ROME – As if to prove the past is always prologue, Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, is once again involved in a “is he a coauthor or not?” controversy, though in this case on the side of disavowal, and Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the notorious papal accuser, is once again bristling at what he regards as a personal betrayal.
Given that this is the Vatican, the natural temptation will be to seek Machiavellian conspiracy theories to explain the discrepancies over a new conservative petition styling coronavirus lockdowns as a massive threat to religious freedom and “a disturbing prelude to the realization of a world government beyond all control.”
It’s worth pondering, however, whether more ordinary human dynamics actually are the best lens through which to view the situation.
For those who haven’t paid close attention, things began on Thursday when news broke of a petition signed by several leading Catholic conservatives, including Sarah and Viganò as well as Cardinals Gerhard Müller of Germany, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Joseph Zen of Hong Kong. All are known as outliers in the Francis papacy on various fronts.
In essence, the petition styles the quarantines imposed around the world as a “pretext” to control people through panic and deprive them of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of worship. Here in Italy, Francis is known for having called for “prudence and obedience” to such measures.
After it came out, Sarah took to Twitter to announce he hadn’t signed the petition, essentially disassociating himself from it. Viganò, never one to suffer perceived injury lightly, responded with a detailed tick-tock suggesting that Sarah had indeed given permission for his name to be listed as a signatory, and then tried to back out after the petition had already gone public.
The exchanges released by Viganò suggest a degree of chuminess with Sarah that may seem a bit surprising, given Viganò’s profile as a bitter critic of Sarah’s boss, as well as someone known for making fairly dramatic accusations against other senior churchmen. Though their relationship likely will be different now, the language and tone suggest that whatever Sarah’s reasons for backing out, it probably wasn’t that he changed his mind about the substance of the petition.
Some probably will wonder if Pope Francis or his minions “got” to Sarah, compelling him to withdraw from the petition, while others may muse about payoffs, plots, and vendetta. Yet under the heading of Occam’s razor, that the simplest explanation is often the best, what if this situation can be understood in terms of more prosaic matters of personality and motivation?
For instance, is it possible that Sarah is simply a guy who decided that after the last headache he got himself into over a book defending priestly celibacy at a time when many observers believed Francis might be considering relaxing it, he just didn’t need another one?
After all, Sarah turns 75 on June 15 and, given all the water under the bridge, it’s reasonable to believe Francis won’t waste time naming his replacement. Perhaps he just thought that for the next month or so, it would be better not to rock the boat.
Granted, there’s a special irony involved in the fact that in the controversy over that book on celibacy, it was Sarah who was issuing public protestations of shock that someone who initially gave permission to be listed as “co-author,” meaning Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, later withdrew it, and now Sarah is the guy wanting to take his name off something. (Memo, BTW, to Sarah: Perhaps it would be wise to avoid getting involved in collectively authored or signed initiatives for a while, since your luck with such things isn’t the best.)
As for Viganò, is it possible that we’re just dealing with a personality type prone to make federal cases out of things other people would let slide?
That, by the way, was very much Viganò’s reputation when he was the number two official at the Government of the Vatican City State, well before he went on to fame as the author of perhaps the most infamous j’accuse in church history, accusing Pope Francis of being in on the cover-up regarding former cardinal, and former priest, Theodore McCarrick. A deep persecution complex shone through a letter he wrote at the time protesting his assignment to the US as the papal nuncio, ticking off his perceived internal enemies in classically Nixonian fashion, and it’s been the same spirit of his declarations on the McCarrick case.
Most people, at one point or another, have asked a friend or family member or a colleague at work for support on something, only to watch them get weak knees later on. However irritating such waffling may be, most of us don’t then go ballistic, in part because the cost of burning a relationship is usually greater than the perceived gain of setting the record straight.
Others, however, just can’t let go, and perhaps it’s reassuring to see themselves as victims in some vast subterranean conspiracy.
Perhaps, then, the situation is this: Sarah agreed with the basic sentiments in the petition and gave his assent, but upon second thought felt that given his history and his situation as a Vatican official (at least for the time being), discretion might be the better part of valor. Viganò, a personality type prone to overreaction, then predictably overreacted.
Is it possible to read more into the situation than that? Sure. But in the absence of a compelling reason to do so, maybe it’s best just to leave things there.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.