Why the Pope told his nuncios not to criticise him

Pope Francis addresses nuncios from around the world (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The subtext is unmistakable

The thing on which journalists reporting the story of Pope Francis’s meeting with papal diplomatic representatives on Thursday rightly seized, was a line at the end of the fifth section in the Pope’s prepared remarks. He hand-delivered the speech, by the way, preferring as he often does an unscripted conversation to a set piece. The line in question described criticism of the Pope and participation in initiatives or organisations hostile to him as “irreconcilable” with the mission of a papal ambassador.

That line seemed to several commentators to be a very thinly veiled rebuke of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. Without wishing to contest that reading, it is worth looking at the line in context.

The section opens with a reminder: “As a Pontifical Representative, the Nuncio does not represent himself, but the Successor of Peter,” with all that entails. “Being [as he is a] ‘Representative’,” Pope Francis writes, “the Nuncio must continually keep up to date and study, in order to know well the thoughts and instructions of those he represents.” Francis goes on to say, “He also has the duty continually to update and inform the Pope about the different situations, ecclesiastical and socio-political changes in the country to which he is sent.”

The Pope then told the nuncios, “For this reason it is essential to have a good knowledge of his customs and possibly of the language, keeping the door of the Nunciature and that of his heart always open to everyone.” All that was pretty straightforward, but what came next was interesting: “It is therefore irreconcilable with being a Pontifical Representative, to criticize the Pope behind his back, [or] to have blogs or even to join groups hostile to him, the Curia and the Church of Rome.”

All those things certainly are irreconcilable with the position of Apostolic Nuncio. One who does any of the latter things can’t be trusted to do the former faithfully. The subtext is unmistakable: there is a crisis of confidence, of trust.

In fairness to Archbishop Viganò, however, his criticisms of Pope Francis do not seem to have been behind his back, so much as public and vocal. That may as well be inconsistent with the nuncio’s billet, but then Archbishop Viganò is no longer in active service — he wasn’t when he began publishing his testimonies — and in any case, public criticism is not whispering, but a very different thing.