In attack on Pope, the Church’s war within

In attack on Pope, the Church’s war within

The Vatican has for centuries bristled with power tussles, and the scandal has been seen as the “usually shadowy backstabbing giving way to open combat”.

In attack on Pope, the Church’s war within
A combination photo of Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò (left) who has written an open letter calling for Pope Francis (right) to step down.

On August 26, conservative Catholic news outlets published an incendiary 11-page, 7,000-word “Testimony” by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a 77-year-old former apostolic nuncio (top diplomat of the Vatican) to the United States, that accused Pope Francis of repealing sanctions imposed by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, on former Cardinal Theodore E McCarrick, who faces serious allegations of sexual abuse. According to Viganò, Francis was aware of allegations that McCarrick had sexually abused seminarians long before they became public, but had still given him a key Vatican role.

Pope Francis has refused to react to the challenge to his papacy — and has asked reporters to judge the allegations for themselves. “It’s an act of trust,” he said on August 26. “I won’t say a word about it.” On Monday, he said during his homily at Mass in the Vatican that the grace of Jesus Christ helped people judge when to speak, and when to stay silent.

Viganò’s testimony would appear to push closer to critical mass the evidence piling up over years of rampant sexual abuse by priests, and their whitewashing by senior officials of the Church. At the same time, the claims have triggered a barrage of attacks on the Pope from the conservative right in the Catholic Church, underlining a powerful ideological crisis in the organisation.

The allegations…


Viganò claimed that Pope Benedict had, in the late 2000s, “imposed on Cardinal McCarrick sanctions similar to those now imposed on him by Pope Francis”, and that he (Viganò) had personally told Francis about them in 2013. However, Francis had “continued to cover” for McCarrick, and had even made him “his trusted counsellor”.

McCarrick was made a Cardinal in 2001, and he served as Archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006. In June 2018, he was removed from public ministry after investigations in the US found an allegation that he had abused an altar boy “credible and substantiated”. He was fired from the College of Cardinals, and Pope Francis banished him to “a life of prayer and penance in seclusion”. In July, The New York Times reported that “between 1994 and 2008, multiple reports about the cardinal’s transgressions with adult seminary students were made to American bishops, the Pope’s representative in Washington and, finally, Pope Benedict XVI”, even as McCarrick continued to climb up the hierarchy of the Church, and “played a prominent role publicising (its) new zero-tolerance policy against abusing children”.
It remains unconfirmed whether Benedict XVI had sanctioned McCarrick, as Viganò has claimed. Benedict, who is now 91 and has been living in the Monastery of Mater Ecclesiae within the Vatican since his retirement in 2013, has chosen not to speak.

Read | How an Archbishop went from Vatican loyalist to demanding the Pope’s resignation

…And the background

The Vatican has for centuries bristled with power tussles, and the scandal has been seen as the “usually shadowy backstabbing giving way to open combat”. News reports have underlined Viganò’s personal differences with Francis, but it is clear that his attack on the Pope has a wider political and ideological dimension. (Viganò’s supporters have denounced suggestions that his call to Francis to step down was inspired by anything other than a commitment to principles, and frustration at the harm caused to the Church.)

Pope Francis’s liberal and inclusive attitudes towards LGBTQ people, and towards divorce and remarriage, have infuriated conservatives who disagree with what they perceive as a reckless and unilateral progressivism. They are now seen to have jumped at the opportunity to attack pro-Francis reformists within the Church — as an “opportunity to reform the Church from abuses as a counter revolution… against the Church of Vatican II itself”, as Massimo Faggioli, professor at Villanova University and a frequent commentator on Catholic issues, told Vox. The Second Vatican Council, which met from 1962 to 1965, has long been seen by Conservative critics as having advocated an undesirable progressivism.