A year ago, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò was a retired diplomat who was little known beyond the limited world of Vaticanologists. He had reached the senior position of apostolic nuncio to the United States in October 2011, but his retirement in 2016 would normally have signalled an end to his influence.
On August 25, 2018, however, Archbishop Viganò issued an astonishing declaration which gained him a notoriety for which his previous career contained no precedent. An 11-page document, released simultaneously to news outlets in Italy and the US, made claims which sent shock waves through the worldwide Church.
Archbishop Viganò claimed that the Vatican had been told by successive US nuncios since 2000 that Theodore McCarrick was suspected of sexual misconduct against seminarians and priests. He accused senior figures of ensuring that these did not stop McCarrick being made Archbishop of Washington and a cardinal.
The archbishop said that he himself had not only sought to warn the Vatican about McCarrick’s activities in writing several times, but also that in 2013 he had personally informed Pope Francis about the allegations in a private audience. Far from taking action, he claimed, the Pope had in fact increased McCarrick’s influence within the Church by rescinding restrictions placed on the cardinal under Benedict XVI, entrusting him with high-profile international missions and seeking his advice on the appointment of new US bishops.
Most shockingly of all, the former loyal servant of the papacy called on the Pope to resign. “He must acknowledge his mistakes,” he wrote, “and, in keeping with the proclaimed principle of zero tolerance, Pope Francis must be the first to set a good example to cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses and resign along with all of them.”
The word “unprecedented” is often misused, but I can think of no parallel in modern times for Archbishop Viganò’s direct attack on a reigning pontiff. It is true that in recent decades we have become used to authority in the Church being challenged from within in a way previous generations would have found shocking. But neverhave I heard such a highly placed curialist criticise a pope publicly in this way.
Archbishop Viganò has broken a taboo. His choice to go public seemed to many at the time to mark a turning point, not just for Francis’s pontificate, but also for the Church as a whole. A year on, this is a good time to take stock.
Many have attempted to judge the rights and wrongs of the archbishop’s charges, but here I simply want to ask what this reveals about the state of our Church, and what, if anything, has changed as a result of the archbishop’s intervention.
Theodore McCarrick finishes his earthly life a disgraced man, far from the prestige and power in which he once seemed unassailable. It was not, of course, Archbishop Viganò who exposed him. Credible evidence against McCarrick had already led to his resignation as a cardinal in July 2018, and the Pope then ordered him to lead a life of private prayer and penance.
Archbishop Viganò has said that he decided to make his case public because he was appalled that the Vatican under Francis had only acted against McCarrick once its hand was forced by evidence of illegality.
It is certainly possible to argue that the final act of the McCarrick case – his definitive reduction to the lay state following an expedited canonical trial – would not have happened without the archbishop’s intervention. The process might have been drawn out significantly longer, or even quietly dropped. Archbishop Viganò may even have ironically saved the Vatican, which does not always fully grasp the strength and importance of public opinion, from a disastrous misjudgment. But this is something we will never know.
What of Archbishop Viganò himself? When his initial “testimony” was made public, he went into hiding, and his whereabouts is apparently still unknown to all apart from a handful of confidants. It was even suggested that he might be in fear for his life.
Less dramatically, and more realistically, he will certainly dread the ire of his former colleagues. Some of them see his attack on Francis as ideologically motivated – or, in an even more common view, as a result of frustrated ambition. Even those who have a sneaking sympathy for his tilting at the Roman status quo fear that he may have gone too far and perhaps set back the cause he wished to serve. The breaking of the Pontifical Secret, which he swore to observe (as all curial officials do), was particularly shocking to many in Rome.
Archbishop Viganò has not remained aloof from the fray he himself created.
A month after his first intervention, he issued a statement defending himself against his detractors and calling on Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, to confirm his account. In October, Cardinal Ouellet responded with a missive which challenged the archbishop’s interpretation of the Pope’s role in the McCarrick affair.
Archbishop Viganò promptly responded, pointing out that Cardinal Ouellet’s reply, while energetically defending the Pope, didn’t fully deny the archbishop’s assertions. The tone of the exchange, although superficially polite, was caustic, with each man implicitly impugning the motives of the other.
A year on, could Archbishop Viganò be experiencing some strain, perhaps even regret, given his present, uncomfortable situation? The Roman commentator Robert Moynihan recently described a rare sighting of the archbishop. In Moynihan’s account of their conversation, Archbishop Viganò emerges as reflective, perhaps even wistful: a curialist to his fingertips who can never return to his natural habitat. The tone of invective against personal enemies is no longer so sharp. He told the Washington Post in June that he perhaps should have softened his call for Pope Francis to resign.
But his fundamental position has not shifted, it seems. Archbishop Viganò continues to speak as a man keen to be at ease with his conscience, and concerned above all for the welfare of the Church. In fact, he now takes up robustly polemical positions on subjects which go beyond the moral corruption he has previously lambasted.
It is interesting that Archbishop Viganò, who was not considered to be one of the most vocal supporters of a conservative theological agenda under Benedict XVI (when that might have been considered career-enhancing), now appears to be tacking firmly in that direction. His latest declarations contain severe judgments about the preparatory documents for the forthcoming Amazon synod. He joins prominent conservative voices in finding the texts too aligned with secular values and lacking reference to the specifically Christian message of salvation. He even goes so far as to speak of “a 60-year-old plan” to shackle the Church’s message to the worldly aims of Liberation Theology. This project, he claims, culminated in the achievement of “one of its supreme goals, with a Jesuit on the See of Peter”.
Is Archbishop Viganò simply trying to make mischief here for a Jesuit pope to whom he has a personal aversion? Alternatively, could this be a man who has lost many friends trying to make new ones in a polarised ecclesial context? It may be, of course, that the archbishop is simply a man who has nothing to lose, freed from the constraints of office and of ambition, feeling that he can at last express opinions long held in reserve.
What is certain is that the archbishop continues to be cast as a hero for some and a villain for others. It must be strange and unchartered territory for a career diplomat.
We live in an increasingly divided world, where honest people of differing views can no longer disagree civilly. This is evident in the politics of our own countries. Alas, the Church, at every level and throughout the world, is not immune, except perhaps in some places where she is young enough to be innocent of it. Overwhelmingly, reactions to Archbishop Viganò and his claims divide along these ideological battle lines.
Has he made the divisions worse? There has certainly been a marked rise in the polemical volume since this time last year. There are voices loudly proclaiming that anybody who does not denounce the erstwhile nuncio is in effect being disloyal to Pope Francis, and that those who ask for his claims to be taken seriously and investigated are acting out of ulterior motives. Others seem to be seeking a witch hunt of another sort, alleging the existence of coteries of debauched prelates seeking to undermine the Church’s moral teaching from within as they gleefully advance each other’s careers.
Archbishop Viganò certainly has supporters whose zeal far exceeds their prudence. We must leave it to God to judge his motives, but personally I am not sure that this lonely old man bears as heavy a responsibility for deepening our divisions as some are claiming. In fact, I am convinced that the present furore is a symptom, not a cause, of a more profound malaise.
Part of that malaise is the polarisation I have already described. Another part, I fear, amounts to nothing less than incipient institutional collapse. What else is happening when a man so steeped in the culture of an institution so spectacularly breaks with its most ingrained traditions, even as he protests that he seeks to save it? Institutions, and the loyalties and codes of conduct that underpin them, are in deep crisis in our society, and once more the Church is not immune from the general trend.
Archbishop Viganò has raised questions which still need answering. A year on, it does seem clear that the Vatican was informed of the McCarrick situation years before it took action, and that when McCarrick’s activities were eventually restricted under Benedict, the measures were not thoroughly applied.
Cardinal Ouellet’s contention that Pope Francis should not be expected to remember being told by Archbishop Viganò of McCarrick’s shocking case history seems unconvincing. Similarly, the Pope’s purported decision to entrust McCarrick with high-level missions would be troubling given Benedict’s prior action. If he didn’t know about the allegations, by then well known in Rome, or about Benedict’s measures, why was he not made aware?
The respect which Catholics have for the papacy should surely not mean that a Pope or his closest collaborators should never be called to give an account of their decisions. We must, however, show them respect and be prepared to give a benevolent interpretation to their actions whenever possible. The Church as a threatened institution can only be served by its members practising a charity which is forgetful of self. Archbishop Viganò might have advanced his cause better by being more generous to those he criticised. But perhaps his fiercer opponents should show him a measure of the same generosity.
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
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