Pope Francis’ Pontificate Takes Another Hit With ‘Lettergate’ Mess


A letter by retired Pope Benedict is seen in this photo, released March 13, that the Vatican admitted
was doctored, by blurring its final two lines, where retired Pope Benedict begins to acknowledge that he
didn’t read an 11-volume set of books about Pope Francis’ theology, seen at right, and doesn’t have time to comment
on them. The Vatican announced March 21 that the head of the Vatican’s communications department,
Msgr. Dario Viganò, had resigned over a scandal about the letter, indicating that he mischaracterized it in public
and then digitally manipulated it in the photograph sent to the media.
A letter by retired Pope Benedict is seen in this photo, released March 13, that the Vatican admitted was doctored, by blurring its final two lines, where retired Pope Benedict begins to acknowledge that he didn’t read an 11-volume set of books about Pope Francis’ theology, seen at right, and doesn’t have time to comment on them. The Vatican announced March 21 that the head of the Vatican’s communications department, Msgr. Dario Viganò, had resigned over a scandal about the letter, indicating that he mischaracterized it in public and then digitally manipulated it in the photograph sent to the media. (photo: Associated Press)

Not even a resignation is just a resignation. Pope Francis March 21 accepted the resignation of Msgr. Dario Viganò, the prefect of the Secretariat for Communication, after he intentionally deceived the Vatican press corps about a letter from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

At the same time, Msgr. Vigano was appointed to the new role of “assessor” in the same department, which in Vatican parlance means the No. 3 position. It is a very fine, even Jesuitical, calibration: Msgr. Viganò’s deception made it untenable for him to continue as head of the department, but it is acceptable for a senior deputy? If the whole scandal had been the work of the deputy in the first place, would it have been okay for him to continue in that place?

Why did Pope Francis not simply let Msgr. Viganò go? Perhaps it is because what he did, while unacceptable in its deceit, was in other ways in keeping with the culture of this pontificate. In that sense, it became an unusual but fitting way to mark the Holy Father’s fifth anniversary week.


The Scandal: Neither Virtue nor Candor

The late Cardinal John Foley, the longtime president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, advised that there were two pillars of a good Church media strategy: first, virtue; second, where virtue fails, candor.

Cardinal Foley died in 2011, and, apparently, his memory has been entirely forgotten in his old department, for Msgr. Viganò attempted a spectacular deception and, when caught in the act, dissembled. It was a towering fiasco that shredded his personal credibility and earned him fierce denunciations from both conservatives and liberals alike.

My Register colleague Edward Pentin dubbed it “Lettergate,” and it centered on an initiative to burnish the theological bona fides of Pope Francis.

The Vatican publishing house — also under the direction of Msgr. Viganò — marked the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ election by putting out 11 booklets on The Theology of Pope Francis. Msgr. Viganò wrote to Benedict XVI, asking him to write a page or two for the launch of the books, in effect giving a seal of approval to Francis’ theology and orthodoxy.

Benedict declined. He wrote some kind words about the “interior continuity” of the pontificates and said it was a “stupid prejudice” to oppose Francis and Benedict, as if the former is only a simple-minded pastor and the latter an out-of-touch scholar. But then he went on to write that, for reasons of both health and other commitments, he hadn’t read the books and did not intend to do so.

The letter was gracious, but it stung. As the liberal Robert Mickens, a longtime critic of Benedict, wrote: “In plain English, he said: ‘Thanks, but no thanks. I have more pressing things to do, now and in the future, than read these little pamphlets.’”


Fake News at the Vatican

Instead of leaving the letter — marked “confidential” — aside, Msgr. Viganò sought to turn Benedict’s silken prose into a sow’s ear of crude boosterism. So the monsignor read the letter at the book launch March 12, the day before the Holy Father’s anniversary, stressing the “interior continuity” bit. He released a photo of the letter that blurred out the lines about Benedict having no time or interest in reading the little books about Francis’ theological vision.

That created a media uproar, as releasing doctored photos to create a false impression is a violation of basic journalistic ethics. Given that just a few weeks ago Pope Francis devoted his annual World Day of Communications message to inveighing against “fake news,” it was painfully embarrassing that his communications head was doing, precisely to the letter, what the Holy Father decried.

Then the unfathomable became truly scandalous, when March 17 it was revealed that another entire paragraph of the letter had been hidden, one in which Benedict makes clear that he is refusing the request to support the book launch because the series included a specific German theologian.

“Professor Hünermann, during my pontificate, had distinguished himself by leading anti-papal initiatives,” Benedict wrote, expressing his dismay. “In relation to the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, [he] virulently attacked the magisterial authority of the Pope, especially on questions of moral theology.”

Benedict wrote, with gracious understatement, of his “surprise” that he had been asked to endorse a project that included those who openly dissented from his own teaching and that of St. John Paul II.

It is understandable why Msgr. Viganò would not want that bombshell condemnation of his project to come to light. He set out to show the continuity between Benedict XVI and Francis, but Benedict’s letter pointed out that, among the favored voices under Francis, there was a significant discontinuity in doctrine.

Should Msgr. Viganò’s deception be decried as a one-off, if massive, lapse in judgment from the Vatican’s communications chief? Perhaps it was, but it captured perfectly four key aspects of the pontificate of Pope Francis.


Theological Insecurity

It is not required — and is usually not the case — that the Roman pontiff be a skilled theologian. He has no shortage of advisors to assist him. But it is understandable that any pope following Benedict might feel inadequate in comparison.

No one pretends that Francis is Benedict’s intellectual, theological or literary equal. It is enough to compare the (unedited) transcripts of their Q&A sessions to see that they operate on entirely different planes, to say nothing of their homiletics and writing. That ought not be a cause of embarrassment — no one alive today is on the level of Ratzinger/Benedict. And it is partly the style of Pope Francis, unadorned by theological refinement, that makes him so popular, especially with the secular media and those distant from the Church.

Yet, from the beginning, there has been an odd theological insecurity about this pontificate, an insecurity that motivated Msgr. Viganò to write to Benedict in the first place. From his first Angelus address, Francis has sought to associate himself with the theological credibility of others, beginning with Cardinal Walter Kasper. On multiple occasions, he has expressed — half-jokingly, half-seriously — his reluctance to speak theologically in the presence of those more learned than he.

Most striking, Pope Francis was unsure of the orthodoxy of his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). After its publication, he asked Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna whether his own apostolic exhortation was orthodox and pronounced himself “comforted” when the cardinal indicated that it was.

A pope must be confident of his theological depth and orthodoxy. He need not — and wisely does not — rely simply on his own lights for this confidence, but seeks it in the many capable collaborators at his disposal, beginning with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. St. John Paul II — himself a world-class scholar — never had to ask anyone about the orthodoxy of his documents. He had ensured that they were exactly that beforehand, not least with the assistance of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

The Viganò deception was driven by a desire to show that the theology of Francis was both profound and orthodox. Hence the desire to enlist Benedict in that effort. And when he declined in stark terms to do anything more than to offer a routine assessment — “Pope Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation,” something that could be said of any Jesuit of a similar age — Msgr. Viganò’s desire to shine some of Benedict’s borrowed light on Francis led him to manipulate and deceive.

In that he served Pope Francis very badly.

Msgr. Viganò’s desperate spin only highlighted the very insecurity that has been present from the beginning. And it emphasizes an issue that should not be an issue, namely whether Francis is comparable as a theologian to Benedict.


Manipulation of Texts

The Francis pontificate has shown a certain looseness with written texts. The most notorious example was when the Holy Father clearly said in 2016 that a “great majority” of Catholic marriages were invalid. Pope Francis did not say that he was wrong, or offer another explanation for what he said. The official transcript simply replaced “a great majority” with “a portion of,” which was neither what he said nor what he meant.

That 2016 audience followed a few months after Amoris Laetitia was published. In several places, Amoris Laetitia employs footnotes that are deliberately truncated to give the impression of meaning something different from they actually mean. St. Thomas Aquinas, Vatican II and St. John Paul II are all partially quoted in a manner that arguably betrays their original meaning, a practice that fails basic academic standards, let alone what should be expected in a magisterial document.

Amoris Laetitia itself followed the two synods on the family, where senior cardinals and bishops protested that the information flow out of the synod was manipulated to give a false impression of the synod discussion. At the time, Edward Pentin chronicled that manipulation in great detail. Papal biographer George Weigel alluded to those maneuverings Wednesday, March 21.


Veritatis Splendor, the Encyclical in the Room

Despite the nearly 400 footnotes in Amoris Laetitia, nary a one can be found from Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), the Church’s recent and most complete teaching on the moral act, the role of conscience and the call to heroic witness. Like Msgr. Viganò just ignoring the parts of Benedict’s letter that he did not like, the principal interpreters of this pontificate simply pretend that Veritatis Splendor was never written, because it is very difficult to square the teaching of the 25-year-old encyclical with Amoris Laetitia.

That Benedict XVI would specifically refer to Veritatis Splendor in his letter to Msgr. Viganò was not accidental. By noting the inclusion of a prominent dissenter from the encyclical in celebrating the theology of Pope Francis, Benedict was clearly pointing out a trend toward setting St. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical aside. And precisely because Msgr. Viganò knows that Veritatis Splendor is being set aside, he suppressed that portion of the letter.


Making a Mess

Hagan lio! (“Make a mess!”) has been a hallmark phrase of Pope Francis. By that he does not mean to do things badly, but to risk bold ventures for the Gospel, even if they might be disruptive.

However, his five years have also brought a series of “messes” that have no particular evangelical value.

Hardly a fortnight goes by without some controversy or another about a secondary or tertiary matter. Presenting some flattering booklets about the Holy Father is about the easiest thing for a Vatican communications official to do. Yet it became a scandal that completely overwhelmed the Holy Father’s fifth anniversary — and his March 17 visit to the relics of Padre Pio, which was chosen to commemorate it.

A certain weariness is setting in around the Catholic world, with the cataract of unforced errors that emanate from those close to the Holy Father.

We saw that weariness most prominently in the comments earlier this year from Cardinal Sean O’Malley after the Holy Father’s trip to Chile. Is it no longer possible for the Vatican simply to do simple things without making a mess?

Msgr. Viganò’s resignation was (partially) accepted because of his deception. But no doubt there was frustration too that an otherwise straightforward project should have gone so horribly wrong.

Father Raymond J. de Souza 

is the editor-in-chief of 

Convivium magazine.