A man who rose quietly through the Curia has become the most incendiary figure in the Church
Anybody considering a career in the Roman Curia is well advised to avoid public controversy and be noticed only by the right people and in the right way. Last month, one man who had observed that code for most of his life abandoned it to make astonishing accusations against the reigning Pope, going so far as to call upon him to resign.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò has accused Pope Francis of reversing disciplinary action taken by his predecessor against the alleged sexual predator Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, and allowing McCarrick a privileged role in influencing US episcopal appointments. The media storm Viganò unleashed has led him to go to ground, reportedly fearing for his life.
So who is the author of this unprecedented attack on the head of the earthly Church? He is a man whose seemingly effortless progression towards the highest ranks of papal service was abruptly halted, before this extraordinary postscript was added some two years after his retirement.
Carlo Maria Viganò was born on January 16, 1941 to wealthy parents in the Lombard city of Varese in northern Italy. Ordained priest in 1968, he went on to gain a doctorate utriusque legis, “of both laws”. The bearers of this distinction are often marked out for advancement, so it was no surprise that the young priest entered the Roman Curia in 1973.
For more than 30 years, Viganò succeeded in being noticed only by the right people in the right way. He held junior positions at the papal delegations in London and Baghdad before returning to Rome, as is typical, to man a desk at the Secretariat of State.
His administrative talents and unblemished service led to him being singled out for preferment. In 1989 he became special envoy and permanent observer of the Holy See to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. In 1992 he was named nuncio to Nigeria, ordained to the episcopacy by St John Paul II, receiving the rank of titular archbishop.
Returning to Rome in 1998, Viganò became delegate for Pontifical Representations – personnel chief for the entire Curia and Vatican diplomacy. In 2009, Benedict XVI appointed him secretary general of the Vatican City Governorate. The Governorate is the body to which the Pope delegates executive authority for the Vatican City State. The cardinal president, who leads it, is often more of a figurehead and the secretary general, as second in command, oversees the business of administration. So Viganò was able to deploy his skills and natural authority as never before. It turned out to be the high water mark of his career.
In many ways, Viganò’s tenure was a stunning success. To the notoriously opaque field of Vatican finance, he brought a reforming zeal. By scrutinising procurement, insisting on tight budgeting and ruthlessly pursuing waste, he had by 2011 turned a $10 million deficit into a surplus of more than $40 million, earning him public thanks from Pope Benedict.
But there were mutterings about a harsh and intransigent management style. Viganò was also accused of nepotism in advancing the career of his nephew, an official in the Secretariat of State. (He has insisted that he acted transparently while at the Governorate.)
Viganò now seemed to be attracting the wrong sort of attention. In August 2011 he was appointed nuncio to the United States, despite resisting the move. Although Benedict maintained that he needed a man of proven worth in Washington, it looked like a demotion.
Had Viganò’s once irresistible rise hit the buffers? It seemed so in 2012, when he became a key figure in the VatiLeaks scandal. For the first time his name was cited beyond the rarefied circle of Vatican watchers. Letters from Viganò to Benedict and Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone were published. In them, he presented himself as a whistleblower punished by corrupt forces in the Vatican.
Viganò’s five-year tenure in Washington DC turned out to be his last posting. His resignation, on reaching 75 in January 2016, was swiftly accepted. By then Francis had succeeded Benedict, and Viganò’s episcopal recommendations – generally feisty conservative prelates – were not calculated to endear him to the new regime.
Last month’s bombshell put an end to Viganò’s relatively quiet retirement. There are growing rumours in Rome of forthcoming canonical sanctions, but so far the Pope’s preferred response has been silence – though his daily homilies have made references to those who “only seek scandal”. The Vatican is reportedly preparing to offer “necessary clarifications”.
But some of Viganò’s critics have taken a less high-minded approach, alleging that his letter is the revenge of a disappointed careerist, who had thought himself guaranteed a red hat but was thwarted by his own character defects. Viganò, they suggest, was furious at being forced to relinquish a luxurious Vatican apartment, and blamed Francis. (The archbishop denies the claims.)
Others have speculated that ideological motivations lay behind the purported revelations, and that Viganò has made himself the tool of right-wing US Catholics determined to destabilise or even end the current papacy. (His adhesion to the camp of the “culture warriors” is comparatively recent. When he was at the Secretariat of State, he was accused of sharing that dicastery’s reputed lack of enthusiasm for militant orthodoxy.)
Detractors have adduced aspects of Viganò career which appear to undermine his credibility: a family feud with an estranged brother, also a priest, over an inheritance; and a case where Viganò himself is accused of having covered up for an abuser bishop. The ex-nuncio has responded from his hiding place to deny these claims.
What is the ordinary Catholic to make of this unedifying public spat? One of its saddest aspects is the rush to take sides along predictably ideological lines. The truth or falsehood of Viganò’s claims are surely not related to our opinion of Pope Francis and his reforms.
Even in the much reviled Roman Curia, many serve the Church with self-denying sincerity. Generally, they are saddened and worried. Noting that Viganò’s letter violated the “pontifical secret”, one official told me: “I can’t believe he took the same oath as I did.” The “pontifical secret”, which is enshrined in canon law, is designed to protect the papacy from outside interference. The consequences of breaking it, even if that seems necessary in the face of grave corruption, are unforeseeable.
Opening up the Vatican to secular scrutiny may seem salutary, but it might allow things other than light to enter. The Vatican could find itself besieged by demands from prosecutors around the world – and their motives may not always be pure. Viganò and his most outspoken supporters may, ironically, be unleashing a revolution they neither want nor can control.
Complete transparency and full disclosure of all the documentation therefore carries a risk. But it still might be a better response than silence.
Fr Mark Drew holds a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique. He is the parish priest of Hedon and Withernsea in Middlesbrough diocese
This article first appeared in the September 14 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here