Is Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò in schism? This is a serious question, and it’s not one to be taken lightly. The 1983 Code of Canon Law [CIC] defines schism as “the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him” (canon 751), and the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites this same definition (CCC 2089). I raise the question of Archbishop Viganò in light of some extreme accusations he has made against Pope Francis since last November. The language used by Viganò against Pope Francis—and more recently against Vatican II and the post-conciliar Catholic Church—suggests that the former papal nuncio to the USA is refusing submission to the Roman Pontiff. Some examples bear this out.
On November 19, 2019, Viganò published a letter reacting to the announcement of the construction of the Abrahamic Family House in which a church, a synagogue, and a mosque would share the same foundation in a plaza in Abu Dhabi. The Abraham Family House, designed by the architect, Sr. David Adjaye, is intended to embody the commitment to peace expressed in the Human Fraternity Document signed on February 4, 2019 by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb.
In Viganò’s November 19 letter—originally published in Italian on the website of Aldo Valli—the former nuncio says “the building of the House of the Abrahamic Family appears as a Babel-like enterprise, concocted by the enemies of God.” The Archbishop goes on to offer this assessment of the building project:
In the garden of Abu Dhabi the temple of the world syncretistic Neo-Religion is about to rise with its anti-Christian dogmas. Not even the most hopeful of the Freemasons would have imagined so much! Pope Bergoglio thus proceeds to further implement the apostasy of Abu Dhabi, the fruit of pantheistic and agnostic neo-modernism that tyrannizes the Roman Church, germinated by the conciliar document Nostra Aetate. We are compelled to recognize it: the poisoned fruits of the “Conciliar springtime” are before the eyes of anyone who does not allow himself to be blinded by the dominant Lie.
Terms like “anti-Christian,” “apostasy,” and “syncretic Neo-Religion” suggest that Archbishop Viganò believes Pope Francis is an apostate, i.e. someone who has totally repudiated the Christian faith. If the Archbishop really believes this, then it’s difficult to understand how he could be in submission to Pope Francis as the Roman Pontiff.
In his treatise, De Summo Pontifice, St. Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) discusses the hypothetical case of a pope being a manifest heretic:
The fifth true opinion, therefore, is that a Pope who is a manifest heretic per se ceases to be Pope and Head, since per se he ceases to be a Christian and member of the body of the Church (De Summo Pontifice Book II, Chapter XXX).
In this passage, Bellarmine seems to equate heresy with apostasy since the heresy he has in mind is the type which makes one cease to be a Christian. If a pope were to cease being Christian, he would cease being pope. For Bellarmine, though, this is a purely hypothetical scenario because he does not believe it can ever happen. In Book IV, chapter III of De Summo Pontifice, he states that the Lord provides a special privilege to St. Peter and his successors so that “in his chair there would never be found someone who would teach contrary to the true faith.” Vatican I would later confirm this conviction of Bellarmine by giving assurance that “in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved immaculate and sacred doctrine honored” (Denz.-H, 3066) and the “See of St. Peter always remains untainted by any error” (Denz.-H, 3070).
If Viganò believes that Pope Francis is seeking to implement “apostasy” and promote a “syncretic Neo-Religion” as well as “pantheistic and agnostic neo-modernism,” then it follows that he does not consider Pope Francis to be a Christian. Following Bellarmine’s hypothetical scenario, this would mean Viganò no longer considers Francis to be the pope or at least a pope to whom he can offer submission. But the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff is the canonical definition of schism. This would imply that Viganò is in schism because it’s difficult to understand how the Archbishop could be in submission to a Pontiff who is promoting apostasy and a “syncretic Neo-Religion.”
A month after his letter reacting to the Abrahamic Family House, Archbishop Viganò attacked Pope Francis for his homily given on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12, 2019) in St. Peter’s Basilica. According to the Archbishop, the homily revealed Francis’s “evident Marian intolerance, recalling that of the Serpent in the account of the Fall, in that Proto-Gospel which prophesizes the radical enmity placed by God between the Woman and the Serpent.” Pope Francis’s Guadalupe homily, though never challenges any Marian dogmas—as several Mariologists have made clear. Archbishop Viganò, however, uses the alleged errors in the homily, to let loose a flood of accusations against the Holy Father and the Catholic Church since Vatican II:
Material heresies, formal heresies, idolatry, superficiality of every kind: the Supreme Pontiff Bergoglio never ceases stubbornly to humiliate the highest authority of the Church, “demythologizing” the papacy … Papa Bergoglio uses the pachamama to rout the Guadalupana. … For more than six years now we have been poisoned by a false magisterium. … Now the Church is lifeless, covered with metastases and devastated. The people of God are groping, illiterate and robbed of their Faith, in the darkness of chaos and division. In these last decades, the enemies of God have progressively made scorched earth of two thousand years of Tradition. With unprecedented acceleration, thanks to the subversive drive of this pontificate, supported by the powerful Jesuit apparatus, a deadly coup de grace [death blow] is being delivered.
As can be seen, Archbishop Viganò accuses Pope Francis of having a “false magisterium” that promotes heresies, idolatry, and the subversion of two thousand years of Tradition. If this is what Viganò believes about Pope Francis, he cannot in good faith submit to him as the Supreme Pontiff. But such refusal of submission is the very definition of schism.
What is most disturbing is that Archbishop Viganò levels these serious accusations against Pope Francis and the Church without any evidence except his own assertions. The idolatry claim stems from a prayer service that took place in the Vatican Gardens on October 4, 2019. This service, though, was profoundly Catholic, and the claim that idolatry took place has been refuted in a series of detailed articles by Pedro Gabriel. It is an exercise in rash judgment to insist that idolatry took place during the Amazon Synod without any convincing evidence. Pope Francis has explained that there was no idolatrous intent connected with the wooden statues, but this is not convincing to Viganò because he’s already made up his mind that Pope Francis is an apostate modernist who can’t be trusted.
In his December 19, 2019 statement, Archbishop Viganò seems more concerned with maligning Pope Francis than he is with the truth. The Catholic apologist, Dave Armstrong, has shown that Viganò’s claims that Pope Francis has abandoned the recitation of the Rosary and the celebration of the Assumption are demonstrably false. We need to wonder why Catholics—even some well-educated ones—accept what Viganò says at face value without critically evaluating the veracity of his accusations. For example, the Archbishop in his December 19th text criticizes a recent translation change approved by the Italian Bishops Conference to Eucharistic Prayer II. This is what Viganò says:
A few weeks after the conclusion of the synodal event, which marked the investiture of pachamama in the heart of Catholicity, we learned that the conciliar disaster of the Novus Ordo Missae is undergoing further modernization, including the introduction of “Dew” in the Eucharistic Canon instead of the mention of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity. This is a further step in the direction of regression towards the naturalization and immanentization of Catholic worship, towards a pantheistic and idolatrous Novissimus Ordo.
Here the Archbishop not only manifests contempt for the ordinary form of the Roman Missal, but he falsely claims that the revised translation makes no mention of the Holy Spirit and substitutes “dew” instead. The ‘dew,” though, is found in the Latin of Eucharistic Prayer II, which reads: “Hæc ergo dona, quæsumus, Spíritus tui rore sanctífica, ut nobis Corpus et Sanguis fiant Dómini nostri Iesu Christi.” “Rore” is from “ros, roris,” the Latin word for dew. The change made in the Italian translation from “sanctifica con l’effusione del tuo Spirito” [sanctify with the effusion of thy Spirit] to “santifica questi doni con la rugiada del tuo Spirito” [sanctify these gifts with the dew of thy Spirit] is hardly a regression to pantheism and idolatry. It is merely a change that seeks to reflect better the original Latin of Eucharistic Prayer II. Moreover, the Spirit is the agent of sanctification in both translations. To say that “dew” is substituted for the Holy Spirit is simply false.
On April 3, 2020, Archbishop Viganò published another statement objecting to an editorial change in the 2020 Pontifical Yearbook, the Annuario Pontificio, which includes “Vicar of Christ” among a list of papal titles described as historical. The Archbishop reacts to this editorial change with the following words:
… [It] seems possible to see in it the admission — passed over in silence — of a sort of usurpation, whereby it is not the “Servus servorum Dei” who reigns, but the person of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who has officially disavowed being the Vicar of Christ, the Successor of the Prince of the Apostles and the Supreme Pontiff, as if they were annoying trappings of the past: only mere “historical titles.”
An almost defiant gesture — one might say — in which Francis transcends every title. Or worse: an act to officially alter the Papacy, by which he no longer recognizes himself as guardian, but becomes master of the Church, free to demolish it from within without having to answer to anyone. In short, a tyrant.
. . . [He] releases himself from his role as Vicar to proclaim himself, in a delirium of pride, absolute monarch even with respect to Christ.
These words of the Archbishop reveal an unfortunate tendency to read the worst possible motives into various actions and statements of Pope Francis and the Holy See. A simple change in the listing of the papal titles prompts Viganò to describe Pope Francis as assuming the role of a “tyrant,” “an absolute monarch even in respect to Christ.” To the Archbishop this makes Pope Francis free to demolish the Church from within without accountability to anyone.
The listing of “Vicar of Christ” in the Annuario Pontificio among other historical titles in no way indicates a disavowal of the title. Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See Press Office, explained that the other papal titles “are understood to be tied historically to the title of bishop of Rome because at the moment he is designated by the conclave to guide the church of Rome, the one elected acquires the titles tied to this nomination.” It has also been shown that Pope Francis has referred to himself as the Vicar of Christ on at least three occasions.
We need to ask how Archbishop Viganò can be in submission to Pope Francis if he honestly believes the present Pontiff is a tyrant seeking to demolish the Church from within. Once again the words of the Archbishop suggest that he is in at least material schism.
The most extreme words of Archbishop Viganò thus far are found in his letter of June 9, 2020 that was published in Italian on the website of Marco Tosatti and in English by Inside the Vatican and other sites. In this letter, the Archbishop not only states that “the demythologization of the Papacy” is a theme of Francis’s pontificate, but he also points to “the situation of the most serious apostasy to which the highest levels of the Hierarchy are exposed.” In his June 9 letter, Viganò expresses his conviction that the roots of the problem go back to Vatican II. Moreover, he believes that the efforts to read the Council’s documents with the hermeneutic of continuity have now “shipwrecked miserably” (miseramente naufragati) in confrontation with the present crisis. Where does this crisis leave the Church? Here is how the Archbishop reads the signs of the times:
…[It] is undeniable that from Vatican II onwards a parallel church was built, superimposed over and diametrically opposed to the true Church of Christ. This parallel church progressively obscured the divine institution founded by Our Lord in order to replace it with a spurious entity, corresponding to the desired universal religion that was first theorized by Masonry.
Apparently Archbishop Viganò does not believe that the Church in communion with Pope Francis is the true Church of Christ. Instead, it is “a spurious entity” corresponding to a Masonic inspired “universal religion.” For Viganò, the Abrahamic Family House being built in Abu Dhabi signifies “the triumph of the Masonic plan in preparation for the kingdom of the Antichrist!” He makes this claim even though there will be separate worship services in the church, the synagogue, and the mosque built on the common foundation of the “Family House.”
If the Church in communion with Pope Francis is “a spurious entity” where is the true Church of Christ today? Is it to be found in the faithful remnant of true believers made up of those who follow the thinking of Viganò? The Archbishop apparently believes that the “spurious entity” of the Church under Francis is part of “a globalist plan that has as its goal the cancellation of the Catholic Church, in order to replace it with a confederation of idolaters and heretics united by environmentalism and universal brotherhood.”
It’s not clear whether Viganò even considers Francis to be the Roman Pontiff. He describes the election of Cardinal Bergoglio on March 13, 2013 as the success of a group of conspirators who “finally succeeded in promoting a Cardinal who embodied their ideals, their way of revolutionizing the Church, of making doctrine malleable, morals adaptable, liturgy adulterable, and discipline disposable. And all this was considered, by the protagonists of the conspiracy themselves, the logical consequence and obvious application of Vatican II, which according to them had been weakened by the critiques expressed by Benedict XVI.” Archbishop Viganò even describes Francis as the “newly elected” (“neoeletto”), putting the words in quotation marks in order to cast doubt on the validity of Francis’s election. If Viganò does not accept Pope Francis as the legitimate Roman Pontiff then he would not only be a schismatic but also a sedevacantist.
Defenders of Viganò might claim that the Archbishop is only pointing out problems in the Church that others see but are hesitant to expose. This claim, though, falls apart when we examine the actual accusations of Archbishop Viganò. We’ve already shown that his accusation of pagan worship during the Amazon Synod is devoid of real substance, as is Viganò’s claim that the Italian bishops are removing reference to the Holy Spirit in the Eucharistic Canon in order to replace it with a pantheistic reference to the “dew.” In his June 9 letter, Archbishop Viganò also refers to collegiality as a reality “invented by Vatican II” and “the synodal path” as something “inaugurated by the Synod on the Family.” Such claims are historically untenable. The Latin word concilium (council) is used interchangeably with synodus (synod) in the ecumenical councils of the Church. For example, the Council of Constance in 1418 refers to itself as the “sacrum generale Constantiense Concilium” (Denz.-H, 1249) and the Council of Trent in 1546 refers to itself as “Sacrosancta oecumenica et generalis Tridentina Synodus” (Denz.-H, 1501). There have been local, national, and general synods (also called “councils”) since the early Church, as Viganò himself admits when he refers to councils from “the Council of Jerusalem to Vatican I.”
Moreover, Vatican I (1870) describes how “the bishops of the whole world, sometimes singly, sometimes assembled in councils, following the long-standing custom of the Churches and the form of the ancient rule, reported to this Apostolic See particularly the dangers that arose in the faith …” (Denz.-H, 3069). If Vatican I recognized the reality of bishops assembled in councils (which are also called synods), this was an expression of the episcopal collegiality, which Vatican II, in Lumen Gentium 22, describes as rooted in “the very ancient practice whereby bishops duly established in all parts of the world were in communion with one another and with the bishop of Rome in a bond of unity, charity, and peace.” Archbishop Viganò is simply wrong when he describes collegiality as something “invented by Vatican II.”
I could give other examples of inaccurate claims and accusations made by Archbishop Viganò, but I think these will suffice. If the Archbishop wishes us to believe that the Church under Pope Francis is a “spurious entity,” what confidence can we have in the “Church” that he claims to follow when his “Church” seems to be grounded in dubious accusations that don’t measure up to careful scrutiny? It seems that Archbishop Viganò has established his claims on conspiracy theories of Masonic infiltrations that have made the Church under Pope Francis a “spurious entity” preparing the way for “the kingdom of the Antichrist.” What, though, becomes of the dogma of the indefectibility of the Church of Christ grounded in the teaching of Vatican I that the “See of Peter remains always untainted by any error according to the divine promise of our Lord and Savior made to the prince of his disciples: ‘But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren’ [Lk 22:32].” (cf. Denz.-H, 3070).
If Archbishop Viganò truly believes that Pope Francis is propagating heresies, idolatry, and apostasy, then either Christ’s promise to the Church has failed or the Church led by Pope Francis is not the Church of Christ. If Viganò believes that Christ has failed in his promise, then he sets himself against Sacred Scripture and the teaching of Vatican I. If he believes that the Church led by Pope Francis is not the true Church of Christ, then either he is a schismatic or a sedevacantist.
I honestly believe Archbishop Viganò has become a victim of his own hyperbolic rhetoric. He wishes to uphold Catholic tradition as he sees it, but his own words place him in a very tenuous ecclesiastical position. An archbishop of the Catholic Church who makes such overt and egregious accusations against the sitting Roman Pontiff is clearly refusing submission to the Supreme Pontiff, which according to canon 751 of the CIC, places him at least in material schism from the Catholic Church. I say material schism because it would be up to competent authority to determine whether canons 1364 §1 or 194, §1, n.2 of the CIC apply to Archbishop Viganò.
With that said, I would not favor any canonical sanctions placed on Archbishop Viganò, out of concern that it would only embolden his followers and lead to greater resistance to the Holy Father. I think the policy chosen by Pope Francis is the better path, which is that of pastoral charity and silence. We need to pray for Archbishop Viganò and hope that he will once again assume his previous attitude of trust and obedience toward the Apostolic See. The Archbishop seems to have a sincere devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Let us ask for the intercession of the Mother of the Church to touch the heart of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò so he can once again become a loyal son of the Church that has the Roman Pontiff, Pope Francis, as her “visible source and foundation of faith and communion” (Lumen Gentium, 18).
The author wishes to thank Dr. Dawn Eden Goldstein for reading a draft of this article and offering some helpful suggestions.
Robert Fastiggi, Ph.D. is Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, MI. He is a former president (2014–2016) of the Mariological Society of America; a member of the theological commission of the International Marian Association; and a corresponding member of the Pontifical Marian Academy International.