But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions. (2 Peter 2:1 NRSVCE)
In the context of my previous essay on Vatican II, we turn to more current events. Since 2013, we find a fractured Church that is being battered by men who profess to love her but who are devoting their efforts to smearing the current pope with the brush of “theological ambiguity.” He is accused of schism and even heresy. Statements, articles, and open letters make a variety of claims about Pope Francis, almost all of them negative. Consider just one quote from Archbishop Viganò: “What is being created is a single world religion without dogmas or morals, according to the wishes of Freemasonry. It is obvious that Bergoglio—along with those who are behind him and support him—aspires to preside over this infernal parody of the Church of Christ.” The criticism has now expanded to include the Second Vatican Council itself.
In my last essay, I addressed the essential role of the Council in shaping the theology, ecclesiology, and canon law of the Church ever since. I also explained how the Council has been integral to the magisterial trajectory of every pope from St. John XXIII to Pope Francis. Each of the conciliar and post-conciliar popes has accepted and embraced the importance of the Second Vatican Council in charting the course of the Church of the present and into the future.
Now, I would like to address some of the claims about the Council and the pope made by Viganò and others from within the vantage point of the pastoral life of the Church herself. As a deacon and teacher, I am concerned with our parishioners and students who may encounter such claims in passing and be curious about their veracity. It is my contention that Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and other critics who share many of his views are sowing confusion and distrust within the Church and the broader society.
My position is not that popes and councils may not be critiqued; far from it! All popes find their positions challenged in various ways, including legitimate academic scholarship. However, the way such a critique is offered is important: ends do not justify the means, and disagreeing with a pope does not justify inappropriate, unethical, and unprofessional claims and acts. Lumen gentium teaches rightly, “For the nurturing and constant growth of the People of God, Christ the Lord instituted in His Church a variety of ministries, which work for the good of the whole body. . . so that all who are of the People of God, and therefore enjoy a true Christian dignity, working toward a common goal freely and in an orderly way, may arrive at salvation.” Simply put, do the actions, claims, assertions, and rhetoric of these critics build up the Body of Christ? Or—through hyperbole, false claims, sarcastic and cynical language, ad hominem and strawmen arguments—are they tearing the Body apart?
Archbishop Viganò now condemns John XXIII and Paul VI (and Francis), but omits John Paul II and Benedict. Father Thomas G. Weinandy observes, “The reason for such silence, it seems to me, is that they do not fit the archbishop’s demonization of Vatican II. In accord with their Petrine ministry, they defended and promoted a proper interpretation of Vatican II, and so fostered an authentic renewal within the Church.” But then Weinandy continues, “Pope Francis, to my mind, seems to further some of the erroneous tendencies that the archbishop finds in Vatican II. As is well known, I am not a great admirer of Pope Francis, but I do not see him as a Vatican II pontiff. I see him rather as one whose heart does not beat in unison with the conciliar fathers.”
I believe this is a dangerous and unsubstantiated claim. It would be interesting to hear what precisely he means by a “Vatican II pontiff.” Also, a review of the acts of the Council challenges the notion that there was some kind of unitary heartbeat of the council fathers. There were considerable differences during the discussions and debates. Whether or not Father Weinandy “admires” Pope Francis or not is irrelevant. Placing this pope outside the trajectory outlined in my last piece is not warranted on any level. Simply reviewing the references Pope Francis depends upon in his teaching, one finds a strong scriptural foundation as well as references to the Council documents, and to the teaching of his predecessors, especially Paul VI.
However, most disturbing of all are the claims of Archbishop Viganò, such as, “Vatican II was a case of ‘internal Magisterial schism’. . . and that [the Council] was ‘for all practical purposes schismatic’ – and I would say also heretical. . . .” An English professor in the United States is declaring that Vatican II should be “de-throned,” and a retired professor of law in Italy has even referred to the Council as a “devilish council,” a term with which Viganò agrees:
I make my own his statement: “After having clearly highlighted the procedural subterfuges and the errors against the Faith scattered throughout the documents, a Pope could very well finally quash the entire Council, ‘thereby confirming his brethren in the Faith.’ This would fall perfectly within his summa potestas iurisdictionis over the entire Church, iure divino. The Council is not superior to the Pope. If the Council has deviated from the Faith, the Pope has the power to invalidate it. Indeed, it is his duty.”
Archbishop Viganò is fond of saying that Vatican II is unique among the twenty-one Councils of the Church, and that no other Council ever encountered the confusion, animosity, and disruption he describes as the aftermath of Vatican II. With all due respect, I suggest the Archbishop revisit two millennia of conciliar history for a more realistic understanding of their effects. For example, just studying the heated aftermath to the first Council of Nicaea should change his mind.
How then should we proceed? With all this talk by Archbishop Viganò and some others of schism and heresy all laid at the feet of Vatican II and Pope Francis, what are people to believe? Given the theology and tradition of the church, it is far more proper to embrace the ordinary Magisterium of the Church over the baseless assertions of others, even those who on the surface may seem to be credible. Certainly, most people who read that a Catholic bishop or archbishop has said these things may easily fall into the trap of thinking that certainly a bishop must be credible and should be believed. The Church teaches, however, that “although individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held” [emphasis added]. Notice how critical that “bond of communion” is between the bishops as a whole, including the pope, for proper and authoritative teaching.
It is important to consider that Archbishop Viganò himself holds no ecclesiastical office, is not serving as a diocesan bishop, is not serving in any faculty or other institution; he is apparently in hiding. He speaks and writes, therefore, as an individual archbishop, entitled to his private opinions, but his teaching bears no official weight and, the more he distances himself from the episcopal College—which always includes the head of that College, the pope—the less credible he becomes. The episcopal college is not only always in communion with the pope, the bishops do not act separated from him. And, with all due respect to the English professor and the professor of Law cited above, and recognizing the erudition they undoubtedly bring to their respective academic fields, they nonetheless bring no greater magisterial weight to their claims than any other individual believer, and none of them speaks for the Church or the Church’s Magisterium.
I recommend a couple of sources for reflection. When we welcome people into full communion, we ask them to make a profession of faith. Following the same Profession we make every Sunday, there are several short additions, including this one: “I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.” Finally, when a person is ordained a deacon, presbyter or bishop, and in addition when assuming a specific office in the church—such as the rector of a seminary—that person swears an additional oath of fidelity. The oath includes the following, “With Christian obedience I shall follow what the Bishops, as authentic doctors and teachers of the faith, declare, or what they, as those who govern the Church, establish. I shall also faithfully assist the diocesan Bishops, so that the apostolic activity, exercised in the name and by mandate of the Church, may be carried out in communion with the Church.”
I wonder then, how Archbishop Viganò or other clerics who deny the Council understand their commitment to the Profession and the Oath. Once again I stress that it is of course acceptable to offer critiques of the teachings of a pope or council: but to deny the legitimacy of either when they have been canonically elected (the pope) or convoked (the Council) is a step too far. While there may be people who share some of the concerns of the Archbishop and his associates, they would be well cautioned to avoid stepping off the cliff into schism.
Schism. Another word that Viganò et al use when speaking of the Holy Father (and Viganò now includes the Council as being in schism). Declaring Pope Francis to be in schism is not only dangerous but nonsensical. Consider the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2088 and 2089:
2088 The first commandment requires us to nourish and protect our faith with prudence and vigilance, and to reject everything that is opposed to it. There are various ways of sinning against faith:
Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness.
2089 Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” [Emphasis added.]
The measure of schism, according to canon law, is to be found in one’s communion with the Pontiff and the People of God, not the other way around. Who, then, is in schism? Who is competent (in the canonical sense of that word) to declare a schism? Within the world-wide communion that is the Catholic Church, there is legitimate diversity of practice and unity of faith. For example, the various sui iuris Churches within the Catholic communion reflect this healthy diversity. Even the celebration of the sacraments varies between these Churches, all without risk of schism. Diversity is not always schismatic, and different regions and cultures and practices have always been recognized throughout the long history of the Church. Therefore, the burden of proof seems to fall on those who are distancing themselves from this diverse communion.
One reads in the assertions of the various papal critics of their “confusion” and “doubt.” Is it not, however, Viganò et al who are themselves guilty of “voluntary or involuntary doubt about the faith” or “incredulity” as described above? The presumption of truth lies with the pope and bishops in communion with him. By denying the teachings of any legitimate Council, from the First Council of Nicaea to the Second Council of the Vatican, a person “disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief.”
I am particularly struck by the notion of someone “deliberately cultivating” doubt with its resulting spiritual blindness! I want to be clear about what I am saying here. While the Catechism describes these matters as “sins against faith,” I am not accusing Viganò et al of sin. That is between them and God. While individuals are certainly free to research and debate matters of faith and its teaching, the extravagant claims that have been made cross the line, not only for the health of the souls of those making them, but for others who choose to follow their lead. The risk of schism is real, but it seems quite clear that it is those who walk away from communion with the Successor of Peter who are in danger. And this danger is compounded when their own doubt, whether voluntary or involuntary, or their incredulity causes them to lead others into their schism of disbelief.
This is the second in a series of essays by Deacon Bill Ditewig on the problematic criticism against Pope Francis and the Second Vatican Council. Part One, “The Spirit of Vatican II: Out into the Deep” was published on Wednesday, August 19. Part Three, “The Matter of Words,” was published Monday, August 24.
 Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, reported in a transcript by David Nussman, https://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/vigano-hierarchy-serving-the-devil, 3 June 2020.
 Lumen gentium, #18.
 Father Thomas G. Weinandy, “A Response to Archbishop Viganò’s Letter about Vatican II,” https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2020/08/13/a-response-to-archbishop-viganos-letter-about-vatican-ii/.
 Archbishop Viganò, “Response to Father Weinandy” found at https://insidethevatican.com/news/newsflash/letter-21-monday-august-10-2020-again-the-council/.
 Anthony Esolen, https://insidethevatican.com/news/newsflash/letter-13-july-22-2020-dossier-vatican-ii-1-professor-anthony-esolen/.
 Paolo Pasqualucci, cited in Carlo Maria Viganò, “Response to Paolo Pasqualucci,” at https://www.catholicity.com/vigano/2020-06-14.html.
 Lumen gentium, #25.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2088 and #2089, citing c. 751.
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Deacon William T. Ditewig, Ph.D. (Commander, US Navy [ret.]) was born and raised in Peoria, Illinois. After college, Bill spent the next 22 years in the Navy where he served in many assignments around the world, retiring in 1993. He was ordained to the diaconate for the Archdiocese of Washington in 1990.
Since then, Deacon Ditewig has worked for the Church in a variety of capacities, including for the Archdiocese of Washington, the Dioceses of Davenport and Belleville, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Bill has a BA in Philosophy, an MA in Education, an MA in Pastoral Theology, and the Ph.D. from the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, with a major emphasis in ecclesiology. Dr. Ditewig has authored numerous books, chapters and articles.
Bill and his wife Diann have been married for forty-nine years and have four grown children and fourteen grandchildren.