More than two weeks after the release of the sensational “Testimony” of former US apostolic nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, in which he calls for the resignation of Pope Francis, the Church finds itself in a period of intense polarization that’s difficult to assess.

First, if you haven’t read it, I wholeheartedly recommend Greg Daly’s recent piece in the Irish Catholic, in which he heroically attempts to parse out what we know and what we don’t know about the controversy.  

Viganò makes three key charges against Francis: (1) that Pope Benedict imposed secret canonical sanctions (similar to those publicly imposed on him now) on Archbishop McCarrick in 2009-2010, and that Pope Francis was made aware of these sanctions in 2013; (2) that the Holy Father lifted or set aside the canonical sanctions in 2013; and (3) that he then made McCarrick a trusted advisor, especially in the area of episcopal selections (singling out the appointments of Cardinals Blase Cupich and Joseph Tobin, as well as Bishop Robert McElroy, as examples of appointments that McCarrick recommended).

Charges 1 and 2, in particular, have come under a great deal of scrutiny. According to Viganò’s document, “The cardinal [McCarrick] was to leave the seminary where he was living, he was forbidden to celebrate [Mass] in public, to participate in public meetings, to give lectures, to travel, with the obligation of dedicating himself to a life of prayer and penance.”

This has not been verified by any documentary proof, and the public behavior of Viganò and Benedict toward McCarrick during the period in question does not lend any credence to the claim that McCarrick was restricted in his ministry. McCarrick continued to travel and continued to make public appearances at events such as ordinations. Video taken during this period includes warm greetings between McCarrick and the former nuncio, as well as between McCarrick and Benedict.

Numerous journalists have made note of these public appearances, which I will not rehash here, but you can read Michael O’Loughlin’s report in America magazine and Cindy Wooden’s piece for CNS. Blogger “Catholic in Brooklyn” chronicles how the original assertion from Archbishop Viganò that “canonical sanctions” were placed against then-Cardinal McCarrick has been downgraded to a verbal suggestion that he “keep a low profile.”

So where do things stand?

It’s still unclear what, precisely, Benedict imposed upon McCarrick (if anything), and to what degree Francis relied on him as an advisor. Benedict isn’t talking (and claims he can’t remember), and Francis isn’t talking for now – and if/when he does, will be accused of lying by those who have already decided he’s guilty.

As of this writing, the “C9” Council of Cardinals has announced that the Vatican is preparing necessary clarifications in response to Archbishop Viganò’s allegations.

I believe this is a positive development. The Vatican should speak sooner rather than later to head off some of the sensationalism that’s taken hold in certain corners of Catholicism. But my prediction is that it will not be believed by his critics if and when he does.

Thus far, Francis has largely kept silent on the Viganò letter, with a few possible allusions in various addresses and homilies. I don’t know if silence was Francis’s best course of action, but taking this route hasn’t hindered his vindication all that much.

Francis’s accusers have suggested that his silence is either an indication of his guilt or passive aggression. First, it’s not passive aggression if he believes accusations don’t warrant a response. Secondly, Francis knows that whatever he says, his critics will still insist he’s guilty. It’s clear he finds the accusations ludicrous. When Francis is silent in the face of criticism, he’s telling us that he’s not letting certain things slow him down, for good or ill. Whether it’s the dubia or Viganò’s testimony, not responding is his signal that he does not place much value on the accusations.

Professional journalists have done their work and established quite clearly that Archbishop Viganò’s charge – that McCarrick was under canonical sanctions and Francis actively lifted or ignored them – was (at best) a huge exaggeration or (worse) a giant whopper. There were no canonical sanctions.

That being the case, it’s not entirely clear what we are trying to get to the bottom of, anymore. How cozy Francis was to McCarrick? How many rumors he knew, and when? Whether there is something in an archive somewhere that documents that someone gave a verbal suggestion to McCarrick to lay low – and then for concrete proof that Francis knew about it?

It’s likely that we will never know the truth with complete certainty. With regards to answers that will confirm Viganò’s testimony, I doubt we will see much. I am skeptical that opening up the files (such as they are) will reveal all that much more than what is already known.

What we might find is a paper trail that fills in some of the missing details about how Cardinal McCarrick rose to prominence. For example, CNS recently unearthed proof that the Vatican was informed of allegations against Archbishop McCarrick in 2000. We must remember, however, that Ramsey himself didn’t substantiate the accusations, he just brought the rumors to the attention of the Vatican and the nunciature. Despite the seriousness of the allegations, for whatever reason, no thorough investigation was made at the time. How McCarrick avoided discipline or sanctions at every turn remains a mystery. And all of this happened long before Francis became pope.

Meanwhile, Francis’s critics will keep turning their wheels and demanding answers about… something. In these circles, Viganò will continue to be lauded as a brave and honorable man. They don’t want answers, they want to take down a pope.


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Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He's a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He's active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.

Polarized over the pope, Viganò style
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