Whatever the truth or falsity of the claims made by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò in his “testimony” calling for the resignation of Pope Francis, it is indisputable that he spectacularly violated the pontifical secret he swore an oath to keep.
That is an earthquake for the Vatican diplomatic corps and the Roman Curia. The “pontifical secret” which binds them is not the confessional seal, nor is it as grave as the conclave seal for the cardinal electors, but it is most serious. After Viganò it will never be the same.
Archbishop Viganò justified the revelation of details he learned on the job on the grounds that his conscience did not permit him to keep corruption hidden. He brazenly invoked the mafia term omertà to speak about the code of silence he was breaking.
As for Viganò’s conscience, the parts of his “testimony” that were reckless and unfairly maligned parties without justification undermine confidence in his judgment about violating oaths. Yet now the Church is faced with a question of whether, and how, to keep secrets.
Curial officials and Vatican diplomats take their oaths very seriously. I have known dozens of them, many as close friends, and the norm is that they quite punctiliously refuse to discuss even routine matters that cross their desks.
For example, 10 days before the papal trip to Ireland, I asked an old friend, a current official in one of the Vatican congregations responsible for bishops, whether in fact there were any tribunals set up to judge bishops foreseen in the motu proprio of Pope Francis, Come una madre amorevole. He would not answer. I had not asked for any particulars, just whether it was even happening. (Pope Francis confirmed that such a case was underway on his return flight from Dublin.)
And the Vatican takes the oath seriously too. The VatiLeaks affair of a few years ago involved stolen and leaked documents by one who violated his oath, the butler of Benedict XVI. He was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced (though eventually pardoned).
No one has (yet) suggested any such repercussions for Archbishop Viganò. Any call for canonical prosecution would be seen as an attempt to conceal perfidy rather than to be transparent, and punishing whistleblowers regarding sexual abuse.
To date, internal Church documents protected by confidentiality have been revealed by the unsealing of court proceedings.
Does the Viganò precedent mean that we are now entering a new era, when officials might directly reveal what they know, or leak relevant documents to the media? Viganò, for his part, did not leak documents in his initial testimony, but did so afterward in relation to another case, the investigation of Archbishop John Nienstedt. But he has indicated where the relevant McCarrick documents can be found. That there will be a thoroughgoing McCarrick investigation is now beyond doubt. Will it be credible without access to documents in the Congregation for Bishops, the Secretariat of State and the Washington nunciature? Clearly not.
So how to handle the secrets contained therein? For VatiLeaks, Benedict XVI established a commission of three retired cardinals. Their voluminous report was for the “pope’s eyes only” and was never released. After his disastrous trip to Chile, Pope Francis commissioned Archbishop Charles Scicluna to investigate. The Holy Father spoke about what he learned from the report, but it was not released.
(The Chilean criminal justice authorities have asked for it, but the Vatican has said it will not be turned over as those who spoke to Scicluna were guaranteed confidentiality.)
The American bishops are committed to a published report. They have called for an “apostolic visitation” that will include lay people as well as bishops precisely so that its findings will be not covered up. That means, at minimum, that whatever is in McCarrick’s file at the Congregation for Bishops, as well as the Viganò memoranda about McCarrick will be published in some form.
Only the pope can authorise that, which is why the American bishops have appealed to his authority to establish the visitation. The challenge for Pope Francis and his advisers is how to provide for the exigencies of the McCarrick affair where, thanks to Viganò, secret documents are already in public discussion. How to authorise their release, while not creating a troublesome precedent for others who might come calling? The next request may not come from inside the Church, from brother bishops, but a government bent on persecution.
And in the background of Vatican thinking will be the possibility that whatever provision they make, officials may not observe the confidentiality that they previously did. The pontifical secret may be another casualty of Archbishop McCarrick.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca.
This article first appeared in the September 7 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.