It’s been just about a year since Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò published the now-infamous letter in which he accused Pope Francis of covering up for sexual abusers and “the gay lobby” and called on him to resign. The “Viganò letter” came less than two weeks after the release of the Pennsylvania grand-jury report on clerical sexual abuse and about a month after Francis had asked for the resignation from the college of cardinals of Theodore McCarrick (who was soon after defrocked). Some two dozen U.S. bishops went on the record to vouch for Viganò’s integrity, while declining to defend Pope Francis—a crisis that came to a provisional close in mid-September when the leadership of the U.S. bishops’ conference met with Francis in Rome.
I say “provisional” because one year later, the crisis hasn’t abated so much as entered a different phase. In a recent column, Michael Sean Winters remarked that “fidelity to Viganò has become a calling card among the schismatics” opposed to Francis, those who’d hoped the letter might in fact force him from the papacy. While it’s true that the U.S. church is not in a formal state of schism, the internal rifts are real—and thus so are the risks. The Viganò letter, and the anti-Francis media effort behind it, was an attempted coup, and though it failed, it left deep scars on the body of the U.S. church. If there’s anywhere in global Catholicism where a split could happen, it’s here.
To understand why, it’s helpful to look at some history. The most radical form of breakup of the Catholic communion in the past half-century is known as sedevacantism. Sedevacantists reject Vatican II and all its reforms, and hold that the papacy has been vacant (from the Latin sede vacante) since the death of Pius XII in 1958 because of the heresies of the popes who came after him. There are a number of sedevacantist movements and groups, some with their own “anti-pope,” but they’re small; sedevacantism is nothing like the schisms that developed from the Middle Ages through the 15th century.
But then there’s the story of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), founded in 1970 by French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Just a few years after he accepted and signed the documents of Vatican II, Lefebvre began to equate its main doctrines with the ideals of the French Revolution: freedom of religion corresponded to liberty, collegiality to equality, and ecumenism to fraternity. In a 1974 manifesto he declared he would not follow “the Rome of neo-Modernist and neo-Protestant tendencies which were clearly evident in the Second Vatican Council and, after the Council, in all the reforms which issued from it.” That earned him a summons from Rome in early 1975 to explain himself; in July 1976, he received a suspension a divinis. That same year, he published the book I Accuse the Council, in which he stated that Vatican II was not from the Holy Spirit, but “the spirit of the modern world, a spirit that is liberal, Teilhardian, modernist, and contrary to the reign of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In 1983 Lefebvre and Archbishop Antônio de Castro Mayer of Brazil wrote an open letter to John Paul II denouncing the post-conciliar magisterial errors. They wrote to John Paul II again in 1985, this time during the preparation of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on Vatican II. In October of that year, Lefebvre also submitted thirty-nine dubia to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concerning the discrepancies between the doctrine on religious liberty of Vatican II and the previous teaching of the church.
Lefebvre kept up his campaign. After John Paul II’s decision to hold the first interreligious meeting for peace in Assisi in August 1986, Lefebvre wrote to eight cardinals, asking them to object to the “planned procession of religions in the streets of the town of Saint Francis.” In March 1987, he received from Cardinal Ratzinger the answers to the 1985 dubia on religious freedom he submitted. Ratzinger admitted that the doctrine on religious liberty of Dignitatis humanae was a novelty but claimed that it was the outcome of doctrinal development in continuity. For Lefebvre, the response confirmed his belief that the “liberal doctrine” of Vatican II and “traditional doctrine” were irreconcilably opposed.
That same year he published a book in which he decried the “robber Council of Vatican II,” a reference to the “robber Council of Ephesus.” Ultimately, in June 1988, he and de Castro Mayer went ahead with planned episcopal consecrations, which incurred them latae sententiae excommunications. The ordinations caused a deep rift among traditionalists; those who chose to remain within the SSPX rejected Vatican II more categorically, and their ties with Rome became weaker.
But it was different for those who broke with Lefebvre. In July 1988, soon after the episcopal consecrations, John Paul II issued the motu proprio Ecclesia Dei, which welcomed a small number of priests and seminarians who had left the SSPX. In January 2009, Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication against the bishops of the SSPX. One of them, however, proved to be a Holocaust denier, suggesting an anti-Semitic aspect to the traditionalists’ rejection of Vatican II teaching, particularly Nostra aetate.
After Francis became pope, he carried on with the effort at reconciliation. But at the same time he made it clear that a negotiation on Vatican II would not be part of a deal for the return of the SSPX to communion with Rome. In January, he officially shut down Ecclesia Dei, a turning point indicating the waning influence of traditionalists in the curia.
The growing neo-traditionalist movement in U.S. Catholicism in some ways echoes the development of the SSPX. There is a similar rejection of Vatican II, for instance, which has also manifested in radical theological dissent against Pope Francis. And just as the 1985 Synod seemed to be a trigger for Lefebvre, the 2014–2015 Synod (along with Amoris laetitia) seemed to trigger contemporary traditionalists. And both movements have seized on interreligious dialogue and religious liberty as key issues. But the context has changed significantly since the 1970s and ’80s. Catholic media and social media have helped in amplifying oppositional voices and weakening the sense of unity in the church. These “para-schismatic” voices have effectively been mainstreamed and globalized, harnessed politically against Pope Francis and the Catholicism emerging from the Global South in an effort to undermine the church’s influence on issues like the environment and migration.
The intra-ecclesial context has also changed. A feature of contemporary Catholic neo-traditionalism today is concern over teaching on the family and marriage, and over the rise of the LGBT movement in the church—something that simply was not there in decades past. If Lefebvre’s movement cannot be understood outside the context of French Catholicism, the French Revolution, and laïcité, the U.S. neo-traditionalist movement is incomprehensible outside the history of the American culture wars. A growing media ecosystem of cable TV outlets, internet channels, and bloggers acting as self-appointed watchdogs has helped nurture the movement, while acting in almost guerilla fashion against Pope Francis. For example, EWTN, the only major national Catholic television outlet in the United States (which also has global reach) has a joint publishing venture with Sophia Institute Press, which recently released a book titled Infiltration. It not only promotes anti-Francis conspiracy theories but also pushes sedevacantism much farther, accusing Pius XII of being under the influence of theological modernism. This kind of stuff has flourished since the 2013 resignation of Benedict, whose continued residency in the Vatican and periodic public signals on key issues affecting the church has had the effect of creating a kind of parallel magisterium—giving further coverage to Catholics (including clergy and hierarchy) opposed to Francis.
Nearly twenty years passed between the foundation of the SSPX and the formal excommunication; it was more than ten years between Lefebvre’s suspension a divinis and the excommunication of 1988. By contrast, only three years have elapsed since a quartet of cardinals raised the dubia against Pope Francis in September 2016. So, we’re still in the middle of things, with no way of knowing what will transpire five or ten years from now. Formal separations in the Catholic communion do not occur overnight. But in a sense, the U.S. Catholic church is already fragmented, with parts of it further separated from the papacy of Francis, and some of those also separated from one another. There’s another Synod coming up, this one on the pan-Amazon region. Might it provide the occasion for the rifts to widen more?