“The Vatican, however, has not spoken.”

— JD Flynn
Catholic News Agency
July 1, 2020

Last week, Catholic News Agency (CNA) published an essay by their editor-in-chief, JD Flynn, analyzing Archbishop Viganò’s growing pile of public missives and the Vatican’s silence about him. In this article, Flynn correctly notes that Viganò’s original contentions—about Cardinal McCarrick’s sexual abuse scandal—have since given way to a variety of other topics, some even going into doctrinal matters (specifically involving the Second Vatican Council).

Flynn then goes on to assert that the Vatican in general (and Pope Francis in particular) have maintained their silence on Viganò. This claim, however, is only partially correct. But the greatest problem arises later on, when Flynn speculates about potential explanations for this papal silence. Here, his essay fails in its analysis. His tone seems to betray a certain (and understandable) frustration with this silence, since Viganò’s rhetoric appears to have reached the mainstream after President Trump tweeted a link to one of his open letters.

Speaking as someone who has closely studied the spirituality and the theological mind of Jorge Mario Bergoglio for several years, the possible explanations that Flynn proposes for Francis’s silence are implausible and reflect neither the character nor the leadership style of our pope. But let us first examine the first misconception in this piece: the claim that the Vatican has remained silent. This is not true.

As Flynn notes, the topic of Viganò’s first letter was Francis’s role in the McCarrick abuse scandal. In that letter, Viganò claimed that many bishops—and even the pope—knew about these abuses and covered them up, before the scandal broke out publicly. Flynn accurately reports Francis’s answer to these charges, which was: “I will not say a single word on this.”

This does not convey the entirety of the Vatican response, however. In a second letter, Viganò asks Cardinal Marc Ouellet to release the “documents incriminating McCarrick and many in the curia for their cover-ups.

In response, Cardinal Ouellet wrote an open letter refuting Viganò’s claims, in very strong and clear terms. Mind you, Cardinal Ouellet was (and still is) the Prefect for the Congregation of Bishops. Since he is a high-ranking Vatican official, it is not accurate to say that the Vatican has remained silent. In the opening paragraph of his letter, Cardinal Ouellet said that he was writing, “With pontifical permission, and in my capacity as Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.” In other words, this was an official response from the Vatican that was released with permission from the pope.

After Ouellet’s open letter, how did Viganò and his followers respond? With deflection and deception. At first, they accused the good cardinal of lying. Later, they twisted the meaning of Cardinal Ouellet’s letter, claiming that his clear and unambiguous refutation had actually proven many of Viganò’s claims. Flynn himself wrote in CNA in October 2018 that, “Ouellet validated a central point of Viganò’s,” and in last week’s analysis described the letter from Ouellet as simply part of some “public and polemical correspondence” with Viganò. There was indeed an official response from the Vatican refuting Viganò, but it did not achieve its aim, since it was distorted by many prominent media figures at the time.

But Flynn’s essay also misses the mark when he advances a series of hypotheses that he believes might explain the Vatican’s silence, namely: 1) Church leaders do not grasp the level of influence that Viganò has; 2) There is a misguided hope that Viganò will simply go away quietly; 3) They are reluctant to publicly admonish an archbishop who is a retired high-ranking diplomatic figure; 4) They are disinclined to answer due to sincere concerns for the archbishop’s health or his personal circumstances; 5) They want to avoid the uncomfortable fact that Francis has chosen to not answer many open “questions” (he specifically names the “substantive claims” by Viganò about McCarrick and the “unanswered” questions on Amoris Laetitia). To his credit, Flynn does add reasons why almost all these hypotheses are likely wrongheaded.

Whatever role these guesses might play in answering his question, the main reason cannot be found anywhere in Flynn’s article. This, in my mind, demonstrates the fundamental lack of comprehension of Francis that is held by even his most deferential critics.

The reason for Pope Francis’s silence is rooted in two facts.

The first is that, as I have mentioned, the Vatican did indeed respond in the beginning, through Cardinal Ouellet’s open letter. It was roundly dismissed by those who supported Viganò, including by CNA and JD Flynn himself. Ultimately, it served no purpose. So why keep pursuing this approach? Nothing the Vatican can say or do will change the minds of those who have decided to believe and support Viganò, no matter how ridiculous his claims have become.

The second reason flows from the first. It is deeply rooted in Pope Francis’s spirituality and his life philosophy. As Father Jorge Bergoglio wrote in an essay in the 1990s:

“In moments of darkness and tribulation, when the tangles and the knots cannot be untied, nor things clarified, then we must be silent.”

In the same essay, Fr. Bergoglio further explains this reasoning. When a person is attacked in a way that “cannot be clarified,” then that person’s best response is to keep silent. Truth will eventually come to the surface, because the “weakness” shown by this person inevitably emboldens the Devil, who will then manifest himself, revealing the evil motivations he had concealed until that time.

In other words, by letting the accuser talk, the person who suffers in silence will give this accuser enough rope to hang himself. Let him talk. Sooner or later he will reveal the inconsistencies and lies in his accusations.

This is precisely what happened with Viganò. Flynn correctly notes that “the archbishop has changed his topic, from the McCarrick affair to conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic, the Marian apparition at Fatima, and the Second Vatican Council.

In other words, Viganò is letting it all out now. His accusations do not serve the legitimate aim of doing justice for the McCarrick victims anymore, as they once appeared to do. Viganò’s accusations now seem to be ends in themselves; they seek to transform the Church according to the agenda of certain Catholics who pit themselves as the guardians of orthodoxy against the Vicar of Christ and an ecumenical council.

Not only that, but Viganò’s missives have become so unhinged, conspiratorial, and detached from reality, that at this moment, there is no excuse for a Catholic to follow him. By now, it is as clear as day: Viganò’s best refutation is Viganò himself. This is a much stronger argument than if Pope Francis had issued a point-by-point refutation of every single one of his claims. If someone is still following Viganò at this point, then I don’t know what the Vatican could say that would convince them. They are simply too far off. I believe that for this subset of our Church, only prayers, not arguments, will help.

Those who helped advance Viganò’s claims and supported his ideological agenda in 2018 and 2019 but believe today that he has lost the plot should do a serious self-examination of their role in leading these “little ones” astray.

The answer to JD Flynn’s question, “Why is the Vatican silent on McCarrick?” is to begin to know Francis. I answered this very same question in October 2018, in fact, when I wrote:

“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.”

In the end, the burden is not on the Vatican to clarify everything that a popular ideologue has been promoting. The burden is on Catholics, who must seek a conversion of heart. This especially involves submitting to the authority of the Vicar of Christ, and to not place him below teachers who say what our itching ears want to hear. When Catholics have this change of heart, I am certain that all the clarifications they long for will come, and from the pope himself.

That is not what is happening, though. For years, the supporters and defenders of Pope Francis have faced mockery, ridicule, and dismissiveness by influential Catholic public figures who have opposed him at every pivotal moment: the Synods on the Family, Amoris Laetitia, the dubia, the change to the official Church teaching on the death penalty, the Synod on Young People, the Amazon Synod, the authentically Catholic religious practices of indigenous people, the original Viganò testimony. And now they criticize him again, when the division and hysterical paranoia that they helped foster has gone a bit farther than some of them would like. Their game—no matter what their goal—is attempting to disrupt Pope Francis and criticizing his decisions.

But nothing has changed since 2018, even if Viganò has now become a mainstream figure. The number of followers he has is irrelevant at this point. What matters is their mindset. Are they open to clarifications from the pope, even if the truth is inconvenient to their narrative? Or have they simply made Viganò a hero that embodies their hopes and desires, which are not open to change? Because if it’s the latter, addressing Viganò will be futile. Maybe it’s time instead to listen to and learn from the pope rather than tell everyone else what you think he should be doing.

[Image: Original work created from creative commons sources— (1) Prayer Vigil with Pope Francis ahead of Synod
© Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); (2) Di White House Image/Lawrence Jackson – http://www.state.gov, Pubblico dominio, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29976575 (3) Screencap from Archidiócesis de Valencia video.]

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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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