegations will be satisfactorily investigated.

Archbishop Viganó served as the Vatican's ambassador to Washington from 2011 to 2016. This five-year term both began and ended in controversy. In a demotion disguised as promotion, he received the appointment amid the shock-waves of the first "Vatileaks" scandal in Rome. Viganò had served as the secretary, or number two official, in the Government of the Vatican City State. Removal to the USA was seen as a denial of his ambition to be appointed president of the Vatican City State and elevation to a cardinal.

Among the confidential documents to appear in the Italian press were a number of memos Viganò had written, including to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, then Secretary of State, and even to Pope Benedict XVI. In his letter to Cardinal Bertone, Viganó said that Bertone broke his promise to allow him to become president of the Vatican City State governorate after Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo retired. He pleaded with Pope Benedict to be allowed to remain in Rome, self-pityingly claiming to be a martyr for the truth. Upon publication of these letters, the Governorate of Vatican City dismissed their assertions as 'erroneous assessments,' 'openly contradicted by the main characters invoked as witnesses'.

When Viganó arrived in the US, his was seen as a conservative voice. Within his first few months, three bishops, generally viewed as aggressive 'culture warriors' were appointed to archdioceses in Baltimore, Denver and San Francisco, respectively. Conservative writer George Weigel called him "the best nuncio we've had thus far." On reaching 75 years of age he was immediately retired.

Journalists interested in understanding where Viganó's letter is coming from would do well to revisit Pope Francis' pre-Christmas address to the Curia in December 2017. On that occasion, the Holy Father emphasized that the Curia must act out of service, or "diaconal primacy," as he termed it, to follow in the footsteps of Christ who made himself a slave for our sakes. The Pope forthrightly stated that a minority in the Curia do not see things in this "diaconal" light. He mentioned first, those who join in the "unbalanced and degenerate logic of conspiracies, or of the small circles that in reality represent a cancer that leads to self-referentiality.' He described a second group as "the betrayers of trust and the profiteers of the motherhood of the church," who allow themselves to be corrupted by ambition or vainglory, and when they are delicately removed from their positions they erroneously declare themselves to be martyrs of 'the pope who is not informed.' (Italics ours). He emphasized that: "a Curia closed in on itself would betray the purpose of its existence and would fall into self-referentiality, condemning itself to self-destruction."

Archbishop Viganó's letter, published on the pope's final day in Ireland, seems designed to upstage Pope Francis and to weaken him publicly at a moment when he is trying to send a much different message. This disgruntled former employee, angry and unreliable, is actually demonstrating exactly what Francis says is a major problem among the hierarchy, most especially in the Roman Curia: clericalism and careerism. He is taking advantage of divisions in the US church regarding culture wars, and the reforming, Francis pontificate, as well as some elements in the Catholic media fuelling those debates, to settle personal scores.

But this is not just an individual outburst. It is a stalking-horse spearheading a coordinated attack on Pope Francis. The enemies of Francis have declared war. Robert Mickens, of La Croix International writes:" Viganó is kind of a strange character in this case, because it's really a whole group of people. What is the motive behind this? To bring down Pope Francis in any way possible. They're trying to catch him in a trap. And Francis is not falling for it."

Anyone who has read Pope Francis' encyclicals, who has heard him preach, who has observed his simplicity and near total absorption in the mind and heart of Christ, knows that he desires and works for a more simple, holy and transparent Church on the side on the poor. Those who gained in power, prestige and privilege from elements in the church structures of the recent past are not happy with that and they are supported by wealthy right-wing elements who would cloak extremely reactionary ideology under the banner of Catholicism.

This will be a dirty war but to prosecute it, the enemies of the Holy Father and his desire to return the Church to the simplicity of Jesus, will have to resort to more and more lies and half-truths. In the process, they will unwittingly reveal more and more about their own machinations. Eventually even those sections of the media who are consciously or unconsciously hostile to the Church will recognise this. Renewal of the Church can take a great leap forward when this house of cards comes tumbling down as it assuredly will.

Fr John O'Brien is an Irish Spiritan missionary.

Tags: Vigano, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, Fr John O'Brien

We Need Your Support

ICN aims to provide speedy and accurate news coverage of all subjects of interest to Catholics and the wider Christian community. As our audience increases - so do our costs. We need your help to continue this work.

Please support our journalism by donating today.