Aquinas, Frederick II, and the De Regno

Thomas Aquinas’s De regno is the saint’s contribution to the “mirror of princes” genre. Written for a king of Cyprus and left unfinished, it is often considered Aquinas’s contribution to political theory. Scholarly attention has focused on its date, as a difference of a few years would make a significant difference in the king of Cyprus for whom it was written and the broader political circumstances of its writing. However, there is an interesting biographical issue posed by the De regno. In the sections believed to be written by Thomas, there is no mention of Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor. While Aquinas’s project in the De regno was by no means a conspectus of contemporary politics or recent history, the silence about Frederick II is interesting because the case of the Hohenstaufen emperor has direct bearing on a question Aquinas treats at length—the problem of tyranny.

Aquinas’s recent biographer, Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., implies that the primary controversy over the De regno regards its date (Saint Thomas Aquinas: Vol. 1: The Person and His Work, pp. 169–70.) It is not an insignificant problem. The precise date of the De regno would necessarily change the king of Cyprus to whom it was addressed. A date of 1265 or 1267—favored, per Torrell, by Echard, Mandonnet, and Eschmann—means that Thomas was writing to Hugh II of Cyprus. Torrell suggests that the 1265-67 dating is unacceptable because the De regno relies on the commentary on the Ethics, which is clearly later.  A slightly later date of 1271, however, means that Thomas was writing to Hugh III of Cyprus. (Hugh II died in 1267.) The problem with that is that Hugh III was a rival claimant to Charles of Anjou for the kingdom of Jerusalem. Torrell may overstate the rivalry, however, since Hugh III was accepted by the legalistic barons of Outremer as king of Jerusalem in 1269. Charles’s purchase of the rejected claim of Mary of Antioch was not concluded until 1276.

All of this is interesting, to be sure. But the De regno is deeply concerned with the problem of tyranny. This no doubt is because the work is a speculum principis, and as a fundamentally practical treatise it is aimed toward a major practical problem of princes: how to avoid being a tyrant. However, the book makes no reference to Frederick II. It cannot be said that Frederick would have been an obscure figure, either to Thomas or to a Lusignan king of Cyprus (or Jerusalem). To understand why this is interesting, a brief tour of Thomas Aquinas’s biography—with special reference to Frederick II—is necessary.

The canned biography of Thomas Aquinas that everyone has by heart is that he was born to the powerful Aquino family. His father, Landulf, was a knight in the service of King Roger of Sicily and then one of Frederick’s officials. The family then became deeply embroiled in the battle between Frederick II and Pope Innocent IV, as most noble families in Italy did. Landulf’s oldest son, Aimo, went to the Holy Land in Frederick’s service, was captured by a supporter of Hugh of Cyprus, and ransomed by the pope’s party. Aimo stayed firmly with the pope thereafter. Landulf’s second son, Rinaldo, was a supporter of Frederick until Innocent deposed him in 1245. Frederick executed Rinaldo shortly thereafter, in 1246. According to Torrell, who summarizes this history and provides references to various primary sources, the Aquino family viewed Rinaldo as a martyr for the Church.

As everyone knows, Aquinas’s family sent him to the influential Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. Landulf offered him as an oblate, and it is usual to speculate that Landulf imagined the young Thomas eventually becoming abbot of the famous, wealthy monastery. At some point between 1230 and 1231, Aquinas entered Monte Cassino and received his earliest education there. However, in 1236, as the peace between Frederick and the papacy began to break down, Landulf, on the advice of the abbot, took Thomas from Cassino and sent him to Naples to continue his studies. We know that Frederick founded the University of Naples in 1224 as a rival to the University of Bologna and he required his Sicilian subjects to study there. We also know that it was at Naples where Thomas first encountered Dominican friars, who had been present at the university since 1231.

Frederick was, directly or indirectly, involved closely with the Aquino family, and provided the conditions for Thomas’s early education. However, Frederick may have been even more closely involved with Thomas’s early life. The famous incident of Thomas’s entry into the Dominicans provides, in Torrell’s telling, some additional clues as to Frederick’s involvement with the Aquino family and with Thomas in particular.

All the biographies mention the Aquino family’s steadfast resistance to Thomas’s entry into the Dominicans. There were no doubt several factors behind this. No doubt first and foremost among them was the family’s plan that Thomas should become abbot at Monte Cassino. Another factor may have been Frederick’s hostility to mendicant orders. In any event, after Thomas took the Dominican habit in the spring of 1244, informed his family, and set out for the general chapter in the company of John the Teuton, then the master general of the Order of Preachers. His family reacted badly to the news. His mother went to Naples and Rome to try to dissuade Thomas; she then informed his brothers, who were with Frederick II’s army, who made plans to lay hands on Thomas by force.

Torrell provides an extremely interesting detail about this episode. Two men in the party that arrested Thomas are named: his brother Rinaldo and Piero della Vigna. Della Vigna’s presence is extremely interesting. In the spring of 1244, Della Vigna would have been one of the most important men in Frederick’s empire. Indeed, after Frederick himself, Della Vigna may have been the most important man in the Empire, as Frederick’s chancellor, secretary, mouthpiece, and theorist. Ernst Kantorowicz’s brilliant biography, Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite, presents Della Vigna as an indispensable figure in Frederick’s court and one of the cultural luminaries of Italy and the Empire. Torrell observes drily that Della Vigna’s presence in the party that arrested young Thomas Aquinas meant that Frederick likely personally approved the arrest. This much is surely true.

So far from being merely a distant ruler, Frederick was almost an intimate of the Aquino family. Not only was Frederick a patron and ally (and later enemy) of Thomas’s father and brothers, but he also was undoubtedly informed of the operation to prevent Thomas’s entry into the Dominicans, sending his important deputy (almost his alter ego, in Kantorowicz’s telling), Piero della Vigna, as part of the party that arrested Thomas. This supposes intimate knowledge on Frederick’s part about Thomas’s entry into the Dominicans and his family’s objections. After Frederick’s break with Innocent IV—more on that in a moment—Thomas’s brother, Aimo, joined the pope’s party. Frederick ordered the execution of Thomas’s other brother, Rinaldo.

About a year after the high drama of Thomas’s arrest and imprisonment, at the Council of Lyons, Pope Innocent IV issued Ad apostolicae dignitatis apicem, which excommunicated Frederick and deposed him as king of Sicily and Roman emperor. The story of the break between Frederick and Innocent IV would be too long to recount in detail, since it marked the culmination of over twenty years of tension with the Church, going back to Innocent III and Gregory IX. Innocent alleged that Frederick, despite his oaths of fidelity to the popes, made war against the Church and was suspect of heresy. In Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite, Ernst Kantorowicz (fairly convincingly) argues that Frederick’s combat against the Lombard League and his desire to unify territorially the Empire with Sicily—which would have left the Papal States surrounded by Hohenstaufen possessions—was at the root of the conflict between first Gregory IX and then Innocent IV.

However, one of Innocent’s specific charges ought to be examined in particular. After rehearsing Frederick’s alleged perjuries and broken pacts with the Church and his putative heresy, Innocent turns to Frederick’s putative maladministration of the kingdom of Sicily.

Praeter haec regnum Siciliae, quod est speciale patrimonium beati Petri et idem princeps ab apostolica sede tenebat in feudum, iam ad tantam in clericis et laicis exinanitionem servitutem que redegit, quod eis paene penitus nihil habentibus et omnibus exinde fere probis eiectis, illos qui remanserunt ibidem sub servili quasi conditione vivere ac Romanam ecclesiam, cuius principaliter sunt homines et vassalli, offendere multipliciter et hostiliter impugnare compellit.

(Oddly, the Vatican makes the Latin original available on its website.) In translation, this charge reads:

Besides this the kingdom of Sicily, which is the special patrimony of blessed Peter and which Frederick held as a fief from the apostolic see, he has reduced to such a state of utter desolation and servitude, with regard to both clergy and laity, that these have practically nothing at all; and as nearly all upright people have been driven out, he has forced those who remain to live in an almost servile condition and to wrong in many ways and attack the Roman church, of which in the first place they are subjects and vassals. He could also be rightly blamed because for more than nine years he has failed to pay the annual pension of a thousand gold pieces, which he is bound to pay to the Roman church for this kingdom.

While not phrased in terms of tyranny and the common good, it is clear that Frederick’s civil maladministration in Sicily comes very near to tyranny in Innocent’s eyes. Running throughout the bull is the charge that Frederick has broken the peace between the Empire and the Church; this charge suggests that Frederick has thrown Sicily into disorder and reduced everyone to poverty, desolation, and servitude. He has also led them into moral turpitude.

This, then, is the interesting biographical problem: writing not quite thirty years after Innocent deposed Frederick, at least in part for Frederick’s alleged tyranny, Aquinas does not mention Frederick at all in his speculum principis, which is concerned preeminently with keeping a prince from falling into tyranny. Given Innocent IV’s charges against Frederick, one might reasonably assume that Frederick would be a clear example of a modern tyrant in Thomas’s account. Frederick, according to Innocent, abandoned the common good of his Sicilian subjects to draft them in his war against the Church. More than this, Frederick’s conflict with Innocent IV embroiled the Aquino family, ultimately to the price of Rinaldo d’Aquino’s life. Thomas, therefore, would have a personal motivation to discuss Frederick as a tyrant.

That he does not is, of course, extremely interesting. Perhaps his silence can be explained in terms of his project in the De regno. Observe—we are sure you no doubt have observed, dear reader—that Aquinas cites classical authors such as Aristotle, Cicero, Vegetius, and Vitruvius. He also cites scripture and Augustine at some length. One could argue that Aquinas avoids contemporary or near-contemporary politics in order to make his case based solely on scripture and classical authors—including for the moment Augustine in the list of classical authors. After all, the case of Frederick II and his children and grandchildren would have been very much on the mind of Hugh II/III of Cyprus. The Lusignan kings of Cyprus had benefitted from the fall of the Hohenstaufens, particularly with respect to their claims to Jerusalem. One might argue that it was wholly unnecessary for Thomas to rehearse the case of Frederick II in the De regno. (One could also argue that the De regno is incomplete, but there’s no fun in that argument.)

However, that explanation is perhaps not wholly satisfactory, especially given Thomas’s treatment of the options of a people laboring under the yoke of a tyrant. This is not the place to get into that question in depth, but it is worth noting that Innocent IV purported to depose Frederick II from both the Empire and Sicily. The case of Sicily is relatively straightforward, since it was a papal fief. However, deposing the Roman Emperor was another matter. Innocent’s decision caused significant disruptions in the political order of Europe, though Frederick’s deposition was never meaningfully effected. The question of papal involvement in the deposition of a tyrant was therefore a major question in relatively recent history—and Thomas is silent about it.

The direction of integralism in 2019

We are not living in an integralist moment. Rocked by new revelations in the ongoing abuse crisis, the Church’s public standing is not especially high in the United States and elsewhere. Indeed, it seems as though the liberties for the Church defended by St. Gregory VII against Emperor Henry IV are in jeopardy with numerous state and federal investigations into the Church ongoing. However, we are living in a moment when liberalism seems weaker than usual.

For a brief moment, the electric uncertainty in the air in 2008 returned when the stock market took a precipitous pre-Christmas plunge and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took the unusual step of announcing that he had spoken with the heads of major U.S. banks and was sure that the banks were liquid and ready to lend. This had the same unhappy feeling as sitting on an airplane and hearing the pilot announce that he had checked with the flight crew and the plane had plenty of fuel and was ready to land safely. The pre-Christmas jolt was followed by a stupendous rally after the Christmas holiday and the crisis did not materialize.

However, the evident weakness of liberalism has led to wider acceptance of anti-liberal thought of all kinds—including Catholic anti-liberalism. As the year winds down, it is worth thinking about what 2019 holds for Catholic anti-liberalism, especially what Catholic anti-liberals ought to do to cement progress made. And there has been significant progress made. What was, not too long ago, a doctrine held by traditionalists and discussed in primarily traditionalist circles is getting wide press. Ross Douthat of the New York Times has addressed it in several columns, and high-profile conferences at Harvard and Notre Dame have gotten coverage at outlets like Public Discourse and Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative. There has been all year a lively debate in Catholic circles about integralism. Joseph Trabbic’s defense of the doctrinal status of the Catholic confessional state at Public Discourse was a response to Robert T. Miller’s critique of the same concept.

On the other hand, anti-liberal Catholicism still encounters significant resistance, particularly in the American Catholic right. We have already said enough about the debacle at First Things over Fr. Romanus Cessario’s review of Fr. Pio Edgardo Mortara’s memoir. While that affair implicated more than mere anti-liberal Catholicism, it was certainly a significant component of the debate. First Things, the vanguard of the fusionist project, has been slow to welcome the return—a return ad fontes—to anti-liberal teaching. They are not alone: the reason why there has been a lively debate all year is because people disagree.

I.

Of course, the disagreements get narrower and narrower. Dr. John Joy’s argument that Quanta cura and Syllabus are infallible is basically unanswerable, and we have not seen anyone try very hard to answer it. The arguments, it seems to us, have fallen along predictable lines. On one hand, you have the argument that Vatican II changed the teaching of Pius IX and Leo XIII with Dignitatis humanae and Gaudium et spes. On the other hand, you have the argument that integralism is somehow impractical or poorly suited for the political problems of 2018. As to the first argument, this is broadly the debate over several issues associated with the Council, and the arguments on both sides are well known.

One would be excused for being of two minds about the progress of the debate into the well worn grooves of the debates over the Second Vatican Council. On one hand, it is always nice to know all the moves of the game before they are played. On the other hand, it seems unlikely to result in any real progress. Everyone knows the various narratives—hermeneutics of rupture and continuity—about the Council and how those narratives incorporate the prior teachings of the Church. Indeed, given how fixed everyone’s positions are, one would be excused for thinking of the descriptions of the tedium of the trenches punctuated with cataclysmic assaults in the great First World War authors like David Jones, Robert Graves, or Wilfred Owen.

It seems to us that the collapse of Catholic fusionism in recent years is necessarily tied up with the dispute over the Council, since most of the fusionists’ arguments are drawn from the Council’s purported outreach (or openness or whatever you want to call it) to non-Catholics. One might even trace the collapse of fusionism to Benedict XVI’s 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, where the “hermeneutic of continuity” was given its most important presentation. Indeed, the erosion of the post-Conciliar consensus embodied by John Paul II seems to have included both the belief that the Council constituted a restart for the Church and the belief that fusionism represents a meaningful political strategy for the Church. Given the significant controversy over other parts of John Paul’s legacy today, it seems unlikely that anyone will pick up the banner and attempt to reconstruct John Paul’s consensus.

II.

A more detailed response to the second point is in order, as it here that we think the central project for anti-liberal Catholicism in 2019 lies. There has been, we think, significant confusion as to what integralism is—or is not. Everyone works off the definition offered by Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., in his famous “Integralism in Three Sentences,” so we will too. At bottom, integralism concerns the right relationship between the temporal power (the state, let us say) and the Church. Integralism is not a general prescription for Catholic political action, and it definitely is not a plan for individual Catholics. (Except, perhaps, in the rare case when the individual is a monarch or something like that.) That people have latched on to “integralism” as a label for what would have been called Catholic Action once upon a time is hardly surprising. The American bishops have limited their political interventions to a narrow range of issues.

Certainly no one could complain that the American bishops have chosen to emphasize the Church’s teaching on abortion over any number of other questions. Not every moral issue is equivalently weighty. However, at a moment when liberalism is being questioned pretty vigorously, it is unfortunate that there is not really a satisfactory response from the bishops. This is doubly unfortunate when one considers that Pope Francis is an astute critic of modern liberalism and the spiritual sicknesses it cause. There are, of course, voices in the Church that have long upheld the Church’s condemnations of liberalism and supported integralism—here we are thinking most notably of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X. In a very real way, the resurgence of Catholic anti-liberal thought would not have been possible without Lefebvre and the SSPX. (Gabriel Sanchez, at Opus Publicum, has written several posts emphasizing the historical role of Archbishop Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X in keeping the anti-liberal flame alive, including a very recent note.)

However, the point is not to litigate the history of integralism since 1965. Instead, we mean to say only that it is understandable that people have transformed the concept of integralism into a broader Catholic anti-liberalism or a new sort of Catholic Action. However, while it is understandable, it leads to all sorts of unwelcome consequences. Notably, there is a tendency to draw integralism’s dogmatic mantle over various political proposals that have very little to do with the strict definition of integralism. A careful reading of Leo XIII’s encyclicals, notably Diuturnum illud and Immortale Dei, would show that the Church has generally refrained from insisting on this or that arrangement, much less the sorts of arrangements that are offered.

III.

On the other hand, what is modern-day integralism if not a part of broader attempt to recover the Church’s political thought? It would be strange to insist that the anti-liberalism of Quanta cura, Syllabus, and Leo’s encyclicals are infallible and irreformable, but then leave the matter at the fairly narrow question of the indirect subordination of the state to the Church. Indeed, the natural consequence of the recovery of integralism in its strict sense is to turn to the other treasures of the Church’s political teaching for guidance. However, it is counterproductive to reduce the entirety of the Church’s political teaching to the concept of integralism, even if only as a convenient shorthand. Integralism, one could say, is not the end of the Church’s perennial political teaching but the beginning.

Of course, turning to the Church’s perennial historical teaching for guidance does not necessarily mean a mere repetition of the content of the teaching documents. Some application of the Church’s teachings to modern problems ought to be done. This is why we say that, in 2019, anti-liberal Catholics ought to start thinking about specific policy proposals. One need not even consider policies specifically in terms of anti-liberal Catholicism. Laws against blasphemy and heresy are, of course, excellent and are well supported historically (after all, Justinian’s Codex begins with a condemnation of heresy). However, there are more political questions to be answered than free speech, blasphemy, and heresy, and it will be necessary to approach at least some of these questions.

It is necessary to emphasize that these questions are separate from the scholarly, technical questions addressed at The Josias. This is not to say that the work done at The Josias is not necessary. However, the philosophical, theological, and historical questions answered there are altogether different than, say, questions of concrete public policy. And it is precisely those questions that anti-liberal Catholics need to start addressing if they are going to continue to stake out a clear position in 2019.

One important contribution in this vein was Mehrsa Baradaran’s piece in support of postal banking at American Affairs. Baradaran, a law professor at the University of Georgia, makes the case that America’s banks prefer to serve the middle class and the wealthy, leaving America’s working poor in the hands of usurers. The response Baradaran offers is postal banking; that is, having the United States Postal Service make available retail financial services like savings accounts and small loans. Baradaran argues that, while America’s retail banks have deserted many communities, the Post Office has not. Additionally, as a public enterprise, the Postal Service could offer these services at a discount compared to the big banks and the usurers. Postal banking is widely used in western countries, and there is a history of it in the United States—that is to say: it is not a reckless, extreme idea.

The argument in support of postal banking can be made without reference to the Church; however, it is not hard to imagine a Catholic twist on this proposal. To be sure, the usurious interest charged by payday lenders is bad for the economy. However, the Church condemns usury. One could argue—we would say that one must argue—that an integralist regime would not tolerate usury. Postal banking, therefore, could represent one important step toward the sorts of institutions one could find in an integralist regime. One could also turn to the arguments about work advanced by the popes, notably John Paul II in Laborem exercens, when he sketches a connection between work, wages, and the universal destination of goods. It is trivial—though it does need to be said—that you cannot share in the universal destination of goods as fully as you ought to if a significant portion of your wages are eaten up by usurious interest payments or excessive fees.One can imagine similar, similarly detailed arguments on any of a whole host of issues.

One can also engage in detailed strategic arguments like Adrian Vermeule’s “Integration from Within,” also published by American Affairs. Maybe you agree with Vermeule—maybe you don’t. However, it seems to us that strategic arguments like Vermeule’s are implicitly at least as strong an answer to the charge of irrelevance as policy proposals like Baradaran. If one disagrees with Vermeule, setting forth in detail the bases of the disagreement and an alternate strategy would be an excellent contribution to the discussion.

Perhaps another way of putting all of this is to say that Catholic anti-liberalism has made its doctrinal case. It is now time to start making a practical case. After all, politics is eminently the exercise of practical reason.

The legends of liberalism

The Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture had its fall conference not too long ago. This year, the conference explored the relationship between Church and state. It closed with a panel discussion between Harvard Law’s Adrian Vermeule, Gladden Pappin of the University of Dallas, Patrick Deneen, and V. Philip Muñoz, both of Notre Dame. Rod Dreher basically liveblogged the proceedings and offered a characteristically behemoth post summarizing his thoughts. In the coverage of the final panel discussion, it occurred to us that much of the resistance to liberalism is premised upon some legends about liberalism. However, upon closer inspection, some of these legends bear little resemblance to the facts as they are.

In this, we are reminded of the Black Legend—the set of stories told about the Spanish Empire, usually by English, intended to present Spanish rule as incomparably cruel. The Black Legend relies on exaggerations and misrepresentations of existing facts about Spanish rule, along with a certain economy with the truth about events and persons who might contradict the overarching narrative of bigoted, vicious Spaniards subduing and tormenting across several continents. Such legends, it seems to us, exist about liberalism. However, liberalism’s legends may properly be called White Legends. That is, they are the inverse of the misrepresentations and omissions of the Black Legend. Liberalism does not, as a rule, directly misrepresent illiberal doctrines or omit key facts about them. Instead, liberalism misrepresents itself as the sole defense against the implicit wickedness of illiberal doctrines.

In a certain sense, none of this matters in the broader debate about integralism. John Joy has convincingly argued that Quanta cura and Syllabus are infallible and irreformable. Moreover, as we have noted (following Pappin’s lead), the canonical authority F.X. Wernz held that Leo XIII’s encyclicals have an intimate relationship with the infallible declarations of Quanta cura and Syllabus. Finally, Thomas Pink has shown at great length, whether you find it altogether convincing or not, that Dignitatis humanae does not contradict the Pio-Leonine magisterium. In other words, from a doctrinal standpoint, the onus probandi is clearly on the liberals. And given the careful arguments advanced by Joy and Pink, it is unclear that liberal urgency about tyranny or statism is much of an answer to the definitive status of integralism as Church teaching.

On the other hand, the recent agony on Twitter about whether integralism is “Catholic fascism” or totalitarianism or any of a whole parade of horribles shows that, from a forensic standpoint, the white legends of liberalism are hard to avoid. And there is a temptation to decline to do other people’s homework. However, given some of the horrible advanced by Muñoz and Dreher, it is clear even public figures are invested in liberalism’s white legends. Thus, integralists have some obligation, we think, to rebut these legends. For our part, we will address two of them here. Nothing we say will be particularly groundbreaking—and we suspect that this may be repetitive of earlier posts—there is some value to the exercise of outlining integralist teaching in the context of some of liberalism’s white legends.

The first white legend of liberalism is that liberalism alone is concerned with preventing the state from falling into tyranny. To reject liberalism, the liberals claim, is to start down the road to totalitarianism and tyranny. Adrian Vermeule and Gladden Pappin have both written about liberalism’s bad habit of taking credit for procedural safeguards that it did not introduce. This perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this white legend: liberalism takes credit for the Church’s ideas, and then deploys them against the Church. However, the problem goes well beyond specific procedural safeguards. Catholic thinkers—illiberal Catholic thinkers—have considered the problem of tyranny at great length and well before the rise of liberalism. To suggest that liberalism is preeminently concerned with preserving liberty is, therefore, to misrepresent the fact that Catholic philosophers and theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas preeminent among them, were considering the same problem and coming to sound answers.

Aquinas thought at length about how to keep a ruler from going sour, as it were, and becoming a tyrant. Not quite a year ago, we wrote about a seeming development in Aquinas’s thought regarding the mixed constitution (partly monarchy, partly aristocracy, partly democracy). While Aquinas argues strongly in favor of monarchy in the De regno, by the time he wrote the Prima Secundae of the Summa Theologiae, he implies that a mixed constitution would serve as a strong bulwark against tyranny. Additionally, he argued against the idea that the ruler is totally free from his laws. It is true that the sovereign is not bound by the law, Aquinas admits, in the sense that the coercive power of law comes from the sovereign and no man is bound by himself (ST I-II q.96 a.5 ad 3). More to the point, if the sovereign violates the law, there is no one who can pass sentence on him. However, Aquinas insists on the directive force of the law on the sovereign. That is, before God, the sovereign is morally responsible for keeping his own laws, and he should do so by his own free will. In other words, the sovereign is morally bound to follow his own laws, even if he is free from their coercive power.

Moreover, Aquinas imposes limits on the power of the sovereign’s laws. On one hand, unjust laws do not bind subjects in conscience (ST I-II q.96 a.4 co.). Aquinas identifies several kinds of unjust law. First, a law beyond the competence of the prince is unjust. Second, a law that is not aimed at the common good, instead being ordered toward the ruler’s cupidity or vainglory is unjust. Third, a law that may well be aimed at the common good yet still be unjust if it inflicts disproportionate burdens. Finally, a law contrary to the divine or natural law is no law at all. Aquinas goes so far as to call these unjust laws acts of violence rather than laws. The moral law which imposes upon the ruler the obligation to obey his laws can also free the ruler’s subjects from the obligation to obey his laws.

We might also discuss Aquinas’s notion that human law should not try to repress all vices (ST I-II q.96 a.2). His argument turns basically on the idea that law should forbid only the more grievous vices, which tend to destabilize society altogether (ST I-II q.96 a.2 co.). He lists murder and theft, but it may be possible to come up with a longer list. The upshot of Aquinas’s argument is that law is a rule for human action designed to lead men to virtue, but this process is gradual (ST I-II q.96 a.2 ad 2). Forcing all men, including the less virtuous, into the life of the virtuous, who avoid all vice, would cause greater evils than permitting some vices.

This is, by the way, a really difficult point in discourse about integralism and Aquinas. The purpose of law, especially for Aquinas, is not to create some baseline condition of liberty suitable for maximum flourishing. It is to order people to virtue (ST I-II q.95 a.1 co.). To be sure, some people are naturally sort of virtuous and avoid vice through wise paternal teaching. However, other people, Aquinas argues, are depraved and inclined to vice. Law teaches these people to be virtuous by forbidding by force certain vices. Over time, the vicious, thus forbidden by force, might become virtuous. At the very least, they might leave others in peace. This is a more active and more energetic role for the regime that some like to imagine. It also requires certain choices to be made at the outset that are generally seen as choices regimes ought not to make. Put another way: one cannot be neutral about virtue and expect to frame laws designed to lead the vicious to virtue.

Changing gears a little, as Alasdair MacIntyre has discussed, criticizing the (purportedly) absolutizing and centralizing tendencies of King Louis IX of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, Aquinas recognized the value of custom as an interpreter and source of law (ST I-II q.97 a.3). Aquinas’s argument is interesting. He argues that all law proceeds from the reason and will of the lawgiver. However, the reason and will of the lawgiver can be made known through action just as through speech (ST I-II q.97 a.3 co.). And custom is nothing more than repeated actions, so custom makes known the reason and will of those participating in the custom. Thus, custom can make and interpret law. Responding to an objection, Aquinas holds that custom obtains the force of law both for a people free and capable of giving itself laws and for a people under authority of another, insofar as those in authority tolerate the customs (ST I-II q.97 a.3 ad 3).

This sketch, which could profitably be expanded into a lengthy treatment, shows, we think, that Aquinas was acutely concerned with ensuring that the ruler does not become a tyrant and the regime does not become a centralizing, totalizing entity (Whether he goes as far as MacIntyre would have him go is another question.) It is no answer to claim Thomas for liberalism, either. One has only to read Aquinas’s treatment in the Secunda Secundae of coercion of heretics or the limited toleration to be afforded to nonbelievers to see that Aquinas’s vision of good government is far removed from modern liberal ideals such as freedom of religion or separation of Church and state. Instead, it must be recognized that even an illiberal Catholic like Thomas Aquinas can be concerned with tyranny and propose means of avoiding tyranny without endorsing modern concepts of liberty.

To the extent that liberalism advances its white legend that only liberalism is especially interested in preventing tyranny and totalitarianism, that is plainly false. Integralism no less than liberalism is concerned with preventing the well ordered state from decaying into tyranny (or dissension, though this is a matter for another time). Moreover, Aquinas’s thought on the limits of state power—both in terms of when it ceases to bind in conscience and in terms of the implicit decentralization represented by custom—shows that integralism is, in fact, far removed from an all-embracing totalitarianism.

The problem, of course, is that Aquinas’s thought permits a broader range of action for the regime than most American conservatives would like to tolerate. This demonstrates not a limitation or risk of integralism so much as a limitation or risk of trying to wedge Catholic political thought into an American left-right context. Vermeule discusses a little bit of this in his piece we linked above. The risks of applying American politics to Catholic economic thought are well known. The risks of applying American politics to Catholic political thought are no less acute. More on this in a minute.

The second white legend is the idea that liberalism prevents corrupt prelates from exercising too much authority. Dreher gets at this when he says, “integralism looks like Blaise [sic] Cupich and Ted McCarrick putting their loafers on your neck forever.” In other words, integralism means that morally compromised prelates will gain significant temporal authority; liberalism, on the other hand, ensures that these prelates will be kept far from the levers of power. (Perhaps this is a black legend after all!) Such an approach shows an admirable naïveté regarding secular politicians, especially in Dreher’s home state of Louisiana or Cupich’s state of Illinois. The realities of secular politicians alone explode any idea that integralism is a change for the worse. However, Dreher’s anxiety—naïve or not—gets to back to a more obviously white legend: liberalism is all that prevents theocracy.

Is this not really what Dreher is anxious about? Under integralism, prelates of the Church would have, so he implies, significant power that could be implemented by the civil authorities. The prelates become theocrats, which is worrying if they are unworthy. Of course, this ignores the history of actually existing integralist regimes. Frederick II’s Sicily was formally as integralist as Louis IX’s France, and Frederick spent much of his adult life locked in battles of varying intensity with Gregory IX and Innocent IV. This is especially noteworthy when one remembers that Sicily was a papal fief and Gregory IX and Innocent IV both claimed the power to depose the king of Sicily. And Andrew Willard Jones’s magisterial study of Louis IX’s France, Before Church and State, does not depict a theocratic state. The presumption that civil authorities will be entirely passive with respect to the Church does not appear to have strong support in historical fact.

Moreover, Leo XIII’s explanation of integralism in Immortale Dei states that the state and the Church are supreme in their separate spheres. It is when the spheres overlap that the subordination of state to Church comes into play. And Leo makes the salient point that, without such subordination, these instances of joint jurisdiction (so to speak) would result in conflict. Now, given the Church’s teaching on morality, which includes economic relations, perhaps these subjects of joint jurisdiction are particularly important. However, nothing in Immortale Dei suggests that integralism results in the Church obtaining plenary jurisdiction over the state. Moreover, in Cum multa, after condemning the error of separating Church and state, Leo XIII condemned the opposite error: confounding the Church and a given political party.

The bottom line is that liberalism’s claim to be a defense against theocracy has no more merit than its claim that it defends against tyranny and totalitarianism. Historically, integralist regimes have been far from theocracies, and Leo XIII’s teaching on integralism (teaching that is, after all, infallible and irreformable) rejects the notion of priests or prelates becoming dictators. Dreher’s (no doubt carefully chosen) image of “Blaise [sic] Cupich and Ted McCarrick putting their loafers on your neck forever” under integralism is mere hyperbole.

To a certain extent, these debates are unnecessary. No one really thinks integralists support fascism or totalitarianism or theocracy, whatever those terms may mean (and in the case of totalitarianism, it is the Catholic thinker Charles De Koninck who provides the most coherent and intelligent definition). The problem at Notre Dame and on Twitter and elsewhere is that integralism does not square nicely with American right-left politics. And, while integralism would hand culture warriors big wins, it would hand big losses to small-government conservatives who drone on (and on and on and on) about the virtues of personal liberty and personal virtue. Whether they would, in fact, prefer to have liberty over morality is another question for another time.

From Vermeule to Newman

Former Catholic and amateur butter importer Rod Dreher has criticized Harvard Law professor and current Catholic Adrian Vermeule for his insufficiently critical stance toward Pope Francis. Dreher, currently in communion with one of the several Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States, argues that Vermeule’s ultramontanism stems from Vermeule’s Schmittian priors. You can read the blog post and decide for yourselves. However, Dreher’s screed follows hot on the heels of a general meltdown over Francis’s decision to canonize Pope Paul VI. Additionally, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò continues to publish statements about his allegations regarding the handling of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s case. All of these things have us thinking about the correct mode of criticism and the need for crucial distinctions.

In some circles, it seems that the default position on Francis is one of criticism. This is true both. in traditionalist circles and mainstream conservative circles. Michael Brendan Dougherty just had a cover story at National Review setting forth “the case against Pope Francis.” Likewise, Ross Douthat of the New York Times has written a lengthy book, which is in some respects very critical of Francis. Other voices from more traditionalist circles, like H.J.A. Sire and Peter Kwasniewski, have been heard, raising issues personal and theological about Francis and his pontificate. Speaking purely for ourselves, and going purely on impressions, there seems to have been a shift in the criticism of Francis from raising questions about particular acts toward a general opposition to his pontificate.

We would not pretend that there are not serious questions about Francis’s pontificate. John Joy, for example, has set out an (unanswerable) argument that the Church’s teaching on the death penalty is infallible and irreformable, despite Francis’s decision to declare it “inadmissible.” We have discussed on innumerable occasions the debate over Amoris laetitia, which seems for the moment to have died down. (Francis’s insistence on the independence of episcopal conferences seems to have cut both ways in this case.) There are other issues that have cropped up, and the ongoing Youth Synod has been a flashpoint for still other issues, including same-sex attraction, contraception, and even the ghost of liturgical reform (a ghost that has gotten long in the tooth and whose shroud is moth eaten by now).

The doctrinal issues are, to our mind, somewhat separate and apart from the ongoing crisis roiling the American Church. The current iteration of the sex-abuse scandal has led to the downfall of not only Archbishop Theodore McCarrick but also Washington’s Donald Cardinal Wuerl. It appears that the U.S. Department of Justice is launching a RICO investigation into the Church in Pennsylvania. This will, no doubt, please those Catholics who were calling for greater state intervention into the Church in the wake of the latest abuse revelations. (For our part, we are far from sure that this will end as well as the voices calling for intervention think it will.) The American crisis follows on the heels of the protracted, frankly embarrassing affair in Chile.

One might say, perhaps not unreasonably, that the default position toward Francis in these circles is critical because there is so much to be critical about. However, it seems to us that a fundamental principle is lost when the default position toward Francis becomes one of criticism. Indeed, we might go so far as to say that there is an inversion of the right order of things when this is the case. Here we could discuss Thomas, who held that fraternal correction is a matter of virtue and therefore subject to all the requirements for any act of virtue. There have been magisterial interventions, both by the Plenary Councils of Baltimore and by Leo XIII, about the duties of Catholics commenting on current events. To our knowledge, no one has collected these interventions in one place for serious study. Hopefully someone more inclined to careful research and scholarship will do so.

But maybe they don’t have to.

It may not please Professor Vermeule to know that, in all of this, we are reminded of Blessed John Henry Newman, who, in a sermon preached October 7, 1866 (somewhat before Pius IX called the Vatican Council, when the infallibility debate reached its fever pitch), said:

[W]hat need I say more to measure our own duty to it and to him who sits in it, than to say that in his administration of Christ’s kingdom, in his religious acts, we must never oppose his will, or dispute his word, or criticise his policy, or shrink from his side? There are kings of the earth who have despotic authority, which their subjects obey indeed but disown in their hearts; but we must never murmur at that absolute rule which the Sovereign Pontiff has over us, because it is given to him by Christ, and, in obeying him, we are obeying his Lord. We must never suffer ourselves to doubt, that, in his government of the Church, he is guided by an intelligence more than human. His yoke is the yoke of Christ, he has the responsibility of his own acts, not we; and to his Lord must he render account, not to us. Even in secular matters it is ever safe to be on his side, dangerous to be on the side of his enemies. Our duty is,—not indeed to mix up Christ’s Vicar with this or that party of men, because he in his high station is above all parties,—but to look at his formal deeds, and to follow him whither he goeth, and never to desert him, however we may be tried, but to defend him at all hazards, and against all comers, as a son would a father, and as a wife a husband, knowing that his cause is the cause of God.

The whole sermon is well worth reading, not least because it treats at length of the Papal States and the union between the Church and state power. However, for our purposes the extract here is sufficient.

Recall also Newman’s so-called biglietto speech, given May 12, 1879, upon the formal notification that Pope Leo XIII, who had been elected pope just over a year before, had raised Newman to the dignity of cardinal of the Holy Roman Church. “For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion.” Newman went on to say on that occasion,

Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.

Perhaps the current criticism of Francis is not quite Newman’s loathed liberalism in religion. However, it is not so far off as one might like to imagine. Certainly the right to express one’s opinions of Francis—good, bad, especially bad, or otherwise—is implicit in all of the criticism of Francis swirling today. Therefore, it seems to us that there is something profoundly illiberal in Newman’s insistence in 1866 that, in the pope’s religious acts, Catholics “must never oppose his will, or dispute his word, or criticise his policy, or shrink from his side.” This view rejects, fundamentally, that every opinion ought to be expressed. Indeed, it holds that basically no opinion ought to be expressed, except, of course, opinions supportive of the pope’s rule over the Church.

Consequently, Professor Vermeule’s position seems to us to be an entirely reasonable anti-liberal position. One of the leading opponents of liberalism of the 19th century adopted a position no less deferential to the pope than Vermeule’s apparent ultramontanism. Of course, there are other explanations, including the notion that Professor Vermeule does not think Francis is as disastrous as his critics do. But given his thorough anti-liberalism in other respects, it is at least plausible that his attitude toward the Pope is motivated by distrust and dislike for liberalism.

Dreher is not wrong when he notes a fundamental tension in this position; that is, Francis seems a committed partisan of political and theological liberalism and it therefore is bizarre to adopt an anti-liberal attitude toward criticizing him. This, we think, is a misreading of Francis’s pontificate. It is far from clear that Francis is the liberal that has been advertised. Certainly in political and environmental terms, he is no liberal. Indeed, as Rusty Reno noted, Francis is as suspicious of liberal modernity as Pius IX ever was. And there’s a case to be made that Francis thinks that liberal modernity has rendered us incapable of strenuous moral life. This is, in fact, far bleaker than anything Pius IX ever held. And it is, of course, debatable. Highly debatable.

Even if Francis is a liberal, it is far from clear to us that the proper response is liberalism. This, then, is the crux of the problem. Barring the Head of the Church returning, there will be other popes. Perhaps some will be, in the words of the great Louisiana philosopher and theologian I.J. Reilly, good authoritarian popes. Perhaps some will be liberals. However, the anti-liberal position works as well with a good authoritarian pope as it does with a liberal pope. Indeed, it works even better. And it has the advantage of avoiding a perpetual oscillation between ultramontanism and neo-Gallicanism.

The Youth Synod

It is October, which means it is time for the Youth Synod. Already it is clear that doctrinal novelty is once more on the agenda. There has already been a skirmish about the appearance in the instrumentum laboris of the term “LGBT.” The Synod’s top official, one of Francis’s earliest supporters from his time at the Congregation for Bishops, indicated erroneously that the term had been used by youth. Not so, but he refused to remove the term, according to Life Site News. One anticipates that the Synod will be a battleground for the renewed dialectic over same-sex attraction, contraception, and other moral issues much beloved of modernists and progressives. However, the Synod comes at a difficult time for Francis, following a dreadful summer of revelations about the abuse crisis and the sense that Francis’s pontificate is winding down. It remains to be seen how much all of this will affect the final product of the Synod.

It is clear that progressives in high places have not abandoned their agenda. It is clear from the instrumentum laboris that the Synod will address youth with same-sex attraction and, once again, the battle between the divinely revealed doctrine of the Church and the pressures of secular liberalism will be joined. The same will no doubt be true with respect to contraception. No doubt other issues related to sex will be taken up, with the familiar tension between the doctrine of the Church and the apparently unfailingly progressive youth heightened. We anticipate hearing that, not only do young people want an unqualified endorsement of same-sex relationships and contraception, young people want married priests, deaconesses, and greater theological exploration of the question of ordaining women to the priesthood. Whether two-thirds of the Synod fathers will agree to these novelties remains to be seen.

In the 2014-2015 process, there was still some question about Francis’s doctrinal commitments, and that made the really extraordinary battles in the Synod seem altogether more significant. However, in 2018, it is clear where Francis’s doctrinal commitments lie. It is unlikely that he will endorse wholesale revisions of Church doctrine. Instead, the language of pastoral accompaniment and development of doctrine will be employed. In this regard the stakes for this Synod are much lower. There is, in fact, a sense that we have returned to the stage-managed Synods of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The final report is probably mostly written. Francis can choose to endorse it and give it magisterial weight, or he can choose to issue an exhortation. It probably will not be openly heterodox, but it probably will contain ambiguities and openings to immoral conduct under the guise of discernment and pastoral accompaniment. The stories write themselves at this points.

Of course, Edward Pentin reports that there is substantial confusion about the voting procedures at the Synod, perhaps in an effort to avoid subjecting controversial propositions to a straight up-or-down vote, instead requiring bishops to vote on the entire document. Given how the 2014-2015 process worked, it is reasonable to expect that the Synod secretariat, with Francis’s support, will manipulate the process to achieve the predetermined result with a minimum of dissent. While the concept of a synodal, “listening” Church is one of Francis’s favorite talking points, there are significant questions whether this is anything more than a talking point. Clearly, the Pope likes the idea of consensus backing up certain moves; however, he has shown himself time and time again willing to go it alone, relying on his inherent authority and the willingness of his supporters to defend his decisions.

This is not to say that the outcome of the Synod is inconsequential. As we have written before, history has begun again in the Church. The dialectic between continuity and rupture, between tradition and novelty, is in full swing, and this Synod will be for a few weeks the epicenter of the process. Perhaps this one is a little different, in that it is impossible to deny that things have changed in the world and even the pastoral strategies of 1978, 1988, 1998, or 2008 are inadequate to reach today’s youth. Traditionally minded Catholics point to the young people who engage enthusiastically with tradition; modernists point to the young people who want same-sex relationships blessed and contraception permitted. The strategy of tension employed by modernists since the days of Pascendi will no doubt be observed. But to say that the dialectic is inconsistent with apostolic faith, which rests primarily in tradition, and has since the days of St. Paul (cf. Gal. 1:8), is somewhat beside the point. The fact is that the dialectic will take place.

Nevertheless, is an autumnal feel to this process, and not only because it is happening in October. There is a sense that there is more time behind Francis than before him. Already people are making plans for the next conclave. In fact, just in the last couple of days, it has been announced that a well funded group is going to be investigating cardinal electors so that compromised candidates will be known prior to entering the conclave. (The suggestion is that Cardinal Bergoglio was compromised and would not have been elected pope if that had been known; whether or not this is true is anyone’s guess.) There is not much reason to think this, other than Francis’s age. Unlike John Paul II, Francis has not had high-profile health crises or sudden trips to the Gemelli clinic. And unlike Benedict XVI, who grew visibly frail before abdicating, Francis does not appear to be weakening with age. It is strange therefore that all this activity is taking place. However, there is still a feeling that the Synod may be one of the last major engagements of Francis’s pontificate. For this reason, despite the lower stakes and likelihood of few surprises, the Synod may well be significant as a sort of referendum on the future direction of a post-Francis Church.

However, for reasons entirely aside from doctrine, this Synod comes at a terrible time for Francis (and the Church). There has been a steady drumbeat of allegations that Francis has either downplayed abuse or simply ignored abuse. It began with the case of Bishop Juan Barros in Osorno in Chile, who was accused of being involved with the coverup of Chile’s most notorious abuser, Fernando Karadima. Francis first backed Barros, but that position became untenable when it was revealed that one of Karadima’s victims had passed a letter to Francis through Cardinal O’Malley regarding Barros’s involvement. The affair resulted in the abdication of most of Chile’s bishops, though only some of the resignations have been accepted—most notably Barros’s. Given Francis’s decision to back Barros in unmistakable terms, the affair damaged his credibility on abuse.

However, the fall of former Washington archbishop Theodore McCarrick has proved to be a more serious crisis for Francis than even the Barros affair. McCarrick, long one of the most prominent figures in the American Church, was credibly accused of sexual misconduct with seminarians and a minor. Rumors about McCarrick had circulated for years, even reaching the Vatican when a professor at a seminary wrote to Rome about McCarrick’s behavior after his appointment to Washington was announced. Quickly, McCarrick resigned from the cardinalate and was ordered to a life of prayer and penance while the canonical process wound its way through Rome. Given McCarrick’s prominence and influence, the case was proving to be embarrassing for Francis and some of his most prominent American supporters.

Until Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò wrote a lengthy “testimony” about a long-running coverup in Rome of McCarrick’s misconduct. Viganò made many allegations, the upshot of which is that Benedict XVI ordered McCarrick out of public life, and Francis rescinded the order because McCarrick was a friend and supporter of Francis. Francis has not really answered the allegations. However, it appears that Benedict XVI did direct McCarrick to keep a lower profile, but McCarrick basically ignored the direction. It is impossible to say more than this, given the Vatican’s silence on the matter and the fact that some key figures, such as Pietro Sambi, the former nuncio, are dead.

In the background of the allegations about what Francis knew or didn’t know, the American Church has been dealing with another iteration of the abuse crisis, this time focused on several Pennsylvania dioceses. While Philadelphia had addressed the past instances of abuse and coverup, other dioceses had not, and the Pennsylvania attorney general initiated a grand jury probe. The results of the probe are chilling: over 70 years hundreds of predator priests abused over a thousand children. There have been calls for immediate action, ranging from greater civil oversight of the Church to improved reporting and compliance mechanisms within the Church, including greater participation by the laity.

However, the overwhelming reaction to the Pennsylvania report has been grief and outrage. Washington’s Donald Cardinal Wuerl, who was bishop of Pittsburgh for some of the time covered by the report, was named and accused of furthering the coverup of an instance of abuse. He contests the allegations, but he has also indicated that he intends on asking the Pope to accept his resignation so that Washington can move forward with new leadership. Joseph Cardinal Tobin, whose Newark archdiocese has a direct connection to McCarrick’s abuse, has informed Francis that he will not be attending the Synod, instead staying in Newark to address the issues there. One has only to look at Twitter or Facebook or do a Google search to see the numerous outraged comments from Catholics stunned by all these revelations.

With all of this going on, the Youth Synod seems like a pointless exercise. For one thing, many youth find the abuse crisis to be a major stumbling block in their relationship with the Church. Indeed, it seems that the abuse situation has the potential to undermine any renewed presentation or engagement with young people. It will not make much difference if clergy present Church teachings in a new, more attractive and understandable light if clergy are simply not believed by young people, upset and confused by the abuse crisis. Given that there are allegations about Francis’s conduct, though the allegations are by no means proved, it is impossible to dismiss this as a purely American problem.

All eyes on Viganò

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s Saturday bombshell has had quite an effect. Francis, asked about Viganò’s statement aboard the papal plane from Dublin to Rome, refused to respond, instead telling journalists to look into it for themselves. Msgr. Jean-François Lantheaume, formerly the first counsellor at the Nunciature in Washington and named by Viganò as a witness, has confirmed Viganò’s statements. Moreover, some interesting Facebook posts, purportedly from Lantheaume have been circulating. Naturally, Cardinals Cupich, Wuerl, and Tobin have all issued statements not-quite-denying Viganò’s allegations. And Cardinal Wuerl’s spokesman has issued a statement admitting that Wuerl canceled an event with McCarrick at Viganò’s request.

The Italian journalist and blogger Aldo Maria Valli has a long post, explaining how Viganò approached him to release his statement. Our Italian isn’t great and Google’s English version isn’t much better; however, the gist of the piece comes through. Hopefully it will be translated into English. The big bombshell of Valli’s piece is that Viganò, currently one of the most talked-about figures in the Church has gone into hiding outside of Italy. (This echoes some sinister comments in the Facebook post apparently written by Msgr. Lantheaume.) Aside from that dramatic touch, it’s an interesting piece that portrays Viganò as troubled by what he sees and aware of the responses he would receive.

And what responses! Some time ago, we wrote, for another venue, a piece comparing Francis to Donald J. Trump. That piece was criticized for such an outrageous comparison. (Never mind that others have made it.) This weekend shows that, regardless of President Trump’s similarity to the Pontiff, Francis’s supporters have much in common with the President’s. The liberal-Catholic media response to Viganò’s piece has been a chorus of claims that Viganò is making it up, that this is part of a coup against Francis, that Viganò is settling scores. “Fake news,” the “deep state,” and conflicts of interest might be how Trump’s supporters express those ideas, but the ideas are the same.

Despite the fact that the liberal Catholics in the United States and Italy have taken great pains to distance themselves from Trump and his policies, it is clear that they have learned well from Trump’s book of (extremely effective) communications strategies. When Villanova professor and leading Italian ice-cream enthusiast Massimo Faggioli is talking about a failed palace coup, you know that the language of the “deep state” works. One defender of Francis on Twitter has even gone so far as to call Viganò’s allegations “fake news.” It is astonishing to see strident critics of Trump fall immediately to his rhetoric to defend Francis. We doubt that Francis would be heartened by this.

Of course, the safer course has been marked by many prelates, including Cardinal DiNardo and even Cardinal Wuerl: there needs to be a full investigation into Viganò’s allegations. This poses its own problems. A key figure in Viganò’s allegations, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, his predecessor as nuncio, died unexpectedly in 2011. Viganò states that Sambi would have been the one to inform Cardinal Wuerl about Benedict’s sanctions against McCarrick. Wuerl has denied that Viganò provided him with detailed information on the matter, but his statement did not address whether or not Sambi had provided him with information. Additionally, it is entirely possible that McCarrick’s influence on Francis was not known to men McCarrick allegedly promoted, such as Joseph Tobin and Blase Cupich.

This is why Francis’s refusal to admit or deny the allegations is so troubling. At a moment in the Church when the laity is sick to death of reports of sexual abuse and cover ups, Francis’s position strikes a sour note. This follows his Letter to the People of God written in the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. In that letter, before turning to the problem of clericalism in the context of abuse, Francis wrote, “I am conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable.” Given that the allegations against McCarrick are basically that he preyed on children and vulnerable adults—seminarians—Francis’s nonresponse on the plane is especially disheartening.

In that letter, Francis went on to write: “This awareness of being part of a people and a shared history will enable us to acknowledge our past sins and mistakes with a penitential openness that can allow us to be renewed from within.  Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change.” It is hard to square “penitential openness” with a refusal to answer the allegations of a longtime Curial official and diplomat—an archbishop—even if to deny them or explain them.

We thought Francis was perhaps out in left field when he linked the crisis with clericalism. His supporters’ rhetoric—so far from penitential openness—seems, however, to be linked intrinsically with the clericalism he condemns. He wrote, “whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives.” The response of his supporters, denying Viganò’s statement not by adducing facts but by attacking character seems precisely like this exclusionary vision of the Church. Viganò, who is not one of the sons of light in the new order, has dared to speak out. He must be silenced, ignored, or excluded—precisely the clericalist attitudes that Francis identifies as root causes of the abuse crisis. Is this really the renewal Francis has called for?

The sober response of many—the call for an investigation—is the beginning of Francis’s penitential openness, not Trumpian cries of “fake news” and “deep state” and “coup.” If there is nothing to Viganò’s allegations, if they are the bitter rhetoric of a disappointed old intriguer, as the critics claim, then an investigation can be nothing but a good thing.

The bombshell

Today, an eleven-page document, apparently written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former nuncio to the United States, was released. It is a stunning document, alleging basically that the Holy Father was aware of then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s abusive activities but promoted McCarrick for a variety of reasons. More than that, it paints McCarrick as a close adviser to Francis on American matters. Indeed, it suggests that McCarrick was the architect of Francis’s high-profile American appointments, such as Blase Cupich’s appointment to Chicago and Joseph Tobin’s appointment to Newark. Some of these allegations were known; for example, Rocco Palmo reported when Tobin was translated from Indianapolis to Newark that McCarrick was behind the move. However, after McCarrick’s meteoric fall, Tobin’s partisans pressured Palmo to recant the reporting. He has refused to do so. However, other allegations are coming to light for the first time.

Viganò’s document implicates a huge number of high-profile churchmen. Three Secretaries of State—Sodano, Bertone, and Parolin—are alleged to have furthered McCarrick’s career, despite warnings in Rome about his misdeeds. Other high prelates are alleged to have known about McCarrick’s crimes. Viganò states that Benedict XVI imposed some sanctions on McCarrick following these warnings, basically ordering him out of public life. However, Viganò’s most serious allegation is that Francis rescinded these sanctions upon his election in 2013. Viganò goes on to claim that McCarrick became—along with Cardinal Maradiaga—a kingmaker in the Curia under Francis and a trusted adviser, especially with respect to the Obama administration. The whole document must be read, and the allegations take one’s breath away.

In a small but explosive bit of Edward Pentin’s coverage of Viganò’s statement, Pentin writes that Benedict XVI was aware of the allegations against McCarrick and recalls (today, presumably) ordering Cardinal Bertone to impose sanctions on McCarrick, but he cannot recall what the nature of those sanctions was. This adds some confirmation to Viganò’s statement, since he alleges that Benedict’s sanctions against McCarrick were common knowledge in the Curia and had been communicated repeatedly to McCarrick and his successor, Donald Cardinal Wuerl. He suggests that Cardinal Bertone and others may have helped McCarrick skirt Benedict’s sanctions by delaying their imposition.

The bottom line is this: Viganò alleges that McCarrick was aided and abetted by prominent churchmen from Pope Francis on down, despite his misconduct with seminarians being documented thoroughly. As a result of the corruption that Viganò details in his letter, Viganò demands that the Pope and high prelates resign over all this. At the very least, one wishes that there would be total transparency on the McCarrick case. Surely someone in Rome has a scanner and could make a PDF of his file at the Secretariat of State and the Congregation for Bishops; ideally, this would be posted on the Vatican’s website, so that the Church, if it is interested, can review the documents and come to its own conclusions about the McCarrick affair. But Viganò’s demand that Francis abdicate goes well beyond a Truth and Reconciliation Process for the McCarrick case.

The demand is not quite unprecedented—after all, in the climax to the Investiture Controversy, Kaiser Heinrich IV demanded that Pope Gregory VII resign. But it is hard to think of more recent examples of an archbishop and longtime Vatican bureaucrat and diplomat calling for the abdication of the Roman Pontiff. It is supremely unlikely that Francis will abdicate over this. But it is a sobering reminder of the corruption at the highest levels of the Church. It is rumored that Benedict XVI abdicated when he realized he lacked the strength to reform the Roman Curia. Tonight, anyway, Francis’s pontificate teeters on the edge under the weight of these allegations—allegations that are remarkably similar to what is alleged to have brought down Benedict’s papacy.

No doubt the Pope’s partisans will dredge up Viganò’s misdeeds. He will be presented as the far-right culture warrior who brought Kim Davis to meet the Pope. He will be presented as a longtime malcontent and complainer, whose letter to Benedict about his promotion to the nunciature (engineered by Cardinal Bertone when Viganò started poking his nose into Bertone’s business) touched off the first Vatileaks scandal. He may even be presented as someone who has played his own sorry role in the abuse scandal, as it is alleged by the people who investigated Archbishop John C. Nienstedt that Viganò told them to keep quiet. Of course, this last affair begins to look strange in the light of Viganò’s allegations today.

However, the funny thing is that it’s hard to see how Viganò’s misdeeds make him a liar. He may, in fact, be a culture warrior who has a grudge against Francis for sacking him from the nunciature and withholding the customary red hat. He may, in fact, be a talented Curial bureaucrat who torpedoed his career by asking questions better left unasked. And he may have made bad decisions when confronted with the misdeeds of others, like Nienstedt. But it’s hard to spin this past into the conclusion that Viganò is a fabulist. Indeed, he seems like exactly the sort of character who ends up spilling the beans on everything for a variety of motives, some noble and some less noble.

The ball is now in Francis’s court—not a happy thought from any perspective. The Vatican seems incapable of managing a crisis, and this probably counts as a crisis. The Holy See Press Office has been caught flat footed time and time again. The Barros affair in Chile seriously damaged Francis’s credibility and the narrative was out of control before the Vatican acted. The combination of the McCarrick revelations and the Pennsylvania grand jury report imperiled (and still imperils, frankly) the moral authority of the U.S. hierarchy, but it took quite some time for Francis to respond. And when he did, he blamed clericalism. It will be bitterly ironic if Viganò’s allegations are confirmed, either by individuals with knowledge who are emboldened to come forward or by solid reporting by outside journalists, since there’s no other word for McCarrick’s protection and promotion under Francis than clericalism.

Pointing to noted non-Catholic and bouillabaisse enthusiast Rod Dreher’s coverage of the breaking news, Alan Jacobs seems to think that nothing will come of this. We shall see. We agree with Jacobs that Francis probably will not address this head on, but we already see Francis’s partisans like the anonymous (but allegedly well connected) Twitter account @Pope_news coming out to attack Viganò. We know that Francis is perfectly happy to use intermediaries, like Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., or the bishops of the Buenos Aires pastoral region or any of a whole host of people, to make his arguments for him. How they react to this will be a good sign of how Francis reacts to it. Moreover, it will be harder for prelates like Blase Cupich, Joseph Tobin, and Robert McElroy, to maintain silence if intrepid journalists follow up on Viganò’s allegations and find confirmation. In the meantime, there is little for the rest of us to do—except watch, wait, and pray.