The Culture War That Is Tearing the Catholic Church Apart

How church rifts may have inspired the latest accusations against Pope Francis.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis waves during his audience for members of the International Pilgrimage of the Ministrants at St Peter’s Square on July 31 in Vatican City. Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

Carlo Maria Viganò, who was once the Catholic Church’s chief diplomat in the United States, wrote a letter this past weekend stating that Pope Francis and other Vatican officials were involved in covering up sexual abuse committed by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington. Not only did Viganò’s letter arrive in the midst of an already sensitive trip the pope was making to Ireland—which has seen its share of sexual abuse scandals—but it also represented another shot in the long war between Pope Francis and more conservative elements in the church, including Viganò himself. (Viganò, who has cast blame on gay people for the sex abuse crisis, has previously battled with Francis: He lost his job in 2016 amid anger over his handling of the pope’s trip to the United States, which included—thanks to Viganò—a meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.)

Viganò’s specific claim is that Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, punished McCarrick by refusing to allow him certain privileges and that Francis later reversed Benedict’s decision. In response, allies of Pope Francis have pointed out that that McCarrick’s supposed punishment by Benedict has not been proved, and McCarrick continued to do things like give homilies. The pope himself, departing Ireland, stated, “I will not say a single word on this. I think this statement speaks for itself, and you have the sufficient journalistic capacity to draw conclusions.”

To talk about what all this means for Francis and the future of the church, I spoke by phone with Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University and a contributor to Commonweal magazine. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how Francis’ approach to the sexual abuse crisis is and isn’t distinct from Benedict’s, whether we should view the latest developments through the prism of a church culture war, and what the pope should do to respond.

Isaac Chotiner: Does this feel like a hinge moment in the future of the church, in the sense that it will either redefine how people think about Pope Francis or—if the accusations prove out to be wrong—hugely exacerbate the fight between different wings within the Vatican?

Massimo Faggioli: Yeah, I think it is this kind of moment. In this story that has unfolded in the last 24 hours, there are two places that we should look: the church in the West, and the Vatican. Viganò is just using the Western church, and American Catholicism, and the shock caused by the revelations against Cardinal McCarrick, to make his own personal case against the Vatican, which expelled him and didn’t make him a cardinal. That is a very cynical operation, because Viganò has no interest in the American church. The American church is in big trouble, because we don’t know how it will survive when many of the bishops are hated by many Catholics. We don’t know what kind of church this will be.

And then there is the Vatican side, which is more complicated for Pope Francis, because this is where he has to work and govern. This accusation, against 15 Cardinals, three popes—one is dead, one is retired but still alive, and the third one is the sitting pope—is very complicated for the Vatican. The accusations say that those involved occupied the highest positions in the last 20 years.

But remember, in 2011, Viganò tried to smear people in the church with accusations that were unfounded.

What were the accusations?

He was working in the institution that oversaw the governance of the Vatican city-state, and when he was told he was not going to become the president of the institution, and therefore not a cardinal, and be sent away from the Vatican, he became disgruntled and angry at the second in command, Cardinal Bertone, the right hand of Pope Benedict, and made other accusations against people working in the office he was in, and said they were guilty of conflicts of interests and so on. There was an investigation, and they found nothing that was credible. But that never stopped them from sending him to Washington, D.C. So what he published 24 hours ago is not the first time he has done this kind of thing. This time he went for the big target, Pope Francis, even though his real enemies are Pope Benedict’s people.

So is it too simplistic to look at this as a liberal-conservative culture war?

The culture war is part of it because that division in the church between liberal progressives who like Francis and conservative traditionalists who don’t like Francis gave him political support for launching his accusations. He has no interest in the future of the Catholic Church in the West. He is just using the McCarrick case. What he is doing is trying to settle old scores, and the culture war is just an asset, just convenient for him to use.

Tell us more about Viganò as a figure.

I think Viganò represents the part of the right wing of the church that sees the LGBT issue as the defining issue of this millennium, or this century, and this pontificate. They think that anything can and should be done to stop Pope Francis from ushering in a more welcoming church for LGBT people. So in this there is a convergence between Viganò, who has always been obsessed with the gay lobby and gay conspiracy, and the American Catholic right.

To take a step back, how controversial are these new accusations? Does anyone doubt that higher-ups in the church have known much, much more about abuse than they have let on?

We know that many people know, and they have not told what they know for a number of reasons. It is perfectly fair to ask why McCarrick was made archbishop or cardinal. But if you look at the testimony of Viganò, he has made a very selective list of enemies, and they are the enemies he had 10 years ago. And he is using the right-wing rhetoric in the United States against Francis to rally ideological forces that are interested in regime change in the Catholic Church because they think Francis is a heretic. They are not concerned that Francis might be an accomplice in a cover-up. They have waged a war against Francis since his election. It’s a convergence of interests between Viganò and those who are supporting him, including some American bishops, including the archbishop of Philadelphia, who just said Viganò was an admirable nuncio.

How much difference have you seen in the ways Benedict and Francis have dealt with the sex abuse scandal?

There is a difference because if you look at the number of bishops that have been fired, this is something that, before Francis became pope, never happened. You may say we need 10 times as many fired, and I agree, but it is something Francis has done, including in the U.S., and is new. In the Catholic Church, there has been a progression—extremely slow—in decisive measures to prevent and punish. One of the remarkable things about this testimony is that it accuses Pope Francis, who is the only one who took visible measures against McCarrick. He is the only one. John Paul and Benedict: nothing. Viganò says canonical sanctions were imposed on McCarrick, but he traveled and spoke in public. It’s absurd. At some point a few months ago, Francis was given evidence and said this has to stop.

I think Francis has been excoriatingly slow in dealing with the sex abuse crisis, but I don’t think it is fair to say he has done nothing.

What was your takeaway of the pope’s trip to Ireland, generally speaking?

It’s a trip that has been overshadowed by this, of course, and even before this. It is very remarkable because Ireland gave us a very, very powerful picture of the changes in the church over the past 40 years. When John Paul II was there in 1979, it was still a Catholic country, like in the Middle Ages, in the sense of the grip of the church on society, on politics. It took less than half a century to change that completely. Pope Francis is very aware of this and is not afraid of that kind of challenge. But it has been a very difficult trip because of the story of the sex abuse crisis there and the victims there.

It takes courage for a pope to go there, because he didn’t have to, but he decided to. I don’t think this trip is important for a particular speech he gave, or a particular theology, but it is because it is a pope who is unafraid of going to what was one of the most Catholic countries in the world for centuries and is now an example of rapid secularization. It is an example of a church that has to adapt to radically changed conditions without thinking if the past will come back, because this is what some Catholics still think sometimes. Francis’ approach to this is never “The good old times were so good.” That disturbs some Catholics who want to go back to the 1950s. They will not get that from him.

Do you think Francis needs to respond more strongly and deny Viganò’s accusations?

I believe it was a good decision not to address this during the in-flight press conference. I think he will have to address it at some point because this document has made the situation in the Vatican extremely awkward, to say the least, among people who have to work there. As the director of human resources, he will have to address that at some point.

Read more from Slate:
Former Vatican Official Says Pope Francis Covered Up Cardinal’s Sex Abuse for Years
A Prominent Catholic Intellectual on the Sex Abuse Rumors He Never Acted On
Pope Apologizes for Church Sex Abuse, Admits “We Abandoned” the Children
Disturbing Allegations Against Theodore McCarrick Shed New Light on the Depth of the Catholic Church’s Child Sexual Abuse Cover-Up