Today, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, writing from an undisclosed location, issued yet another statement against Pope Francis, summarized by Lifesite News, (another translation is provided by Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican) employing the type of language once reserved for sedevacantist websites and anonymous Twitter trolls:
The tragic story of this failed pontificate advances with a pressing succession of twists and turns. Not a day passes: from the most exalted throne the Supreme Pontiff proceeds to dismantle the See of Peter, using and abusing its supreme authority, not to confess but to deny; not to confirm but to mislead; not to unite but to divide; not to build but to demolish. Material heresies, formal heresies, idolatry, superficiality of every kind.
It’s difficult to imagine that not long ago, Viganò held the prestigious position of apostolic nuncio to the United States, where an important part of his role was to suggest candidates for bishops to the Holy See. Prior to 2013, such lapses in discernment and deference to the Holy Father were considered the realm of the lunatic fringe. They certainly weren’t published favorably in widely-read publications, or tweeted out with multiple pull-quotes by Vatican reporters such as Ed Pentin (or retweeted without comment by Cardinals’ top staffers, as Cardinal Burke’s press secretary Elizabeth Westhoff did today).
Don’t be mistaken, this statement by Viganò is a declaration that Pope Francis is aggressively advancing an anti-Gospel, siding with the Enemy against Christ and his Blessed Mother. Moynihan, in his unofficial translation, quotes him as saying that Francis has made,
nothing less than a declaration of war on the Lady and Patroness of all the Americas, who with her appearance to Juan Diego destroyed the demonic idols and conquered the Indians for Christ and for the adoration of the ‘Most True and Only God,’ thanks to her maternal Mediation.
This is a long way from what papal critics have claimed is just “respectfully asking questions” or calling for transparency about potential mishandling of cases of sexual abuse. This is anti-Catholic madness. Some fringe figures are already accusing Francis of being the False Prophet (or even the antichrist), and I wouldn’t be surprised if Viganò soon joined their chorus.
Today we live in unusual times, and it’s not only retired nuncios who seem to have embraced the ridiculous and implausible. Unfortunately it seems that many who are in positions that have historically been associated with discretion and good judgment are now openly and irresponsibly promoting bizarre and paranoid conspiracy theories, fake news, and apocalyptic predictions.
I have long been aware of the types of signs that radical traditionalists look for when trying to undermine the pope or the Church. I’m not just referring to obvious examples such as when John Paul II kissed a Koran, or then-Cardinal Ratzinger giving communion to Protestant Taize leader Brother Roger Schutz during a public Mass. I’m also referring to photos of popes and other Church figures where they are accused of making masonic or satanic hand gestures, or how they promoted scandal and sacrilege when they did things such as allow women with knee-length skirts to dance in their presence.
This kind of thing has been around for a while, and I naively assumed that no one of importance or influence actually took this stuff seriously. Until recently, I believed deep down that influential anti-Francis rabble-rousers such as Steve Skojec and Taylor Marshall didn’t really buy into this nonsense, but they were simply using it as fodder to rile up their more gullible and easily-excited audiences. This sort of sensationalism rallies a base of supporters and drives up web traffic. Skojec and Marshall have done a good job of promoting their personal brands, and I just thought that they did this to generate buzz.
This changed when a group of anti-Francis academics and clergy, including notable theologians Aidan Nichols and John Rist, released a letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy. In the letter, the signatories highlighted a number of things Francis had done that reinforced his supposedly heretical position. While most of their examples were open to interpretation, two were remarkable in that they were long- and easily-debunked conspiracy theories:
At the opening mass of the Synod on Youth in 2018, Pope Francis carried a staff in the form of a ‘stang’, an object used in satanic rituals. (VI, VII)
During the Synod on Youth in 2018, Pope Francis wore a distorted rainbow-coloured cross, the rainbow being a popularly promoted symbol of the homosexual movement. (II, IV, V)
Suddenly, the credibility of the anti-Francis movement took a dramatic nose-dive. It’s one thing for a theologian of international acclaim to take a strong position on a doctrinal issue (even if they are wrong or dissent from the Church’s position on the matter), it’s an entirely different situation when they fall for sedevacantist internet memes that are debunked with a simple Google search.
Indeed, the “rainbow cross” was not an LGBT symbol at all. Fr. Matthew Schneider provided the simple explanation of the cross Francis wore that day during the youth synod in his blog:
This week Pope Francis wore a cross that had multiple colors on it that appear somewhat like a rainbow. Several traditional-minded Catholics posted it assuming it was in some way related to the LGBT pride flag. However, that is not the case. It is a symbol of Latin American Youth Ministry.
He provides a link to the site explaining its origin and what the colors mean. And he posted it more than six months before the open letter. Deacon Greg Kandra, likewise, posted an explanation of the ferula that Francis carried during the opening Mass of the Youth Synod in 2018. He writes:
For this particular cross, CNS says it was a gift to Pope Francis from a group of young people, who asked him to use it during the synod. He obviously complied. It appears to have a nail piercing the wood.
These are not the only articles on the web offering the full explanation of these items. Rist, Nichols, and the rest of the signatories did significant damage to their credibility for putting their names on a document that makes such ridiculous and long-refuted claims. Not only does it devalue the open letter itself (which is saying a great deal, considering the multitude of misinterpretations and false statements it contains), but it makes the signatories themselves look ridiculous. Anti-Francis theologian Thomas Weinandy agreed. He wrote in First Things:
Because the open letter is extreme in its appraisal and intemperate in its approach, more than likely it will make it more difficult for bishops, and even cardinals, to address present concerns.
But Viganò, Rist, and Nichols are far from the only prominent Catholics who have taken a deep dive into the fever swamps of radical traditionalist conspiracy theory. Our readers are no doubt familiar with Pedro Gabriel’s efforts to analyze and explain the indigenous symbols and rituals that took place during October’s Synod on the Amazon. Many other Catholic writers and theologians offered rational, balanced explanations as well. Many prominent Catholics nevertheless swallowed the sensationalistic narrative that idol worship took place in the Vatican. In the National Catholic Reporter, Heidi Schlumpf exposed the social media posts of the Executive Director of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), the DC-based Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth. She quotes him as posting:
“Is anyone else fed up with these sickening scenes of pagan worship, seemingly organized on a daily basis by Canadian Anglican priest in Santa Maria in Traspontina?” said a Oct. 20 post on Wadsworth’s account, accompanied by a photo of indigenous people in the Rome church.
“I am appalled that the Carmelites permit this sacrilege in their church,” the post said. “This is not Christianity but dangerous devil worship. Kyrie eleison!”
On Oct. 24, Wadsworth shared a photograph of a traditional Mass in Brazil with the comment “Not everyone in the Amazon is worshipping idols …”.
This is the man tasked with coordinating the English translation of every liturgical text in the Church used around the world. He’s not a fringe hermit or priest with ambiguous canonical standing (as many of these online anti-Francis priests are). He is an important figure in the Church, whose work touches virtually every English-speaking Catholic in the world, and he’s basically accused the pope of sanctioning devil worship.
I’ve often wondered why Francis is allowing these offenses against him and these threats against the Church to go unchecked. I haven’t seen any reports of disciplinary actions against Aidan Nichols or Viganò or Cardinal Burke or Athanasius Schneider, despite their persistent attacks on the Holy Father and the Magisterium. Some papal critics, such as the aforementioned Fr. Weinandy have suggested that Francis’s papacy has served to bring much of the dissent and disordered ideologies out into the open. Perhaps they’re right, just not in the way they expect. Indeed, the more rope Francis has given his detractors and theologian critics to spread dangerous and false ideas, the more obviously aberrant their positions become.
This also undermines the theory that the anti-Francis movement is, at heart, a strategic and economically and politically motivated movement. These leaders might receive funding and support from political figures, but they are true believers. Unfortunately, much of what they believe reveals extremely poor discernment and rational judgement. It’s not Catholic teaching, it’s apocalyptic and paranoid fiction. Fortunately, much of it is so ridiculous that only the most extreme will buy into it.
I believe the Church is at the beginning of a purification. Rigidity and a false understanding of the Magisterium is being exposed and the path to a missionary Church that evangelizes in the true Spirit of the Gospel is being cleared. Unfortunately, the process still has a long way to go.
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.