Edward Feser: Why Archbishop Viganò is Almost Certainly Telling the Truth

There are five considerations that seem to me to make it very likely that Archbishop Viganò’s testimony is truthful.  To be sure, given how numerous and detailed are the claims he makes, it would not be surprising if he has gotten certain particulars wrong.  And perhaps in his passion he has inadvertently overstated things here and there.  But the main claims are probably true.  I certainly do not believe he is lying.  The reasons are these:


  1. The deafening silence of Pope Francis

Pope Francis has been accused of grave offenses by a churchman of high stature who was in an optimal position to know about the matters in question.  Yet he has refused to deny the charges or to comment on the matter at all.  That is simply not the way one would expect a person to act if such charges against him were false.  You would expect him immediately, clearly, and vigorously to deny the charges.

Some of his defenders suggest that the pope is merely exhibiting a Christ-like lack of concern for his own reputation.  He is not defending himself, so the claim goes, any more than Christ defended himself against those who crucified him.  Yet the pope has defended himself in other contexts.  For example, he has defended himself against the accusation that he is a communist and against charges that he failed to speak out forcefully enough during Argentina’s “dirty war.”  After he was criticized by some on the Left for meeting with Kim Davis in 2015, the Vatican issued a statement asserting that “his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.”  In 2016, the pope defended himself against criticism of his refusal to associate Islam with violence.  In 2017, he defended himself against criticism of his comparison of migrant camps to concentration camps.

So, the thesis that the pope prefers to “turn the other cheek” rather than answer critics simply doesn’t withstand scrutiny.  He does answer them, sometimes. Why, then, would he not defend himself against the far more serious charges now at issue, leveled by an accuser far more eminent than some of the critics the pope has answered in the past?

Furthermore, it is not merely the pope’s own reputation that is at stake.  The good of the Church is at stake.  There is, as people on both sides of the controversy have noted, a kind of “civil war” brewing in the Church.  The pope could help prevent that if he would only respond to the archbishop’s charges. Yet he has not done so.

Pope Francis’s defenders demand that the archbishop back up his charges with evidence.  But the archbishop has told us where the evidence is.  For example, he has told us that relevant documentation can be found in the files of the Secretariat of State at the Vatican and at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington.

Now, the pope himself has more power than anyone else does to make sure that this evidence is released.  He could order Vatican officials to release whatever relevant documents they have, and order local church officials to do the same.  And if that evidence would exonerate him, you would think that this is exactly what he would do.  Yet he has not done so.

Moreover, at least some of Archbishop Viganò’s charges have to do with private conversations he says he had with Pope Francis.  The archbishop’s own testimony about these conversations is evidence.  If we want further evidence, only Pope Francis can give it, in the form of his own testimony about the conversations.  Yet he refuses to comment.

Again, this is not the way one would expect someone to act against whom false charges have been made – which supports the conclusion that the charges arenot false.

  1. The apparent silence of Pope Benedict

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has not commented on any of the doctrinal controversies of the past five years, even though he must surely disapprove of some of what Pope Francis is widely claimed to have taught.  For example, though Benedict has made it clear enough that he does not agree with the policy of admitting couples in invalid marriages to Holy Communion, he has remained silent about the controversy over Amoris Laetitia.  The best explanation is that Benedict does not want to say anything that might inadvertently promote schism.  Better in his view, apparently, to leave doctrinal confusion to be sorted out by a future pope than to split the Church apart.

Now, the current controversy is itself something that threatens to split the Church apart.  Since Benedict seems to fear that outcome most of all, you would expect him to act in a way that is in his judgment most likely to prevent it.

So, suppose Archbishop Viganò is lying about the sanctions he claims Benedict imposed privately on Cardinal McCarrick.  Then Benedict could correct the record and more or less end the current crisis.  He wouldn’t even have to accuse the archbishop of lying.  He could phrase his remarks in a way that simply asserts that what Viganò is saying is mistaken.  Viganò’s credibility would be severely damaged, his defenders would have the wind taken out of their sails, and Pope Francis’s credibility would be largely restored at least in many people’s minds.  In other words, the threat of schism would be greatly reduced.

But suppose Archbishop Viganò is telling the truth.  Then, if Benedict publicly confirms this, he will vindicate the archbishop’s credibility and thereby do grave damage to Pope Francis.  Indeed, such an act would be perceived by many as intended to damage Pope Francis.  This would certainly greatly increase the possibility of schism, since many Catholics would see this as a war of popes – some rallying behind Benedict, others behind Francis.  The very idea must be horrifying to Benedict, and rightly so.

So, if Benedict is worried about schism, then his silence seems much more comprehensible on the hypothesis that Viganò is telling the truth than it is on the hypothesis that what Viganò is saying is false.

Now, it may be that Benedict has tried to comment in a subtle and indirect way on the controversy.  In a summary of developments since the release of Viganò’s testimony, Catholic News Agency notes that “a source close to Benedict” told reporter Edward Pentin that “as far as the former pope could remember” he had made a “private request” that McCarrick keep a “low profile,” where this differs from a “formal decree.”

If this communication was made at Benedict’s behest – and we don’t know that for sure – then this might be interpreted as the former pope’s way of finessing the difficulty of having to choose between either confirming Viganò’s testimony and thereby hurting Pope Francis, or undermining that testimony and thereby hurting Viganò.  For on the one hand, the insinuation that Benedict does not clearly remember what happened but that in any case there was no formal decree seems to help Pope Francis.  But on the other hand, the assertion that there was a private request to McCarrick that he keep a low profile confirms the gist of Viganò’s allegation.

Some of Pope Francis’s defenders are spinning Pentin’s report as if it undermined Viganò, but it does not do so.  Viganò never said there was a formal decree against McCarrick in the sense of the imposition of sanctions as the outcome the standard formal investigative process.  His whole point was that the action against McCarrick was something done privately by Pope Benedict rather than a matter of following ordinary disciplinary proceedings.  As some commentators have pointed out, this would be similar to the way Benedict dealt with the disgraced Fr. Marcial Maciel.

Some have also claimed that the fact that McCarrick carried out some public actions in the years after Benedict’s alleged imposition of sanctions undermines Viganò’s story.  Again, that is not the case.  As Rod Dreher points out, the answer to this is that “McCarrick defied the pope’s order.  One main theme of the Viganò statement is that these curial cardinals and their allies (Wuerl, McCarrick, et al.) are laws unto themselves.”

The bottom line is that Pentin’s source confirms that Benedict did take private action against McCarrick, just as Viganò said.  So, either Pope Benedict has in this indirect and subtle way confirmed part of Viganò’s story, or (if the communication to Pentin was not made at the former pope’s behest) he has remained entirely silent on the controversy, which for the reasons I have given is more comprehensible on the supposition that Viganò is telling the truth.  Either way, Benedict’s actions support the truth of Viganò’s testimony.

  1. Archbishop Viganò’s concern for his own place in history and his immortal soul

Archbishop Viganò has very conservative theological views.  Indeed, his critics insist on emphasizing this point, since they accuse him of having a grudge against a pope widely perceived to be theologically liberal.

Now, among the things any Catholic with very conservative theological views would believe is the Church’s traditional teaching that lying is always and intrinsically sinful, even when done for a good cause – and that it is always mortally sinful when the lie concerns a serious matter, such as another person’s reputation.

Another thing that Catholics with very conservative theological views believe is that while popes are fallible when not speaking ex cathedra, they ought always to be treated with great reverence, even when they are in error.  A bad pope is not like the leader of some political faction with which one disagrees.  Rather, he is like an errant father.  He does not cease to be your father even when he does something bad, and his bad behavior gives no license for treating him with contempt.  Even though he may under certain circumstances be criticized by his subordinates, this must be done only with caution and respect, the way a son might plead with his father to reconsider some unwise policy or to cease some abusive behavior.

A third thing that is true of Catholics with conservative theological beliefs is that they tend to have a very romantic view of Church history, and a supernatural one.  They see it as an epic story of great saints who obey the divine law even at the cost of their own lives but who are always vindicated in the end; of evildoers who, however seemingly invincible, are always ultimately exposed and undone; and of the divine providence that guarantees these outcomes even when, humanly speaking, all seems lost.

They do not see Church history as fundamentally driven by grubby power politics.  They do not see the saints as cynical and clever manipulators who get the edge over their opponents by ruthless means.  No Catholic with traditional theological views looks back at the days of Pope Honorius, the Western Schism, or the Borgia popes and thinks: “If only had been there, I would have come up with a very clever lie that would have saved the day!”  Any traditionally-minded Catholic would see this as blasphemous presumption – the doing of evil for the sake of a good end, as if God were incapable of saving his Church in any other way.

Now, suppose Archbishop Viganò were lying.  Then he would be committing what he knows to be a mortal sin, because he would be slandering no less than the Vicar of Christ.  And he would be committing new mortal sins every time he reiterates these charges, as he has done in the days since he first released his testimony.  Nor, as he would know, would sacramental confession wipe away his guilt under these circumstances, because if he were committed to a policy of persisting in this lie, he would lack the firm purpose of amendment that is a condition of being absolved.

If the archbishop were lying, he would also be guilty of contempt for the Vicar of Christ himself, and comparable to a son who humiliates his father and treats him the way he would treat a political enemy.  And the archbishop would also be putting himself at grave risk of being remembered as one of the great villains of Church history – a Judas-like figure who slandered a pope and divided the Church.  Even worse, he would be putting his immortal soul at grave risk of eternal damnation.

Secular readers and liberal Catholics might think this all very quaint and melodramatic.  But the point is that this is the way a traditionally-minded Catholic would see things.  In particular, it is the way Archbishop Viganò must see things, given that – as his critics themselves keep insisting – he has what they consider reactionary theological opinions.

Note that it is no good to respond by pointing out (as some have) that the archbishop once said some nice things about McCarrick at a public event, as if this were evidence that he is a liar.  Viganò is a diplomat, and the job of a diplomat is to be diplomatic.  Everybody knows that at public events, speakers will often say complimentary things about others in the room whether or not they really mean them, as a matter of politeness.  This falls under the category of what moral theologians call a “broad mental reservation” rather than a lie, because the nature of the speech act is such that the ordinary listener is well aware that in such a context the speaker might just be being polite and not intending to speak the literal truth.

The archbishop’s testimony is not like that at all, because what he is doing in that context is precisely claiming to reveal literal truths.  If what he is sayingthere is not true, it would be a lie and not a mere mental reservation.

But, again, to believe that the archbishop is lying in his testimony is to believe that he would be willing to do something that, by his own lights, would risk eternal damnation and perpetual infamy – all because he is irked about the Kim Davis affair or other relatively trivial matters.  That is simply not plausible. The theological conservatism Viganò’s critics insist on emphasizing in fact makes it less likely that he would lie, not more likely.

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