What will it take for those who have spent much of the last nine years working to damage the reputation of Pope Francis to admit they were wrong about him and apologize? There have been no limits to the depths to which they have been willing to go to harm him. In the process, they’ve undermined the office of the papacy they once sought to defend, and they have caused great harm to the Church. I don’t think there’s any question that the most destructive bombshell in the last two decades in the US Church was Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s discredited August 2018 “testimony,” in which the former nuncio accused Pope Francis of rehabilitating and protecting the sexual predator and former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
In an article last Thursday entitled, “Has Viganò changed?” I explored the recent phenomenon of prominent conservative and traditionalist Catholics attempting to distance themselves from Archbishop Viganò’s recent missives while still trying to justify their public support for him in 2018. I noted how some commentators, in light of the former US nuncio’s recent unhinged open letters—notably his recent pro-Putin manifesto—were beginning to speculate that Viganò had been replaced by a ghostwriter at some point. Their motive, of course, was to preserve their carefully-constructed anti-papal narrative while avoiding the embarrassment of association with him.
If I had only waited one week longer. That’s because on Wednesday of this week, First Things published an article by George Weigel that followed this template to a tee. In it, he gave a long, bulleted list of the most bizarre claims in Viganò’s latest manifesto, then immediately suggested Viganò wasn’t the author, writing, “Whoever is writing these absurdities seems not to care that he, she, or they are reproducing Kremlin disinformation and propaganda point-for-point.”
Then he shifted gears, taking an unwarranted swipe at the Left, stating, “That a Western media typically tilted far to the left has suddenly become viscerally anti-Russian and bellicose is risible.” It is almost as if he’s missed the past decade or more, in which Russia’s strongman president has become a hero to many Americans on the far right, including many reactionary Catholics. It appears his understanding of the US political scene may be as stuck in the JP2 era as his understanding of the Church.
He goes on to argue that he believes Viganò is not the author, writing, “I have long doubted that Archbishop Viganò actually writes these ‘declarations’ issued in his name, which have, tragically, become more unhinged over time. And I say ‘tragically’ because I once counted the archbishop a friend and remain grateful for his service to the Vatican (where he was an honest man in an often-dishonest environment) and to the Church in the United States (which he served well as nuncio).”
To his credit, Weigel doesn’t let the disgraced archbishop completely off the hook, conceding that Viganò has been “allowing” these “lies, calumnies, and Kremlin propaganda to be issued in his name.”
Still, he limits his chronicling of Viganò’s “manifestly false claims” to this letter, and Weigel fails to address the claims of the former nuncio’s August 2018 letter, about which he wrote “that attempts to portray him as someone deliberately making false accusations, someone other than an honest witness to what he believes to be the truth, are unpersuasive. When he writes in his Testimony that he is ‘ready to affirm [these allegations] on oath calling on God as my witness,’ he means it. And he means it absolutely.”
The most ironic passage in Weigel’s article is, “This most recent declaration on the Ukraine War crossed a red line.” Those familiar with George Weigel’s work know that this wasn’t the first time he’s written about red lines.
In 2009, George Weigel wrote an analysis in the National Review of Pope Benedict XVI’s social encyclical Caritas in Veritate. Unhappy with much of its content—that which didn’t align with his neoconservative ideology—he devised his own hermeneutic to separate the parts he approved from the parts he disagreed with. Massimo Borghesi described Weigel’s interpretation in his 2021 book Catholic Discordance, writing:
Just days after its release, Weigel offered a truly striking assessment. In an article published in the National Review, he distinguished its “golden” parts, those he claimed were the work of the pope, from its “red” parts, supposedly the work of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The pontifical council’s approach, Weigel argued, sounded a lot like Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio, a problematic text from Weigel’s point of view.
Weigel found the entire thing disjointed, but suggested a way to extract the good parts:
Indeed, those with advanced degrees in Vaticanology could easily go through the text of Caritas in Veritate, highlighting those passages that are obviously Benedictine with a gold marker and those that reflect current Justice and Peace default positions with a red marker. The net result is, with respect, an encyclical that resembles a duck-billed platypus.
According to Weigel, the “gold” parts of the encyclical were, not astonishingly, those aligned with the priorities of US social conservatives:
The clearly Benedictine passages in Caritas in Veritate follow and develop the line of John Paul II, particularly in the new encyclical’s strong emphasis on the life issues (abortion, euthanasia, embryo-destructive stem-cell research) as social-justice issues — which Benedict cleverly extends to the discussion of environmental questions, suggesting as he does that people who don’t care much about unborn children are unlikely to make serious contributions to a human ecology that takes care of the natural world.
Those parts that didn’t align with capitalist priorities were both wrong and confusing to Weigel. Naturally, he said they would have to be red-lined:
But then there are those passages to be marked in red—the passages that reflect Justice and Peace ideas and approaches that Benedict evidently believed he had to try and accommodate. Some of these are simply incomprehensible, as when the encyclical states that defeating Third World poverty and underdevelopment requires a “necessary openness, in a world context, to forms of economic activity marked by quotas of gratuitousness and communion.” This may mean something interesting; it may mean something naïve or dumb. But, on its face, it is virtually impossible to know what it means.
According to Borghesi, this was “a truly unique maneuver—and fails to take into account the fact that the encyclical bears the signature with which the pope, in this case Benedict, gives the entire text his authority. But for Weigel, Benedict’s signature is merely a benign concession, an act of generosity.”
At the time, Catholic economist (and sometimes satirist) Tony Annett presented Weigel’s analysis in the form of a fable entitled “The Good Pope and the Bad Advisors.” He wrote:
Benedict was a kindly old man, a “truly gentle soul”, and he took pity on Justice and Peace. “Why,” he said to his cat, “these poor men have put so much effort into this, I must give them something.” And so he did, but he was very clever. In his own hand, he wrote in a gold pen, a gold as bright as the shining sun. What they gave him, he wrote with a red pen, a red the color of blood. And so he created a long encyclical called Caritas in Veritate. People were confused by the two voices, and thought it was a “duck-billed platypus”. But Benedict knew that if people read the document clearly enough, they would understand the difference between the gold and the red. They would know that his own contributions were “strong and compelling” and that the other stuff was “incomprehensible”, “clotted and muddled”, full of silliness about the redistribution of wealth, and calling for dangerous transnational governance.
As theologian Beth Haile said in an interview with Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter, “Weigel wants to try and exegete some pure conservative Benedict from the text of Caritas in Veritate, but no such conservative Benedict is to be found, nor is Benedict any more liberal in light of his favorable reception and application of the pet-encyclical of liberals, Populorum Progressio.”
Now George Weigel is using a similar technique on the message of his former friend Viganò. It’s as if he’s saying, “Let’s take the old red pen out and put a big X across everything he wrote after, say, mid-2019. The ‘golden’ parts can stay—those that make unsubstantiated charges about our relentlessly frustrating Roman Pontiff, accusing him of horrible crimes. After all, Viganò was an honest man back then, and we should take his charges seriously… at least up until the point where it makes us look silly.”
This stubborn and obstinate opposition to Pope Francis has pushed many once-respected figures in the Church, including George Weigel, into obsolescence bordering on self-parody. One might say (as Weigel said of Viganò) that he “has written the obituary for what remained of his once-considerable religious and moral authority. And that is beyond tragic.”
Too many of those who once championed the office of the papacy under Francis’s predecessors have revealed that their political and religious ideologies were more important to them than their fidelity to the Church and the pope. It’s my prayer that they realize and repent of the damage they’ve done. For some, like Viganò, it may be too late. But for others, who are finally beginning to see that they threw in their lot with a narcissist and liar instead of the pope, they would do themselves and many others a lot of good if they’d just admit they were deceived.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.