Outspoken papal critic risks excommunication for inciting schism

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò has been publicly critical of Pope Francis.

FILE - Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò listens to remarks at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual fall meeting on Nov. 16, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — In a defiant social media post, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, an outspoken papal critic, announced Thursday (June 20) that he had been summoned to the Vatican to answer charges of having committed the crime of schism.

The Vatican’s Department for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, asked that the prelate present himself for an abbreviated canonical criminal trial accompanied by a legal representative.

The Vatican document summons said that Viganò’s public denials of Pope Francis’ legitimacy and his rejection of the reforms of the Second Vatical Council no longer allow him to be in communion with the church.

In a statement posted on the website Exsurge Domine, Viganò didn’t deny the accusation: Referring to the pope, as he often has, by his given name — Jorge Mario Bergoglio — rather than his papal name, the archbishop accused the pontiff of being a “false prophet.” He repudiated the Second Vatican Council, which sought to reconcile the Catholic Church with the changing society and challenges of the 1960s, as “neomodernist errors.”

He dismissed the legitimacy of the trial as well. “I assume the sentence is already ready, given the extrajudicial trial,” Viganò wrote. “I consider the accusations against me to be a matter of honor. I believe that the very wording of the accusations confirms the theses that I have defended on several occasions in my interventions.”

It remains unclear whether Viganò will attend the trial. The Vatican document said that if he would not attend, a Vatican canon lawyer would represent him. If found guilty of schism, he would be subject to “excommunication latae sententiae,” an automatic penalty that would prohibit the prelate from performing and receiving the sacraments.

In 2018, Viganò published a lengthy and fiery letter accusing Francis of having covered for Theodore McCarrick, a onetime cardinal and archbishop of Washington, D.C., after men came forward to accuse McCarrick of having committed sexual abuse. At the time, Viganò said he had repeatedly warned the church hierarchy of the abuse and called for Francis’ resignation.

The Vatican answered by conducting its own investigation into the McCarrick case, which found that the pope had demoted and punished McCarrick when he became aware of the accusations. McCarrick, who was already retired, was defrocked by Francis in 2019. In 2024 a court suspended the trial of the 93-year-old for the abuse of a young man in 1977.

The scandal, however, proved deeply divisive in the church, and Viganò has been living in an undisclosed location.

Viganò, an effective Vatican functionary who once served as papal representative in the United States, slowly moved closer to more conservative and eventually conspiratorial wings of the church and American society. He supported President Donald Trump’s claim that the 2020 election had been fraudulent and more recently hailed Russian President Vladimir Putin as the savior of Christianity, while continuing to attack Francis.

“I repudiate, reject and condemn the scandals, errors and heresies of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who manifests an absolutely tyrannical management of power, exercised against the goal which legitimizes Authority in the Church,” Viganò wrote in his online statement, calling the pope’s management of the church “a self-referential tyranny.”

In recent months, Francis and the Vatican have been cracking down on the Vatican’s most outspoken critics. Firebrand Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, was ousted from his diocese last year after an investigation of his statements criticizing the pope. Strickland’s ouster has not diminished his standing as the de facto leader of the conservative faction in the church.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, another American conservative, was stripped of his pension and forced to leave his Vatican apartment around the same time.

Asked to comment on Viganò’s statement, the second most powerful prelate at the Vatican, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told reporters that the archbishop must answer for his public attitudes and actions.

“I am very sorry because I always appreciated him as a great worker, very faithful to the Holy See, someone who was, in a certain sense, also an example. When he was apostolic nuncio he did good work,” he told Vatican journalists on Thursday.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said.

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