It’s Time to Turn Down the Temperature

COMMENTARY: There is a reasonable way forward, both in terms of rooting out corruption in the Church and restoring a measure of harmony.

(photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Ten days out from the “testimony” of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the scene at the Vatican appears to have gone from bad to worse. But that does not mean that there is not a reasonable way forward, both in terms of rooting out corruption in the Church and restoring a measure of harmony.

It was a mistake for Archbishop Viganò to call for the resignation of Pope Francis. For the Pope to resign under a cloud would be a catastrophe for Catholic credibility and unity. The mistake that Benedict XVI made by abdicating in 2013 need not be compounded by people — especially high-ranking prelates — treating the papal office as something worldly that can be relinquished under adverse circumstances.

It was also a mistake for some of those defending Pope Francis to denounce the character and truthfulness of Archbishop Viganò himself. The denunciations were a tactical mistake, as it turns out that, on unrelated matters — Archbishop John Nienstedt and Kim Davis —  Archbishop Viganò’s account was proved to be correct on the major points. While the character assassination might have muddied the waters for a few days, it is clarity on the central issues — what was known about the misconduct of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick and how the matter was addressed by Benedict XVI and by Francis — that is important. 

It goes without saying that the spectacle of Archbishop Viganò saying that Cardinal Donald Wuerl “lies shamelessly,” only to have Archbishop Viganò’s detractors say that he is the real “liar,” does nothing for the mission of the Church.

The feverish climate led those with (extremely) short memories to consider this moment without precedent, as if there were only two outcomes: Archbishop Viganò is right, and the Pope must resign; or Archbishop Viganò is wrong and evidence of de facto schism on the part of the opponents of Pope Francis.

It’s time to turn down the temperature. Of course it would be very damaging to the Holy Father personally and to the Church generally if Archbishop Viganò’s charges are true. It would, first of all, frustrate justice and reconciliation for the victims of Archbishop McCarrick and further fray the nerves of the Catholic faithful. But we have been here before — for most of 2018, in fact. 

The facts of the Bishop Juan Barros affair in Chile are far more damning; the Holy Father made the ill-fated appointment over the objections of the leadership of the Chilean episcopate and then spent three years publicly defaming those who protested the appointment. Yet, in April, Pope Francis reversed course entirely, with a dramatic and heartfelt admission of error and expression of contrition. 

No objective observer can compare the alleged Church missteps on Archbishop McCarrick, which are admittedly unclear and confusing, to the maladroit and malicious twists and turns in Chile and Rome regarding Bishop Barros and related matters, as is now acknowledged by the Holy Father and the Chilean bishops. 

The path of confession and contrition is open to the Holy Father and all involved — a far better path than recrimination and resignation. Indeed, while the media focus on the return flight from Dublin was on the Holy Father’s indication that he “would not say one word” about Archbishop Viganò’s testimony, later in the very same press conference Pope Francis spoke in considerable detail on another case, one in which he had made a significant mistake. 

It concerned an accusation of despicable sexual abuse from a young man in Granada, Spain. It came in a 2014 personal letter to the Holy Father that claimed that a diabolical ring of priests was engaged in various grotesqueries. Francis called the man personally to apologize and ordered an investigation that led to 10 priests being suspended and one of them being arrested and criminally charged. Last year, the Spanish courts declared the accusations fraudulent and ordered the accuser to pay costs of the defense. This July, Pope Francis invited the falsely accused priest to Rome and personally asked forgiveness for his role in the rush to judgment that ruined his life. 

Pope Francis is thus perfectly capable of admitting when he makes a major mistake. A similar papal response was given by Benedict XVI in 2009, after he had lifted the excommunications of four bishops from the Society of St. Pius X. Among them was Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier. The affair caused a global inferno and threatened the progress of Catholic-Jewish relations. 

On March 10, 2009, Benedict wrote a detailed letter to all the bishops of the world, noting that “an avalanche of protests was unleashed, whose bitterness laid bare wounds deeper than those of the present moment” — words applicable to today. He expressed his “deep regret” that his decision was “not clearly and adequately explained.” It is thus possible to deal with serious papal mistakes by acknowledging that they are just that — serious mistakes that require confession, contrition and purpose of amendment. 

As one would expect from the master biblical theologian, Benedict put the dispute in the context of the sacred page, writing:

Dear brothers, during the days when I first had the idea of writing this letter, by chance, during a visit to the Roman seminary, I had to interpret and comment on Galatians 5:13-15. I was surprised at the directness with which that passage speaks to us about the present moment: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another.” 

I am always tempted to see these words as another of the rhetorical excesses which we occasionally find in St. Paul. To some extent, that may also be the case. But sad to say, this “biting and devouring” also exists in the Church today, as expression of a poorly understood freedom. Should we be surprised that we too are no better than the Galatians? That at the very least we are threatened by the same temptations? That we must always learn anew the proper use of freedom? And that we must always learn anew the supreme priority, which is love? 

On Monday, returning to his morning Mass at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, Pope Francis preached on Luke 4, the rejection of Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth. As is common during his morning homily, the Holy Father pronounced a fierce condemnation, on this occasion calling the people of Nazareth a “pack of wild dogs.” Indirectly addressing Archbishop Viganò’s testimony, the Holy Father explained his approach: “With people lacking goodwill, with people who only seek scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction, even within the family: silence, prayer.”

There is, though, another approach. Indeed, Pope Francis has used it before, as did Benedict before him.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.