Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò has been in the news again. He recently received attention on February 19, when the Canadian professor-turned-media guru Jordan Peterson tweeted out a YouTube video to his 2.4 million followers entitled, “Archbishop Viganò’s IMPORTANT MESSAGE To Canadian Truckers.” Then on March 7, Viganò released a 24-page manifesto entitled, “Declaration on the Russia-Ukraine Crisis,” in which he argues that “The United States of America and the European nations should not marginalize Russia, but rather form an alliance with her, not only for the restoration of trade for the prosperity of all, but in view of the reconstruction of a Christian Civilization, which alone can save the world from the globalist techno-health transhuman monster.”

Since 2020, many prominent Viganò supporters have distanced themselves from his messages, which today are unmistakably the rantings of a full-blown paranoid conspiracy theorist. In most cases, they attempt to ignore him, perhaps hoping that no one will notice that their former hero has gone off the deep end. A few have simply flipped the switch and started criticizing him. Others, however, have attempted to divide the messages between a courageous, truthful, early whistleblower Viganò (with whom they agree) and a later, unhinged version. Some, including historian Roberto de Mattei and Pillar editor JD Flynn have speculated that Viganò is no longer the author of his messages, and that his extremism is the work of another person.

The former papal nuncio to the United States has lived in hiding since late August 2018, when he released his “testimony” accusing Pope Francis of covering up abuse committed by the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. He asserted that Francis rehabilitated McCarrick by lifting “canonical sanctions” that had been imposed on him by Pope Benedict. Since that time, Viganò has regularly released open letters attacking Pope Francis, advancing pseudoscientific views on the pandemic and the Covid vaccine, promoting the re-election campaign of former president Donald Trump (later promoting the “stop the steal” campaign), and weighing in on world and Church affairs. His letters are rife with paranoia, conspiracy theories, and language that is widely associated with the QAnon phenomenon.

Viganò’s new manifesto regurgitates pro-Putin propaganda about extremist and Neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine, and it contains many of the tropes that regularly appear in Viganò’s missives—deep Church and deep state, the “Covid deception,” the Church’s hierarchy is “held hostage by apostates who are courtiers of power.”

It seems that Viganò does not entirely favor the Russian invasion, but believes the war is the result of a “trap set for both Russia and Ukraine, using both of them to enable the globalist elite to carry out its criminal plan.” He does, however, speculate that “Moscow, the Third Rome” plays “an epochal role in the restoration of Christian Civilization, contributing to bringing the world a period of peace from which the Church too will rise again purified and renewed in her Ministers.” He calls for “the establishment of an Anti-Globalist Alliance that unites the peoples of the world in opposition against the tyranny of the New World Order.”

Viganò the whistleblower

Coverage of Viganò and his messages by conservative Catholic media has fluctuated in the time since the release of the original testimony. These media operations—including outlets such as EWTN and its affiliates Catholic News Agency and the National Catholic Register, First Things, LifeSiteNews, Church Militant, the Catholic Thing, the Catholic Herald, Catholic World Report, One Peter Five, the Remnant, and Catholic Culture—lent credibility to Viganò’s charges by publishing editorials and news stories that were favorable to his account, and even at times invented excuses and proposed alternative meanings in order to minimize inconsistencies and inaccuracies in his narrative.

Most of these outlets overlooked the ideological extremism, conspiracism, and unsubstantiated rumors that made up the bulk of the content of his early missives. When they weren’t accepting them at face value, many of his most sensational and unproven statements of in the testimony we simply ignored. He made accusations against over 25 of his fellow bishops, by name and without providing evidence. He implicated most of them in his claim that many in the hierarchy were part of a “homosexual current in favor of subverting Catholic doctrine on homosexuality,” which works “under the concealment of secrecy and lies with the power of octopus tentacles, and strangle innocent victims and priestly vocations, and are strangling the entire Church.”

Instead, when Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s “testimony” dropped, the members of the mounting resistance movement against Pope Francis began to line up and attest to the former nuncio’s character and honesty. These outlets published statements of support for Viganò from numerous US bishops. Meanwhile, they neglected to remind readers of Viganò’s own spotty record on abuse cases, such as when he instructed two auxiliary bishops in Minnesota to end an abuse investigation and then asked them to destroy evidence of that fact.

George Weigel—who in 2016 penned a gushing encomium in Viganò’s honor declaring him “The Best Nuncio We’ve Had Thus Far”—wrote of the archbishop’s character in First Things, “Archbishop Viganò is, in my experience, an honest man. We spoke often about many things, large and small, and I never had the impression that I was being given anything other than what he believed in his conscience to be the truth.”

Papal Posse member and New York priest Fr. Gerald Murray suggested that Francis’s refusal to dignify Viganò’s charges with a response indicated that he was probably guilty, writing, “How likely is it that an innocent man would let these multiple serious charges of malfeasance remain unanswered? Certainly possible, but highly unlikely.”

Some two dozen US bishops, including Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia were effusive in their praise for Viganò’s character. A few of them, including Strickland and Cordileone, explicitly stated that they found the allegations against the pope to be credible. (To date, I know of none who have since retracted their support or apologized to the pope.)

Even refutations of Viganò’s claims were inexplicably spun by anti-Francis pundits and commentators as further confirmation that his accusations were true. For example, when Congregation for Bishops Prefect Cardinal Marc Ouellet issued an open letter countering Viganò’s assertions, Ed Condon wrote for the Catholic News Agency that “the cardinal’s Oct. 7 letter to Viganò actually does clarify what the Church knew about McCarrick, and how it responded. It also seems to at least partially substantiate some of Viganò’s claims.”

What his supporters chose to ignore

Those who promoted the reliability of Viganò’s charges overlooked the fact that his claims were largely discredited by journalists from serious news outlets in the week immediately following the release of his sensational testimony. For example, the day after Viganò’s testimony was made public, Michael O’Loughlin of America Magazine chronicled a series of public appearances made by McCarrick between 2011 (when Viganò became US nuncio) and Pope Francis’s 2013 election (When it would have been possible, as Viganò claims, for Pope Francis to lift the alleged canonical sanctions placed on McCarrick by Benedict).

Anyone who was active in Church circles in Rome or the Washington, DC area during the period in question would have seen McCarrick make regular public appearances throughout this time. I saw him frequently at Church events. This was also the way Michael Sean Winters remembered it. He wrote, “During the Benedict papacy, with my own eyes I witnessed McCarrick celebrate Mass in public, participate in meetings, travel, etc. More importantly, so did Pope Benedict! If Benedict imposed these penalties, he certainly did not apply them. He continued to receive McCarrick with the rest of the Papal Foundation, continued to allow him to celebrate Mass publicly at the Vatican, even concelebrating with Benedict at events like consistories.

In addition to reporting on Viganò’s false claims about the enforcement of sanctions against McCarrick, professional journalists also revealed the implausibility of many of Viganò’s charges. For example, a few days after the release, Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service wrote a piece in which a canon lawyer told her that the type of “private” sanctions described by Viganò were “weird, an anomaly” because it would be very unusual “not to publish a sanction that has public consequences, such as forbidding the cardinal to celebrate Mass publicly or make public appearances.” Wooden’s report also mentions a May 2, 2012, dinner in New York for the Pontifical Mission Societies, attended by both McCarrick and Viganò, where Viganò personally gave a speech and presented a “Pontifical Ambassador for Mission” award to McCarrick.

Even the National Catholic Register conceded that Viganò’s claim that McCarrick was placed under formal sanctions by Benedict was inaccurate (although they continued to insist on the “high probability Benedict did impose sanctions or disciplinary measures”). The testimony was a dead letter almost from the start, but certain people in the Church were determined to keep the story alive.

A rogue archbishop

Viganò’s open letters, ostensibly written from his place of hiding, kept coming. They were frequently published on traditionalist and reactionary Catholic websites, such as LifeSiteNews, One Peter Five, Catholic Family News, and Church Militant. His concerns shifted away completely from the protection of survivors of abuse and abuse coverups to an all-out assault on the character and intentions of Pope Francis (whom he began to refer to simply as “Bergoglio”) and the “gay lobby” whose sinister influence in the Vatican was seeking to destroy the Church.

Viganò’s usefulness to mainstream conservative critics of Pope Francis had largely waned. In a few cases, attempts to collaborate with Viganò backfired embarrassingly. Who can forget Viganò’s vindictive accusations against Cardinal Robert Sarah in May 2020, when Sarah denied signing Viganò’s conspiracy-laden petition against Covid restrictions? And of course there was the episode in late 2020 where Viganò’s collaborator Robert Moynihan revealed that Raymond Arroyo conducted a pre-scripted (and later edited) “interview” with Viganò on EWTN, about which I reported for WPI. Viganò became radioactive, and associating with him could cause lasting damage.

By 2019, although many of Francis’s most determined critics finally reached the point of realizing that their hero whistleblower was an unreliable source, they continued to strain for those little bits that they could still use in their war against the pope. For example, First Things editor R.R. Reno wrote in a November 2019 article, “Even if one discounts some of the charges, the open letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò rings true.”

From there things got even more extreme, as we’ve covered extensively at Where Peter Is. With 2020 came Covid-19, and Viganò was at the forefront of Covid denial conspiracy theories, penning the aforementioned petition that was signed by a number of bishops including Strickland, Cardinal Gerhardt Muller, and (briefly) Cardinal Sarah. Later came his open letter to Donald Trump—filled with QAnon-inspired terminology—and stop-the-steal activism. Along the way came his total repudiation of the Second Vatican Council, which spurred a tragicomic back-and-forth with papal critic Fr. Thomas Weinandy, in which the two agreed that Pope Francis was awful but where they debated about whether the Magisterium effectively stopped counting in 1962 (at the start of the Council) or 2013 (with the election of Francis the Horrible).

Viganò’s former allies began to be embarrassed by him, including Roberto de Mattei, who last year posited that beginning sometime around early 2020, Viganò’s letters were not his own. De Mattei was able to determine that an Italian blogger must have taken over as Viganò’s ghostwriter around that time. Viganò, of course, was incensed, responding in yet another open letter “to deny his impudent and fanciful theses, reassuring those who have the goodness to read me and listen to me that there is no ghost writer, and that by the grace of God I still have full possession of my faculties, I am not manipulated by anyone, and I am absolutely determined to continue my apostolic mission for the salvation of souls.”

Slightly befuddled by that episode, I asked Gareth Thomas if he was interested in writing on the matter. He responded that the whole thing was so bizarre that it reminded him of an Umberto Eco novel, and thus he decided to write his article in the form of a chapter by Eco. (If you haven’t read it already, you should. It’s quite brilliant and it features both me and a dead bat as side characters. If you’re not laughing by now, you’re crying.) Gareth’s conclusion? “It doesn’t take an expert: everyone had commented Viganò II was different from the tone of Viganò I and many earlier supporters have already distanced themselves from him. All right, so a new ghost-writer came in from 2020… and so what?”

Conservative Catholics in polite society had long stopped paying attention. Certain traditionalists and early supporters stopped mentioning his name or began lamenting how he’d lost the plot. Other Catholics—those who have been completely sucked into the fantasy nightmare of Catholic conspiracy theory still hang on his every word. Last I checked, he’s still a hero to Taylor Marshall, Michael Voris, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, Patrick Coffin, Elizabeth Yore, and many others at the absolute fringes of radical reactionary Catholicism.

“No” to Viganò II

So now Viganò has written a open letter in support of Vladimir Putin and Russia, asserting that the US and Europe should work with them to overthrow the New World Order. This was entirely predictable to anyone who has paid attention to his descent into insanity. But apparently it caught the attention of many of those conservative Catholics in polite society who had been ignoring him.

A sharp contrast between 2018 and today can be seen in the writing of the brash British Catholic commentator Damian Thompson, who wrote in the weeks following the Viganò testimony, that “the duplicitous pontiff depicted by Vigano is instantly recognisable as the cynical, backstabbing Bergoglio in Henry Sire’s book The Dictator Pope, which — though profoundly hostile to its subject — is based on first-hand testimony from Argentina and Rome. Every Catholic should read it. Why do so many churchmen who knew Bergoglio regard him as a backstabbing cynic?”

He appears to have soured lately on the archbishop, tweeting on Viganò’s letter in support of Putin, tweeting, “Repulsive piece by Abp. Viganò.”

In response to the same piece, Pillar editor JD Flynn tweeted, “It’s got to be asked: Is there any reason to think these periodic Vigano missives about the issue du jour are actually coming from Vigano anymore? The guy did his thing in 2018, but maybe, like the Dred Pirate Roberts, the name just gets passed on.”

Flynn has good reasons to engage in such wishful thinking, because as editor of Catholic News Agency when the Viganò controversy erupted, he regularly attempted to explain away Viganò’s misstatements and inaccuracies, dreaming up alternate ways to reframe many false charges so they would still seem somewhat plausible. For example, when it became clear that there were no “canonical sanctions” placed on McCarrick by Pope Benedict, Flynn—while noting that Viganò has a doctorate in canon law—chalked it up to possible “semantic disagreements,” suggesting that “It is quite possible that Viganò has not grasped some of the implied distinctions contained in the phrase he chose, and includes in his definition of the term ‘sanctions’ less formal verbal instructions.” In another lengthy article, he echoed his colleague Ed Condon in insisting that Cardinal “Ouellet validated a central point of Vigano’s: that McCarrick had been given Vatican instructions, through the nunciature, to limit his ministry.”

What is the answer to Flynn’s question? Is the 2018 Viganò the same as the 2022 Viganò?

The Same Man

Understandably, if you haven’t been following the Viganò saga for the last four years, you might think there is a different person behind the controls, so to speak. But because the contributors for Where Peter Is have been following Viganò’s steady unraveling during this time, we can confidently assert that we’re dealing with the same man, albeit older, more paranoid, and with an even looser grip on reality.

First of all, it would be wrong to assume that Viganò was ever the primary author of his missives. His English is conversant, but far from fluent. It’s fairly certain that he’s had the help of writers, translators, and editors for every missive he’s put forth since the initial “testimony.”

Also, given his radio interviews, video broadcasts of speeches, and his insistence that he is the author of his writings (even if he’s stretching the truth a little in that last part), there’s little reason to doubt that he is, and has always been, a full and active participant in the composition of his messages.

The truth is that Viganò remains in 2022 what he revealed himself to be in 2018: a vain, dishonest, paranoid, jealous, vindictive little man who wants to be seen as a hero and is willing to stretch and bend the truth and raise the stakes in order to do so. The primary reason he was ever taken seriously was because his credibility was pushed by people who wanted to see Pope Francis brought down. After the attacks on Francis’ orthodoxy (especially the dubia) failed, their plan B was to attack him in a place that would really hurt—the sex abuse crisis.

Viganò’s testimony had little effect on McCarrick’s case—at the time, McCarrick was already suspended. McCarrick had already resigned from the college of cardinals nearly a month earlier and was facing the canonical trial that would lead to his laicization. The only “fruit” of the Viganò letter was the McCarrick Report. And ultimately, the report’s major revelations were not on Viganò’s already-discredited claims about Francis’ actions, but Viganò’s prior friendship with McCarrick as nuncio and his own involvement in sweeping abuse under the rug.

So now Viganò is in hiding. His dreams of forcing Francis’s retirement or of being a celebrated figure in the Church have fallen apart. He’s being coddled by a group of collaborators, all of whom have drifted in the same direction as he has over time.

The Viganò we see today is the same opportunist we saw in 2018. Yes, he’s lost touch with reality and truth, but he’s one of many in the Church who has done so in recent years. Remember Cardinal Burke’s promotion of “microchips in vaccines” conspiracy theories? Has anyone noticed that the former Bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas, and the former host of Catholic Answers Live believe that Francis is an antipope?

Anyone who is well-informed and honest with themselves about the state of the Church can see the seeds of this were planted early in this papacy by the dubia cardinals, EWTN, and so many other influential Catholics who decided that they were more Catholic than the pope. Many of those who planted these seeds refuse to acknowledge their role in fostering this mindset in the Church. When it is comfortable, they cast doubt on Pope Francis’s message. When things get too weird, they quietly step away.

Many parts of the Holy Catholic Church, the Body of Christ—at least in the United States—have become hotbeds of populist extremism, conspiracism, and lunacy. And the people who are responsible for creating this monster—the bishops, theologians, and media figures who stoked doubt about the teachings and approach of Pope Francis are apparently unwilling to admit to their role in it, let alone express regret for what they did. Why have none of the two dozen bishops who praised Viganò apologized? Why are media figures trying to say Viganò has changed, rather than admitting they were wrong about him from the start? Surely they can see that things have gone too far!

Repentance would be a tremendous step on the road to healing.

Image: Archbishop Vigano concelebrating Mass. Courtesy Archdiocese of Boston. By George Martell. License: Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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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.

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