'Lettergate' debacle unnecessary, but useful in surfacing tensions

‘Lettergate’ debacle unnecessary, but useful in surfacing tensions

If you’re sitting on a letter from a pope, even an emeritus one, you’ve really only got two choices about what to do with it. Either you publish the entire thing, or you keep it to yourself.

News Analysis

ROME – Now that “Lettergate,” the surreal affair regarding a letter from Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, has reached its denouement with the resignation of Monsignor Dario Viganò from the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications, it seems time to draw some big-picture conclusions.

To recap, the affair pivots on a letter from Benedict in response to Viganò, who had asked the emeritus pope to comment on a new series of volumes on Pope Francis’s theology, published to coincide with the fifth anniversary of his election on March 13.

Initially Viganò cited only a couple of paragraphs from the letter in a press release, along with a photo of it, which later turned out to have been digitally altered. Eventually the entire text was made public, showing Benedict had actually declined to comment on the volumes, in part due to objections to one of the authors.

On Wednesday, the Vatican announced that Viganò had resigned, and made public both Viganò’s letter to Pope Francis and the pontiff’s response, in which Francis asked Viganò to stay on at the Secretariat for Communications in the new role of “assessor.”

What lessons are to be learned?

First, the most obvious: If you’re sitting on a letter from a pope, even an emeritus one, you’ve really only got two choices about what to do with it. Either you publish the entire thing, or you keep it to yourself.

No matter how private you may believe the communication is, there’s no such animal as a pope letter that won’t eventually get out once someone makes a big public deal of it, which is exactly what Viganò did in this case. He clearly wanted the headline of “Benedict says idea of rupture with Francis is foolish,” and he also wanted the theological credentials of Francis to be acknowledged by one of the finest theological minds ever to hold the papacy.

Those are understandable desires, but the price should have been clear – you’ve got to release the full text, including Benedict declining to comment on the series and complaining about the inclusion of an essay by Father Peter Hünermann, a liberal German theologian who had been critical of Benedict over the years.

To be honest, those details wouldn’t have altered the big picture, which is Benedict’s rejection of the conception that Francis is entirely practical with no theological formation, while Benedict is all theology and no understanding of concrete reality.

Bottom line: With letters from any kind of pope, it’s all or nothing.

Second, Viganò’s fate would seem to suggest Francis may be rethinking his typical inflexibility when people he’s chosen are under fire.

When Monsignor Gian Battista Ricca faced criticism as the prelate of the Vatican bank, Francis stood by his man, as he’s done so far with Bishop Juan Barros in Chile. Yet in this case, Viganò’s resignation was accepted quite swiftly, and over a scandal that’s hardly as serious as accusations of sexual misconduct (Ricca’s case) or covering up sexual abuse (Barros’.)

Admittedly, part of the difference may be that Viganò was never made a bishop, perhaps reflecting a certain degree of caution by Francis from the beginning, and also that Viganò drew mixed reviews inside his own shop. Still, his rapid downfall may imply a new willingness on the part of Pope Francis to listen when people say a particular figure has become untenable in their present position.

Third, Viganò is a classic illustration of the rule that the king’s henchman is rarely a popular guy, especially with the people whose heads he’s chopping off.

The former head of Vatican TV, Viganò was tapped to run the Secretariat for Communications in June 2015 with the more-or-less explicit mandate to achieve economies of scale among the Vatican’s various communications outlets, which in practice means trimming budgets and staff. He went about the task, tearing down existing structures and revising roles, in ways that didn’t exactly leave the people working in those outfits elated.

Viganò also had a reputation for being inaccessible to staff, and for offering contradictory visions of reform. Many insiders know reform is long overdue, and perhaps could have been inspired by a different approach. It’s striking that as the pressure around Viganò mounted over the last week, there weren’t many voices speaking in his defense.

Of course, Viganò won’t be entirely out of the picture going forward. During a meeting on Wednesday, staff in the Secretariat for Communications were informed that his departure does not mean that the reform process is over. They were also told that for now, it’s not clear what his role as assessor will be.

Perhaps the broad lesson on this front is that if you take a slash-and-burn approach to a workplace – however justified or essential doing so may be, in some cases – it’s probably unrealistic to expect a safety net when times get tough.

Fourth, Viganò’s departure creates a further opportunity to internationalize the communications apparatus at the Vatican. His English was not the best, and he often seemed more concerned with what Avvenire and La Stampa thought (two Italian papers) than the New York Times and Le Monde.

The Vatican already put veteran American journalist Greg Burke at the Press Office (which, although technically under the Secretariat for Communications, in reality still answers more to the Secretariat of State.) A more international figure at the helm could give the Vatican a broader outlook – especially if, as rumored, Irish Bishop Paul Tighe, currently the number two official at the Council for Culture, becomes Viganò’s successor.

Fifth, the basic fault line between Francis’s fans and critics that colors how pretty much everything with regard to this papacy is seen is also shaping how people perceive the lettergate debacle.

Some admirers of Francis appear inclined to style Viganò’s resignation as a basically noble act, a case of falling on his sword for having attempted to protect Pope Benedict from appearing petty for refusing to comment on the series because of his objection to a contribution by an old theological rival.

Critics, on the other hand, not only see the affair as the latest confirmation of the general ineptitude of Francis’s team, but as an act of disrespect to the emeritus pope, essentially a case of trying to “censor” or “muzzle” what Benedict really thinks.

In truth, there is no indication of any tension between Francis and Benedict personally, and every reason to believe the two men genuinely like and admire one another and see themselves in basic continuity. Clearly, however, the same thing cannot be said of many of each man’s most ardent devotees, who often see the situation in terms of rival options for the Church.

At one level, “lettergate” probably will go down as one of the most unnecessary Vatican scandals of all time, an affair that could have been easily avoided with a bit more forethought about the wisdom of releasing only an expurgated version of Benedict’s text.

On the other hand, it’s also brought to light real tensions, both within the Secretariat for Communications about what “reform” actually means, and also in the broader church about to what extent Francis’s and Benedict’s visions are truly in harmony. In that sense, perhaps, it’s provided useful food for thought – including for Viganò, who now seems destined to have a bit more free time on his hands.

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