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.”