Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò faces trial for schism. The outspoken prelate was summoned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to examine the evidence against him on Thursday, 20 June 2024. The announcement was made by the former nuncio himself, who since 2018 has been the protagonist of a series of public complaints about the pontificate of Pope Francis on the state of the Church.

Viganò said he considers this process “an honor.”

The evidence against Viganò is copious. Lots of it already belongs to the public record. Viganò has made many statements that make it impossible for a candid observer not to hear in them repeated denials of elements necessary to maintain communion with the Catholic Church: the denial of Pope Francis’s legitimacy; the breaking of communion with him; the rejection of the Second Vatican Council.

There is something more: last January, Archbishop Viganò may well have attempted to have himself reconsecrated by Bishop Richard Williamson, a holocaust-denier and inveterate malcontent who was one of the four bishops ordained at the hands of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, leading to the schism of the Lefebvrian Society of St. Pius X.

There are sources and comments about this second ordination, but no proof is before the public. If there were evidence, the excommunication would be latae sententiae, and could be declared by competent authority upon ascertainment of the facts.

A trial for the entire traditionalist world?

The trial against Carlo Maria Viganò risks becoming a trial for the entire traditionalist world. In the same hours Viganò made it known that he had been summoned, the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X, founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, made it known that it would soon ordain new bishops. 

The SSPX announcement recalled how Lefebvre himself had “done everything in his power to avoid this consecration, including going to Rome time and again to open the eyes of the ecclesiastical authorities to the severe crisis – perhaps the worst in its history – that the Church was going through,” but “nothing helped.” From there came Archbishop Lefebvre’s dramatic decision to ordain auxiliaries who could guarantee a succession.

The SSPX bishops who succeeded Lefebvre have continued to cause trouble for Rome. The aforementioned Williamson caused a great scandal when reports of his holocaust denialism emerged right around the time Benedict XVI—in an act that was supposed to be a gesture of good will to the schismatic SSPX—lifted the excommunication that had been declared on the four bishops ordained by Lefebvre.

Just so we’re clear on the point, this same Williamson is the one who would have reconsecrated Viganò. It’s no surprise that the Lefebvrians distanced themselves from Viganò and clarified in a statement that Mons. Lefevbre never questioned the Papal legitimacy as he did.

Was the Lefebvrian schism inevitable?

If, for the Lefebvrians, the choice to go to schism was something inevitable, given the conditions, the story seen from the other perspective tells of countless attempts to recompose the possible schism carried out by the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and John Paul II.

So much so that in 1988, the solution seemed close and possible. After a visit to Ecône by Cardinal Gagnon on April 8, John Paul II, in a letter to Cardinal Ratzinger, outlined a proposal that would allow the SSPX to obtain a regular placement in the Church: an agreement – signed in May – regarding the use of the liturgical books approved in 1962 and the constitution of the SSPX as a “Society of apostolic life.” In exchange, Lefebvre promised to obey the Pope and accept Vatican II, also recognizing the validity of the new rites of the Mass.

But the rift was created all the same when Lefebvre, having been refused authorization to ordain a Bishop to succeed him in the Fraternity, recanted and decided to ordain four bishops anyway on June 29, 1988, without the consent of Rome. To avoid the illicit ordination, Pope John Paul II finally granted the authorization. It wasn’t enough. Lefebvre wrote on August 15 that he needed not one but three Bishops. The breakup was inevitable. A lengthy debate began until the excommunication of bishops ordained without Rome’s consent, which Benedict XVI desired, was revoked in 2009.

Pope Francis’ soft and iron hand for the traditionalist world

In recent years, Pope Francis has extended a hand to the Lefebvrians, authorizing SSPX priests to hear confessions during the Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy.

Francis has not extended his hand to the traditionalist movement more generally.

Here, we must be careful not to confuse theological commitment and pastoral priority on the one hand, with questions of governance on the other.

Francis’s is a different method of government. Benedict XVI aimed at communion, accepting the celebration of the traditional liturgy but refusing to compromise on receiving the Council, so much so that to recompose the schism, he asked the Lefevbrians to sign a doctrinal preamble, which they refused.

Pope Francis, however, decided to impose a vision of the Church.

Despite some concessions—for example, to the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, a group of traditionalist clerics whose very existence owes itself to its membership’s refusal to follow the SSPX into schism—recognized by the Holy See, may continue to celebrate according to the ancient rite—Pope Francis is step by step closing every opening to the celebration of the Mass according to the rites preceding the Novus Ordo Missae promulgated by Pope St. Paul VI in 1969.

The rumor of a further crackdown on the traditional Mass, which could treat those who continue to prefer the celebration with the old Mass as schismatics, has probably created panic in the traditionalist ranks. The decision to put Archbishop Viganò on trial further threatens the traditionalist world.

This is even more so since Viganò uses rhetoric lifted from the traditionalist world and defines the Second Vatican Council as an “ideological, theological, moral and liturgical cancer” and the Synodal Church as a “metastasis.”

A “traditionalist crackdown”… or not

But is the trial of Viganò the prosecution of the entire traditionalist world?

It could be, but it’s easy to doubt it.

The Viganò trial concerns his disturbing statements about the Pope and his virtual illicit consecration as bishop by Williams.

It is not traditionalism that is being targeted, but a bishop who, since 2018 has only become more strident—and in point of fact unhinged—to the point of denying the Second Vatican Council and even his communion with the Pope.  To be clear, it was in 2018 Viganò denounced the complicity of many prelates in having covered up the then Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was guilty of many abuses,

“The crisis generates schisms,” said the director of La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana Riccardo Cascioli when giving the news of the re-consecration of Carlo Maria Viganò as bishop in June.

The crisis of the Church

The real question, however, is what crisis we are talking about.

Numbers alone are not enough to certify a vocations crisis, nor is it reasonable to ascribe the vocations crisis simply to progressive drifts that have caused us to lose sight of the focus on God.

There is, instead, a crisis of government in the Church, a modus gubernandi considered tyrannical by persons across an increasingly broad swathe of opinion and sentiment in the Church. In any case, Francis’s style of personal rule has created or exacerbated problems, the management of which has fallen or will fall to others, who will only manage – if they are able to manage at all—with great difficulty.

Increasingly, there is desire among many to come out and begin to contribute to the good of the Church by going beyond this complex government situation.

Archbishop Viganò points at the crisis but probably only identifies its remote causes, which—the historical record amply shows—could be manageable if only the people involved would really manage them.

Ultimately, a practical schism is underway, increasingly evident and already observed in the 1950s by Benedict XVI in the essay “The new pagans and the Church.” For a real schism, much more is needed: it takes a community of faithful who gather around the same liturgy.

Indeed, Viganò’s explosion onto the scene coincides with the traditionalist world’s need to ordain new bishops. He creates a new front when the old schism seeks new strength.

Benedict XVI’s approach was thought to be too soft. However, this harsher approach has also generated trouble, apparently by design.

From the first Vatileaks to present time

Much will depend on Pope Francis’ response to Viganò. In a certain sense, it is a circle that closes, considering that the first Vatileaks cases were born with the leaks of some letters from the then-general secretary of the Vatican governorate, Carlo Maria Viganò. At the time, Viganò was considered a “sheriff,” but undoubtedly honest, faithful to the Church, and a hard worker.

Then, Viganò was appointed nuncio in Washington DC (in a move that was sometimes dubbed as an exile) and finally retired, which made him a more accessible man than he was before. It is unknown whether he had the same ideas before becoming so outspoken. It is known, however, that he was a great defender of the sovereignty of the Holy See, and that he would hardly have made concessions if any decision of his would have put the Holy See at risk.

Now, Archbishop Viganò has gone so far as to ask for the resignation of Pope Francis.

Viganò says he makes the words of Archbishop Lefebvre his own. The risk that a sincere concern for the life of the Church turns into a no-holds-barred fight is very present. What will become of the Church next remains to be seen.

Will there be a schism?

Will there be more than one?

Or, will a way be found to bring everyone together on the anniversary of the Council of Nicaea?

Ultimately, rather than new schisms, we find ourselves faced with a widening of an old schism grappling with a generational change. The old schism has reproduced itself.  The Pope has the task of bringing the Church back to a certain unity of purpose. Otherwise, anything Pope Francis does will foment the very division he says he’d like to avoid.


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