Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States from 2011-16, made headlines two years ago when he alleged, without evidence, that Pope Francis knew about the crimes of former-Archbishop Theodore McCarrick but employed him anyway. Recently, he has moved on to promoting a traditionalist agenda against Pope Francis. Since at least April, he has advocated for a complete damnatio memoriae (condemnation of memory) of the Second Vatican Council, re-booting the Church back to 1958. He repeats the same criticisms of the ecumenical council we have heard from radical traditionalists for 55 years: that it contradicts Catholic doctrine by promoting inter-religious dialogue, ecumenism, religious freedom, and episcopal collegiality.

To justify his rejection of Vatican II, he upholds a theory of two councils. One is the gathering of bishops, validly convoked by Pope John XXIII. The other was the events that surrounded this gathering that “subverted it,” including the drafting of the council’s actual documents by theologians who were, in Viganò’s judgment, modernist heretics. As such, the documents are fatally infected with heresy, which is why the whole council must be forgotten. I will explore and refute this theory in my next piece.

The catalyst for Viganò’s attack on Vatican II is the Abu Dhabi document on human fraternity, which was co-signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, on February 4 of last year. (An imam is a Muslim who leads prayers at a mosque, similar to a pastor or rabbi.) Viganò mentions this document four times in his manifesto of June 9. He accurately judges it to be a fruit of the Second Vatican Council, but instead of accepting it as such, he turns it into another reason to reject the council.

The human fraternity document lays out the many “transcendental values” that Christians and Muslims share, such as peace, religious awareness, freedom, justice, and dialogue. It calls upon them to work together to defend those values in a world suffused with individualism, materialism, and greed. The document immediately became a stumbling block for traditionalists and for Viganò because of one key sentence: “The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.”[1] This contradicts their absolutist understanding of the Catholic Church as the one and only source of religious truth.

Viganò correctly traces a line back from the Abu Dhabi document to John Paul II’s gathering of world religious leaders at Assisi, Italy, in 1986,[2] to Vatican II’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate. He calls this document the “heretical matrix” in which the Abu Dhabi document was conceived. This statement alone gives away the game regarding any pretense that he accepts Vatican II, but he goes even further.

The main point of Nostra Aetate is that the Catholic Church holds the many elements of truth and goodness in the various religions of the world with “sincere reverence” (NA 2). This is “heretical” because it contradicts Viganò’s ideology that the Catholic Church is the only religion that teaches truth, and all others are false, evil, and the creations of demons. He does not spell out exactly which words, phrases, or notions he considers heretical in Nostra Aetate or any of the documents of Vatican II. Instead, he resorts to sweeping generalities about Masonic plots, “modernism,” and conspiracies to craft a “one-world religion.”

Ecumenism he condemns specifically, as well as the Church’s dialogue with other religions, “interconfessional celebrations,” and “ecumenical prayers.” Such prayers and worship in common are encouraged, within certain limits, by the council’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio (UR 8): “Common prayers of this kind are truly a very effective means of obtaining the grace of unity and a genuine sign of the bonds by which Catholics are still united with their separated brethren.” Many such celebrations have been made by the popes, such as John Paul II’s various visits to Jewish synagogues; his joint-statements with Orthodox leaders, such as that signed with Mar Ignatius Zakki I, Patriarch of Antioch of the non-Chalcedonian Syriac Orthodox Church on June 23, 1984; his ecumenical Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, 1991; or the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification, which was signed and celebrated by Catholic cardinals and Lutheran leaders on Reformation Day (October 31), 1999. The first such celebration took place in Jerusalem between sessions of the council on January 5 and 6, 1964, when Pope Paul VI met with Athenagoras I, Patriarch of Constantinople. At this meeting, the two leaders “consigned to oblivion” the mutual excommunications of the eleventh century.

Failing to think and speak with the Church, Viganò refers to Jews as “those who deny the Messiah,” the Orthodox he calls “schismatics,” and Protestants he calls “heretics.” This is utterly contrary to both the teaching of the postconciliar popes and the spirit and words of the council—which refers to other Christians as “separated brethren” and Jews as “most dear.” Likewise, Viganò complains of people saying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Vatican II explicitly teaches this, saying: “The Church also respects Muslims, who with us adore the one God” (NA 3). Viganò revels in being offensive, or, as he calls it, “not politically correct.”[3]

Viganò rejects the Catholic Church’s belief that religious freedom is a human right. This was first proclaimed by the Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae: “This Vatican Synod declares that the human person has the right to religious liberty” (DH 2). Viganò does not expound upon his own views on the subject, but he indicates that he subscribes to the old anti-modernist slogan “error has no rights.” But it is not the religions that have the right; it is the human person who has it, by God’s design. Viganò blames Dignitatis Humanae for having enabled the “worship” of the Pachamama “idol” at the synod of bishops on the Amazon.

Finally, Viganò rejects synodality, a highlight of Pope Francis’s pontificate. In fact, the next synod of bishops will be on that very topic, a synod on synodality! Viganò writes: “If we have come to the point of delegating decisions to the Bishops’ Conferences … we owe it to collegiality, and to its updated version, synodality.” Collegiality was the main contribution of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium: “As by Lord’s decision St. Peter and the other Apostles constitute one apostolic College, by an equal order the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the Bishops, the successors of the Apostles, are joined together among themselves” (LG 22). Lumen Gentium has much to say on the subject, which is rooted in Catholic Tradition. As with everything at Vatican II, it was not invented out of whole cloth, as traditionalists allege, but was founded on the theological sources: the Bible, the Fathers, and the Doctors of the Church. Synodality is one of the oldest concepts of Christianity. Following the example of the apostles and presbyters in Acts 15, all the major doctrinal decisions of the first millennium were made by regional and ecumenical councils.

To Viganò, all these recent events—the synods of bishops, the Abu Dhabi document, ecumenism—are “deviations” and “errors.” And since “the roots of these deviations are found in the principles laid down by the Council,” Vatican II itself must be rejected “in toto.” He tries to justify this with a farcical and incoherent theory of “two councils,” which I will explore in my next article.


[1] On this, see my post “Pope Francis and Grand Imam sign joint statement on Human Fraternity,” WPI (2/6/19)

[2] This has been a bugbear of traditionalists for over 30 years and is a reminder that there is nothing new in the revolt against Francis. It is warmed-over traditionalism with a few updated references.

[3] This phrase, together with a reference to “globalism,” hints at his political motives, which recently moved into the open as he began praising and praying for Donald Trump.


Image: 4th World Day of Prayer for Peace, Assisi (Italy), Oct 27, 2011. By Stephan Kölliker – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20140207

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Dr. Rasmussen is a Religious Studies teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, MD. He has a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious studies from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).

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