The truth is uncomfortable. When we question, correct, and even seek to destroy it, it seems that the truth has an unshakable will to appear and expose lies and division. A few days ago, on May 7, 2020, a website called “Veritas liberavit vos” appeared (an allusion to the words from John 8:32, “the truth will set you free”). The site contained a “call to the Church and the world” addressed to all bishops, clergy, lay faithful, and men and women of good will to alert us that the global epidemic of COVID-19 is a “pretext” that various media and political forces are using to implement a dark and secret agenda: “We have reason to believe, on the basis of official data on the incidence of the epidemic as related to the number of deaths, that there are powers interested in creating panic among the world’s population with the sole aim of permanently imposing unacceptable forms of restriction on freedoms, of controlling people and of tracking their movements. The imposition of these illiberal measures is a disturbing prelude to the realization of a world government beyond all control.”
The organizer of this petition turned out to be no less than Archbishop Carlo María Viganò, the ex-apostolic nuncio to the United States whose fame has grown through several scandals: of a personal nature (involving his brother), in the Church (involving the case of ex-Cardinal McCarrick), and for his public and formal request that Pope Francis resign from the papacy.
The document that Archbishop Viganò published is brief and uses language that shows affinity with ideas that have circulated in the underworld of conspiracy theories in recent months. Towards the end of the text, the document’s tone becomes apocalyptic: “Let us not allow centuries of Christian civilization to be erased under the pretext of a virus, and an odious technological tyranny to be established, in which nameless and faceless people can decide the fate of the world by confining us to a virtual reality.”
The signatories of the document are few, although some—it must be pointed out—are significant figures. In the list we find the names of bishops, including Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Cardinal Robert Sarah, Cardinal Zen, Archbishop Luigi Negri, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, and Bishop Joseph Strickland of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas. Other signatories include journalists known for spreading rumors and serious accusations against Pope Francis, such as John-Henry Westen and Aldo Maria Valli. Also notable among the signers is Father Curzio Nittoglia, an anti-Semitic priest and member of the Society of Saint Pius X. In other words, the signatories primarily belong to conservative and ultra-conservative groups in the Church that have consistently shown its opposition to the pope, whether on doctrinal questions (Amoris Laetitia, Vatican Council II), on pastoral issues (the Amazon Synod), or in the area of international diplomacy (relations between the Church and China). These characters range from extremists who completely reject the Second Vatican Council, to a former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to an active curial cardinal.
Within hours of the document being published, Cardinal Sarah stated on Twitter that he had not signed it. Likewise, he asked Viganò to withdraw his name from the document, even though he expressed agreements with the concerns contained in this “Appeal for the Church and the World.” Then on May 8, Archbishop Viganò released the contents of his private telephone conversations with Cardinal Sarah without the cardinal’s consent. Among other things, the ex-nuncio Viganò declared that Cardinal Sarah had expressly signed the text and communicated “urbi et orbi” that he, “by an attitude of deep charity,” forgave Sarah “for the grave wrong he committed against the truth” and against himself.
The reactions were swift. Several web outlets that pretend to be Catholic (but are on the fringes of communion with the Pope) immediately proclaimed that Cardinal Sarah is a “coward.”
This painful situation—where betrayals, lies, accusations, theories of dubious scientificity, conspiracy and fundamentalist groups are mixed—has created great confusion among good people who don’t understand the games played by those who have directly and indirectly sought to undermine both the mission of Pope Francis and the way in which the Church has faced the challenge of the global pandemic.
Certainly, there are many with visible or hidden interests seeking to take advantage of the pandemic in one way or another. It is also true that there is a wide range of new technologies that can be used for the surveillance and control of people and populations. However, history has witnessed countless political, economic, and social maneuvers over the centuries. When murky scenarios arise, it is important to avoid oversimplifications that, at their core, entail abusive reductionisms and manipulations that are also used for purposes of power.
The radical conservatism that has once again employed a media strategy in order to create a different point of reference from that offered by the Church and the pope in the matter of reading the “signs of the times” and in the matter of pastoral response, imploded on this occasion. Not only because of the sad spectacle that the participants made, but due to the content of their document, where pseudoscience and the oversimplification of our complex contemporary world prevailed.
Javier Sampedro certainly said recently in the newspaper El País, when commenting on the conspiracy theories and pseudoscience that have bubbled up in this time of pandemic, “The best lie is the one that is almost true. Instead of inventing a story from scratch, the good liar copies reality in all its overwhelming detail and introduces within it a small mutation that completely corrupts its interpretation.” Precisely in this way, truths, half-truths and lies were used to try to summon the bishops of the world to endorse an apparently courageous and radical, but deeply reductionist, option. Furthermore, the similarity between the content of Archbishop Viganò’s document with the diagnoses that the fundamentalist group “Tradition, Family and Property” (TFP) recently disclosed on the internet is not a coincidence. Monsignor Viganò was publicly sighted at the demonstration organized in Munich in January 2020 by Roberto De Mattei (biographer of the founder of TFP, Plinio Correa), and attended by John-Henry Westen and Alexander Tschugguel, the young man who threw the wooden “Pachamama” figurines into the Tiber during the works of the Synod on the Amazon. They are all friends and they are all comfortable with each other.
What is really going on when these things happen? What is the underlying question at play? In my opinion, when we feel misunderstood, when our ideas do not prevail, when the Pope does not do what we want, we can choose one of two paths. The first is the one that Henri de Lubac, SJ, promoted in the mid-20th century. He was accused by a number of voices as being possibly heretical, he was removed from teaching and expelled from Lyon. He was never questioned, he was never told what he was accused of. The pain that this situation caused him was immense. But he united that pain to Jesus Christ and reiterated in his heart his filial adhesion to the pope and to his Magisterium. Living in a painful forced silence, in 1953 he wrote the book Meditation on the Church. Ricardo Blazquez says of de Lubac, “Suffering did not sterilize or vinegar his spirit, but opened the door to a deeper understanding of the Church. His love for her was seasoned with pain.” Later he completes the idea by quoting Psalm 119, “It was good for me to be afflicted, in order to learn your statutes.”
Indeed, de Lubac discovered that service to Catholic truth differs from intransigence of faith, through which we often wish to impose our own conclusions on others, including the pope. Uncompromising inflexibility betrays the true deposit of faith. We are called to have hearts greater than our ideas and not to confuse love of Tradition with hardness of heart and foolish conspiracies. De Lubac’s story ends beautifully. Father Bea, the confessor of Pius XII, gave Meditation on the Church to the pope, who was amazed at such a thoroughly ecclesial work. Shortly thereafter, the young philosopher Karol Wojtyla would ask De Lubac to write the preface to his book Love and Responsibility, John XXIII would appoint him as consultor to the theological commission for the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI had him as a theologian of confidence, and finally John Paul II appointed him a cardinal of the Catholic Church.
The other path is very sad. They find it necessary to form a small group of “select” people who notice the “hidden enemies” and “infiltrators” in the Church. Appearing “brave” and by using pyrotechnics, those on this other path seek to press and affirm an obtuse traditionalism and believe that Christianity defends itself primarily by undertaking “moral battles.” Without realizing it, the kerygma is replaced by a collection of “values” and slogans. When thinking about this trap, the words of Joseph Ratzinger shortly before being elected pope immediately came to mind:
“The temptation to turn Christianity into a kind of moralism and to concentrate everything on man’s moral action has always been great. (…) I think the temptation to reduce Christianity to the level of a type of moralism is very great indeed even in our own day (…) Therefore and in other words, Augustine teaches that Christian holiness and rectitude do not consist in any superhuman greatness or in some superior talent. If that were the case, Christianity would become a religion for just a few heroes or for chosen groups.”
My personal reading of this whole situation does not end there. It ends with a surprise I have not yet fully processed. Hours before the new debacle by Archbishop Viganò and his friends occurred—very early on the morning of Thursday, May 7, 2020, during his homily—Pope Francis said something extremely providential and mysteriously illuminating. Elites who consider themselves to tacitly or explicitly possess the truth or a privileged understanding of morality forget that Christ remains in history through the People of God, the universal Sacrament of Salvation. Francis said, “Christianity is not just an ethic … one is not Christian just because they have a vision of ethics. It’s more than that. Christianity is not an elite group of people chosen for the truth … being Christian means belonging to a people freely chosen by God. If we don’t have this awareness of belonging to a people, we will become ‘ideological Christians,’ with a tiny doctrine.” Later in his homily he alerts us to the risk of falling into these biases, whether they are “dogmatic, moral or elite. The sense of elitism does us so much harm, because we lose that sense of belonging to the holy faithful People of God.”
At the time of this writing, Cardinal Müller has not dissociated himself from the contents of Bishop Viganò’s proclamation or from the treatment that Viganò gave Cardinal Sarah. Cardinal Sarah, for his part, has not retreated from his sympathy for the contents of the text, which advances a type of contemporary ultraconservative fundamentalist vision of the world. May God grant that this experience will be an occasion to “reflect on this, to draw some profit,” as Saint Ignatius would say. We all need to be sustained in the faith: lay faithful, bishops, and cardinals. Being sustained sometimes means being corrected. Not so much with the human wisdom of insightful theologians or ecclesial strategists, but with the fatherhood of the Successor of Peter, Universal Pastor of the Church, who announces Jesus Christ pertinently to the people of our time. How beautiful it would be, if following these shameful situations we all cried a little and asked for forgiveness for our many vanities! Jesus can make all things new. As long as God gives us life, a new beginning is always possible.
This is a WPI translation of the original essay, published in Spanish by Vida Nueva Digital. Used with permission.
Rodrigo Guerra has a Ph. D. from the International Academy of Philosophy in the Principality of Liechtenstein. He is an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, a member of the Theological Commission of the Latin American Council of Bishops (CELAM), and is the founder of the Center for Advanced Social Research (www.cisav.mx).