Judging strictly on its merits, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s open letter to President Donald Trump deserves only the response one should give to any other instance of online trolling: the silent treatment. Trolls tend to burn themselves out when they are ignored, and eventually they are blown away like ash in the wind. Horrifyingly, however, after initially being pushed by small-time, factional media outlets, and later by Fox News and Glenn Beck, Viganò hit the big time when his letter was shared approvingly by the president of the United States himself on Twitter. Viganò made a calculated bet that his message of division and eternal struggle would travel rapidly, in the way a crack travels through a pane of glass, through America’s pre-existing political and religious factions. He was right. This letter can thus no longer be ignored.
WPI has hit on the conspiratorial ties of this particular letter already, and one can explore the rhetorical techniques employed by Abp. Viganò’s latest flurry of correspondence, which is addressed to anyone and everyone who will listen. The Trumpian and QAnon conspiracy connections of this letter are indeed concerning, but the substance of it revolves around what he describes with biblical imagery—the notion of two eternally opposing sides: the children of the light and the children of darkness. But it is a message that is scandalously antithetical to the Gospel. There is something so deeply offensive—blasphemous, even—about equating the children of light and darkness to proxy battles in a cultural and political war.
These two sides, in his worldview, are locked in a battle as “eternal enemies,” which he indicates is “just as God and Satan are eternal enemies.” God’s side is made up of those who “engage in work” and “raise a family,” while Satan’s side includes those who “serve themselves” and want to “demolish the family and the nation.” Of course, the children of the light are understood by Viganò to be akin to a silent majority, and “constitute the most conspicuous part of humanity,” while the children of darkness are an “absolute minority” who yet control “strategic positions in government, in politics, in the economy and in the media.” Where have I heard this before?
Viganò erases any doubts that his concern is primarily political: he explains to the president that the children of darkness are those aligned with the “deep state which you rightly oppose and which is fiercely waging war against you in these days.” This rhetorical move is alarming. Not only is it a reduction of Christianity to a worldview of “us versus them,” of forces of good versus forces of evil, but it presents an offer of an alliance of the “children of the light”—those people of goodwill who are suggested to be “united in prayer with” Viganò—with the president.
Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the term “children of the light.” It is indeed biblical, a call from the mouth of Jesus Himself in the Gospel of John: “While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light” (John 12:36). Christians are children of the light because Christ, the light of the world, is our Light, and “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). All Christians are called to “walk as children of the light,” writes Saint Paul (Ephesians 5:8). This “walking” is not a self-satisfied march on the right side of history with conquering allies, certain of efforts to “bring prosperity to their nation,” as Viganò suggests. Rather, the biblical children of the light are called to follow and remain in communion with the Lord. To do this requires that we change our lives, and that we “stay alert and sober…putting on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet that is hope for salvation,” that we “encourage one another and build one another up.” It calls us to be “at peace,” and to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:4-8,11, 13, 17).
Rather than associating the children of light with a political ideology or specific external behaviors, the children of light are quite simply Christians, who are called first to the interior life of Christianity. They bear in themselves the Light of Christ which they have received in baptism, and they are called to continue to bear His Light in the acknowledgment of their own need for His mercy as they follow him. Christians are called to continual repentance with God’s help. This is why Pope Francis regularly reminds us that he is a sinner in need of our prayers (and the sacrament of confession!), rather than styling himself as a general leading us into battle. It is this interior life that bears Light into the world.
And what of the eternal struggle? Viganò says that the children of darkness “do not hold any moral principles,” and “will one day—if they do not repent—yield to the terrible fate which awaits them, far from God, in eternal damnation.” In other times, Viganò might have simply called them the reprobate. God and Satan may indeed be understood as enemies, but that struggle is not “eternal.” We know that God has won the victory and that in the scope of history, evil is and will be defeated once and for all. Satan—the adversary—was not a threat to God when time began and he will not be a threat to God when time ends. Even in the interim, any apparent threat from Satan is itself subject to God’s permissive will. To imply otherwise is to promote a frightening dualism, a dualism that fills Viganò’s letter and likely frames his interpretation of isolated events.
The struggle between good and evil that occurs within history is something that should deeply concern the children of the light—but not in the way Viganò identifies. In Gaudium et Spes 37, the Council Fathers affirmed the reality of this struggle: “For a monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and will continue until the last day, as the Lord has attested.” This battle does not take place on the stage of American electoral politics, however. It goes on somewhere much closer to home: within our very hearts and souls. “Caught in this conflict, man is obliged to wrestle constantly if he is to cling to what is good, nor can he achieve his own integrity without great efforts and the help of God’s grace.” Constant self-examination and repentance are thus what identify a child of the light.
It is here that the implications of Viganò’s frightening dualism become apparent. His is a world where God and Satan are “eternal enemies,” and which frames the struggle as essentially two teams (the saved and the damned) opposing each other on either side in an epic battle. This worldview prioritizes concerns about worldly structures and the scope of history over the concern for holiness in the individual Christian’s life. It is an ideological outlook wherein both the future of our society and the future of the Church itself appear uncertain. It depends more heavily upon specific interpretations of current events than how we view the Christian life and the practice of virtue. If the grace of God at work in the world and in our lives is susceptible to being overthrown by the “deep state” and “deep church,” then surely we are lost.
Here the Council Fathers again warn us, echoing St. Paul to the Romans: “Be not conformed to this world… by the world is meant that spirit of vanity and malice which transforms into an instrument of sin those human energies intended for the service of God and man” (GS 37). God’s victory endures throughout all ages. The children of light are fighting in a battle that Christ has already won for them, and by the grace of that victory we share in it, abiding in the faith, hope, and charity.
Of course, there are sufferings we must endure, for we are “pilgrims in a strange land” as Lumen Gentium put it (paraphrasing Ex 2:22). Catholics understand that there is struggle and pain, but it is the victory of Christ that ultimately gives hope for perseverance in the Christian life on earth. As Pope Benedict wrote in Spe Salvi:
Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well-nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious. (37)
Pope Francis also spoke on this theme to the crowd gathering for his Wednesday audience before the Easter Triduum in 2015, saying,
At times the dark of night seems to penetrate the soul; at times we think: “there is nothing more to be done”, and the heart no longer finds the strength to love… But it is precisely in the darkness that Christ lights the fire of God’s love: a flash breaks through the darkness and announces a new start, something begins in the deepest darkness.
If there was any modern event that challenged Americans’ conceptions of God’s power and perhaps even made us ask if Satan had prevailed, it was 9/11. But on September 12, 2001, Saint John Paul II wrote, “Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say. Christian hope is based on this truth; at this time our prayerful trust draws strength from it.” The final and only answer to our anxiety and fear—whether real or imaginary—is to trust in the Lord whose victory over the grave is eternal. The answer is hope.
Viganò closes his letter by writing to the president that there is no more effective way for the children of light to “make their voices heard” than to pray for Trump to be protected from those who oppose him. We must pray, certainly, but not to make our voices heard. Instead, we must pray that the Light of the World illumines our darkness through our complete reliance on and trust in God.
This scandalous letter demands that we take steps to minimize its impact and to limit the damage done by its words. To that end, it is important to underscore that children of light do not lead others to worship at the feet of political idols or in the service of political ideologies. The children of light always strive to provide hope, rooted in Christ’s suffering, death, and Resurrection.