Thursday, July 04, 2024

Separatist sideshow must not derail Catholic Church reform (Opinion)

The SSPX, the Papacy, and the situation ...

Three weeks ago in this space, I wrote about the organised attempt by extreme traditionalists in the Catholic Church to undermine the reforms that Pope Francis is now anxious to introduce – change that was supposed to be implemented 60 years ago after the Second Vatican Council. 

I mentioned that there are multiple examples of this push-back against Francis by very traditional, very conservative church figures, among them cardinals George Pell, Gerhard Muller and Robert Sarah and archbishops Georg Ganswein and Carlo Vigano.

I suggested too that Francis was nervous that the push-back from traditionalists mentioned above (and others) might lead to a breakdown (or schism) in the Church.

I also mentioned that in 2018 when Francis was returning to Rome after his visit to Ireland, Archbishop Carlo Vigano, the retired papal nuncio in America, issued a statement accusing Francis of knowing that the former Cardinal archbishop of Washington was guilty of sexual abuse but that he had done nothing about it. 

It was a chilling accusation, clearly meant to undermine Francis and his meetings with abuse victims in Ireland. Later, Vigano’s scandalous accusations were shown to be untrue and led to the shedding of his reputation.

While Francis has always encouraged debate during the last six years or so eyebrows were often raised at his extraordinary patience and tolerance in the face of what were very personal, unfair, untrue and sometimes scurrilous attacks on him.

But now the word is that Francis, nervous that those opposing his reforms with such vehemence would tilt the church in the direction of schism, is beginning to use his authority as pope to rein in this small but vicious ultra-conservative separatist side-show that threatens to fragment the unity of the Catholic Church.

Some months ago he removed Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler in Texas for rejecting his programme of reform, accusing him of undermining the faith. And on June 11 last, Francis ordered Archbishop Carlo Vigano to attend a trial in Rome on June 20 at which he would be accused of schism by the Vatican’s doctrinal office and warned him that if he failed to respond by June 28, he would be tried in his absence.

In a direct response to the accusation, Vigano stated that he wouldn’t be attending the Vatican on either date and effectively accepted that he was guilty as charged by stating that he was honoured to be accused of saying that Francis wasn’t the real pope. Worse still, his statement continued, the Second Vatican Council was ‘a moral and liturgical cancer of which the Bergoglian synodal church is a necessary metastasis'. A rough translation of those words is: ‘The Second Vatican Council is a cancer in the Church and the pontificate of Pope Francis is a secondary cancer.'

Even Vigano’s most committed supporters must recoil from such personal abuse but for some time (after Francis demoted him from his position as nuncio in the US) Vigano has form, constantly overturning the consensus of rational opinion in the Catholic Church and beyond.

Here are some examples of some of Vigano’s thinking: he has rejected the Second Vatican Council; he has praised Donald Trump who has used that praise to canvass the votes of American Catholics; he has opposed the use of the Covid-19 vaccines; he has supported and helped spread the present complement of conspiracy theories; he has praised President Putin of Russia; he has refused to recognise Francis as the pope, insisting on childishly calling him Bergoglio – and he’s continually making anti-Francis statements and campaigning against Francis notably in the American Church where he’s being widely promoted at present, notably for the last six years.

And to cap it all, he justifies not turning up to his trial in Rome on the grounds that he owes no obedience or loyalty to Francis because Francis represents a different church – the one founded at the Second Vatican Council! – but he (Vigano) remains a ‘real’ Catholic of the ‘real’ Catholic Church (that preceded Vatican Two). Thus, he argues, Pope Francis has no jurisdiction over him.

The nonsense of this posturing is clear when, to follow Vigano’s logic, it would mean that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI weren’t ‘real’ Catholics either. And what is clearer still is that if, during the pontificates of John Paul and Benedict, Vigano had proposed that either of them wasn’t really the pope because they accepted the legitimacy of Vatican Two, Vigano might have arrived at where he is now in much less than the six years it took Francis to exert his authority.

However, the worry remains that the demented edges of Catholicism would give some credence to the bizarre and grotesque world that Vigano and his acolytes inhabit – and that the added nightmare of a schism would (in some permanent form) emerge from it. But, in the wider Church, I think there’s relief that Francis has at last decided to deal with Vigano, and to close out in so far as it is possible, the danger that well-meaning and fearful people may be taken in by him, given the kind of media coverage that he enjoys.

So what’s to happen to Vigano? If he’s found guilty of schism, in canon law that’s punishable by excommunication and clearly it would be impossible to disprove his guilt at this stage – given that Vigano has stated he is proud of it and given too that the more he’s found guilty, the happier his more extreme supporters will be. Like Trump’s.