In his polemical testimony, made public nearly a week ago, Arb. Viganò blamed most of the American Church’s abuse crisis on homosexual behavior on the part of the clergy (namely Arb. McCarrick.) However, this is not the only focus of his letter: he is equally critical of many clergymen who espouse a more “liberal” or “lax” view on homosexuality… and he seems to imply that Pope Francis is among them (or at least, an enabler of that group’s activities.)

This is congruent with an ideological narrative that has become very prevalent in a certain sector of the Church. “Gay lobby” and “lavender mafia” are terms that have entered the lexicon of many Catholics and respective social media to describe what is perceived as a coordinated assault against the Church teaching on homosexuality on the part of some high level clergy. Sometimes (or many times) these terms acquire “conspiracy theory” levels of explanatory power (meaning, they are blamed as the reason for everything that goes wrong with the Church.)

And in the minds of those who wield those terms, Pope Francis is a part of the attack on orthodoxy. We need not go further than the combox of our own site to see such accusations, which are representative of what goes on in other social media.

Nevertheless, a refutation of those charges can be found in Arb. Viganò’s letter itself… and I am surprised no one seems to have noticed it yet.

So, let us ignore all the inconsistencies in Viganò’s letter that have recently been brought to light, when the document was scrutinized by media not biased in his favor (a good, but non-exhaustive summary can be found here.) Let us take Viganò’s word at face value and assume every single event in the letter really happened as described. Let us also, for the sake of argument, assume that the main cause of the abuse crisis is linked to homosexuality and the gay lobby. Is Francis part of it?

The venue Arb. Viganò takes to link Pope Francis to the gay lobby is an exercise of guilt by association. Francis is supposedly an enabler, because he appointed certain liberal priests and bishops (like Maradiaga, Cupich and Tobin) to high places.

Of course, this does not stand, because Francis has also made conservative appointments during his papacy, including in the American Church. Why should we focus on Bishop Tobin and not, for instance, Bishop Barron? Why should we remember Cardinal Maradiaga and not Cardinal Sarah’s appointment to lead the Congregation for Divine Worship? Much is said about Fr. Martin’s appointment to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications, but not of EWTN’s Michael Warsaw to the same advisory role.

But even if we acknowledge in Francis’ appointments an imbalance to the liberal side at the expense of the conservative side, it never seems to cross the mind of those who criticize the Pope that it may be explained by other, more logical reasons than him being a part of a gay lobby… Maybe he acted like that because conservatives have been constantly trying to delegitimize key aspects of his papacy and dissenting from his Magisterium. Is it any wonder that the Pope may have tilted his choices on the side of those who are not undermining him and sabotaging his reforms every step of the way? I have no doubt that, had conservatives had a more reasonable and faithful reception of Pope Francis’ teachings, their representation would be much higher.

The charge of Francis belonging to a gay lobby gets even less grounded if we take into account that His Holiness has repeatedly upheld the Church’s timeless teaching on homosexuality (one of many examples appearing in none other than Amoris Laetitia itself, #251) and that he has reaffirmed his predecessor’s ban on ordination of men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.

Since guilt by association doesn’t seem to hold water, we should step back and try to analyze Fr. Viganò’s letter with more attention.

According to his testimony, on June 21st 2013, Arb. Viganò had an audience with the Pope. Allegedly, the pontiff didn’t even allow the then Apostolic Nuncio of the USA to finish his greeting. Viganò was “immediately assailed with a tone of reproach” as the Pope rebuked him with these words:

“The Bishops in the United States must not be ideologized! They must be shepherds!”

The archbishop’s reaction to these words is one of astonishment. He describes the situation as “disconcerting and embarrassing” and laments he was not in a position to “ask for explanations on the meaning of those words.”

Viganò’s reaction is unfortunate, but sadly, not surprising. It is a fact, patently clear to any outsider such as myself, that the American Church is pathologically polarized and divided among ideological lines… and this is the main cause of many of its ills, including the resistance to our current Pope’s teachings. That Viganò was unable to understand right away what was going on shows a fatal blind spot in his worldview and on how he perceives the Church. There is no wonder that his letter parrots the talking points of an aggressive ultraconservative wing of the Church and that he attacks many people who he perceives as too liberal. Viganò is a part of the problem Francis was trying to solve in the first place.

But here is when things start to get interesting. Later, on June 23rd, Viganò asked the Pope for an audience, in order to clarify what Francis really meant. In that audience, Francis had a “different“, more “friendly” and “almost affectionate tone“. His Holiness explained then, according to the testimony’s words (emphasis mine):

Yes, the Bishops in the United States must not be ideologized, they must not be right-wing like the Archbishop of Philadelphia (…) and they must not be left-wing – and he added, raising both hands – and when I say left-wing, I mean homosexual.”

Let me repeat this, for it bears emphasis. The Pope said the American Bishops should not be left-wing. He further explains that when he says left-wing, he means homosexual. Ergo, Pope Francis is saying that the American Bishops should not be homosexual.

Quite a bizarre intervention on the part of someone who is a part of the gay lobby!

It is interesting that Fr. Viganò never again returns to this point. He just brushes this aside by saying “the logic of the correlation between being left-wing and being homosexual escaped me” and he then simply goes on his merry way with his tirade about… correlating liberal bishops with a gay lobby in the Church.

However, Viganò does indeed revisit the “Bishops in the United States must not be ideologized” bit of Francis’ rebuke. Later on, he says he received word from Monsignor Lantheaume that Cardinal McCarrick had met the Monsignor on a meeting on July 9th, where the cardinal told him the same words the Pope had said to Viganò: “the Bishops in the United States must not be ideologized, they must not be right-wing, they must be shepherds…”

The archbishop goes on to say that it “was therefore clear that the words of reproach that Pope Francis had addressed to me (…) had been put into his mouth the day before by Cardinal McCarrick” (since McCarrick had met Francis one day prior to the Nuncio’s first meeting with the pontiff.)

The problem is… even if it is clear to the archbishop, it is not clear to me that it is so. We must bear in mind that we are already besides the mere factual here… we are now dealing with Viganò’s interpretation of the events, not with the events themselves. And he uses a lot of descriptors in his interpretations that are not objective, but rather try to steer our perception of the events in the direction of the conclusions he wants us to take.

So, for instance, when Francis asks Viganò’s opinion on McCarrick or Wuerl, such questions are viewed as “deceitful“, meant to “trap” him and “clearly” intended to “find out” if he “was an ally of McCarrick or not.”

It never crosses the ex-Nuncio’s mind that maybe Francis questioned him out of diligence to know how the Church under his care was faring. Also, Viganò never connects the dots between the Pope’s question (“What is Cardinal McCarrick like?“) and Francis’ rebuke (“the Bishops of the United States (…) must not be left-wing“, i.e. homosexuals) even if the former came “immediately after” the latter.

This means that, if Viganò’s account of the events is accurate, then the testimony paints a different picture of Pope Francis than what has been presented by many of his critics (including the archbishop himself.) If this is true (and, remember, I have taken that for granted for the purpose of this article, but I’m unwilling to concede it apart from it, given Viganò’s inconsistencies and antecedents,) it seems like the Pope was actually concerned about a homosexual problem in the USA and was questioning the Nuncio about it, and even asking the Nuncio to address it. If you accept this statement as trustworthy, it certainly doesn’t seem plausible that Francis is behaving as if he belongs to a gay lobby.

Back to the matter at hand – the substance of Francis’ rebuke – it is interesting that Viganò reaches the conclusion that “clearly” McCarrick put words in Francis’ mouth. However, that doesn’t seem clear to me at all. In fact, the opposite seems to be true: It is more likely that it was Francis who put those words in McCarrick’s mouth.

Not turning religion into an ideology is a hallmark of Pope Francis’ papacy (see, for instance, here and here.) There is no need to put these words in Francis’ mouth. They are a part of his ministry. Is it not plausible that, if Francis “greeted” Viganò with such an enthusiastic rebuke, he would not have done the same to one of the most influential of American bishops (as McCarrick was)?

There is another point in the testimony making this hypothesis more likely… if Viganò’s account of Lantheaume’s account is exact, then McCarrick’s version is less complete and precise than Francis’. Please note: Francis says that bishops should not be ideologized, as in they should not be right-wing or left-wing. However, McCarrick’s version only mentions that bishops should not be right-wing. No mention to left-wing. This is typical of the loss of information that comes from passing it on from person to person (especially if the second person is biased against the bit of information that is being lost.)

In conclusion, Viganò’s letter discredits itself once again. The archbishop tries to portray Francis as a member of a gay lobby, or enabler of such a lobby, but the same source also portrays Francis as opposing that same gay lobby. Thus adding more inconsistencies to an already inconsistent testimony.

Be that as it may, a fact remains… for those who accept Viganò’s testimony as it is, they are also forced to accept that Francis has told the American Nuncio at the time that American Bishops should not be homosexual, as explicitly stated on the testimony they accept.

What about the liberal appointments? Well, maybe Francis’ pontificate is much more nuanced than ideologues make it out to be. Maybe Francis can’t be pinned down on an ideology and, therefore, he will not always act in conformity with what ideologues expect him to. Maybe ideologues view him as liberal because they are the ones who are rigidly conservative and can’t transcend an ideological manicheistic “Us vs. Them” mentality. Such a mentality, in fact, transpires in Viganò’s letter and especially in many of those who reflexively defend him to undermine a Pope they never liked, since he challenges their ideological assumptions.

In other words, maybe many misunderstandings could have been avoided if Viganò and his supporters, instead of being surprised, astonished, scandalized or revolted by Francis, would instead have taken his suggestion to heart: do not be ideologues, be shepherds instead. Probably, if they were not so busy trying to shoot him down for disliking his message, they could’ve found in Francis a better ally than they made him out to be.

[Photo credit: Catholic Review]

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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

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