The Hard Questions Remain, but Who Will Ask Them?

COMMENTARY: Pope Francis and Archbishop Viganò share one thing in common. Both are placing the responsibility for verifying the truth or the falsehood of what is being claimed on the public and the media.

(photo: Unsplash)

A putsch. A conservative coup. A rabbit hole. An anti-gay witch-hunt. A hatred of Pope Francis and all that he has taught.

Those are just a few of the responses from the critics of Archbishop Carlo Viganò’s 11-page “testimony,” published Aug. 25, in which he accuses Pope Francis of complicity in the cover-up surrounding the disgraced cardinal and calls for the Pope’s resignation.

As virtually everyone in the Catholic world is now aware, Archbishop Viganò also made significant accusations against two former Vatican secretaries of state and a host of Vatican officials and other prelates, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. He also asserted that two of the most prominent appointments to the Church hierarchy in the U.S. under Pope Francis occurred through the direct influence of Cardinal McCarrick, those of Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Illinois, and Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey.

The angry and at times hyperbolic responses from some quarters in the Church and media reflect both the levels of polarization among Catholics today and also the immense significance of the charges being made and the figure making them. Columnist Father Raymond de Souza wrote:

For any prelate, let alone a former apostolic nuncio, to call for the Pope’s resignation is certainly shocking. That a pope should resign is in itself an unhappy thing, as the abdication of Benedict XVI demonstrated. To call for his resignation indicates that the Church has entered treacherous waters. It harms Viganò’s case that he proposes a remedy of such severity in a document that is intemperate when it should be sober, and skirts defamation when it should be cautious in attributing motivations. Nevertheless, what Viganò offers cannot be dismissed.

For his part, the Holy Father was asked about the letter during his in-flight news conference back to Rome from Ireland, where he had taken part in the World Meeting of Families. Pope Francis confirmed that he had read the letter, but he refused to respond to it directly, telling the reporters on the plane, “Read the statement carefully and make your own judgment. I will not say a single word on this.”

He did, however, encourage the journalists to draw their own conclusions, adding that he might at some future time speak to the matter.

Many Catholics were left dismayed by the Holy Father’s decision to refuse to comment on such an important claim that goes directly to the papal throne. Even the editors of America magazine expressed their own frustration, writing, “Francis’ refusal to respond to the Viganò accusations may be an attempt to stay above the fray rather than dignify a venomous ideological attack. Nonetheless, the Pope’s refusal is an insufficient pastoral response for a Church that is deeply wounded.”

It is one of the ironies in this depressing moment that Pope Francis and Archbishop Viganò share one thing in common. Both of them are placing the responsibility for verifying the truth or the falsehood of what is being claimed on the public and the media.

With that in mind, Catholics and journalists — especially Catholic journalists — have the responsibility to look at all of the hard questions.


Credible and Substantiated?

From the start of the Archbishop Viganò controversy, two questions had to be answered. First, is he credible? Second, can the claims in the letter be substantiated?

Is Archbishop Viganò credible? The short answer to that is Yes. Regardless of the assertions that his temperament is volatile, that he is waging a vendetta against the Pope, and that he has an ideological ax to grind, he unquestionably has the standing due to his professional posts to make credible assertions. He has been a trained diplomat, served in the Vatican with distinction, was known for his work against corruption as secretary-general of the Governorate of Vatican City State from 2009 to 2011, and was the apostolic nuncio to the United States from 2011 to 2016.

He had his Vatican enemies and his critics in all of those posts, and the 77-year-old archbishop is certainly a whistleblower with an agenda. In this he stands in the long line of those who believe that they are acting out of conscience and also out of unhappiness toward a situation they deem no longer tolerable.

No one who chooses to expose what they believe to be improper or even criminal behavior does so without some form of self-interest, even revenge. In this particular case, as unpleasant as some may assert him to be, even temperamental or ideological, he still retains his basic believability by virtue of the firsthand knowledge he possesses.

The archbishop claims that in June 2013 he told Pope Francis about then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s activities, supposedly noting at the time that the Congregation for Bishops had a “thick” dossier on the American prelate. Equally, he claims that Pope Benedict XVI had restricted Cardinal McCarrick to a life of “prayer and penance” when he was pope and that Francis subsequently rehabilitated the cardinal, who went on to wield considerable influence.

These are grave accusations. But that does not mean that everything he asserts can be deemed reliable or valid. It all must be substantiated, along with the gaps and possible inconsistencies.

For example, if, as Archbishop Viganò says, Pope Benedict placed Cardinal McCarrick under a secret order of penance around 2009 or 2010, why was Cardinal McCarrick seen in public ministry after then, and why did Archbishop Viganò even attend the same functions and go so far as to commend the cardinal publicly?

Did Archbishop Viganò order a cover-up of an investigation into the alleged sexual impropriety of Archbishop John Nienstedt of Minneapolis-St. Paul?

What was the extent of Cardinal McCarrick’s influence on the 2013 conclave, and if he was under an imposed penalty, why was he permitted to take part in the general congregations of the cardinals in the lead-up to the actual conclave?

Can these questions be answered without a Vatican investigation?

As of now, reporters need to ask the Holy See for its cooperation, most so because Archbishop Viganò added a major footnote to his testimony, writing, “All the memos, letters and other documentation mentioned here are available at the Secretariat of State of the Holy See or at the apostolic nunciature in Washington, D.C.”

It is extremely unlikely that immediate assistance of the same Vatican officials named in the testimony will be forthcoming — at least not without intense pressure from the media and the lay faithful.


The Role of the Media

Media pressure, at least from the secular press, is also not to be expected. Adding to the general sense of frustration and cynicism by many Catholics is the way most of the secular media has approached this entire affair. Coverage has displayed nary the slightest interest in the actual allegations, preferring to focus on the accuser and his supposed conservative Catholic allies.

To its credit, The New York Times helped uncover the most grotesque details of the McCarrick affair, but from the moment of the release of Archbishop Viganò’s testimony, it, along with The Associated Press, has adopted a reflexive ideological position displaying its own innate bias against any faithful Catholics perceived as staunchly conservative or traditional.

Its online article on the subject did not look at the allegations, but at the supposed intrigue within the Church, using the headline “Vatican Power Struggle Bursts Into Open as Conservatives Pounce.” Its print article had the even more biased headline, “Francis Takes High Road as Conservatives Pounce, Taking Criticisms Public.”

The Washington Post, meanwhile, also published a breathless analysis not looking at the accusations, but at Catholic media, “Former Vatican Ambassador’s Explosive Letter Reveals Influence of Conservative Catholic Media Network.”

More balanced was an op-ed written in the Post by Elizabeth Breunig that ponders the very question that most Catholics and average people are asking, “Catholics Face a Painful Question: Is It True?”

The headlines and tenor of the secular coverage indicate that while the media will, as Pope Francis has urged, have to lead the way in looking at Archbishop Viganò and the crisis confronting the Church, Catholics are unlikely to be finding answers to some of the most basic questions of who knew what and when.


Where Do We Go From Here?

Archbishop Viganò’s letter has caused an ecclesiastical earthquake and has revealed even deeper fissures than many cared to admit. This is and should be the source of scandal to all Catholics. One of its most significant side effects, however, has been to raise even higher in the public mind and among the lay Catholic faithful the rightful need for a complete, thorough and transparent investigation into the entire current crisis.

There remains the black core of the current scandal to investigate: How was it possible for Theodore McCarrick to rise to the highest levels of the Church in the United States and Rome, become a cardinal and retain his influence and power in three pontificates, despite leading an alleged life of utter corruption and moral depravity?

The testimony of the former papal nuncio must be part of that investigation. As Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles wisely suggested, any formal inquiry into the wider scandal of Archbishop McCarrick will need the testimony of any officials who might have firsthand knowledge of the events in question. At the top of the list would naturally be Archbishop Viganò.

The bishops know this — one reason why so many of them are speaking out in favor of a full investigation. Equally, proposals that our shepherds should investigate themselves will no longer be sufficient, as any serious plans require both the involvement of the Holy See and of trusted laypeople. That so many Vatican officials are themselves facing questions complicates what is already a messy and painful situation for the Church.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, declared in the wake of Archbishop Viganò’s letter,

On Aug. 1, I promised that [the] USCCB would exercise the full extent of its authority, and would advocate before those with greater authority, to pursue the many questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick. On Aug. 16, I called for an apostolic visitation, working in concert with a national lay commission granted independent authority, to seek the truth. Yesterday, I convened our executive committee once again, and it reaffirmed the call for a prompt and thorough examination into how the grave moral failings of a brother bishop could have been tolerated for so long and proven no impediment to his advancement. The recent letter of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò brings particular focus and urgency to this examination. The questions raised deserve answers that are conclusive and based on evidence. Without those answers, innocent men may be tainted by false accusation and the guilty may be left to repeat sins of the past.


He has pledged to go to Rome to meet with Pope Francis and, presumably, to push for a visitation. Most Catholics see that now as essential, but also extremely urgent. The calls do not suggest an effort to discredit the Holy Father or to divide the Catholic faithful further.

Reform and renewal are needed. All of us are called to help this movement, as we are running out of time and opportunities to restore the credibility of Catholicism in the United States and beyond.

In an interview with the website Vatican Insider, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, declared that the Holy Father is “serene” in the midst of all of this.

And in his most recent public statement, Archbishop Viganò told the Italian Vaticanist Aldo Maria Valli that he has “great serenity and peace of conscience: It is the prize of truth.”

We accept in charity that Pope Francis and Archbishop Viganò are at peace. The rest of us, at the moment, are not, and it is unlikely we will be until so many answers are found to so many questions.

Oremus pro invicem. Let us keep praying for each other.

Matthew E. Bunson is a Register senior editor.