Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s concise and sharply worded refutation of the now infamous Viganò letter is the very point needed to burst the bubble of fabulist concoctions spinning around the Catholic far right. Those theories, which wouldn’t pass for bad fiction, are easily unveiled as clumsy attempts to discredit the Francis papacy.
Ouellet’s out-of-the-ordinary pronouncement is fitting for these extraordinary times. Its very existence signals with some finality the end of the pretense of unity with which the hierarchy in recent decades attempted to mask deep divisions in its ranks.
It also bares as pretenders those who previously claimed the high ground of “orthodoxy” as defined, in their world, by unquestioning loyalty to the pope and the magisterium. In fact, their orthodoxy extended only so far as their agreement with prevailing papal tendencies.
Ouellet dissected the letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former nuncio to the United States, who claimed a widespread cover-up of allegations against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The letter was quickly found to be an ideologically loaded screed with claims that Ouellet termed “incredible and absurd” as well as “unjust and unjustified.”
The letter had been fashioned with the help of several right-wing figures who attempted to make the case for Viganò apparently so they could, in turn, use the case with the authority of a former nuncio. The whole mess has backfired.
Ouellet, however, speaks with legitimate authority as the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. He is able to build his case from actual documents held by his congregation.
Further, Francis, the pope who ultimately dethroned McCarrick, has ordered a thorough investigation of all of the steps along McCarrick’s rise through the hierarchical ranks as rumors swirled everywhere about his inappropriate sexual behavior. Those alleging cover-up may regret the investigation, since McCarrick’s rise came about through appointments made by Pope John Paul II, who sent him to head the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey, and then the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, and finally the Washington Archdiocese.
Discrediting Viganò is the easy part. Conducting a credible investigation will be more difficult, requiring a degree of transparency within the Vatican that is perhaps unprecedented. But the crisis requires unprecedented responses.
Quite apart from the investigation, Ouellet’s intervention was valuable in dealing with other oddities of the moment. The most telling line in Ouellet’s response is the one that directly addresses Viganò groupies in the United States: “In response to your unjust and unjustified attack on the facts, dear Viganò, I conclude therefore that the accusation is a political frame job lacking a real foundation.”
Viganò was able to rattle the church with his fanciful claims and gather around him some of the more eccentric expressions of Catholicism in the United States because of the leadership vacuum created by both the deeply compromising damage of the clergy sex abuse scandal and the lingering effects of John Paul II’s episcopal appointments. It is known that the late and sainted pope valued loyalty far more than leadership in his bishops. In the United States, that meant a national conference that once wrestled with major cultural issues was reduced to much internal squabbling over minutiae.
Other beneficiaries of that vacuum were lay forces on the right wing of the church that figured out how to manipulate the Catholic narrative in this country by funding a host of new nonprofit organizations with narrow political and ideological ambitions. NCR has begun cataloging the money and the messages in stories documenting the funding and interwoven interests of such groups. A connecting thread among them is a version of the Gospel unabashedly at the service of Republican Party politics and unbridled capitalism.
One of the brashest operators among this relatively new breed of Catholic lay involvement is Napa Institute founder Timothy Busch. He is a successful and wealthy entrepreneur who, when he is not tending to his boutique winery, high-end resorts and investment business, is bouncing about the church as if it were an arcade and he was in search of a favorite game. His current corner of choice in the arcade is the Catholic University of America, where his name is affixed to the business school and where he conducts conferences on how to dress up libertarian economics in a Catholic costume.
We have been reporting on and monitoring the activities of Busch for several years because he is among the most aggressive of that cast of U.S. Catholics whose primary ambition, it seems, is to convince the rest of us that the Christian Gospel was actually promulgated to justify the most extreme expressions of American-style capitalism.
It used to be that in pursuit of those ends, he drew his bona fides from hobnobbing with just about anyone in fine silk and fancy lace beneath a red or purple skullcap. His ecclesiology embraced a clericalism of the highest order. He was the kind of hierarchical toady who had the money to court the highly placed and treat them to his institute’s summer gatherings in the California wine country for bouts of what he called “in-your-face Catholicism.”
But at some point this year, he got the memo that bishops didn’t necessarily hold the keys to the kingdom, especially not hierarchs like his organization’s “independent contractor,” Archbishop John Nienstedt. Napa took in Nienstedt after he resigned as archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis for mishandling abuse cases and amid an investigation into allegations that he had engaged in sexual misconduct. The Napa Institute only recently cut ties with Nienstedt.