News Analysis

Pope Francis Embraces Silence as Calls Grow for Response to Allegations

Pope Francis last week at the Vatican.CreditCreditGiulio Origlia/Getty Images

ROME — As a clamor builds for Pope Francis to respond to the stunning allegations by his former ambassador in Washington that he covered up abuse and lied about a meeting with a prominent opponent to same-sex marriage, the pontiff has extolled the virtues of silence.

Speaking in a Monday morning homily at the Vatican, Francis said, “With people who don’t have good will, who seek only scandal, who want only division, who seek only destruction — including within the family: silence, prayer.”

He added that “the truth is humble, the truth is silent” and concluded with the prayer, “May the Lord give us the grace to discern when we should speak and when we should stay silent.”

So far, Francis has stuck with silence since the allegations first shook the church on Aug. 26.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former Vatican ambassador, accused the pope of knowing about sexual misconduct by an American cardinal, Theodore E. McCarrick, with adult seminarians years before the abuse became public. Archbishop Viganò also said that Francis lifted sanctions on the cardinal that he claimed had been imposed by his predecessor, Benedict XVI. Those allegations remain unproven.

On the day of the publication of the bombshell letter containing the allegations, reporters inquired whether the allegations were true.

“I will not say a single word about this,” Francis said aboard the papal plane, returning from a trip to Ireland. “I believe the statement speaks for itself. And you have the journalistic capacity to draw your own conclusions. It’s an act of faith. When some time passes and you have drawn your conclusions, I may speak.”

That moment has clearly not yet come, and Benedict and other Vatican officials who may be in possession of the information to clear up the mystery — one way or the other — have followed his lead. The silence has made it exceedingly difficult to draw any conclusions.

But if Francis’ rumination on the dignity of silence was intended to prompt his critics to also hold their tongues, that seemed a prayer unlikely to be answered.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò saying Mass in Chicago in 2014.CreditPool photo by Charles Rex Arbogast

Archbishop Viganò has shown no signs of letting up in his public campaign to force the pope’s resignation, and his conservative allies in the United States and Rome have sounded doubts about the pope from their pulpits, conservative Catholic media outlets and social media platforms.

The pope lamented this often-hostile ecosystem in April, when he wrote witheringly in an apostolic exhortation about the tone of the discourse in the conservative Catholic blogosphere.

“Christians, too, can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet,” Francis said, citing vicious examples of defamation in some Catholic outlets. “Here we see how the unguarded tongue, set on fire by hell, sets all things ablaze.”

But it is a conflagration that Francis himself may have facilitated.

Critics argue he has enraged conservatives in the church by disregarding traditions, but also with a leadership style that led one critic to title his book about the Francis papacy, “The Dictator Pope.”

The pope’s supporters instead interpret the open dissent and remarkable broadsides against Francis as a result of frustrated conservatives, unaccustomed to being out of power, coupled with a pope who is willing to give even his harshest critics much more leeway than his recent predecessors.

The notion of the pope as the embodiment of church orthodoxy emerged only in the 19th century, according to Massimo Faggioli, a professor of historical theology at Villanova University and a contributor to liberal Catholic journals.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Pope Pius X ordered a purge of Catholic theologians taking a modernist approach to teaching the Bible. Smaller purges took place under Pope Pius XII, whose papacy stretched from 1939 to 1958. But it was with the election in 1978 of Pope John Paul II, himself a theologian, that disagreements within the church took on the stigma of unholy dissent.

With Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Benedict XVI, as John Paul II’s doctrinal watchdog, the Vatican actively investigated and silenced theologians with a different vision of the church. They made it hard for progressive theologians to find jobs at ecclesiastical universities unless they got on board with the Vatican’s view of the church. When he became pope, Benedict ordered the removal of the editor of a Jesuit journal, America Magazine, because it entertained ideas anathema to conservative orthodoxy.

Mr. Faggioli said that under John Paul and Benedict, “the message was: ‘Free thinking is not welcome here, and if you keep doing this it is going to be bad for you and your career.’ ”

Conversely, Pope Francis, he said, “is not doing anything to stop” theologians. Mr. Faggioli argued that, as a Jesuit, Francis wants to foster debate so a spirit of discernment can lead people to the truth. “Francis had encouraged in the church an openness of opinions,” he said.


Pope Francis greeting Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, at a multifaith gathering in New York in 2015.CreditJin Lee-Pool/Getty Images

Some of the pope’s most high-profile critics have made the most of this leniency, at times challenging the very premise of papal authority.

Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, an American Vatican official who is the global leader of traditionalists critical of Francis, was a featured speaker at a Rome event in April about confusion under Francis.

In his speech on the limits of papal authority, Cardinal Burke, an expert in canon law, argued if a pope failed to act in conformity with church revelation, scripture and tradition, his actions “must be rejected by the faithful.” Without specifically mentioning Francis, he argued that a pope’s authority was not “magical, but derives from his obedience to the Lord,” and that the actions of a “heretical or sinful” pope were “void.”

Archbishop Viganò sat in one of the front rows of the event and apparently took that message to heart. While he did not hide in private settings his distaste for Francis and the direction in which he was taking the church, his going public against the pope was another matter. People who have spoken with him in the last few weeks said he did not take the decision lightly.

“He is a diplomat who was taught to be silent his whole life,” said Marco Tosatti, the conservative journalist who helped him draft the letter accusing the pope. “And there was an oath that he broke doing this.”

But by being so outspoken, Archbishop Viganò has also essentially ensured his protection from censure. Punishing the archbishop now would fuel speculation Francis has something to hide.

Instead, Francis has relied on some outspoken American bishops and an army of progressive Catholics online to defend him. His most active lieutenant, Rev. Antonio Spadaro, the editor of a Jesuit journal, La Civiltà Cattolica, has in the past accused American conservative Catholic bishops of damaging the church by making common cause with American evangelicals to further political interests.

Much of the critique of Archbishop Viganò has been seen through this lens, and the pope’s supporters argue that any response would only give oxygen to critics who are less interested in the truth than in exploiting the sex abuse crisis to slow down Francis and his agenda.

On Sunday, Father Spadaro brought Rev. Federico Lombardi, a former papal spokesman, out of retirement and onto his journal, which is vetted by the Vatican Secretariat of State before publication. Father Lombardi immediately joined the fight, issuing a statement that same day claiming Archbishop Viganò had deceived the pope in arranging a private meeting in 2015 with Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who became a national icon for opponents of gay marriage.

The pope, however, has remained mum, preferring to let the Gospel do the talking.

“Jesus responds with silence before those ‘who wanted to throw him out of the city,’ ” he said during a Mass on Monday, adding that Jesus’ stance reflected a “silence that triumphs.”

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