No, the Vatican’s ‘Lettergate’ Scandal Was Not an ‘Unforced Error’

Pope Francis in Saint Peter’s Square, March 14, 2018. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)
The reality of Pope Francis’s legacy so far is confusion and shock.

For the sake of my soul, Holy Week is likely not a good time for a practicing (and sinning) Catholic to express publicly some sharp criticisms of Pope Francis. But I have put this off long enough.

Over a week ago, my colleague and dear friend Kathryn Jean Lopez penned a column defending the pope, on the fifth anniversary of his pontificate and in the face of a Vatican scandal of sorts. The “Lettergate” scandal (about which I have written) concerns the doctoring, by the Vatican’s communications office, of a photo of a letter written by the retired Pope Benedict and its distribution, in manipulated form, to the media. The letter appeared to praise the newly published eleven-volume set on the current pontiff’s theology. The Vatican bureaucrats’ underhandedness had a specific purpose: to portray the traditional Benedict, an intellectual, giving his imprimatur to the liberal Francis, thereby creating a shaddap-a-you-face moment to embarrass the growing number of Francis critics. But the doctoring discovered, it turns out the suppressed content of the letter included a scolding from Benedict about the publication and its process. Per the Associated Press story:

The previously concealed part of the letter provided the full explanation why Benedict had declined [Vatican communications office prefect Monsignor Dario] Vigano’s request that he write a commentary on the books: In addition to saying he didn’t have time, Benedict noted that one of the authors involved in the project, German theologian Peter Huenermann, had launched “virulent” and “anti-papist” attacks against papal teaching during Benedict’s papacy. He wrote that he was surprised the Vatican had chosen the theologian to be included in the 11-volume “The Theology of Pope Francis.”

In her column, Kathryn described what is being called “Lettergate” as an “unforced error . . . wholly unnecessary and typically distracting.” She used that term “unforced error” several times in her piece.

Three things.

One: Kathryn is the soul of generosity, charity, prayerfulness, and kindness. I’d even add holiness. I have the deepest affection for her.

Two: This letter manipulation was not an “unforced error,” which more aptly describes an unguarded point guard unintentionally throwing a ball out of bounds. From the Vatican’s perspective, yes, there was an error — namely, that the manipulation was discovered (by Italian journalist Sandro Magister). And it was more than an error. It was a malicious and mendacious act that intentionally sought to misrepresent and misuse Benedict. It was also an intended attack against conservative Catholics who, had the doctoring not been discovered, would have been disarmed by their long-time hero Ratzinger, the “panzer cardinal,” high-fiving the Argentinian bleeding heart, not over Francis’s work to promote charity (and Francis deserves praise for his efforts to encourage the faithful and rectory-hiding priests to do much more for those in need) but over the very controversies and doctrinal confusion Francis has personally created in his five years of from-the-lip shooting.

Three: The exposed culprit in this skullduggery is one Monsignor Dario Vigano, a Milanese priest and cinema scholar who obviously caught the fancy of Francis, who appointed him prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for Communication, and is said to have had much bigger plans for the fink. As the Lettergate scandal blossomed over the past two weeks, denials proving impossible, Vigano resigned. But despite Vigano’s calumny and the embarrassment (never mind the scandalizing of the faithful and the abuse of Benedict), Pope Francis reluctantly (“not without difficulty”) accepted his resignation, and then retained Vigano in a lesser role in the Vatican communications bureaucracy.

Lettergate obscures the legacy of Francis’s first five years, which KLO maintains is a focus on mercy. And she is right — that has been a primary theme of the pope, and God bless him for it. KLO very much does not want this to get lost in the maelstrom. But whatever his intention may be, the reality of Francis’s legacy is confusion and shock. It includes actions that elicit sheer outrage, such as the Vatican’s kow-towing to Red China, and the pope’s furious comments made against priest-abused Chileans demanding an end to a cover-up by a local bishop — it is hard to imagine the magnitude of fallout from this papal doubling down on the Church’s most painful scandal of our lifetime.

On the whole, this seems like a papacy of forced errors. Let me end with a chunk from Gerald Russello’s review in The Catholic World Report of Ross Douthat’s new book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism:

Over time, Douthat argues, “the papal message has lost any distinctively conservative element, instead offering simply liberalism in theology and left-wing politics — German theological premises, Argentine economics, and liberal-Eurocrat assumptions on borders, nations, and migration.” He fairly and rightly notes that Catholic liberalism is not the same as its Protestant cousin, and so need not lead to the same result as it has in the West — and in a fascinating digression on Jansenism he shows how a liberalizing wing is an important component of Catholic intellectual history. But the tone here is one of lament, and Douthat observes that Francis acted with intentionality in creating what will prove to be a deep and long-lasting crisis, since “he must have known that it did not have to be this way.”

And yet, knowing it did not have to be this way, the pontiff from Argentina did not step away from causing confusion and even crisis. Why? Did he always intend to pursue “a kind of revolution” or has he acted rashly and impatiently, not understanding the consequences? It’s hard, if not impossible, to know. But Francis, Douthat sharply concludes,

has not just exposed conflicts; he has stoked them, encouraging sweeping ambitions among his allies and apocalyptic fears among his critics. He has not just fostered debate; he has taken sides and hurled invective in a way that has pushed friendly critics into opposition, and undercut the quest for the common ground.

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