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.