The online manifesto “Appeal for the Church and the world to Catholics and all people of good will” that appeared on May 7 bore a familiar name as the first signatory. It was none other than Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who tried to force Pope Francis to resign with a “memorial” published in August 2018. But there is something different about this missive from the former papal ambassador.
Start with the rest of the signatories. True, there’s the usual collection of mostly unknown academics, although it’s also seasoned with some scientists, colorful journalists, and other personalities with weak or questionable ties to the Catholic Church (like my fellow citizen of Ferrara, art critic and politician Vittorio Sgarbi, known for his relationships with porn actresses). But there at the top of the list are three eminences—Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong; Jānis Pujats, archbishop emeritus of Riga; and Gerhard Ludwig Müller, former prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith—along with American Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas. Another cardinal, Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Liturgy, had signed initially, then withdrew, after saying that in fact he had not signed at all; Viganò claims that he has records of his phone conversations with Sarah.
Then there’s the tone of the document; fashioned as a balanced statement on the need to resume public liturgical activities suspended because of the pandemic, it’s at first glance less outlandish than Viganò’s previous anti-Francis messages, and doesn’t even mention the pope by name. But read more closely, and it is clearly an anti-Francis theological manifesto, advocating for precisely the opposite of what Francis has consistently been saying about COVID-19 these past several months, going back to the messages he sent to the people of China at the outset of the pandemic in January. It talks about the “inalienable rights of citizens” without mentioning duties in times of crisis. It inveighs against “the imposition of illiberal measures” that set limitations on the freedom of worship for Catholics. It conveys a view of the church as superior to political authorities in a way that is simply not supported by the recent tradition or current magisterium: “the State has no right to interfere, for any reason whatsoever, in the sovereignty of the Church.” It’s a neo-Christendom view of the relations between church and state that for good measure invokes the language of contemporary conspiracy theory: “the hidden intentions of supranational bodies” and “subtle forms of dictatorship, presumably worse than those our society has seen rise and fall in the recent past.”
But nowhere does it acknowledge the severity of a virus that has proven especially deadly for the elderly and other vulnerable people. Nowhere does it say anything about the doctors, nurses, and health workers who are risking their lives. Not a single word for the faithful, the priests, and the nuns who have died, en masse in some parishes and religious orders. No, it is only about “taking a stand: either with Christ or against Christ”; it is about not allowing an “odious technological tyranny” to erase “centuries of Christian civilization under the pretext of a virus.” You could call this cognitive dissonance (or hypocrisy), this complaining over temporary suspension of Mass while dismissing the reality of entire communities of Catholics (say, in the Amazon) that have only sporadic access to the Eucharist. You could characterize it as sacramental consumerism, or an expression of ecclesiastical entitlement feeding pre-existing ideological paranoias. There’s a familiar tragicomic quality to it all, yet it reveals with clarity the intellectual and theological contradictions of the Catholic traditionalism that has gone mainstream during Francis’s pontificate.
The document has drawn praise from the usual circles of Catholic journalists and personalities known for their anti-Francis sentiment.* But more attentive readers, like the president of the German bishops’ conference and the committee of lay Catholics in Germany, have sharply criticized it and the signatories. The deputy chairman of the International Auschwitz Committee, Christoph Heubner, warned of something else about the document: “The increasing propagation of anti-Semitic conspiracy myths in the debates about the corona pandemic leaves Holocaust survivors stunned.” Official pushback came only from the Catholic Church in Germany, not only because Germany knows a thing or two about the dangers of international conspiracy theories, but also because the most prominent signatory, Cardinal Müller, former bishop of Regensburg, was in charge of the once “supreme” Vatican CDF. It can be shocking to recall that Müller was given that post by the theologian Benedict XVI.
There is no question that responding to COVID-19 presents new challenges when it comes to accommodating personal freedoms and safeguarding religious liberty. Indeed, warnings have been sounded around the world about governments’ use of the pandemic as an excuse to impose excessive or authoritarian restrictions. Interventions on the scale that the pandemic may necessitate should be scrutinized. But Viganò’s latest manifesto is different because it betrays the intellectual and moral confusion of the traditionalist and curialist opposition to Francis. It is representative of the split in today’s Church. There are two cultural strains of reactionary Catholicism joining forces here: old-school, anti-modern traditionalism claiming the Church’s higher sovereignty and authority to the state; and post-modern, anti-intellectual denialism of science and the historical record. Neither of these strains of paranoia-driven Catholicism finds an audience in Francis, who in the Regina Coeli of May 17 spoke clearly in favor of government measures aimed at protecting the health of the population; there is no doubt where the teaching of the Church stands on this.
It also may be worth viewing this as another instance of the globalization of the American culture wars. After the sex-abuse crisis, the pandemic has provided a new opportunity for some Catholics to cast themselves as victims of a conspiracy, instead of part of a much larger social and cultural challenge (and one they apparently cannot deal with). There are prelates who apparently still don’t know that the sex-abuse crisis is exhibit A for the risks of the Catholic Church considering itself free from the secular state’s interference. Some bishops and cardinals still don’t realize that fighting sexual abuse, even in the Catholic Church, isn’t possible without the secular state enforcing the rule of law.
Anti-Vatican II traditionalists are known for their inclination to traffic in conspiracy theories while bemoaning the vanished political and legal authority of the Church. But it must also be noted that this is not just another example of the deregulation and degradation of intra-ecclesial communication, another case of high-level clerics making outrageous statements—even about the pope—without shame or fear of discipline from above. Here we now also have prelates secretly recording their conversations, which reveals the intellectual and moral collapse of that kind of clerical camarilla. This latest manifesto and the media circus surrounding it mix vaudeville with elements of Nixonian paranoia, when what the grim global situation demands from pastors of the Catholic Church is true gravitas.
*Updated for clarification since original posting date