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Vatican Investigates Heralds of the Gospel: A Cautionary Tale

Cognitive dissonance: You can’t play Catholic in NuChurch

Since the opening weeks of the Amazon Synod, we are presented with increasing evidence that, for the time being, at least, the Catholic organization that wants to stay completely free to practice the religion of its forefathers must have as little as possible to do with the episcopate or the authorities in Rome. In short, if you want to be allowed to carry on being Catholic, don’t look for “canonical status” for your group. At least for now.

A case in point is the announcement, just days before the Amazon Synod took away everyone’s attention, of a Vatican “pontifical commission” being dispatched to oversee the Heralds of the Gospel, the Brazilian group that broke away from Tradition, Family, and Property in the late ’90s to seek pontifical approbation. The Heralds rejected the traditionalist position, adopted the Novus Ordo Mass, and were accepted by an eager John Paul II in 2001 as an International Association of Pontifical Right. As Rorate Caeli put it, “[t]hey are not Traditionalists, they only ‘beautify’ the Pauline new liturgical creation in order to make it look ‘Traditional,’ and that is why they have spread widely in the world.”

Before proceeding I would like to sound a note of caution: these are uncertain times and we must not make unsupported assumptions. Given the vast amount of disinformation and confusion regarding nearly every aspect of Catholic life in the age of the internet, now gravely exacerbated by the advent of Bergoglio and his team, we must start with a hefty caveat: this is not intended to be anything like an in-depth piece on the justice or injustice of any charges, or even rumors, regarding the Heralds of the Gospel. I have no means at the moment of clarifying or confirming anything regarding the Heralds’ current situation or practices. I certainly encourage anyone who has firsthand information to contact me, but in this piece, it seems wiser just to examine the facts and reserve judgment for now.

We know we can’t trust the Bergoglian Vatican, especially in the persons of the prefect, secretary, and staff of the Congregation for Religious. However we also know that the Church has been badly burned in the recent past by “conservatives” and even traditionalists unthinkingly defending particular groups based on nothing more than perceived membership in “our” faction.

Things are, to say the least, very often not what they seem. Rorate notes, “We have heard from very trustworthy sources who used to be on the inside some very strange quirks about the Heralds of the Gospel” but adds that the prefect of the Congregation for Religious, the “ultra-liberal” Cardinal Aviz, is from the same country as the Heralds, so there is “heightened hostility” toward the group in Rome that is likely shared by Pope Francis.

Whatever the questions of fact regarding the reasons for the Vatican’s investigation, one thing becomes clear in this group’s history: their situation is further evidence that you can’t be fully Catholic and at the same time adhere to the New Paradigm of Bergoglian Novus Ordo Conciliarism. The history of the Heralds of the Gospel, founded by Msgr. João Scognamiglio Clá Dias, specifically to reject the traditionalist critique of Vatican II and the New Mass, shows that the compromises they made with the New Paradigm to purchase papal approval and their canonical status as a religious order are very much coming back to bite them today.

In short, having made what we must now identify as “papal positivism” a foundational principle, they have painted themselves into a corner. By adopting this idea during the giddy-for-conservatives days of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, they find themselves now faced with the shared conundrum of the whole “Catholic conservative” world: “How could the pope really be the pope if the pope is always right and is now also Bergoglio?”

Just the facts

The commissioner was appointed at the end of September after the Congregation received the report of an apostolic visitation that began in 2017. Vatican News reported that the commissioner was appointed over concerns about irregularities in “the style of governance, the life of the members of the Council, vocation ministry, the formation of new vocations, the administration, the construction management and resource management and fundraising.” Clá Dias stepped down as superior but maintains his status as the revered “father” and founder of the organization. Pope Francis appointed a joint commission, headed by Archbishop Raymundo Damasceno Assis, emeritus of Aparecida, assisted by Bishop José Aparecido Gonçalves de Almeida and Sister Marian Ambrosio, IDP.

The Heralds were founded in Brazil as a breakaway group by Msgr. Clá Dias after the death of Tradition, Family, and Property Association (TFP) founder Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira. Technically, the Heralds of the Gospel is an International (lay) Association of Pontifical Right (1999), made up mainly of younger people, living a life of celibacy and devoted full time to apostolic works, residing in separate houses for men and women. They say their spirituality “is based on three essential points: the Eucharist, the Virgin Mary, and the pope.”

The Heralds include a branch of cooperators for married laity and clergy who do not do full-time apostolic work. That group gave rise to two other organizations, the Virgo Flos Carmeli, a Clerical Society of Apostolic Life (the same status as the FSSP) and the female branch, Regina Virginum. The groups stand out at events in their rather odd habits, styled on the outfits of medieval crusader orders, with some distinctively modern touches.

The Heralds enjoyed an explosive growth after abandoning traditionalism and embracing the “conservative” compromise, enjoying the enthusiastic support of the “conservatives” John Paul II and Benedict XVI and swiftly moving on to include ordained members as well as men and women in canonical religious vows — now in 78 countries. Currently, according to Marco Tosatti, they include several thousand celibate lay members, about 800 priests, 2,000 vowed women, and more than 700 seminarians.

Getting mercied

The group’s run-in with the Bergoglian Vatican seems to have been made semi-officially public with a report, published originally on June 14, 2017 by La Stampa’s Andrea Tornielli, the journalist known as the pope’s mouthpiece in the Italian press. However, it followed a piece by Marco Tosatti warning that the clash was coming. Tosatti wrote, “After the Franciscans of the Immaculate and the missionaries of the Incarnate Word, the Congregation for Consecrated Life is ready to send an apostolic visitor also by the Heralds of the Gospel, a reality founded by a disciple of Plinio Correa de Oliveira. The reasons are not clear. But they have in common with the other clerical associations in the crosshairs, three points: linked to tradition, rich in vocations and with many goods in dowry.”

A week later, Tornielli confirmed the basic facts, without refraining from taking a little swipe at his rival Tosatti, saying, “[S]ome sought to mislead the investigation, by attempting to frame the decision of the Congregation for Religious in a non-existent witch hunt against those more traditional and conservative associations.” Tornielli’s piece was widely picked up by other sources and said the group believes that Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “while sitting next to the Virgin Mary in the sky, is also regulating climate change and working in favor of Pope Francis’ imminent death.” Tornielli wrote that the group operates “a sort of secret and extravagant cult to a kind of trinity composed of Plinio Correa de Oliveira, his mother Donna Lucilia, and Monsignor Clá Días himself.”

Tornielli’s original piece appears to have since been removed from La Stampa’s website (without an editorial note explaining why), but given that he is the Italian journalist considered closest to the Bergoglian regime, it seems likely that he was operating from inside information, whether true or not. (A copy of the original piece remains here in English and a modified version of the La Stampa piece here, in Italian.) The La Stampa report was published on the same day Msgr. Clá Dias stepped down with a letter that did not mention any of the allegations.

The SSPX covered the controversy in a dispatch that carried the Tornielli accusations uncritically, calling them “absurdities supported by the leaders of the Heralds of the Gospel.” The SSPX report includes some details from the lost Tornielli article:

A recent video, recorded in the presence of the knights, shows Bishop Clá Dias and his priests speaking of their use of self-made exorcist rituals, as they believe those of the Catholic Church to be ineffective. To drive out the devil, the Heralds of the Gospel pronounce several formulas including, ‘May the curse of Monsignor João fall on your head’.

The video also reveals the very secret nature of the cult they practice towards Plinio and his mother Lucilia. It shows Bishop Clá Dias giving credit to delirious theories and encouraging his priest to do as much. Who is the source of these pseudo-revelations? According to the now resigned bishop, it is the devil himself speaking to the knights, during the many exorcisms they practice without much discernment.

One of the highlights of the video — a real piece of evidence for the file — is when Bishop João Clá tells the enthusiastic priests what the devil supposedly said about the Holy See and Pope Francis. Some choice morsels of these statements from Hell: ‘The Vatican? It’s mine, mine!’; or ‘[the Pope] does whatever I want, he’s stupid!’; and we mustn’t omit his reference to the deceased founder of the TFP: ‘Plans depend on God and Dr. Plinio,’ who ‘is encouraging the death of the Pope’; and lastly, the identity of Francis’ successor: ‘Cardinal Rodé, the next pope’; he will ‘be good.’

The mainstream secular media had a Dan Brown–style field day over this, running extravagantly dishonest headlines. A taste of these include the British tabloid The Daily Mail with “Vatican launches probe into group of exorcists who ‘made a pact with Satan over the death of Pope Francis’” and The Sun: “DATE WITH THE DEVIL Exorcists ‘made a pact with Satan to kill Pope Francis’…now the Vatican has launched an official investigation.” (All-caps in the original.) To their shame,, a “conservative” Catholic news website, carried the same kind of coverage, gleaned from the scandal sheet The Daily Beast, calling the Heralds a “secretive cult that may have made a pact with the devil[.]”

Whatever the truth of this peculiar story, the Heralds took the threat seriously and published a flat denial on all their websites in the various languages, accusing Tornielli of being a “chameleon” who changes his ideological tune with every pontificate, of fomenting schism and asking why he would suddenly choose to attack them. “These are outdated accusations; all of them having been answered and duly refuted according to the dictates of strictest Catholic doctrine.” They laid the blame at the feet of a married couple who had formerly been associated with the Heralds and Opus Dei, who the Heralds say have abandoned their principles and now attack the groups with which they were once associated.

“The author [Tornielli] revives old and hackneyed denouncements against Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira related to the veneration that many had for him in life, as well as to the private devotion towards his mother, D. Lucilia. Now, Msgr. João Scognamiglio Clá Dias, founder of the Heralds of the Gospel, is the target of the same attacks.”

The group protested strongly that they have always enjoyed close ties with the Roman pontiff throughout their history. This denial was published June 20, and the Vatican’s investigation began three days later.

It is clear, however, that the advent of the Bergoglian pontificate has presented the Heralds with a crisis. An article published by the non-Catholic Philosophy Documentation Center of Bowling Green State University commented, “The pontificate of Pope Francis has led the Fundadores [TFP in Brazil] in a direction increasingly critical of the Vatican, while the Heralds of the Gospel remain a religious order within the Catholic Church and have tried to adapt to the agenda and style of the new Pope [Francis].” But apparently the strain of the “conservative” cognitive dissonance attempting to swallow the blue Bergoglian pill might turn out to have been too much.

Nevertheless, the group continues its adherence to the party line, issuing a wordy statement in response to the announcement of a Vatican commission, even hinting at possible legal action to be taken in response to some of the more outrageous headlines:

Some organs of the media, nonetheless, have attempted to misrepresent the official words of the Holy See by giving to understand that the action taken has the character of a penal sanction and that it would include even more investigations[.] … However, with the rapidity that news nowadays spreads, these distorted reports — fake news — have quickly been disseminated through the Internet to the detriment of the image and reputation of the Institution to such an extent that it could lead to the filing of compensatory claims. …

Beseeching the maternal and infallible help of the Virgin Mary, the Heralds of the Gospel are at the disposal of the competent authorities with a spirit of filial and confident transparency, certain that this new phase will be an occasion to witness to their uninterrupted affective and effective communion with the Holy See and with the bishops, successors of the Apostles.”

The Heralds and TFP

Following the announcement of the resignation of Msgr. Clá Dias, the Rome Bureau of Tradition, Family, and Property made the statement which made their dislike of the Heralds clear, and gave the reasons for it. They said their founder Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “a Brazilian thinker and man of action gave rise to a reality that was entirely different from that of the Heralds of the Gospel.”

“Although a provisional judicial ruling in Brazil has given [the Heralds] legal possession of the TFP there and in some other countries, the Heralds of the Gospel do not continue the thought, practices, and action that characterized Prof. Plinio Correa de Oliveira, the moral founder of this vast spiritual family.”

Simply put, TFP, while abjuring schism, is a traditionalist organization that remains critical of the Second Vatican Council and certain papal actions since the close of the Council. A more succinct illustration of the difference between “conservative” collaboration with the New Paradigm of Vatican Twoism and traditionalist Catholicism — and the need for these distinctions to be clearly made — could not be asked for.

TFP distanced themselves even farther from the “conservative” position, saying, “Numerous people who followed Prof. Plinio Correa de Oliveira for decades … unanimously testify to the fact that nothing similar to the stories narrated in the videos and news items circulating about the Heralds of the Gospel ever occurred in the presence of the Brazilian TFP’s founder, or, to the best of their knowledge, in any of the TFP associations.”

The strained relations between TFP and the Heralds has a long and complicated history — tied closely to societal and ecclesiastical changes and political shifts in Brazil in the postconciliar period — but they have been summarized by the Italian sociologist, Massimo Introvigne. In a paper given in 2009 at the Meeting of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture, Introvigne wrote:

The fact that the Heralds of the Gospel, whose leadership is largely composed of former prominent TFP members, downplay their relationship with Corrêa de Oliveira allows a number of Brazilian bishops to support them without either revisiting the history of the CNBB [National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, who had denounced TFP] or alienating the more liberal members of the clergy and of the episcopate itself.

In other words, the Heralds denounced their association with the TFP founder to buy acceptance and support, and everything that goes with it, from the postconciliar hierarchy. They have positioned themselves as nice, friendly moderates who have no problem with, or at least make no trouble for “liberal” — that is heretical, and in Brazil usually Marxist — elements in the episcopate.

Introvigne describes a general shift in the Brazilian hierarchy away from the extreme end of Liberation Theology and “liberalism” under the Pontificate of John Paul II — with Cardinal Ratzinger in CDF — giving more space in the “religious market” for “movements catering to the moderate-conservative niche.” This made it possible for the Heralds, who repudiated the TFP’s frank criticism of the theological apostasy of the episcopate, to gain even more respectability among bishops who were looking for “moderate conservatives” not in the antagonistic mold of the SSPX.

The split between the Heralds and the TFP resulted in a lawsuit that took years to conclude over the use of the name “Association Tradition, Family, and Property.” The upshot is that the name “Tradition, Family, and Property” is now controlled in Brazil by the Heralds, while the “Fundadores” still control the trademark in other countries, including the United States.

A few candid observations

To be honest, the Heralds seem from the outside to be at least a bit peculiar, and if nothing else, it seems as if these rather extreme peculiarities of style alone have probably set them up for a clash with the Bergoglians, whatever the triggering incident might have been.

On the one hand, one can’t find any fault with the stated aims of the organization: to “seek to practice the evangelical counsels, in all their fascinating purity … to live in community (masculine or feminine), in a setting of fraternal charity and discipline … [to] foster a deep life of prayer and study[.]”

“This Association … was born with the aim of being an instrument of sanctity in the Church, helping its members respond generously to the call of the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of charity, aiding and fostering an intimate unity between practical life and faith.”

Their schools are highly regarded, and they are known for their work among lonely elderly people, and people in remote rural areas, giving spiritual retreats and promoting Marian devotions. Far be it from me to fault them for liking processions.

On the other hand, the optics — what the thing looks like — can be…well, bizarre doesn’t seem like too strong a word. The uniforms — one hesitates to call them habits of the usual sort — seem to reflect a kind of Hollywood parody of medieval militaristic costume, as though a mid-century movie-maker like Cecil B. DeMille were making a film about the Crusades set in 1945.

They write of these odd outfits, “Imbued with the desire to give public witness of our faith in the world and of our consecration to the service of the Church, the Heralds dress in a manner that reflects the ideal of sanctity to which every baptized person is called.”

But the addition of decidedly mid-twentieth-century footwear that, frankly, can only be described as “jack boots” is perhaps the oddest of all, and, given the obvious historical associations, one has to wonder what the designer was thinking. The Heralds’ website comments: “The raison d’être [for the boots] is neither a need nor a special purpose. They are a symbol; they convey a message — indeed the entire habit does — they represent the missionary, who knows [he] is not constrained by limits or by boundaries, by distances or by obstacles.”

The boots and the habit certainly convey a message, but it’s open to question whether it’s the one intended.

Whatever the reasoning, their unabashed enthusiasm for these weird externals (and the oddly stilted and pompous language of their overly verbose public statements, which seems like a written version of the same aesthetic) has certainly made them an easy target.

The hyper-militaristic, parade ground style of their liturgical and common life…

…and…well…whatever this is…

…just strike the observer as weird and almost fanatical.

Maybe all this makes more sense culturally to right-wing Brazilians. But an American Catholic friend summed up my reservations when he observed, “They seem like a caricature of what liberals think traditionalist Catholic orders are like.” The irony being, of course, that they’re not actually traditionalist at all. Another said, “It’s like the religious order you join when the Legionaries aren’t ‘rigid’ enough for you.”

In the interests of “full disclosure,” I don’t personally know anyone in the Heralds of the Gospel. It certainly hasn’t the slightest appeal to me when I’ve seen its members at events in Rome. I suppose some of our readers may be better acquainted with the group, or even be members or associates or have their children in schools associated with them, and I definitely want to reiterate my invitation to hear from anyone with more information or a closer acquaintance.

In any case, it seems they may very well have burned exactly the wrong bridges back in the 1990s. We await further developments, but I think whatever happens to them, the kind of attention they are now receiving from Bergoglian Rome is an indication that their efforts to play nicely with the neo-modernist trends since 1965 have come back to bite them. There’s an old English expression that might apply: “As well hanged for a sheep as for a loaf.”

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