The Power Play Driving the Latest Vatican Crisis

An explosive letter calling on the pope to resign may say more about its author than anything else.

At a church in Ireland, Pope Francis sits and prays in front of a candle lit to remember victims of abuse.
At a church in Ireland, Pope Francis prays in front of a candle lit to remember victims of abuse. (Stefano Rellandini / Reuters)

“In this extremely dramatic moment for the universal Church … Pope Francis must be the first to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up [Cardinal Theodore] McCarrick’s abuses and resign along with the rest of them.” That was the stunning message of a letter, sent by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, that has been roiling the Catholic world since it was published in several traditionalist Catholic news outlets on Saturday. At turns moralistic and conspiratorial in tone, erratic in its deployment of facts, and written with the aid of a conservative Italian Vatican reporter, Viganò’s letter alleges a papal cover-up in the Church’s sexual-abuse scandal. So far, the pope has insisted to reporters that he would not “say a single word about” the letter, which has left him in a painful situation.

But the letter is a power play by Viganò as much as a cri de coeur calling for a cleanup of the Church. And it may ultimately say less about the Church’s victims than it does about the man who wrote it.

In June, Pope Francis ordered the removal of Cardinal McCarrick—a former archbishop of Washington, one of the highest-ranking members of the Catholic Church in the United States, and, as it happens, a great supporter of Francis—from ministry, after an investigation involving the Vatican alleged the cardinal had sexually abused a teenager in the early 1970s. It was the first time in nearly a century that a pope had demoted a cardinal, and was seen as a sign of Francis’s resolve to tackle the sexual-abuse crisis that has been eroding the Catholic Church’s moral authority since cases first began coming to light in the early aughts.

On August 25, Francis was wrapping up his first visit as pope to Ireland, a country struggling with its own grim legacy of abuse by clergy and religious orders. That was when Viganò, a former Vatican ambassador to the United States with a history of tension with Francis and a reputation as one of the Vatican’s loosest contemporary cannons, published the 11-page letter, in which he made his unprecedented call for Francis’s resignation.

Viganò claimed Francis had ignored his and others’ warnings about McCarrick’s patterns of inappropriate behavior toward seminary students and alleged that Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had placed sanctions on McCarrick in 2009 and that Francis had subsequently removed them. (Over decades, McCarrick allegedly told more than a few seminarians to call him “Uncle Ted” and welcomed them into his bed, The New York Times reported in a detailed account this summer.) Viganò did not provide evidence in his letter of Benedict’s sanctions or of Francis’s response to them, but he did name a lot of names, and mapped out what he called a “homosexual current” inside the Vatican, which he said needed to be rooted out.

Viganò has not explained his motivations, and the Italian journalist who helped him write the letter told the Times that Viganò had “disappeared,” fearing for his safety. But it’s worth noting his tense history with Francis. The pope sidelined Viganò after the archbishop foisted a Kentucky county clerk who had refused to grant same-sex marriage licenses into a photo op with the pope during his 2015 visit to the United States, a move that added a dissonant note to a pastoral visit. Italian media reported that the pope had even had Viganò evicted from a cushy Vatican apartment after his demotion.

His letter has nevertheless kicked a hornet’s nest of questions that Francis cannot ignore and triggered a moral crisis in his papacy, especially coming just weeks after a damning grand-jury report in Pennsylvania revealed decades of sexual abuse by priests and a cover-up by church authorities, further eroding trust in the Catholic Church.

The questions fit the pattern of those raised by every abuse case to come to light in recent decades, which generally fall into these lines: Who knew what when? Who acted and didn’t act? Who treated abuse as a sin and who as a crime to be punished? And who in the Vatican hierarchy was aware that abuse cases were to be taken seriously, not to be dismissed as calumnious attacks on church officials? More specifically, in this case: What exactly did Francis know about McCarrick? Did Benedict indeed sanction the then-cardinal in 2009, and if so, why weren’t those sanctions applied?

McCarrick was a well-respected figure, known as a voice of moderation, interreligious dialogue, and international diplomacy—he traveled to China to suss out the situation with Catholics there—and he routinely traveled to the Vatican and attended conferences around the world, including after 2009, so if there were sanctions, they certainly weren’t made public. (I came across the cardinal in Rome several times when I was reporting on the Vatican.) After Viganò’s letter appeared, footage surfaced of Viganò honoring then-Cardinal McCarrick in 2012, six months after when Viganò said he had been told that Benedict had sanctioned the cardinal. If Viganò had any issues with Cardinal McCarrick then, he must have kept them to himself.

Back in 2012, Viganò had other things on his plate. He was vocal to the Italian media in alleging that he had been sidelined by the Vatican’s then–secretary of state for trying to root out corruption in Vatican City State, of which he was then a top administrator. Later that year, Viganò became a key figure in “Vatileaks,” in which hundreds of documents, including many by Viganò, were leaked to a muckraking journalist who put them in a book. They alleged a shadowy gay network and financial mismanagement at the Vatican. (The journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi, called his source only “Maria.” Tried in a Vatican court, the pope’s butler ultimately took the fall for the leaking.) Benedict was never a strong manager, and Italian Vatican experts reported that the Vatileaks crisis contributed to his decision to become the first pope in modern history to resign. At the height of the scandal, some commentators saw it as an attempt by traditionalists inside the Church to undermine the pope.

The same dynamic also emerges in the Viganò letter. Regardless of the veracity of his claims, his vitriolic, gloves-off style is rare in Vatican controversies. At one point, the archbishop describes Francis’s actions as “deceitful,” an unusually strong term for a Vatican official to lob at a pope to whom he has sworn an oath of loyalty. In his letter, Viganò also maps out of what he calls “homosexual networks” that he says are ruining the Vatican and the Church. The allegation may be news to some, but certainly won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s spent any time at the Vatican. Whether the names Viganò singles out in the Vatican hierarchy are “active homosexuals,” as he alleges, there is no doubt that homosexuality is rampant in the Vatican, in spite of Catholic doctrine forbidding it.

When I asked Andrea Tornielli, a veteran Vatican reporter for the Turin daily La Stampa and the website Vatican Insider, about the letter, he saw straight through it. “It’s a political and media maneuver of ecclesiastical power.” It comes, he said, from the same traditionalist faction that about a year ago tried and failed to impeach the pope over his attempting to open the door to allowing remarried divorcées to receive the sacraments. (It’s a complex theological debate, but Francis has prevailed over his critics on the matter.) “Now they’re trying to do it by formally asking for his resignation for a presumed cover-up of Cardinal McCarrick.”

This week, Tornielli published a detailed analysis of Viganò’s letter, arguing that it was full of selective omissions. Tornielli noted that Pope John Paul II had made McCarrick a cardinal, although it’s unclear how much that pope had known about McCarrick’s failings; and that Benedict, even if he did sanction McCarrick, didn’t seem to mind that McCarrick turned up at the Vatican on several occasions and posed for photos next to him. It was Francis, he pointed out, who had banned McCarrick from ministry. So why, Tornielli asked, was Viganò calling for Francis’s head? “Probably because Francis had ‘dared’ to appoint in the United States some bishops who are less conservative than those previously appointed, when it was cardinals like Bernard Law who advised on the American appointments,” Tornielli speculated.

After being run out of Boston for his role in the cover-up of the sexual-abuse crisis there, Law, who died this year, was a power player on the Vatican committee that named bishops—much to the dismay of victims and their families.

In addition to highlighting intrigue at the Vatican, the letter also exposes deep fault lines inside the Catholic hierarchy in the United States—what Ross Douthat in the Times has called “the Catholic civil war.” Viganò writes that Francis told him “the bishops in the United States must not be ideologized, they must not be right-wing.” This is another key passage. While the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has few significant differences of opinion on doctrine, there are differences of tone and approach. Francis is more pastoral and less disciplinarian, and certainly less interested in the Church being on the front lines of culture wars over issues such as abortion and birth control. Others in the U.S. hierarchy—let’s call them the “Fox News bishops”—want the Church to be in the thick of the debate. Many traditionalist Catholics find Francis too liberal, too interested in social justice. As the ambassador in Washington, Viganò had pushed at the Vatican for the appointments of more combative bishops in the United States. After the Viganò letter appeared, some U.S. bishops came out in defense of Francis, and others decidedly did not. (Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, a traditionalist known for his penchant for wearing a vestment with a long red flowing train, said Viganò’s calls for Francis’ resignation were “licit.”)

McCarrick has retired from public life. When Elizabeth Bruenig of The Washington Post knocked on his door in Washington this week to try to get a comment, no one opened, so she left her card on the windowsill. Someone from the Washington diocese called her editor to complain that she’d stopped by. “I regret that,” she wrote. “I don’t ever want to cause anyone any fear. Yet I can’t ignore the emails and calls and letters I receive daily from vulnerable, shaken Catholics asking: Is this true? They deserve—we deserve—an answer, no matter how embarrassing or painful or damning the truth may be for countless members of the hierarchy.”

How Francis responds will define his papacy.