The third Vigano testimony: for a change, a pastor who talks about saving souls
“This is about souls,” Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano states solemnly in the third installment of his remarkable public testimony. This third letter, far more than the two that preceded it, is a pastoral message. Archbishop Vigano explains that he has spoken out because he is concerned about the salvation of souls, and he exhorts other prelates to do the same.
Why is this pastoral tone so unusual? Why is it shocking to hear a bishop speaking about the possibility of damnation, about the ultimate importance of saving souls? Isn’t that what bishops are supposed to do?
Unfortunately, Archbishop Vigano’s tone is shocking because it is unfamiliar. Deep down we know that this is how bishops should talk, but we have not heard them talk this way. And that’s an important part of the problem that he is addressing.
In his own perceptive commentary on the third Vigano letter in the National Catholic Register, Msgr. Charles Pope makes this point:
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, this was the first concern of most every priest: the moral condition of souls, including his own. Today, many bishops and priests, as well as many parents and other leaders in the Church, seem far more concerned with the feelings, and emotional happiness of those under their care than with their actual moral condition. They worry more about political correctness and not upsetting those who engage in identity politics and base their whole identity on aberrant and sinful habits and disordered inclinations. That a person be pleased and affirmed today is seemingly more important than that they be summoned to repentance and healing or be made ready for their judgment day.
Twice in this latest letter— at the top and at the bottom— Archbishop Vigano calls attention to the fact that it is released on the feast of the North American Martyrs. That date is appropriate because the earthquake shaking the universal Church today has its epicenter in North America. But it is also appropriate because if we truly honor the Jesuit martyrs of the 17th century, we should recognize that they gave their lives to spread the Catholic faith— not because they thought the Native Americans would be more comfortable as Catholics, but because they believed that only by incorporation into the life of Jesus Christ could these poor people be saved. The martyrs were fundamentally pastors, not social workers, and certainly not administrators.
In our day the term “pastoral” has come to connote something quite different from its natural meaning. When liberal clerics advocate “pastoral” solutions to moral problems (as they always do), they are recommending that priests set aside the tougher teachings of the Church to allow for a comfortable compromise, a sort of negotiated solution that might allow people to feel like good Catholics without actually following the prescriptions of Church doctrine and discipline.
But if you truly believe what the Church teaches— if you believe that Catholic doctrine and discipline offer the best means of ensuring one’s salvation— then your pastoral approach will not shrink from the tough questions, will not encourage people to take the easy way out. As the Jesuit martyrs knew, the shepherd’s duty is not to make the members of his flock comfortable; it is to guide them to safety— which, in the case of religious pastors— means the final safety of salvation.
For years we have heard Church leaders speak about the sex-abuse scandal in terms of the suffering of the victims and the damage done to the Church. That suffering and that damage have been devastating. But there is something even more important to consider, and at least Archbishop Vigano puts the question front and center: This is about souls! It is about the souls of the victims, many of whom have been scandalized and pushed away from the Church. It is about the souls of the predators who scandalized them, for whom a millstone would be a better fate than the one they face, if they do not thoroughly repent. And, as Archbishop Vigano stresses, it is about the souls of the bishops on whose watch these atrocities occurred.
Notice how the critics of Archbishop Vigano’s testimony have, with rare exceptions, concentrated on analyzing his motives rather than his arguments. In this third letter he easily parries the criticisms of Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who did question him on the facts. He points out that Cardinal Ouellet made a few factual errors of his own, but more importantly, the Canadian prelate couched his arguments in carefully nuanced language, so that what he (Ouellet) denied is not what Vigano said. Thus for instance Archbishop Vigano insists that Cardinal Ouellet “has in his archives key documents— irrespective of provenance— incriminating McCarrick…” [emphasis added] “From a pastoral point of view they are exactly the same thing.” [emphasis in original]
Archbishop Vigano’s candor, and his sense of urgency, peak when he says that the Church must recognize the source of the current scandal:
This is a crisis due to the scourge of homosexuality, in its agents, in its motives, in its resistance to reform. It is no exaggeration to say that homosexuality has become a plague in the clergy, and it can only be eradicated with spiritual weapons. It is an enormous hypocrisy to condemn the abuse, claim to weep for the victims, and yet refuse to denounce the root cause of so much sexual abuse: homosexuality.
The archbishop recognizes, in this third letter, that his testimony has exacerbated serious divisions within the Church. “Yet I believe that my continued silence would put many souls at risk, and would certainly damn my own,” he explains. Moreover, he observes that the divisions already existed; he did not create them. On the contrary, he is facing the reality that most— all?—of his fellow bishops would prefer to ignore.
So no, the archbishop warns his colleagues: “You too are faced with a choice.” He continues:
You can choose to withdraw from the battle, to prop up the conspiracy of silence and avert your eyes from the spreading of corruption. You can make excuses, compromises and justification that put off the day of reckoning. You can console yourselves with the falsehood and the delusion that it will be easier to tell the truth tomorrow, and then the following day, and so on.
On the other hand, you can choose to speak. You can trust Him who told us, "the truth will set you free."
Is it that simple? Can our pastors lead the Church out of this mess, simply by speaking out, by telling the unvarnished truth? I think that they can. The power of Archbishop Vigano’s pastoral candor is telling.
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