Archbishop Viganò’s latest missive—an “Open Letter to Confused Priests,” published on The Remnant—is ostensibly about the general “problem of a perverted authority” in the Church and society, and whether one may reject the teaching of the CDF and the pope regarding vaccines. Much of it is boilerplate Viganò. Bubbling underneath the surface, however, there is a disturbing rhetoric of violence that I feel compelled to point out.
I won’t analyze the letter as a whole, since it is too long and convoluted, but only point to the passages I find most problematic. I encourage you to read the letter, though, to judge for yourself if I am overreacting.
Vaccine misinformation aside, the basic message that Viganò conveys to priests is that it is acceptable to disobey authority when it is used illegitimately, whether in the Church or society at large. Using language that is very reminiscent of that of the Tradition, Family and Property movement, Viganò suggests that “the Revolution” (in its various “expressions,” including communism) has essentially replaced the Catholic “cosmos” as its terrible inversion, and that during the Second Vatican Council the Revolution even infiltrated the Church to some extent. Thus, true authority (including ecclesiastical authority) has been replaced in many cases by tyranny. This allegedly being the case, he looks at the question of how one should respond to those who wield their authority in an illegitimate or tyrannical manner. When it comes to the pope, he says, one cannot “judge” him (in the narrow sense of casting a definitive judgement upon him) but one may resist him and disobey him if he strays from the truth, except in certain very narrowly-defined circumstances when he is teaching authoritatively. Perhaps foreshadowing what he believes to be his likely fate, Viganò writes, “The paradox is that in order to remain in Communion with the Apostolic See we must separate ourselves from the one who should represent it, and see ourselves bureaucratically excommunicated by one who is an objective state of schism with himself.”
This is hard language that I’m pretty sure is unacceptable for any bishop, but my real discomfort comes from the rhetoric invoking death and violence that appears elsewhere in relation to this theme of resistance to authority. Consider the following passage, in which Viganò suggests (after talking about the authority of “Bergoglio” as pope) that it may be appropriate to pray for the pope to die:
On closer inspection, it is precisely in order to defend hierarchical Communion with the Roman Pontiff that it is necessary to disobey him, to denounce his errors, and to ask him to resign. And to pray that God calls him to Himself as soon as possible, if a good for the Church can derive from this. [Bold emphasis added]
Here he appears to be calling upon priests to not only disobey the pope and ask him to resign, but also pray for his death (“if a good for the Church can derive from this”).
Elsewhere, he invokes the idea of the pope’s death again, in an even more sinister manner. Although he explicitly states that the pope cannot be put to death for heresy by his subjects, he cites Thomas Aquinas to suggest that the pope might nevertheless deserve to be put to death for heresy:
Thus, if it is not up to the subjects to put the Pope to death for heresy (despite the death penalty being considered by Saint Thomas Aquinas as commensurate to the crime of one who corrupts the Faith), we can nevertheless recognize a Pope as a heretic, and as such refuse, on a case-by-case basis, to show him the obedience to which he would otherwise be entitled. We do not judge him, because we do not have the authority to do so, but we recognize him for who he is, waiting for Providence to arouse those who can pronounce it definitively and authoritatively. [Bold emphasis added]
In the next paragraph, he again cites Thomas Aquinas, this time regarding the moral liceity of regicide in certain circumstances:
This is why, when you state that “it is not the subordinates of those evildoers who have the authority to rebel and overthrow them from their post,” it is necessary first of all to distinguish what type of authority is in question, and in the second place what order is being given and what damage would be caused by the proposed obedience. Saint Thomas considers resistance to the tyrant and regicide as morally licit in certain cases, just as it is licit and dutiful to disobey the authority of Prelates who abuse their own power against the intrinsic purpose of that power itself. [Bold emphasis added]
He does of course make it clear that only non-violent disobedience is legitimate when it comes to ecclesiastical authority, but then why does he bring up the issue of regicide if it’s essentially irrelevant to the question at hand?
Further on, he offers a justification of violent revolt using Catholic examples from history. At the same time, he still suggests that revolt against ecclesiastical authority is different, and should not involve violence (although the example used here, of bishops who broke with Rome, is confusingly blurry since he says their authority became “null”):
If it were not possible to oppose a tyrant, the Cristeros would have sinned when they rebelled with weapons against the Masonic dictator in Mexico who persecuted its citizens, abusing his proper authority. The Vendeans, the Sanfedisti, and the Insurgents would also have sinned: victims of a revolutionary, perverted and perverting power, before which rebellion was not only licit but also necessary. Those Catholics who, in the course of history, had to rebel against their Prelates were also the victims of such power: for example, the faithful in England who had to resist their Bishops who had become heretics with the Anglican schism, or those in Germany who were forced to refuse obedience to the Prelates who had embraced the Lutheran heresy.
So why use these provocative examples? Why does he talk about violent revolt against unjust authority when this has nothing to do with his understanding of legitimate resistance to the pope?
A little further on, he uses a similar rhetorical strategy again:
But if it is humanly incredible and painful to have to recognize that a Pope may be evil, this does not allow us to deny the evidence, nor does it require us to resign ourselves passively to the abuse of power that he exercises in the name of God yet against God. And if no one will want to assault the Sacred Palace in order to drive out the unworthy guest, legitimate and proportionate forms of real opposition can be exercised, including pressure to resign and abandon the office.
Now of course he’s not saying that anyone should ever do something crazy like assault the Apostolic Palace to drive out the pope, but he’s bringing it up anyway, invoking the terrible image. Why?
As you can see, the moral and rhetorical line between violence and non-violence is disturbingly thin in this letter, and there is potential for readers who cannot follow Viganò’s tortuous argument to become confused. Viganò has shown great recklessness with his language in the past, and seems to be unconcerned about how people might interpret him. Just recently he used apocalyptic rhetoric to help fuel the anger of disappointed Trump supporters in the United States. He railed against “colossal electoral fraud” in November, offered a video speech at the December 12 Jericho March in Washington, and then engaged in a high-profile interview with Steve Bannon published on January 4, in which he claimed that Joe Biden is “subservient to the globalist ideology and its perverse, anti-human, antichristic, infernal agenda.” On January 6, the protests inspired by Trump’s election fraud myth and the apocalyptic language surrounding it led to the storming of the Capitol. The world learned once again that heated rhetoric on news sites and social media can have dire real-life consequences, but Viganò has shown no sign that he feels any remorse for his participation in the perpetuation of a destructive—and even deadly—lie.
Given that Viganò has an eager audience in both the United States and many other parts of the world, I hope that there are influential leaders in the Church willing to step in and admonish Viganò and convey the message that the language in his recent letter crosses a line, if indeed there are any lines left for Viganò to cross. Nearly any of his unhinged letters from the last year could and should have functioned as wake-up calls. Even if the pope chooses to remain silent, someone should have said something. Now they have another chance.
In any case, I hope all who read Viganò’s letter will firmly reject his perverse advice and pray for the health and safety of the Holy Father.
Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay
D.W. Lafferty, PhD, is a Catholic husband, dad, and independent scholar from Ontario, Canada. He works in higher education and has published articles on the literature of Wyndham Lewis, the conspiracy theory of Douglas Reed, and the life and legacy of Engelbert Dollfuss. Online, he tweets as @rightscholar.