Pope Francis loves to talk to the press on airplanes. At least, until he doesn’t.
Yesterday, on the return from his weekend trip to Ireland, the pope declined to comment on the news rocking the Catholic Church: the bombshell testimony published by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.
Viganò alleges that he told the pope during a June 2013 meeting about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexual abuse and indiscretions — and that the pope nevertheless went on to lift the sanctions that Pope Benedict XVI had placed on McCarrick several years earlier. Not only that, but he alleges that the pope then brought McCarrick into his inner circle and permitted him to heavily influence the elevation of bishops and cardinals in the U.S.
Understandably, the archbishop’s eleven-page testimony — which implicates a host of Church leaders in addition to the pope in potential cover-ups — has attracted considerable coverage and disturbed Catholics immensely.
But when reporters directly asked Pope Francis about the allegations on Sunday, he offered perhaps the most cagey, mealy mouthed reply imaginable. “Read the statement carefully and make your own judgment,” he said in part. “I will not say a single word about this.”
Is this refusal to comment a tacit admission that Viganò’s claims are accurate, or at least partially so? Opinions on that question vary. What seems irrefutable, though, is that the pope’s non-answer has left the faithful in the dark — and that is inexcusable. If any part of the allegations is inaccurate (or accurate, for that matter), and the pope knows it, he had an obligation to make that clear immediately.
His shameful choice not to do so has left room for reporters and commentators to focus instead on intra-Church politics rather than on the substance of the allegations. The New York Times report yesterday evening, for instance, portrayed Viganò as a disgruntled, anti-gay conservative attacking the pope out of political animus:
Its unsubstantiated allegations and personal attacks amounted to an extraordinary public declaration of war against Francis’ papacy at perhaps its most vulnerable moment, intended to unseat a pope whose predecessor, Benedict XVI, was the first pontiff to resign in nearly 600 years. . . .
Archbishop Viganò, who blames gays for the child abuse crisis that has destroyed the church’s standing in many countries, dedicated entire sections of the letter to outing cardinals who he claims belong to what he characterizes as a pernicious “homosexual current” within the Vatican.
Another Times faith reporter characterized the Viganò testimony similarly: “impt to keep in mind that Vigano and Francis have been political enemies,” Elizabeth Dias wrote in one tweet. “The anti-Francis wing of the church is speaking with new boldness,” she added in another.
Massimo Faggioli, a prominent left-wing Catholic commentator and professor at Villanova University, referred to Viganò as a “terrorist” and gave an interview to Slate in which he attempted to smear Viganò’s character and impugn his motives:
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.
These are utterly transparent efforts to direct focus toward anything other than the substance of Viganò’s allegations. By casting doubt on the moral authority of Church leaders, Viganò’s testimony threatens to undercut the doctrinal changes that many reform-minded Catholics hoped to see under the Francis pontificate. For such would-be reformers, the best recourse is to ignore the claims themselves and instead discredit Viganò personally.
The pope’s total non-reply very obviously, and likely intentionally, gives cover to reporters and sympathetic commentators who wish to do just that: distract from the allegations and focus instead on internecine Church warfare. On a cynical read, the pope’s evasive statement was calculated to encourage onlookers to dismiss his critics as nothing more than politically motivated, anti-gay conservatives.
But only one thing matters right now: Are the allegations true? That is what faithful Catholics want, and deserve, to know. No other question should occupy the minds of anyone covering or commenting on the testimony and its ramifications. Until that question is answered, Church politics can — and must — wait.