When Archbishop Viganò released his first testimony, he categorically claimed that Pope Benedict XVI had placed Archbishop McCarrick under canonical sanctions. He was very specific on the terminology he used and in what those canonical sanctions meant. He said, and I quote (emphasis not mine, but from the source material):
“Pope Benedict had imposed on Cardinal McCarrick sanctions similar to those now imposed on him by Pope Francis: the Cardinal 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 (…) In any case, what is certain is that Pope Benedict imposed the above canonical sanctions on McCarrick and that they were communicated to him by the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Pietro Sambi“
Why bring up those sanctions? To prove that Francis had covered up for McCarrick, by lifting the sanctions placed by Benedict XVI. Again I quote (emphasis, once more, not mine):
“It was also clear that, from the time of Pope Francis’s election, McCarrick, now free from all constraints, had felt free to travel continuously, to give lectures and interviews (…) In any case, the Pope learned about it from me on June 23, 2013 and continued to cover for him. He did not take into account the sanctions that Pope Benedict had imposed on him.“
Immediately, some people began pointing out the inconsistencies in Viganò’s testimony. It seems like McCarrick, even if forbidden from travelling and participating in public meetings, kept unashamedly doing so (sometimes in the same events that Viganò himself attended.)
When it seemed obvious that Viganò’s claim could not stand on its own, his supporters changed the story (something that should immediately raise a red flag on the testimony’s credibility.) It seems that, when Viganò said “canonical sanctions”, he didn’t really, really, really mean “canonical sanctions”, but actually… well, whatever it is we can make “canonical sanctions” to mean.
The importance of this elastic definition of the meaning of “canonical sanctions” will become apparent in a moment.
Meanwhile, Viganò doubled down with a second testimony. In it, the Archbishop asks for Cardinal Ouellet, who reportedly knew about the sanctions, to release the “documents incriminating McCarrick and many in the curia for their cover-ups“.
So it seems like Cardinal Ouellet’s testimony would be the tie-breaker…
Yesterday, Ouellet replied to Viganò’s challenge. He released an open letter, written with papal authorization, refuting Viganò’s claims in very strong and clear terms. He says his accusations are “monstrous and unsubstantiated“, an “unjust and unjustified attack” and a “political plot” without “any real basis“, and urges Viganò to “return to communion with him who is the visible guarantor of communion in the Catholic Church“.
As far as canonical sanctions are concerned (and the alleged documents that prove them) Ouellet has this to say:
“The former Cardinal, retired in May of 2006, had been requested not to travel or to make public appearances, in order to avoid new rumors about him. It is false, therefore, to present those measures as “sanctions” formally imposed by Pope Benedict XVI and then invalidated by Pope Francis. After a review of the archives, I find that there are no documents signed by either Pope in this regard, and there are no audience notes from my predecessor, Cardinal Giovanni-Battista Re, imposing on the retired Archbishop the obligation to lead a quiet and private life with the weight normally reserved to canonical penalties. The reason is that back then, unlike today, there was not sufficient proof of his alleged culpability. Thus, the Congregation’s decision was inspired by prudence, and the letters from my predecessor and my own letters urged him, first through the Apostolic Nuncio Pietro Sambi and then through you, to lead a life of prayer and penance, for his own good and for the good of the Church.”
In other words, there were no sanctions. Ouellet is very clear: it is “false to present those measures as ‘sanctions’ .”
So it seems like that’s it, right? Viganò has asked us to go to Ouellet and Ouellet not only does not substantiate Viganò, but actively, clearly and unequivocally refutes him. Case closed, right? Not so fast…
Instead of acknowledging the huge hole Ouellet’s letter punches on Viganò’s testimony (a death blow in my opinion), anti-Francis critics have, unsurprisingly, doubled down. All across the Catholic social media, the immediate reaction to Ouellet’s intervention was a kneejerk one. “Ouellet is lying.” – they say, supposedly out of fear of reprisals from his superior. After all, the idea of Francis as a “Dictator Pope” is part of the narrative those critics constantly peddle. Of course, Ouellet’s tone is not one of a fearful person who is trying to lay low in fear of his superior… on the contrary, it’s the tone of a person who is in possession of the facts and forcefully presents them as such, showing even a hint of understandable frustration for seeing such a stubborn insistence on statements which are contradicted by those facts.
And here is where the Orwellian redefinition of the word “sanctions” pays off. The argument now is that Ouellet’s clear and unmistakable refutation… does not provide “substantial refutation.” This is indeed Orwellian… if Ouellet’s letter is not a refutation, then nothing in the entire world is a refutation of anything.
Why is Ouellet’s letter not a substantial refutation? Because Ouellet has proven that there were restrictions in place, not “sanctions.” And that’s what Viganò has claimed all along – so I read in social media. Viganò never claimed there were “canonical sanctions” in place, only “restrictions” – so I see people unashamedly proclaim. Of course, we can go back to Viganò’s testimony (just scroll up to the beginning of this article) and see that that is blatantly false. But this does not deter people from claiming such absurdity.
But, even the word “restrictions” is stretching a bit, even if Ouellet has used that word in the beggining of his letter. What Ouellet claims is that McCarrick had been “requested not to travel or make public appearances“. Why? To punish him? To cover-up? No. To “avoid new rumors about him“, a measure “inspired by prudence.” That’s because at that time “there were not sufficient proof of his alleged culpability.” To equate these restrictions, in this context, as sanctions (and canonical sanctions on top of that) is, to borrow Ouellet’s wording, false… otherwise the Holy See would have been guilty of imposing penalties on someone whose culpability was not proven.
Be that as it may, people are forgetting a very importante detail. The “sanctions”, or “restrictions”, or “requests”, or whatever we might call them, are not the true focus of Viganò’s testimony, since Viganò’s main target is not McCarrick, or Benedict XVI, but rather Francis. The story is incomplete if the sanctions are the only thing proven… there is a separate half of the story that needs validation. Not only must Benedict’s sanctions be proven to exist, but also Francis must be proven to have lifted those sanctions.
As the meaning of the word “sanctions” becomes more and more diluted by the doublespeak, the more difficult it is to prove the second part of the testimony. If we had a retired archbishop, who had been requested not to travel on account of unproven rumors and that bishop kept moving around… then Francis is guilty of lifting what, exactly?
In any case, it doesn’t seem to matter. According to Viganò’s supporters, Francis is guilty, period. And Viganò is correct, because he says Francis is guilty. What exactly makes Francis guilty is secondary. As I said in another article, the papal critics “just uncritically accepted what was being spoon-fed them, since they were attacking the Pope long before the pedophilia case broke out, thereby casting doubt on their objectivity. The verdict against Francis had already been issued beforehand, what was missing was the accusation that would meet such verdict… and a pedophilia scandal would be just the ticket.”
People may say that I’m overreacting, but how can we explain it otherwise? Viganò’s testimony is accepted at face value, no matter how many inconsistencies and denials contradict it. If someone with authority and knowledge states Viganò is wrong, then it must be because that person is lying. If someone categorically rejects the existence of sanctions, then what that person said is spun in order to prove the sanctions existed. And so there were sanctions, even when they were not sanctions, but they were still sanctions insofar as they validate Viganò’s testimony. Viganò can invert the burden of proof and demand that Francis prove his innocence by releasing documents whose existence is uncertain, apart from Viganò’s own testimony (in other words, circular reasoning and petitio principii). If those documents are not released, then that is proof that Viganò is right (the archbishop states so in his second testimony). If they are released but do not prove what Viganò says they prove, then this is because the documents were tainted. In other words, Viganò’s testimony is non-falsifiable.
To this, I can only once again commend Pope Francis’s wisdom in maintaining silence before this crowd. All those who have asked for years that the Pope would clarify his teachings have now shown what they would have done if Francis had given them a clear answer (as Ouellet did) that they disagreed with. They would just spin the pope’s clarifications in a way better suited for their ideological narrative, just as they have done now. And all those insistent cries for an investigation are paradoxical, since they have proven they are not open to be led to “wherever truth may lead them” (as the Vatican statement puts it), but are rather searching for an “investigation” that will corroborate their pre-made conclusions.
Above all, if Pope Francis’s guilt has already been proven in their minds in a non-falsifiable way, why should Francis waste his time answering them? Silence is the appropriate answer. Whatever Francis might say in response to Viganò’s accusations would just feed the controversy, without satisfying his detractors in the least. The pontiff was correct: the testimony “speaks for itself.” Those who cannot see it by now will never be convinced.
On the other hand, if people are so bent in doing this kind of mental gymnastics to defend Viganò’s testimony at all costs, wouldn’t those intellectual energies be better spent in trying to find ways to reconcilie Francis’ teachings with their objections? If believing the teachings of the Holy Father is now supposedly papolatry and not basic Catholicity, can’t we say that this blind faith in everything that Viganò claims is a form of viganòlatry? If they are willing to believe that “2+2=5” if Viganò says it is, couldn’t they give the same assent of mind and will to the Pope? They have already shown they have the creativity and the ingenuity to do it, all they lack is motivation… which is incomprehensible from a Catholic point of view.
In the meantime, Ouellet’s invitation to Viganò is extended to all his supporters: “Dear brother, how much I wish that I could help you return to communion with him who is the visible guarantor of communion in the Catholic Church.” Let us not despise this invitation. For it is obvious, as Cardinal Ouellet observes, that Viganò’s testimony “cannot come from the Spirit of God.”
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.