It seems that the camp of the supporters of the just-retired Vatican media chief, Monsignor Dario Viganò, are still trying to defend him, in spite of his resignation. The Jesuit Father Bernd Hagenkord – according to Katholisch.de – is the managing director of the entire Vatican News outlet, and thus a major collaborator of Viganò. He now claims on a personal blog on the website of Vatican News (Radio Vatikan) that Pope emeritus Benedict XVI had personally approved of the partial publication of his letter to Viganò (i.e., that part of the letter as it has been presented by Viganò in the first place).
This is nothing short of a stunning surprise which Hagenkord only reveals in the comment box under his own blog post in which he defends Viganò, saying that yes, he made a “mistake”; but that no harm was really done – “nobody was personally harmed” – and that “no millions of euro were squandered.”
In his post, Hagenkord thus claims that “the damage is happening only in the media. That does not make it less real or less effective, but it is, after all, not one of those many other stories that we have to read again and again about Church representatives.”
In addition to his downplaying of the scandal – although some commentators rightly point out to the fact that the trust in Vatican media operations has been gravely damaged – Hagenkord then claims in the comment box that “there was no deception or manipulation.” He said that “Benedict has himself signed the letter, there was nothing abused. Also the partial publication was agreed upon [with Benedict].”
On top of all of this, Hagenkord also puts forth the idea that it was “the other side” that had done some propaganda in this matter:
By the way, your [a commentator’s] judgment is depending upon the precondition that manipulation has taken place with the intent to deceive. But you do not realize that there might perhaps also have been propaganda coming from another side to which you are falling prey here?
The problem with Hagenkord’s claims is the following. If Pope Benedict had really approved of the partial publication of his letter – that which had been published in the first place, without the two missing paragraphs – why did Monsignor Viganò not say so? He could have simply stated that he only published a part of the letter because Benedict had himself agreed upon it. And there would not have been any scandal. Nothing.
Thus, the credibility of this second highest media man in Vatican News is being damaged, right after Viganò’s own – also by the very fact that Hagenkord tries to minimize the public scandal of the whole Lettergate case.
What this Hagenkord initiative shows is that the Vatican is not repentant for what had happened, but, rather, now tries to justify its doings. This is what our colleague in Italy, Marco Tosatti, aptly has to say on his own blog, Stilum Curiae, about the whole incident – including both Viganò’s letter of resignation and the friendly and reluctant papal acceptance of Viganò’s voluntary resignation*:
In neither of the two letters is there any reference, even a veiled reference, to any error of conduct. In neither of the two letters is there any mention made of the person most affected by this whole squalid story, namely, Benedict XVI.
This is a most important observation. Tosatti also speaks about “a fake resignation which followed fake news.” No one apologized to Pope Benedict who has been abused here, after having written an explicitly personal and private letter which was never meant for publication. Tosatti adds, with regard to the question as to whether Pope Francis himself was aware of this abuse:
Is it possible to think that the Pope [Francis] was aware of the trap that was laid at Benedict’s feet? The letter of reply to Viganò does not dissipate this suspicion, and also, full of praises as it is, it renders it plausible that Francis was aware.
I for myself do not believe that Francis would not have known about it. This pope who is quite controlling over such happenings in the Vatican; and who himself made quite intrusive decisions with regard to the dismissal of three excellent priests working at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, would certainly be informed about the fact that Pope emeritus Benedict’s letter was going to be quoted, in part, at a Vatican press conference.
So, while we should call these methods and operations by their right name, we should now go one step further. We should ask Viganò himself to confirm or deny whether Benedict had given him the approval for this partial publication or not. Secondly, we also should ask for the publication of the letter that Viganò had written to Benedict in order to solicit a sort of endorsement of the eleven booklets in honor of Pope Francis. We ask for full disclosure so that we can receive a fuller picture and context of Benedict’s own words.
This is at least what Riccardo Cascioli, editor of the Catholic Italian website La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, also now proposes:** “Until we see the letter which Viganò first sent to Benedict, it is impossible to fully understand Benedict’s reply.” Cascioli also, in a similar manner to Tosatti, sees that the resignation of Viganò as not a real one:
Viganò’s letter finally arrived, and right in it we see that he met with Francis to devise an ‘exit strategy’ in which Viganò remains in the same office. The naming of the new prefect will show whether Viganò will remain in charge from behind. The letter indicates he will still be running the show; it contains no apology.
As Tosatti himself points out, Pope Francis often uses the second man in a Vatican body to control the agenda and the work done in that organization. Thus, Viganò might keep doing the same work, but from another position.
Let us here, finally, come back once more to the content of the Benedict letter itself, since, for Cascioli and others, “This scandal has revealed clearly the true question, which is not about Viganò but about the Magisterium of the Church.” He continues, saying that Francis’ pontificate “is in open counterpoint to that of Benedict XVI and John Paul II,” and he adds that the “attempt was being made by Viganò to get Benedict to write an endorsement of Francis’ theology and thereby appear to contradict what he taught, both as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and as pope. But he [Benedict] refused to be so co-opted.”
And it is in this that we return to the deeper debate about our current crisis. When we support Pope Benedict in this matter, it is because he has been unjustly treated; but also because we support his apparent opposition to the fact that earlier papal critics are now welcomed in the Vatican, as we have amply shown in the recent past. We will always defend those teachings of the recent popes that are in accordance with Catholic Tradition. At the same time, we are still concerned about his own words about the “inner continuity” and the praise of Francis’ theology, and, in a larger context, we consider Benedict himself to have contributed, from the Second Vatican Council on, to the confusion we are currently having in the Church. We have discussed his own autobiographical book-length interview in which his crucial role for reform at the Council becomes clear.
And we also know now that Benedict, during the second family synod in 2015, gave privately his consent to a compromise between Cardinals Walter Kasper and Gerhard Müller which subsequently helped Pope Francis write his document Amoris Laetitia.
Moreover, the Italian Vatican specialist Sandro Magister not long ago quoted a prominent theologian, Dr. Antonio Livi, and his own trenchant comments on the recently published book by Enrico Maria Radaelli about Joseph Ratzinger. Sandro Magister wrote about this matter in January of 2018:
Now, what is most most striking is that Radaelli has not found himself alone in demolishing Ratzinger’s theological framework, because he received immediate support from a theologian and philosopher among the most decorated, Monsignor Antonio Livi, dean emeritus of the faculty of philosophy of the Pontifical Lateran University, a pontifical academic and president of the International Science and Commonsense Association.
In Livi’s judgment as well, in fact, Ratzinger and his theology potentially contributed to the rise to power, meaning to an ever more hegemonic role in the seminaries, in the pontifical universities, on the doctrinal commissions, in the curia dicasteries and at the highest levels of the hierarchy up to the papacy, of what he calls “the modernist theology with its evident heretical drift.”
According to this translation, Dr. Livi says the following:
These are events that I have often summarized in terms of “heresy in power”. I express myself in terms that may seem simplistic or exaggerated, but they are fully justified by the facts. The reality is that neo-modernist theology, with its clear heretical drift, has gradually assumed a hegemonic role in the Church (in the seminaries, in the pontifical universities, in the doctrinal commissions of the episcopal conferences, in the dicasteries of the Holy See), and from these positions of power has influenced the themes and the language in the different expressions of the ecclesiastical magisterium, and this influence infected (in various degrees, naturally) all the documents of Vatican II and many of the teachings of the Post-Conciliar popes (cf. Antonio Livi, “How neomodernist theology has passed from the rejection of a Magisterium that is still dogmatic to the exaltation of a deliberately ambiguous Magisterium”, in “Theology and Magisterium, today”, Leonardo da Vinci, Rome 2017, pp. 59-86). The popes of this period have all been conditioned, in one direction or another, by this hegemony, which Joseph Ratzinger, just before his election to the papal throne, designated as “the dictatorship of relativism.” [emphasis added]
The German theologian and Ratzinger Prize recipient Professor Karl-Heinz Menke, with regard to this recent discussion about Radaelli’s book, had the following to say in an February 2018 interview with the German journalist Guido Horst:
There is barely any theologian like the retired pope, whose thinking has remained constantly the same over decades. What he demanded before and during the Council, he still demands today. […] Joseph Ratzinger has self-critically asked himself whether he has contributed with his theology to the post-conciliar breach of tradition. But it is not known to me that he revised any position of his theology.
Let us conclude this essay – which touches upon painful matters which we believe need to be addressed as a whole – with some words written by Steve Skojec about these inner contradictions among theologians who all themselves, in one way or another, have been contributors to our current Church crisis:
I remain wary, as we attempt to assess such questions, of confirmation bias. Traditionalists, who are accustomed to looking at the post-conciliar papacies with a critical eye, may have led the charge against the Bergoglian pontificate, but I would argue that, at this moment, its strongest resistance is found amongst those who see it as a rejection of the work of John Paul II and Benedict — the very popes Socci argues Francis is now trying superficially to co-opt. These people — people who are otherwise completely at ease with the new liturgy, the post-conciliar experiment, the alterations to classical Catholic theology, and so on — would make this a war between personalities, between the “celebrity popes”, rather than a conflict between the teachings of the popes of modernity and those of the unbroken line of their predecessors stretching back across the centuries. The theologies of Benedict and Francis may not appear, on the surface, to have much in common, but they have a good deal more in common than either of them is likely to have with, say, Pope St. Pius X. And it is in this sense that I think Benedict was being sincere when he spoke of an “interior continuity” between their two pontificates.
It is our conviction that we need to lay bare the fuller truth about our recent past in the Church, with charity and clarity. We will only come “out from under the rubble” if we shed the Church’s layers of compromises and adaptations to please the world. New York Times columnist and author Ross Douthat has recently made his own contribution to such a discussion. As he says in his book about our Church under Pope Francis:
And it may be stronger still [pressure toward unity with Protestantism] if that younger cadre [of conservative priests] swings further to the theological right, abandoning the terrain of John Paul II Catholicism – with its acceptance of the new mass, its embrace of the ecumenical spirit, its assumption that liberal democracy and the church are basically compatible – for a more reactionary or antiliberal stance. For this, too, may be part of the Francis legacy: If his attempts at a revolution have encouraged liberal Catholicism to become more ambitious, more aggressive, more optimistic about how far the church can change, they have encouraged many conservative Catholics (again, younger ones especially) to take a darker view of the post-Vatican II era, and to reassess whether there might have always been more wisdom in the traditionalist critique than they wanted to believe. If the conservatism of John Paul and Benedict led only to Francis, perhaps it didn’t conserve enough; if those popes’ attempted synthesis was so easily challenged and unraveled, perhaps it wasn’t a successful synthesis at all; if their project of restoration still left fertile soil for a new revolution, perhaps the entire project needed to be reassessed.
Such a reassessment could be intellectually and spiritually healthy, since even before Francis’s ascension it should have been clear that John Paul-era conservative Catholicism was neither as robust nor as theologically persuasive in all respects as its adherents wanted to believe. In an ideal world conservatives might take the Francis era as an opportunity to think harder about what development of doctrine allows and what it doesn’t, which teachings are inviolate and which ones might evolve, which rulings from Rome have to be accepted and which might inspire a faithful, Catholic critique.
There is much to ponder in these few paragraphs from Douthat’s book. These words might also inspire us to say some prayers for him. Seeing the responses from some progressives – who now call upon the New York Times to dismiss Douthat – he is under much pressure now.
Let us remember here once more the striking words of Father John A. Hardon, S.J., spoken many times to my husband: “We are only as courageous as we are convinced.” That includes being convinced also about dogmas, “irreformable doctrines”!
A Church with question marks and a “deliberately ambiguous Magisterium” without a clear call will not rally soldiers of Christ to remain loyal to Christ.
* Translation courtesy Giuseppe Pellegrino
** Translation courtesy Giuseppe Pellegrino
The post has been updated.
Dr. Maike Hickson, born and raised in Germany, studied History and French Literature at the University of Hannover and lived for several years in Switzerland where she wrote her doctoral dissertation. She is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.
Her articles have appeared in American and European journals such as Catholicism.org, LifeSiteNews, The Wanderer, Culture Wars, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Apropos, and Zeit-Fragen.