As the days go by it is ever more evident that Francis has by no means dismissed or punished Monsignor Dario Edoardo Viganò, for the way in which he used the letter that Benedict XVI had written to him.
On the contrary, he has confirmed and even reinforced his powers, explicitly renewing his mandate to bring to a conclusion soon the incorporation of all the Vatican media, including “L'Osservatore Romano,” in a “single communications system” entirely under his control, with a direct line to the pope and intended to preserve his image as an exemplary pastor and now also as a sophisticated theologian.
The operation that hinged on Benedict’s letter, in fact, is part of this overall plan.
The origin of the operation dates back to last autumn, when Viganò brought in as head of Libreria Editrice Vaticana a new director, Giulio Cesareo, 39, a Franciscan who studied theology in Freiburg and is a professor of moral theology.
On October 12, 2017, the day of the appointment, the two were at the Buchmesse in Frankfurt. Viganò stated that the change of director at Libreria Editrice Vaticana “constitutes an important building block in the process of reform requested by the Holy Father.” And both announced that the new course of the publishing house would be inaugurated with a series of eleven booklets by as many authors, aimed at “showing the depth of the theological roots of the thought, actions, and ministry of Pope Francis.”
During Christmastime the collection came out in the bookstores of Rome. And the authors include some prominent names of the progressive theological camp, or in any case supporters of the “paradigm shift” set in motion by Francis, like the Argentines Carlos Galli and Juan Carlos Scannone, the Germans Peter Hünermann and Jürgen Werbick, the Italians Aristide Fumagalli, Piero Coda, Marinella Perroni, and Roberto Repole, the Slovenian Jesuit Marko Ivan Rupnik, this last an esteemed artist in addition to being a theologian, as well as for some time the spiritual director of Viganò himself.
Particularly significant in the selection of these authors is that of Hünermann. He is two years younger than Joseph Ratzinger and has spent a lifetime as his implacable adversary, upholding among other things a thesis on the nature of Vatican Council II that Ratzinger himself, after becoming pope with the name of Benedict XVI, felt the need to cite and refute in his memorable address on December 22 of that same year, on the correct interpretation of that Council.
Benedict said, with an implicit reference to Hünermann that did not escape those in the know:
“[By some] the Council is considered as a sort of constituent that eliminates an old constitution and creates a new one. However, the Constituent Assembly needs a mandator and then confirmation by the mandator, in other words, the people the constitution must serve. The Fathers had no such mandate and no one had ever given them one; nor could anyone have given them one because the essential constitution of the Church comes from the Lord.”
As for Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Hünermann has known him since 1968, when he studied in Buenos Aires for a while at the Jesuit college there. And after he became pope they had a long conversation at Santa Marta in May of 2015, in the interval between the two synods on marriage and divorce.
Hünermann related the details of this conversation in an extensive interview with “Commonweal” published on September 22, 2016.
Urged to do so by Latin American friends of Bergoglio, Hünermann sent the pope a written report in which he argued that in Catholic theology before the Council of Trent, especially in Thomas and Bonaventure, the indissolubility of marriage was not an absolute, but the rupture of it was admitted. And the same for the sacramental absolution of adultery, this too admitted even in the continuation of the relationship.
In the subsequent conversation with Pope Francis, the two spoke about this, in Spanish, for an hour. And then came, the year after, the exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” which, according to Hünermann, took this contribution of his to heart.
So then, on January 12 of this year, just after the Christmas celebrations, Viganò sent to Benedict XVI the eleven booklets bundled in a slipcase, together with a letter in which he asked him to write a presentation for the same, praising their contents and recommending that he read them.
Exactly what Viganò wrote in this letter is not known. But its substance can be gathered from the reply letter of Benedict XVI, dated February 7, which for its part afterward did become known.
It is evident what Viganò’s intention was in the request sent to the pope emeritus. It was to wrest from the great theologian Benedict XVI his public approval for the “new paradigm” of his successor, as illustrated, in the booklets, by a cohort of theologians recruited from among the apologists of the new course.
Seeing the contents and authors of the booklets, the impudence of the request that Viganò made to Benedict XVI leaves one astonished.
Entirely negative, in fact, is the reply from Benedict, in the “personal and confidential” letter that he sent to Viganò on February 7.
The pope emeritus refuses to write the “brief and dense theological page” on the booklets as requested of him. He says that he has not read them and will not read them in the future. He expresses his “surprise” at seeing among the authors “Professor Hünermann, who during my pontificate put himself in the spotlight by heading anti-papal initiatives.”
Moreover, in responding to Viganò, Benedict felt the need to reject the “foolish prejudice” according to which he would have been “solely a theoretician of theology who understood little of the concrete life of a Christian today.”
Just as it is unjust, he writes, to think that “Pope Francis would be only a practical man devoid of particular theological or philosophical formation.” Because of course, he insists, he “is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation.”
If there is a desire to recognize a “continuity” between his pontificate and that of Francis, Benedict XVI specifies that such continuity is to be held as “interior.”
What happened next is known. On the evening of March 12, the night before the fifth anniversary of the election of Pope Francis and on the occasion of a lavish presentation at the Vatican - with Cardinal Walter Kasper as the featured speaker - of the eleven booklets, Viganò distributed a press release in which, from the letter of Benedict XVI, he cites only the few lines relative to Bergoglio’s “profound theological formation” and to the continuity between the two pontificates.
And at first Viganò got just what he was after, meaning a solid choir of hosannas, in the media and especially that of Italy, for the presumed public adherence of Benedict XVI to the new course of Pope Francis.
Except for the fact that on the following day, March 13, Settimo Cielo published the other paragraph of Benedict’s letter, the one with his refusal to read and write anything at all of those booklets, a paragraph that was also hastily read in public by Viganò the evening before but was entirely ignored by the two dozen journalists present.
And the storm came. Because the media all over the world now dumped on Viganò the accusation of having constructed and spread a piece of “fake news” of unprecedented gravity, not only with the press release but also with the official photo of the letter of Benedict XVI, with its most troublesome lines blurred out.
The storm reached its highest intensity on the morning of March 17, when once again Settimo Cielo disclosed the last paragraph of the letter, the one with the reference to Hünermann.
In the late afternoon of the same day, Viganò was therefore constrained to make public the complete text of Benedict XVI’s letter.
Two days later, on March 19, he asked in writing for Pope Francis to accept his resignation as prefect of the secretariat for communication.
And on March 21 Francis accepted this, albeit, he wrote, “not without some struggle.”
Their two letters, in reality, both of them made public at midday on March 21, do not indicate the slightest sign of compunction for the unheard-of machination carried out at the expense of Benedict XVI, who is not even mentioned by name.
Viganò, in his letter to the pope, laments only the “many controversies surrounding my action, which, apart from the intentions, destabilizes the complex and great work of reform that You entrusted to me.”
And Francis, in his reply letter, preceded by personal conversations and meetings between the two, does nothing but shower Viganò with praises for the work of reform that he had done until then, and reconfirms his mandate to bring it to completion, in the new role of “councillor” created just for him in the secretariat for communications.
But getting back to Benedict XVI’s letter of February 7, it is helpful to examine more closely his reference to Hünermann.
He recalls that he “participated to a significant extent in the promulgation of the ‘Kölner Erklärung,’ which, in relation to the encyclical ‘Veritatis Splendor,’ attacked in a virulent manner the magisterial authority of the pope especially on questions of moral theology.”
In effect, the “Cologne Declaration” was a frontal attack launched in 1989 by numerous theologians, mostly German, against the teaching of John Paul II and his prefect of doctrine Joseph Ratzinger, above all on the subject of moral theology.
The protest was detonated by the appointment as archbishop of Cologne of Cardinal Joachim Meisner, the same one who in 2016 was among the signers of the “dubia” submitted to Pope Francis concerning “Amoris Laetitia” and about whom in 2017, on the day of his burial, Benedict XVI wrote profound and touching words.
The signers of the “Cologne Declaration” included the Who’s Who of theological progressivism, from Hans Küng to Bernhard Häring, from Edward Schillebeeckx to Johann Baptist Metz. And there were two of the authors of the present-day eleven booklets on the theology of Pope Francis: Hünermann and Werbick.
The ideas of the “Cologne Declaration” met with a reaction from Pope John Paul II in 1993, with the encyclical “Veritatis Splendor.”
Which, however, is never cited by Francis in “Amoris Laetitia.” While vice-versa “Amoris Laetitia,” in paragraphs 303-305, takes up and makes its own some of the ideas of the “Cologne Declaration,” especially where, in its third and last points, it assigns judgment in moral decisions to conscience and to the responsibility of individuals.
In that same third point, the “Cologne Declaration” makes a frontal attack on the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” of Paul VI and asserts the permissibility of contraceptives. And on this point as well, Bergoglio’s pontificate is moving in the same direction.
On the contrary, in what may be the most expansive and meditated text published so far by Benedict XVI after his resignation from the papacy, in a multi-author book on John Paul II published in 2014, the pope emeritus does not hesitate to identify precisely “Veritatis Splendor” as the encyclical of that pontificate most crucial for the present time. “To study and assimilate this encyclical,” he concludes, “remains a great and important duty.”
It is no coincidence that three of the five “dubia” submitted to Francis by several cardinals in 2016 concern precisely the risk of abandoning the foundations of moral doctrine reiterated by “Veritatis Splendor.”
Nor is it a coincidence that Ratzinger recalled, in his letter to Viganò, none other than the opposition to the principles of “Veritatis Splendor” on the part of the theologians of the “Cologne Declaration,” who have now been brought resoundingly back into favor by Francis.
A pope whose “continuity” with his predecessor can truly be, at this point, entirely and solely “interior.”
POSTSCRIPT – On March 25, in Saint Peter's Square, in the homily for Mass on Palm Sunday, Pope Francis imparted this lesson to those who make fake news "in moving from the facts to an account of the facts":
"It is the voice of those who twist reality and invent stories for their own benefit, without concern for the good name of others. It is the cry of those who have no problem in seeking ways to gain power and to silence dissonant voices. The cry that comes from 'spinning' facts."
The pope said this without blushing, as if forgetful of what was done a few days before in his own household, with the letter of Benedict XVI.