The publication of the “testimony” of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former Vatican nuncio to the United States, is an unprecedented moment in modern church history—and not just because of his demand that Pope Francis resign. The eleven-page document, crafted and published by Viganò with the help of sympathetic Catholic journalists while the pope was in Ireland, is motivated by a personal vendetta and enabled by a serious crisis within U.S. Catholicism.
Those familiar with Viganò’s career at the Vatican and in Washington, D.C., were not surprised to see his accusations fall apart upon inspection. His earlier smear campaign against other members of the Curia, which came to light because of “Vatileaks,” had similarly collapsed. It is worth noting that the first real pushback from the Vatican came on September 2, when officials challenged Viganò’s account of how he had arranged the private meeting between the pope and Kim Davis in 2015. Viganò misled Pope Francis about that stunt, and ignored the advice of Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Archbishop Joseph Edward Kurtz, who had both warned him against it.
There is still much we don’t know about how Rome handled information about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, but at least three things are already clear enough. First, this was not just an ordinary case of some disgruntled cleric complaining about his former boss; this was a retired papal diplomat trying to bring down the pope. Operation Viganò has failed in its purpose, and one hopes that its failure will give Francis the strength he needs to deal with the American abuse crisis the way he finally dealt with the crisis in Chile.
Second, the attempt to turn the anger of American Catholics, anger at the revelations involving former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, toward Pope Francis personally has not only failed but backfired. It has led, not very surprisingly, to a reconsideration of the role the two previous popes played in keeping McCarrick’s misconduct a secret. Francis is the first pope who not only took public action against McCarrick, but has also “accepted” the resignation of a number of bishops guilty of covering up for sexually abusive priests. It took less than a week—between August 26 and September 1—for journalists to begin filling in the real picture behind Viganò’s “testimony”: if a sexual abuser was allowed to become cardinal archbishop of Washington, D.C., it was because of what the whole ecclesiastical system under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI did and failed to do.
Third, it’s been clear from the start of this episode that it will take a long time to get to the bottom of what really happened. It is naïve to imagine that there is just one McCarrick dossier locked up in some filing cabinet in the Vatican, or even that everything is on a piece of paper somewhere. The “bishops’ factory” has always been, at least in the second millennium, a mix of bureaucracy, social mobility, and informal networks. The Vatican has never been a totally bureaucratic system, and not everything is written down.
Where are we now? This summer has inaugurated a new chapter in the history of the abuse scandal. The ecclesial context of this chapter is very different from the situation between 2002 and the pontificate of Benedict XVI. The sex-abuse crisis is now reacting explosively with another crisis: the growing rifts within the Catholic Church in the United States. There is, first, the not entirely new rift between different kinds of Catholic culture. Then there is the rift between the current pope and many American bishops, which is more recent. Finally, there is a new rift between Pope Francis and American Catholics; even those who love him can’t make out what his short-term strategy for dealing with the abuse crisis is—as opposed to the long-term fight against clericalism outlined in his “Letter to the people of God” of August 20.
Last week, in his article for the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters had the courage to use the s-word: schism. A growing number of conservative Catholics no longer accept the pope’s legitimacy. What happened in the past few weeks exacerbated tensions that have been building for years. In truth, the people behind this attempt to force Francis to resign are a small minority of Catholics in the United States; they do not reflect Francis’s relationship with the whole U.S. church, much less the Catholic Church globally. It is unlikely, therefore, that the current crisis will lead to an open schism with two popes, two Curias, two colleges of cardinals, and two “obediences.” But the situation is complicated by the fact that there is still a pope emeritus in the Vatican. Benedict XVI has become a symbol of resistance for traditionalist Catholics who oppose Francis’s reformist papacy and see Benedict’s theology as more aligned with their own. It is too soon to say whether Viganò’s “testimony,” which unintentionally underscored serious problems with the way Benedict’s Curia dealt with charges of abuse, will end up forcing them to reconsider their uncritical allegiance to the pope emeritus. What is clear is that some have certainly tried in these past five-and-a-half years to use Benedict against Francis and to signal a different obedience, in an act of defiance against the bishop of Rome that would not have been tolerated in an earlier age.