By Larry Chapp
Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó burst into international prominence in August of 2018 with the public release of his now infamous letter concerning what the Vatican knew about the sexual exploits of Cardinal “call me uncle Ted” McCarrick. It was a damning letter filled with all kinds of accusations, most of which were later corroborated as true or, at the very least, very close to the truth with allowances made for discrepancies in personal memories of events. In the letter he accused Pope Francis of both rehabilitating McCarrick, despite knowing of his sexual abuse, and of later covering it up. He concludes by calling on Pope Francis to resign the papacy.
I supported Vigano in his original ascent to fame with this open letter concerning the McCarrick affair. As a young seminarian in the early 80’s I had heard from some of my fellow seminarians whose bishop was McCarrick that he had, what they called, “zipper issues.” Furthermore, in 2002, after one of my appearances on the Fox news program “The O’Reilly Factor” (I had become a regular guest theologian to discuss the sexual abuse scandal) I was told by Bill O’Reilly that he and his staff were investigating rumors surrounding a “leading east coast Cardinal.” I said to him “You mean McCarrick.” He just leaned back in his chair and smiled.
My point in bringing up these autobiographical details is to underscore the fact that it is simply impossible to believe that members of the hierarchy, especially in the United States, did not know about Uncle Ted’s “zipper issues.” I knew in 1982 that the guy was a perv. O’Reilly was hearing fresh rumors in 2002. How could the hierarchy not know? Could they really be that obtuse? And so with regard to the original letter from Vigano I thought “Well here at last is a brave whistleblower!” Here at last the truth is going to come out! However, despite this excitement I was struck by how odd it was that Vigano was calling for the Pope to resign. I thought that seemed like overkill. It made me suspicious of Vigano’s motives and I wondered if he didn’t harbor deeper issues with the Pope and was just using the McCarrick affair to bring Francis down.
Now, with a series of further letters and interviews, Vigano has officially jumped the shark and confirmed that suspicion. He has set himself up as a magisterium of one, issuing edicts and condemnations from a clandestine location. In my last blog post I joked that he might be hiding in Taylor Marshall’s basement. Well, he is a prelate without an assignment of any kind who is in “hiding” mode and so he does seem burrowed away in somebody’s basement. He seems to appear out of nowhere, like an ecclesiastical pop-up ad, just when you thought he had finally gone away. He is either a brave ecclesiastical hero – – an episcopal Julian Assange – – exposing the heretical anti-church led by the villainous Bergoglio, or he is a wing nut. Some might argue for a more nuanced description, seeing him as a combination of whistle blower and narcissist, but I think that unlikely. Given the seriousness of his claims he is either right, and a hero, or wrong, and a dangerous fool. I think he was right about McCarrick. Too bad he did not stick with that issue. Because his current status as the darling of the closeted SSPX crowd undercuts whatever credibility he had on the McCarrick affair. The Vatican themselves couldn’t have scripted a better way to turn Vigano’s public image into that of a Right-wing loon.
In what follows I am going to focus on Vigano’s recent Molotov cocktails hurled at the legitimacy of Vatican II. It is his most serious set of condemnations to date and it needs a robust response. Of course, given his recent flurry of de fide pronouncements it would not surprise me if by the time I post this blog entry he hasn’t accused the Pope of Pachamama apostasy after the Vatican’s recent minting of that silly “Earth momma” coin. Remember… you heard it here first.
The most damning of his accusations is that he accuses Vatican II of heresy both explicit and implied. He calls on Pope Francis or a future Pope to officially suppress the Council as having no weight. He claims that the implementation of the Council, in the horrible direction it took, proves that those bishops, who were also bishops at the Council, understood Vatican II to be a rupture with Tradition. And so he has no time for folks like Joseph Ratzinger and Karol Wojtyla who claimed that the Council itself was not the problem but its interpretation and implementation were. They both called for the post-conciliar hermeneutic of rupture to be rejected and replaced with a hermeneutic of reform that embraces a development of doctrine within an overarching continuity. Vigano dismisses these two conciliar participants and popes because he deems them not sufficiently “woke” to the true nature of the problem, which was Vatican II as such, whose documents are riddled with little ambiguous time bombs, planted there intentionally by liberal saboteurs designed to explode in the belly of the Church some years later. He goes so far as to call Vatican II a “diabolical Council” (Conciliabolo) that should be suppressed. He has made various comments on the Council in differing venues but you can see the clearest expressions of his views here.
Before I begin with a substantive critique of Vigano’s dissent from Magisterial teaching I just can’t help but comment on what strikes me as the arrogant elitism in these charges. His claims to some kind of superior knowledge smacks of a Gnostic illumination that he and his followers alone are privy to, but which has eluded the likes of John Paul and Benedict. I call him “Vigano the Valentinian” since his mythopoetic construction of the various “powers” that were the true ruling archons of the Council is as complex, and as opaque, as the celestial archons of the Valentinian Gnostic cosmos. Many scholars, vastly superior in intellect and erudition than Vigano, have studied the Council and its history in great depth. But they have all been wrong since they did not have Vigano’s magic decoder ring, which comes free with every box of Freemason Flakes and which can only be purchased from Vigano himself in Taylor Marshall’s basement. There … some snark for those who aren’t allergic to sarcasm.
Returning then to the Council itself let us begin with the most basic facts that cannot be denied by any responsible son or daughter of the Church. Specifically, that Vatican II was a perfectly valid Council, comprised of the world’s perfectly valid bishops, and promulgated by Popes Saint Paul VI, Saint John Paul II , Benedict XVI and Francis – – all of whom were/are validly elected popes. Given the weight of these facts you can then add one more: Vatican II is a magisterial document of a very high order and contains within its documents both Dogmatic Constitutions and various other “decrees” of a lesser magisterial order, but which, taken together, comprise a powerful body of magisterial teaching. Therefore, to deny any or all of these facts is to place oneself outside of the teaching magisterium of the Church. In short, you are a theological dissenter of an equally high order. Indeed, a dissenter whose dissent is of several orders of magnitude higher than that of, say, Charles Curran and the other dissenters from Humanae Vitae so loathed by people like Vigano.
Vigano claims that he accepts all of these facts, which is odd considering that he later goes on to accuse the Council of teaching “heresy or near heresy.” What the heck is “near heresy” anyway? He does not say what he means by “near heresy,” which is convenient for his argument since if something is “near heresy” it is, by definition, not heresy. I am reminded of the movie The Princess Bride where “Miracle Max” declares to Wesley’s friends that Wesley isn’t “really dead” but only “mostly dead.” Which is to say that Wesley wasn’t dead at all. This is a studied ambiguity on Vigano’s part, which is bizarre considering his apparent hatred of ambiguity – – except, apparently when the ambiguity serves his purpose of appearing to remain in communion with Rome when he really isn’t.
Furthermore, Vigano goes on to state, in an apparent contradiction with his claim that Vatican II is a valid Council, that if a Council teaches heresy then it really isn’t an ecumenical council after all. So here we have, once again, another example of his studied ambiguity where he claims that the Council is valid, but also, strangely, that it isn’t, and should be officially declared null and void by a future pope. Can someone please get me one of those decoder rings so I can make sense of this bowl of Fruit Loops? If I had to hazard a guess my hunch is that all of these various prevarications on his part are really just dog whistles to his followers and enablers, providing them with an intellectual matrix (such as it is) that allows them to appear to remain within the Church of Rome all the while espousing a theology that is closer to the SSPX than they want to admit.
What Vigano never addresses is the theological contradiction concerning Church authority that his position entails. The very “traditionalism” he espouses is founded upon the doctrine of apostolic succession and Petrine supremacy. And yet here he is saying that that same Magisterium has engaged in open heresy. And so he has set himself up as a grand defender of the faith but is in reality a cafeteria Catholic who is opposed to the Magisterium of the Church. And if an ecumenical council ceases to be such if it teaches heresy then what of the validity of the popes who promulgated this putative heresy? Are they now anti popes? So should a future Pope, let’s call him “Innocent Urban I,” declare not only the Council to be a heretical counterfeit whose teachings are null and void, but also declare the post conciliar popes to be anti popes whose entire pontificates should be expunged?? Vigano does not connect his own dots in this matter which is understandable considering that they are not really logical “dots” at all but a mélange of ill-assorted mental fragments. They are the “fragged” remnants of a theology having no Catholic integration remaining.
All of this gives off the stench of schism. He can say all he wants that he is not promoting schism, but his views directly imply schism if one but follow the logic of it all. And I have a newsflash for Vigano and his enablers: Vatican II isn’t going anywhere so if you want to continue urinating on that fire hydrant you are only going to attract other, and less savory, dogs who will do the same, or worse. And if Vigano really is leaning SSPX or even sedevacante in his theology, all the while remaining an archbishop in the Roman Church, then contrary to Taylor Marshall, I think we see who the true “infiltrator” is. The irony of course is that this kind of Golden Corral, buffet line, Catholicism is the very expression of the modernist impulse.
[Sidenote of no relevance to anyone but me: I like Golden Corral (a guilty pleasure that shows I am still in my soul just a blue-collar kid from Nebraska) and do not wish to give it a bad name. But the analogy is an apt one.]
I am sorry Archbishop Vigano, but it is you who must be repudiated, not Vatican II. Are there problems with Vatican II? Of course there are. All Councils leave in their wake certain controversies caused by ambiguous expressions in the documents. To say otherwise is either a manifest lie or a manifest ignorance of history. Vigano says Councils in the past have brought clarity but Vatican II brought chaos. He claims that previous councils haven’t required a “hermeneutic” to decipher them. My goodness, but such a statement scarcely rises to the level of nonsense. Did Nicaea end the Arian controversy? No, it taught against Arius but it did not immediately end the dispute, as Athanasius found out as he battled with Arian emperors and patriarchs suffering numerous exiles for adhering to Nicene orthodoxy. And we still have non-Chalcedonian churches who dissented from that Council. Those early Christological councils were deeply contested affairs full of episcopal and imperial shenanigans. Vigano makes a big deal out of how the liberals “manipulated” Vatican II and the documents. Oh the horror! Really? You mean there were bishops and theologians at Vatican II who weren’t above political maneuvering in order to further their side of the debate? Unprecedented! This entire line of argumentation from Vigano is as brittle as frozen glass and shatters with the slightest prodding of historical knowledge.
This goes as well for his claim that no other Council has ever required a “hermeneutic” to understand it. I hope he does not really mean that and is just trying to score some rhetorical points, because on its face that claim betrays an astounding level of historical ignorance. Those early Christological councils all revolved around heresies that were rooted in certain philosophical schools of thought such as middle Platonism. And in order to combat them the Church had recourse to other philosophical schools of thought. The term “homoousios” is itself not a theological term per se, but one drawn from philosophy and pressed into theological service. Terms such as “nature” and “person” and “substance” were hotly debated with differing schools of thought at play leading to some of the various confusions and disagreements both during the Councils and after. There were in usage both Latin and Greek terms for many of the debated concepts – – terms that many took to be equivalent to each other but weren’t – – a fact which caused many “hermeneutical” problems in how to interpret the conciliar decisions. It took centuries for the dust to settle from those early Councils and to a great extent their decisions are still being debated today among theologians.
But hey… only Vatican II brought confusion and needed a hermeneutic. Vigano is a lawyer and not a theologian and it shows. He is as good at doing theology as I am at throwing darts, which, come to think of it, is what he seems to be doing.
What this shows is that Vigano hasn’t the slightest understanding of the kind of “clarity” magisterial teaching is meant to bring. It does not mean that there will be no more dissent or controversy. Indeed, in “settling” matters by siding with one side of the dispute over others, or in charting a middle path between extremes, magisterial teaching often pisses off all of the parties involved. The clarity magisterial teaching brings is the clarity of truth no matter how it is accepted or rejected. And why it is to be counted as “truth” is precisely that it is magisterial – – a fact that should cause a loyal son of the Church to pause, step back, and to wrestle with it. But Vigano has decided that he, and not the Church, is the gate keeper of tradition and so he rejects the current magisterium rather than choosing to wrestle with it. And in so doing he rejects the internal logic of ALL magisteria in the Church from ALL times. He claims to be defending tradition. He isn’t.
One of the key sticking points in Vatican II for these dissenters from papal and conciliar teaching is the development of the Church’s doctrine concerning religious freedom found in Dignitatis Humanae. This is certainly true for the Society of St. Pius X and it is increasingly true of a growing cadre of radical right-wing traditionalists in the Church, including Vigano and Bishop Athanasius Schneider. And of course, there are the talking head blowhards in the right-wing Catholic blogosphere who are also jumping on this cause.
When I read their missives and watch their podcasts, I can only say that they clearly favor a restorationist agenda that would freeze the Church in time. Go to the Summer/Fall 2013 issue of Communio for a truly profound discussion of Dignitatis Humanae. There you will find real theology and not this mush of muddle-headed anger. There you will find serious theologians grappling with magisterial teaching seeking continuity with the past in order to forge ahead into the future. What they do not do is throw up their hands and say “this is too hard, better to just chuck the whole thing.” That is simply not an option for a faithful Catholic who is not under the spell of a restorationist fever-dream.
Vigano seems to accept the common assumption that Vatican II taught a version of religious indifferentism on the part of the State and that religious freedom is to be affirmed because of a general view of freedom as “personal autonomy.” Thus, so the narrative goes, Vatican II affirmed that the State should not be coercive in matters of religion because it violates this space of autonomy. And he is right to reject such a notion as contrary to the Tradition.
Fortunately, that is not what Vatican II taught and therefore Vigano’s claim that the Council teaches heresy in this matter is simply wrong. There were indeed liberals at the Council, and some Americans, who espoused the erroneous view of freedom in the civil sphere as simple autonomy – – with autonomy defined as the mere absence of coercion. However, despite their best efforts to spin the interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae in their direction, the Council, to its credit, went with the French bishops at the Council who, with the support of folks like Ratzinger and Karol Wojtyla, taught that religious freedom must be respected in a civil sense because freedom is oriented to truth, and more importantly, truth is meaningless without freedom. Ratzinger’s cogent defense of Dignitatis Humanae hinges on this deep relation between truth and freedom as our guiding anthropological rubric. Furthermore, the Council reaffirms the traditional teaching that all human beings have a moral obligation to seek the truth about God, which is precisely why governments should give them the right to do so. Therefore, what we see is that the Council endorsed a fully orthodox view of freedom as a “right” that is rooted in a prior “obligation,” which entails a Christologically grounded positive view of freedom rather than a purely formal Liberal notion of freedom as a neutral entity that merely needs to be “left alone.”
For someone like Vigano to claim that the Council teaches that the State should be indifferent toward religious truth is a sign that he is reading the Council through the lens of his own hermeneutic of rupture because the Council, as almost all reputable theologians note, was in its essence a Christocentric one and not the liberal nightmare Vigano scopes out. Ratzinger, for example, roots his entire analysis of Dignitatis Humanae in the Council’s “Christological concentration” with Christ seen as the only proper metric for defining the true nature of what freedom is. Indeed, the title of this blog “Gaudium et Spes 22” (a paragraph John Paul said was the key to the whole Council) is a reference to the following affirmation in the document:
“The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come,(20) namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.”
For an excellent summation of this conciliar trajectory you really should read the excellent article in Communioby David L. Schindler which you can link to here. You do not have to agree with Schindler’s conclusions (I do) in order to see that, at the very least, Dignitatis Humanae does not teach what Vigano says it does.
These are complicated questions, obviously, and well beyond the scope of a small blog. But for Vigano to reject Vatican II on this issue is a dangerous lean toward an older integralism that is growing again in popularity in the Right-wing Catholic blogosphere. It is also a shift back toward an older, less Christocentric theology, that was rooted in a degraded and degrading scholasticism. Vigano may want to conjure up the spirit of Cardinal Ottaviani, like Saul with the witch of Endor conjuring up the dead Samuel, but most sober theologians, who possess more than Vigano’s third grade understanding of history, understand that such a hard integralism is a dead end. History has shown that when the faith becomes, in a civil sense, merely regulative rather than transformative it is the faith that is distorted.
The fact of the matter is that Christendom failed. It failed because it lacked charity and it too often turned to the power of the State to coercively enforce orthodoxy, often in bloody ways. The rise of secular modernity is as much a result of this failure as it was a repudiation of an order that was “working.” The kingship of Christ as the crucified Lord – – abased and effaced by the power of the State – – was largely ignored and replaced with a Christ of glory who now rules with an iron fisted form of power, deeply coercive, and bristling with visions of Hell and judgement.
And please note that I am not here defending the Liberal order over all forms of integralism. Because ultimately, all governments are integralist and theological in their ultimate orientations, even if those orientations, as in Liberalism, are hidden behind the false mask of metaphysical neutrality. But even in a future post Liberal order, where the Church is more than a “voluntary society” on a par with the rotary club, there can be no question of going back to an era where human dignity in matters of religious conscience was routinely violated. Modern nations that were once the most integralist with a strong Catholic civil presence are now some of the most aggressively secular and anti-Catholic nations on the planet. And those two realities are linked in a cause-effect relationship I think. Vigano, it would seem, wants to return us to that Church of regulative coercive power. But such an approach, were it to be adopted, would be an unmitigated pastoral catastrophe.
My final point deals with the related issue of salvation outside of the visible boundaries of the Church. This is yet another area where Vigano says Vatican II teaches heresy. Sadly, it is also another example of either his ignorance or his mendacity (or, as I suspect, both). Just when you think Vigano can’t sink any lower under the limbo pole of theological dissent he gives us a reading of Lumen Gentium on the nature of salvation that is deeply distorting and false.
He alleges that Lumen Gentium was ambiguous at best about the centrality of Christ for salvation and cites as evidence Lumen Gentium 16. Vigano takes one line from that paragraph, ripped out of its context, and claims that this is evidence of a dangerous religious relativism. Here is the line he quotes:
“But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.”
Prescinding from the question of whether or not this is an apt description of the God of Islam, one is immediately struck by what is missing in the quote. Namely, the rest of the dadgum paragraph that makes it clear that whatever truth there is in other religions it is a truth rooted in Christ, whether those religions realize it or not. The full paragraph makes it clear that Christ is the only metric for adjudicating the presence of such truths in other religions. Thus, the Council is appealing to the very ancient tradition in the Church fathers of finding “logoi spermatikoi” in the philosophical realm of antiquity and in the mythopoetic imagination of other religions. And the Council thus affirms, in accord with the tradition, that even though other religions are “false religions” in a strict sense, they are not, for all that, simply false tout court. It is truly amazing, really, that Vigano does not see this or, for that matter, that it seems he has blissfully ignored the very title of the document which states that Christ is the light of the nations. Wow, how could the Council have been so dangerously ambiguous?
If you are a Vigano sympathizer you most likely view Thomas Aquinas as the ultimate barometer of what counts as true sacra doctrina. Well then, allow me to point out that the quote from Lumen Gentium begins with an affirmation that the peoples of the world are related to Christ in various ways. And in a footnote they reference Aquinas in the Summa (ST III, Q. 8 a. 3 ad. 1). Aquinas is asking the question of whether or not Christ is the head of the whole human race or just the head of those united to him in explicit faith and sacramental baptism. And he answers that yes, Christ is the head of the whole human race and that non Christians are related to Christ in different ways. Specifically, they are related to Christ through living the moral law in a conscientious way, which he views as an implicit affirmation of the Creator, and through living a life of charity. Thus does Aquinas reject the notion that salvation can only happen in an explicit affiliation with the Church through baptism and that the power of Christ’s salvific action extends into the whole world in various ways.
It would seem, therefore, that Vigano is a lousy Thomist. Perhaps Taylor Marshall can enlighten him.
Vigano’s black and white thinking on the issue of non Christian religions is very much counter to the mainstream Tradition of the Church and thus calls into question Vigano’s self-anointed status as the defender of that Tradition. For according to Vigano, the Church should not seek dialogue with other religions or enjoin Catholics to seek out any truth in those religions, because they are, simply and without further qualification, “false religions.” One is entitled to wonder, therefore, how narrowly Vigano defines the parameters of salvation and if what he is claiming is that there is literally no salvation outside of direct affiliation with the Church. The Council affirms the Tradition. Namely, that there is no salvation outside of Christ, that the Church is the ordinary path to salvation, but that there is salvation outside of the visible Church. For Vigano to object to this conciliar teaching leaves him open to the charge of entertaining a literal understanding of extra ecclesiam nulla salus not altogether dissimilar from that of the excommunicated American Jesuit Father Feeney. Vigano loves to chastise modern popes for their deviations from the Tradition so it is instructive to note that Fr. Feeney was excommunicated under the pontificate of Pius XII. Furthermore, no less a papal monarch than Pius IX affirmed the more expansive reading of extra ecclesiam. So Vigano, in claiming allegiance to the “older” Magisterium, has immersed himself in his own boiling cauldron of oil.
Finally, on a theological level, there is grave peril in denying that humanity in general possesses a religious sense that is able to acknowledge, in however an opaque form, certain truths about the Creator. To say that only Christianity possesses truth and that the general religious sense of humanity is just a dung-heap of demonic error is to undercut the very means by which people come to see the truth of Christianity in the first place. St. Paul made use of the statue to the “unknown god” at the Areopagus to appeal to the Greek’s own religious sensibilities as a jumping off point for evangelization. And even though many early Church fathers opposed the entire State enforced apparatus of cultic paganism they nevertheless appealed to the inchoate sense of God that even the pagans possessed. One need look no further than their robust appropriation of Platonic ideas for further corroboration. Grace builds on nature, it does not violently supplant it with something utterly foreign and alien.
There is, therefore, a latent ideological violence in Vigano’s theological assault on the idea that there is truth in other religions. A violence that was the very reality that Vatican II was trying to defang. Vigano hates Vatican II and perhaps now we can see why. In a world torn asunder by balkanized violence the last thing we need from the Church on a pastoral level is an affirmation of a dangerous theological exclusivism that is really just an ideological tribalism in disguise. Vigano’s recipe for “restoring the order” is, tragically, a call to restore an order of coercion and repression whose day has long since passed.
The irony in all of this is that Vigano’s fulminations would have placed him at odds even with the pre Vatican II Magisterium. I have serious doubts that his calumny towards modern popes, and the current Pope in particular, and his rejection of a valid ecumenical council would have been ignored in the older papacies he so lionizes. Furthermore, laymen like Taylor Marshall, as my wife Carrie noted to me this morning, can do what they do precisely because of Vatican II’s universal call to holiness and the related opening up of new pathways for lay participation in the Church. Indeed, Marshall’s book “Infiltration”, with its spittle-flecked orations concerning Freemason corruptions of the Council and the papacy, would most likely have ended up on the forbidden index of books.
In conclusion I would like to address some of the criticisms a few people have sent my way concerning this whole series of blogs on the “low hanging fruit” of these dissenters. I have been asked why it is I have chosen to “go after” people who are only trying to bring people back to the faith and who are really our “natural allies” in the fight against modernism. But this bespeaks a wrong-headed “no enemies to the Right of me” mentality that would have us remain silent in the face of deep errors. Furthermore, it is a question begging criticism since I do not think these people are truly traditional in any sense and are, in fact, heretical, modernist, dissenters from Magisterial teaching. They are not trying to bring people back to the Church. Rather, they are encouraging people to leave the real Church in favor of their counterfeit Church. And THAT Church – – the counterfeit one – – is a false Church and a form of idolatry. They are all obsessed with “Pachamamagate” as a papal endorsement of idolatry. They need to look in the mirror.