Commentary on the Men’s and Women’s Letters to the Pope

It is a novelty, and not part of Sacred Tradition, for groups among the faithful to write letters and petitions proposing to teach or correct the Roman Pontiff. The problems with this approach are several.

The assumption is that the authors and signatories think themselves to understand matters of doctrine and discipline better than the Roman Pontiff. This attitude comes from secular society, especially politics, in which each person considers that his own understanding is best, and everyone who disagrees must be in error.

These documents are often accusatory. They propose that the Roman Pontiff has taught error, or made bad decisions. Is there any proof that this is true? Often, the explanations given are easily refuted, as in the case of the Filial Correction or the Filial Appeal.

This is the bad fruit of the politicization of religion. The Pope is seen as if he were from the opposing, liberal political party. The authors assume that the conservative answer to any question is necessarily correct, and the liberal answer is wrong.

Open letters to the Pope, rebuking him publicly, cause scandal because it seems as if the Pope were not competent. This lack of competency is again assumed, not proven. And the judgment as to whether the Pope has erred or not is largely based on the conflicts between conservatism and liberalism, rather than doctrine.

Women’s Letter

The Women’s Letter is here. Quotes from the letter with commentary follows.

“We are angry, betrayed and disillusioned.”

“The pain and suffering of the victims never ends, as each news cycle brings more horrific revelations of sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, cover-ups, and deceit—even at the Church’s highest levels.”

The reference to the Church’s highest levels accuses the Roman Pontiff of involvement in cover-ups and deceit. The authors claim that their anger is justified, and they suggest that the Pope is guilty to some extent of betrayal.

“Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s recent statement impels us to reach out to you directly for answers. His testimony accuses you, Holy Father, and highly placed cardinals of turning a blind eye to former Cardinal McCarrick’s egregious behavior, and promoting this predator as a global spokesman and spiritual leader. Is this true?”

Wow. This is a public accusation against the Roman Pontiff made by all the authors and signatories. They reference the accusation of Vigano, but they support and approve of his accusation by the wording that they use. The question also assumes that the Pope could only possibly respond, morally, in one way to allegations against any bishop or Cardinal.

In reality, the Pope might not have known all of the facts, especially the most recent allegation of the abuse of a child. He may have been misled by differing descriptions of the situation. Also, the rise to power of McCarrick occurred during the reigns of the three most recent popes, including Pope Saint John Paul II. So, even when a Saint is Pope, abusers are not so easily identified and removed. This is a problem in any large organization, such as a school system.

Allegations are not facts, and after the facts become known, it is facile to look back on the past decisions and criticize them. We do not know what the Pope was told, and what the basis was for his decision. He may have been misinformed. He may have been told that the Cardinal had stopped the behavior of platonic sleeping with seminarians. I highly doubt that Francis knew about the child abuse. So he may have had in mind to be lenient and merciful, having been told that the Cardinal was repentant. I suspect the Cardinal had supporters in the Vatican, who were willing to lie on his behalf.

“The questions raised deserve answers that are conclusive and based on evidence.” That is fair. But this other assertion is not fair: “These are devastating allegations.” Calling accusations “devastating” shows bias. Suppose you were in court, accused of a crime, and the judge says to you: “These are devastating allegations.” Does that comment not bias the jury? The very description of the situation shows bias against the Roman Pontiff.

“Several crucial questions raised by Archbishop Viganò’s statement, however, require neither lengthy investigations nor physical evidence. They require only your direct response, Holy Father. When reporters questioned you recently about Archbishop Viganò’s charges, you replied, ‘I will not say a single word on this.’ You told reporters to ‘read the statement carefully and make your own judgment.’ “

Vigano, in this letter, is treated as if his claims are above reproach, and the Roman Pontiff is treated as if guilty until proven innocent. The demand for a direct response from the Supreme Pontiff is arrogant. The head of the Church is being treated as if he were a politician accused of wrongdoing. The faithful are taking the role of voters who elected him, demanding explanations. That is not the right paradigm for the Church.

The Pope speaks for Christ, and he must be treated with the respect due to his role of authority. The number of signatories on an open letter or petition has no bearing on the respective roles of the faithful and the Roman Pontiff. It is the sin of pride to assume that one’s own point of view is right, and further to assume that the Pope has done something wrong, without having the facts. And if the Pope chooses not to reveal those facts publicly, at the present time, that is his prerogative.

The faithful have no right to demand that the Roman Pontiff answer reporters’ questions. He may use his own judgment about what to say publicly. In secular society, when a criminal case is pending, the custom is for certain leaders not to discuss the matter until the defendant has had his day in court. Perhaps the Pope does not wish to bias the pending criminal case against McCarrick.

“To your hurting flock, Pope Francis, your words are inadequate. They sting, reminiscent of the clericalism you so recently condemned. We need leadership, truth, and transparency. We, your flock, deserve your answers now.”

Terrible, just terrible. These words are accusatory. They speak as if the Pope were guilty of clericalism, of hypocrisy, of hurting the faithful, and of failing in leadership and truth. Transparency is not a virtue. The idea, within democracy, that the voters must always know what their leaders are doing does not apply to the Church, not in every case. If the Roman Pontiff wishes to make a decision, without explanation, he possesses the authority and right to do so.

The idea that every Pope would be subservient to any and all letters with lots of signatures is absurd. It reduces him from the Supreme Pontiff and Vicar of Christ to a hired hand. Repeatedly demanding answers to biased accusatory questions is sinful. It offends against the role given to the Pope to represent Christ, by exalting the signatories above the pope, and it offends against justice by assuming his guilt.

“Specifically, we humbly implore you to answer the following questions, as the answers are surely known to you. Archbishop Viganò says that in June 2013 he conveyed to you this message (in essence) about then-Cardinal McCarrick:”

The word “humbly” is a joke. The entire letter is filled with arrogance. The mere use of the word humbly does not make a letter humble.

The questions are prefaced by the claim that Vigano is telling the truth, thereby stating a blatant bias.

“Is this true? What did Archbishop Viganò convey to you in June 2013 about then-Cardinal McCarrick? When did you learn of any allegations of sexual abuse or sexual misconduct with adults by then-Cardinal McCarrick? When did you learn of Pope Benedict’s restrictions on then-Cardinal McCarrick? And did you release then-Cardinal McCarrick from any of Pope Benedict’s restrictions?”

The faithful have no right to act as overseers of the Pope’s decisions in governing Cardinals and Bishops. They have no right to demand answers to questions, for the obvious purpose of next assuming the role of judges over the Pope’s decisions.

“That’s why we expect you, our Holy Father, to be honest with us…. We need to know we can trust you to be honest with us about what happened.”

If you repeatedly tell someone to be honest with you, the implication is that you think the person might lie or be deceitful. These words are accusatory and condescending.

“Please do not keep us at arm’s length on these questions. We are faithful daughters of the Church who need the truth so we can help rebuild. We are not second-class Catholics to be brushed off while bishops and cardinals handle matters privately. We have a right to know. We have a right to your answers.”

The signatories of the letter do not have the same role as Cardinals and Bishops and the Roman Pontiff. They “need the truth” so they can speak and act as if they were running the Church, so that they can usurp roles not given to them. And by “them” I don’t mean women only, I mean the laity, religious, priests, and deacons. There is a similar Men’s Letter which is just as bad. The issue is not gender, but different roles given to different persons.

Proclaiming oneself to be faithful while demanding that the Roman Pontiff obey you is contradictory. The faithful should trust the Roman Pontiff, when he is making decisions of prudential judgment, and should support him, even if he errs by being too lenient, or because he was misinformed.

The information given to Pope Francis by Vigano is certainly not the only information he received on the topic of Cardinal McCarrick. He may have been given conflicting testimony. He may have been told that McCarrick was guilty of less than he really was. McCarrick might have supporters in the Vatican who misled the Pope. It is not as simply as the assumption, in both letters, that the words of Vigano are facts, and the Pope should ignore all other sources and act solely on Vigano’s word.

“In short, we are the Church, every bit as much as the cardinals and bishops around you.”

Yes, sure, but Cardinals and Bishops have a different role than other clergy, religious, and lay men and lay women. And the neither group has the role to judge or oversee the Roman Pontiff.

The Men’s Letter

The similar Men’s Letter is just as bad as the Women’s letter.

This letter starts out well:

“we beseech you to purge the corruption which has so grotesquely disfigured the face of Christ’s Bride…. The Church needs purification, and by virtue of your offices as our shepherds, no one is more qualified to bring about this purification than yourselves. We beg you to do so without a moment’s delay.”

Those words are spoken as the faithful acknowledging the difference in roles of our leaders, and supporting them in exercising their authority.

And then the letter goes astray by saying this: “evidencing widespread and systemic corruption throughout the Church’s hierarchy.” That is a very comprehensive accusation, almost as if the Church herself were corrupt. I think bad decisions were made by many Bishops, to be too lenient with accused persons. There were particular grave failures to protect victims and punish offenders. But this may be due more to incompetence in administration, rather than moral corruption. It is not right to immediately assume that the leaders involved were corrupt, or that any corruption is widespread and systematic, rather than isolated and sporadic.

This same problem occurs in secular society, where someone attains power and abuses that power, in various ways. Then, they are difficult to remove. I would not jump to the conclusion that the entire Church’s hierarch is afflicted with “widespread and systemic corruption,” especially not based solely on Vigano’s words.

“You personally have been faced with allegations. These allegations have been leveled by a high-ranking church official, Archbishop Viganò.”

This letter, like the other letter, assumes Vigano’s words are true and accurate, and speaks with bias about accusations against the Roman Pontiff.

“At present, many families are reluctant to send their sons to seminary.”

The problem in seminaries, well-documented by Michael Rose in Good-bye, Good Men, is not so much based on failures in the hierarchy. Liberal Catholics, involved with seminaries, have favored gay men as candidates perhaps because those men could be reliably expected to take liberal points of view on theological issues. Liberal Catholics involved with seminaries have liberal views on sexual ethics, views which do not necessarily condemn sex outside of marriage, or homosexual acts. The persons charged with running and assisting in seminaries have not been faithful to Church teaching on sexuality.

The laity of the Church commit many sexual sins, without repentance and confession. And this produces an environment in which greater sexual sins thrive.

And then there are many false teachers, whose errors on faith and morals produce an environment where Catholics are filled with doubts as to what the Church really teaches. This removes them from the guidance of Church teaching, making them susceptible to many different types of errors.

“This investigation should be carried out by faithful lay men and women.”

The Pope should not be investigated by anyone. What is needed is for individual Bishops and Bishops’ Conferences to reform the way they respond to allegations of abuse, and especially to reform the seminaries.

Reform of the seminaries is difficult because often the persons involved in teaching and guiding the seminaries are not faithful to Church teaching. There are few faithful teachers left in the Church, even in seminaries. And there are few persons involved in seminaries who would be willing to call out a seminarian for being gay, or question the seminarians closely to see if their lives are chaste and pure.

I don’t think we will have purity in the seminaries until we have purity among the faithful, and purity within the teachings of priests and theologians.

Unam Sanctam

Unam Sanctam: “if a lesser spiritual power goes astray, it will be judged by its superior; and truly, if the highest power goes astray, it will not be able to be judged by man, but by God alone.”

“But this authority, even though it may be given to a man, and may be exercised by a man, is not human, but rather divine power, having been given by the divine mouth of Christ to Peter, and to him as well as to his successors, by Christ Himself, that is, to him whom He had disclosed to be the firm rock, just as the Lord said to Peter himself: “Whatever you shall bind,” [Matthew 16:19] etc. Therefore, whoever resists this authority, such as it has been ordain by God, resists the ordination of God. [Romans 13:2]”

What is next for these Letters and Petitions? Mark my words. Very soon there will be some kind of letter or petition demanding that the Roman Pontiff resign. And who will sign it? Very many persons, unfortunately.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.