Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò speaks at a dinner honoring then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick in 2012 (CNS photo/ Michael Rogel/PMS)

I was going through a box of papers sent home from my Commonweal office the other day, tossing out most of them. Then I came across the fourteen-page text of a talk Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò gave at the University of Notre Dame just days before the 2012 November presidential election. Viganò is the disgruntled former Vatican official and ambassador to the United States who accused Pope Francis of covering up Cardinal McCarrick’s history of abuse, decried the existence of homosexual cabals in the church, and called for the pope’s resignation.

I don’t think I read his Notre Dame talk at the time, but evidently I put it aside for possible future reference. It’s titled “Religious Freedom, Persecution of the Church, and Martyrdom.” I don’t doubt that Christians are persecuted in many places, but talk of martyrdom in the secular West strikes me as histrionic, if not delusional. Ridicule is not martyrdom. Talk of religious persecution is also a page from the Republican Party’s game plan. In 2012 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was consumed with its fiery opposition to the “contraception mandate” in President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Earlier that year the bishops had issued “Our First, Most Cherished Freedom,” their call to arms against what they claimed was Obama’s threat to religious liberty, absurdly linking provisions in the ACA requiring insurance companies to provide free contraception coverage for employees of Catholic institutions to the martyrdom of Sir Thomas More and John Fisher. In its initial interpretation of the health-care law, the Obama administration had not granted exemptions from the mandate to Catholic institutions such as universities and hospitals, a stupid and unwarranted decision, and one to which Commonweal—and many other so-called liberal Catholics—strongly objected. In response, the administration proposed a workaround that would exempt all Catholic institutions. Commonweal judged that accommodation a reasonable compromise on the complex issue of when religious groups can be granted exemptions from otherwise applicable laws. The bishops, for their part, refused to give an inch, claiming that the mandate was an “unjust” law and demanding that it be repealed. They joined Republicans in charging Democrats with waging a “war on religion.” It was clear that the USCCB had taken a partisan stance. “The bishops claim liberty for themselves, and for the large institutions they control,” the constitutional scholar Douglas Laycock wrote in our pages, “while also fighting to restrict the liberty of others with respect to abortion, emergency contraception, and same-sex relationships…. The argument for a religious exemption is strong; the claim that the law is so unjust that the only solution is to repeal it will persuade no one.”

Viganò’s talk cleaved closely to the USCCB’s partisan line. Grave concerns about religious liberty “exist not only abroad, but they also exist within your own homeland,” he told his Notre Dame audience. The objective of religious persecution is “to eradicate the public witness to Jesus Christ and his church,” and this can be accomplished by marginalizing the church “from meaningful participation in public life.” Echoing “Our First, Most Cherished Freedom,” Viganò argued that “religious freedom is the exercise of fidelity to God and His Holy Church without compromise.” But of course that is not true. Like every other freedom, there are limits to religious liberty. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and Quakers do not have to serve in the military, but like the rest of us they have to pay taxes. Religious institutions have to abide by fire and zoning regulations like everyone else. Mormons are not allowed to practice polygamy. In a secular and religiously diverse society, the freedom of religious communities is inevitably circumscribed. They should be accommodated whenever possible, but where that line is drawn is a political and legal question, not just a religious one.

Viganò’s inability to formulate an argument that might gain the slightest traction with non-Catholics is as astonishing as his ideological and political prejudices are transparent.

Like the USCCB, Viganò had little interest in these complexities, and hardly tried to hide his partisan commitments. He charged that “important figures, some of whom hold high public office, are speaking today about the right of freedom of worship, but their discourse fails to acknowledge that there is also a complementary right about the unencumbered ability to exercise religious faith in a responsible and at the same time public manner.” That Obama and the Democrats were intent on restricting religious liberty to “freedom of worship” was a canard assiduously circulated by Republicans and the bishops. (That the church wages a “war on women” is a canard circulated by all too many Democrats.) Viganò cited a number of admittedly difficult cases regarding Catholic adoption agencies and the normalizing of same-sex relationships in public-school curriculums, where changing moral norms in American society have come into conflict with Catholicism’s traditional views. Like the bishops, he never acknowledges the genuine values in contention, but simply asserts the rights of the church. In a truly novel move, he even insists that internal Catholic disagreements constitute “a grave and major problem that challenges the first freedom of religious liberty.” Evidently only those who agree with the judgment of bishops should be allowed to exercise their religious liberty as Catholics.

Using a trope popular with many conservative Catholics, Viganò warned that a “democracy without values easily turns into openly or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” How is such totalitarianism to be avoided? Democratic values “must be based on the timeless and universal moral principles adhered to and taught by our church.” Viganò’s inability to formulate an argument that might gain the slightest traction with non-Catholics is as astonishing as his ideological and political prejudices are transparent. Many religiously conservative Protestants and Jews, for example, find the church’s “timeless” teachings on contraception and divorce incomprehensible.

Viganò closes his piece embracing a talk that Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York had given lamenting the fact that Catholics had not fallen in lockstep behind the bishops in opposition to the contraception mandate and “the freedom of religion battle.” In his remarks, Dolan conceded that bishops had credibility problems. As a consequence, they had hired an “attractive, articulate, intelligent” laywoman to present the church’s position on abortion. It was “the best thing we ever did,” Dolan said. But in response to calls for the bishops to listen to the presumably attractive, articulate, and intelligent Catholics calling for the church to accept the accommodations offered by the Obama administration, Dolan rejected the idea that lay Catholics could speak for the church on such matters. “If you want an authoritative voice, go to the bishops,” he said. “They’re the ones that speak for the truths of the faith.”

Viganò agreed. “It is a desperate day when well-educated persons question the hierarchy,” he said, citing a blog post from dotCommonweal, of all places. It seems unlikely that Viganò was a devoted reader of dotCommonweal, so one assumes he was fed this tidbit by one of our friendly domestic antagonists. Nor does it appear that Viganò actually read the blog post. His objection was to its headline: “Dolan to Lay Catholics: Be Our ‘Attractive, Articulate,’ (and unpaid) Flacks.” Of course the headline was a reference to how Dolan had somewhat awkwardly praised the bishops’ lay spokeswoman. The post itself, by Eduardo Peñalver, the dean of Cornell Law School, argued that Dolan seemed to think the “role of Catholic laypeople in politics…[was] to uncritically take the conclusions fed to them by the bishops and then sell them to the public more effectively than the bishops can themselves.” Peñalver made the perfectly reasonable point that in areas of prudential judgment, such as a decision about the scope of health-care insurance, the bishops do not necessarily speak authoritatively. Lay Catholics are free to make up their own minds.

Viganò disagreed, and thought Peñalver had failed “to recall the nature of the church.” John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici (1988) is called into service. In temporal affairs, the archbishop explained, Catholics must act as “disciples of Christ rather than as elements of some political or secular ideology that bases its platform on an indecipherable formula established on the ambiguous foundation that unsuccessfully relies on the cure of ‘social justice.’” Viganò appears to think that demands for “social justice” are peripheral to the Gospel and part of some vast secular liberal conspiracy. And how might we recognize that “indecipherable formula” when it raises its ungodly head? Look no further than the Democratic Party and its misguided Catholic voters: “We witness in an unprecedented way a platform being assumed by a major political party, having intrinsic evils among its basic principles, and Catholic faithful supporting it.” Viganò fails to acknowledge that the evils he has mind are the result not of a party platform but of Supreme Court decisions. But he thinks something even more sinister is afoot. “There is a divisive strategy at work here, an intentional dividing of the church,” Viganò darkly warns. “[T]hrough this strategy, the body of the church is weakened, and thus the church can be more easily persecuted.”

It is difficult to assess what is true and what isn’t in Viganò’s ongoing charges of episcopal cover-ups and homosexual cabals in the church. The world of Vatican politics is notoriously opaque, while the political divide among Catholics, so evident in Viganò’s Notre Dame talk, grows ever wider. If Viganò is telling the truth, then Francis has inherited a truly daunting crisis. But what is not difficult to assess is Viganò’s own crude ideological motivations. There is a strategy at work here as well, it is far from innocent, and it is intent on culling the Catholic goats from the Catholic sheep, a task that Pope Francis reminds us is best left not to archbishops but to God.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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