America Comment

The Viganò letter could spark a conflagration in the curia

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The blistering indictment of Pope Francis by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, published while the Holy Father was on a difficult trip to Ireland, is such a novelty that it will take time to digest properly.

For any prelate, let alone a former apostolic nuncio, to call for the Pope’s resignation is certainly shocking. That a pope should resign is in itself an unhappy thing, as the abdication of Benedict XVI demonstrated. To call for his resignation indicates that the Church has entered treacherous waters. It harms Viganò’s case that he proposes a remedy of such severity in a document that is intemperate when it should be sober, and skirts defamation when it should be cautious in attributing motivations.

Nevertheless, what Viganò offers cannot be dismissed. The accusations are too grave, and the source is sufficiently credible to warrant investigation.

The key charge of Archbishop Viganò’s “testimony” is fourfold: 1) that he told Pope Francis in June 2013 about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s depravities, 2) that the Congregation for Bishops had a “thick” dossier detailing them, 3) that Pope Benedict had restricted McCarrick to a life of “prayer and penance” in response, and 4) that Francis subsequently rehabilitated McCarrick despite all that.

Viganò does not fully explain how McCarrick, if ordered to a reserved life of prayer and penance, continued to appear in public throughout Benedict’s pontificate. Viganò claims that the Congregation for Bishops told him of the restrictions in preparation for his 2011 posting as nuncio in Washington and that he repeated them when meeting with McCarrick.

If true, Viganò’s charges will exhaust the energy of the remainder of this pontificate. He is a long-serving, respected Vatican official, therefore his claims merit proper investigation. The American bishops have already asked Pope Francis to appoint an apostolic visitor to investigate the entire McCarrick matter. It is likely that the visitor, when appointed, would have interviewed Viganò in any case. His “testimony” will now be part of the material that the visitor must examine. Viganò has not provided documentation to support his charges, but has indicated where that documentation could be found – memoranda that he wrote, conversations that he had – with dates and places. An apostolic visitor, with investigative authority from the Holy Father, will have no trouble obtaining that documentation to see if it supports the charges Viganò has made.

Viganò’s testimony goes far beyond McCarrick, ranging from “deviant” Jesuits to homosexuality to key American episcopal appointments, and excoriates two former Secretaries of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Viganò suggests that the mistakes made regarding McCarrick under St John Paul II and Benedict XVI were due to Sodano and Bertone concealing information from the popes. That charge, too, is not substantiated.

Viganò employs ferocious language, which itself is a sign of a certain sickness that has afflicted Rome in recent years. The divisive and harsh language favoured by Pope Francis has created a venomous ethos at the highest levels of the Church, which Viganò does not avoid but rather indulges. He cast aspersions on many prelates in passing, without providing the evidence such charges require.

Pope Francis refused to say “one word” about Viganò’s testimony during his airborne press conference returning from Ireland, suggesting that the claims will prove false upon journalistic investigation. It may be that Viganò’s testimony was timed precisely so that Pope Francis would be confronted with it during the press conference.

Some commentators criticised Viganò on the Holy Father’s behalf, noting that he has been a prominent public critic of Pope Francis. More important though will be whether Sodano and Bertone and others keep silent or respond in kind. If the latter, a conflagration will engulf the Roman Curia.

Though it is not proportionate to Viganò’s testimony, there is a precedent for a retired nuncio criticising a sitting pontiff. In 2010, the former nuncio to Belgium, Archbishop Karl-Josef Rauber, gave an incendiary interview to Il Regno in which he blasted Benedict XVI’s choice to succeed Cardinal Godfried Danneels in Brussels. He further observed that Cardinal Ratzinger had often complained about his service as a diplomat.

That most undiplomatic attack upon Benedict did not go unnoticed in Rome. But while Rauber was regarded with suspicion under Benedict, Pope Francis rewarded Rauber for his attack on the emeritus pope by naming him a cardinal in 2015. No doubt Viganò, still nuncio in Washington, took note.

How will the Viganò intervention work out? No one knows today. It will bring much turmoil in the short term. In might lead to serious reform in the long term. But in the medium term, will the next pope create Viganò a cardinal to spite Francis, as Francis elevated Rauber in an apparent snub to Benedict? A future Cardinal Viganò cannot be ruled out.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of