On the MAGA Cult’s Failing Attempt to Demonize Its Enemies
One of the oldest standbys in the book for theists is the attempt to charge its enemies with being in league with the Devil.
Don’t misunderstand. I don’t deny the existence of Old Scratch. Nor did Jesus. And he oughtta know, being God and all. But he also understood that the Accuser’s number one tool in the demonic arsenal is, “NO! YOU!” So he had to put up with garbage like this:
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Be-elzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” (Mk 3:22).
Ever since then, one of the periodic evils the world has had to endure is evil and/or deluded religious types designating their enemies as demonic, servants of the devil, and so forth even as they themselves carry out demonic acts of evil in their murderous pride and projection. It killed Rhenish Jews, Joan of Arc, sundry victims of sundry Protestant and Catholic fights, victims at Salem, and every victim approved by Christians who saw in Hitler a savior sent by God to Germany.
It’s not that only Christians are prey to this Girardian scapegoating impulse of the mob. We’re not. All humans, under the wrong circumstances can fall prey to the impulse. It is the same thing that animated various civilizations to practice human sacrifice. It animates the hysteria of “cancel culture” on the interwebs. It fueled Stalin’s purges and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It can be seen in a very minor degree in cliques and mean girls in grade school and it can be seen in monstrous degree in sundry purges and cleansings and slaughters driven by the impulse to place the evil on designated Victims Evildoers and exile or murder them.
What Rene Girard saw about Jesus was that, instead of directing that impulse at others, he allowed it to wash over himself. He “took upon himself the sins of the world” and thereby broke the cycle of violence by bearing all our dysfunction and violence and taking it with him to the grave. And he forbade his disciples to continue it, commanding them to put up the sword, turn the other cheek, and love their enemies.
His followers have, in large measure, argued with him about that ever since, often, as we just noted, indulging in exactly the demonizing of the innocent that he innocently endured and practicing the Leaden Rule of “Do unto others before they do it unto you.” It turns out that the command to forgive and love one’s enemies isn’t just hard for pagan barbarians 2000 years ago. It’s hard for pagan Christians right now. But it can done, however imperfectly.
One recent example has been the case of the egregrious fraud, Abp. Carlo Maria Vigano, who has spent the last several years deflecting from his own spectacular failure to do anything about the predator McCarrick by vigorously accusing the only man who did do something about him: Pope Francis.
For those not up on the loathesome topic of ecclesial politics, here’s the nutshell. Theodore Cardinal McCarrick was a massively gifted administrator and cardinal-archbishop of Washington DC. He oversaw the largely successful reforms of the Church in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal in the US because the man knew his way around a bureaucracy and had the chops to fix it.
He was also, himself, a predator. So his fixes, which worked very well for underlings, were carefully designed not to apply to him. Bureaucratic skill is a two-edged sword.
There were lots of stories about him, of course, but nothing was done. Why? Thereby hangs a tale.
Turns out that mere bishops and archbishops can’t do anything to punish or remove cardinals. There is only one guy on US soil that can do that: the apostolic nuncio. Think of him as the pope’s ambassador to the Church in each country. Now from 2011 to 2016, Vigano was that guy. And during his entire tenure, he did nothing about McCarrick, despite his own confession that he knew he was an abuser. Instead, he feted him, held banquets for him and gave him awards.
Fast forward to 2018. All the dirt about McCarrick spills out all over the deck in July. Francis strips him of his title of cardinal and removes him. Suddenly, the question becomes, “Why did Vigano do nothing?”
Solution: Vigano, with the help and support of Cdl. Burke, EWTN, and most of the Catholic Rightwingosphere, hucks a hand grenade into the Church in August which explodes with the accusation that he had placed some mythical “sanctions” on McCarrick which Francis had allegedly lifted. He screams, “RESIGN!” at Francis–the one man who actually did something about McCarrick–and then disappears into hiding rather than face any questions or interrogation of his transparently butt-covering narrative.
This palace coup fell apart fast as Benedict’s secretary rejected this story and the right wing lie machine’s war on Francis ground to a halt. But it put Vigano on the map as one of the biggest folk heroes the eternally wrong-about-everything American conservative Catholic subculture would come to worship.
Since that time, he has been in hiding issuing weird little bulletins and nutty conspiracy theories that are increasing calculated not only to continue the war on the Holy Father and paint himself as the courageous Culture Warrior in Exile on the Isle of Patmos, but to turn the sect of schismatic wannabes who adore him into QANON kooks filled with a nutty visions of their Trump-adoring selves into the Sons of Light pitted against the rest of the Church as the Sons of Darkness.
In response, Francis has been consistently silent. And some people are baffled by this. Dr. Pedro Gabriel discusses why the Holy Father takes this course of action here:
Last week, Catholic News Agency (CNA) published an essay by their editor-in-chief, JD Flynn, analyzing Archbishop Viganò’s growing pile of public missives and the Vatican’s silence about him. In this article, Flynn correctly notes that Viganò’s original contentions—about Cardinal McCarrick’s sexual abuse scandal—have since given way to a variety of other topics, some even going into doctrinal matters (specifically involving the Second Vatican Council).
Flynn then goes on to assert that the Vatican in general (and Pope Francis in particular) have maintained their silence on Viganò. This claim, however, is only partially correct. But later, when Flynn speculates about potential explanations for this papal silence, his essay fails in its analysis. His tone seems to betray a certain (and understandable) frustration with this silence, since Viganò’s rhetoric appears to have reached the mainstream after President Trump tweeted a link to one of his open letters.
Speaking as someone who has closely studied the spirituality and the theological mind of Jorge Mario Bergoglio for several years, the possible explanations that Flynn proposes for Francis’s silence are implausible and reflect neither the character nor the leadership style of our pope. But the first misconception in this piece is the claim that the Vatican has remained silent. This is not true.
As Flynn notes, the topic of Viganò’s first letter was Francis’s role in the McCarrick abuse scandal. In that letter, Viganò claimed that many bishops—and even the pope—knew about these abuses and covered them up, before the scandal broke out publicly. Flynn accurately reports Francis’s answer to these charges, which was: “I will not say a single word on this.”
This does not convey the entirety of the Vatican response, however. In a second letter, Viganò asks Cardinal Marc Ouellet to release the “documents incriminating McCarrick and many in the curia for their cover-ups.”
In response, Cardinal Ouellet wrote an open letter refuting Viganò’s claims, in very strong and clear terms. Mind you, Cardinal Ouellet was (and still is) the Prefect for the Congregation of Bishops. Since he is a high-ranking Vatican official, it is not accurate to say that the Vatican has remained silent. In the opening paragraph of his letter, Cardinal Ouellet said that he was writing, “With pontifical permission, and in my capacity as Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.” In other words, this was an official response from the Vatican that was released with permission from the pope.
After Ouellet’s open letter, how did Viganò and his followers respond? With deflection and deception. At first, they accused the good cardinal of lying. Later, they twisted the meaning of Cardinal Ouellet’s letter, claiming that his clear and unambiguous refutation had actually proven many of Viganò’s claims. Flynn himself wrote in CNA in October 2018 that, “Ouellet validated a central point of Viganò’s,” and in last week’s analysis described the letter from Ouellet as simply part of some “public and polemical correspondence” with Viganò. There was indeed a Vatican’s official response refuting Viganò, but it did not achieve its aim, since it was distorted by many prominent media figures of the time.
But Flynn’s essay also misses the mark when he advances a series of hypotheses that he believes might explain the Vatican’s silence, namely: 1) Church leaders do not grasp the level of influence that Viganò has; 2) There is a misguided hope that Viganò will simply go away quietly; 3) They are reluctant to publicly admonish an archbishop who is a retired high-ranking diplomatic figure; 4) They are disinclined to answer due to sincere concerns for the archbishop’s health or his personal circumstances; 5) They want to avoid the uncomfortable fact that Francis has chosen to not answer many open “questions” (he specifically names the “substantive claims” by Viganò about McCarrick and the “unanswered” questions on Amoris Laetitia). To his credit, Flynn does add reasons why almost all these hypotheses are likely wrongheaded.
Whatever role these guesses might play in answering his question, the main reason cannot be found anywhere in Flynn’s article. This, in my mind, demonstrates the fundamental lack of comprehension of Francis that is held by even his most deferential critics.
The reason for Pope Francis’s silence is rooted in two facts.
The first is that, as I have mentioned, the Vatican did indeed respond in the beginning, through Cardinal Ouellet’s open letter. It was roundly dismissed by those who supported Viganò, including by CNA and JD Flynn himself. Ultimately, it served no purpose. So why keep pursuing this approach? Nothing the Vatican can say or do will change the minds of those who have decided to believe and support Viganò, no matter how ridiculous his claims have become.
The second reason flows from the first. It is deeply rooted in Pope Francis’s spirituality and his life philosophy. As Father Jorge Bergoglio wrote in an essay in the 1990s:
“In moments of darkness and tribulation, when the tangles and the knots cannot be untied, nor things clarified, then we must be silent.”
In the same essay, Fr. Bergoglio further explains this reasoning. When a person is attacked in a way that “cannot be clarified,” then that person’s best response is to keep silent. Truth will eventually come to the surface, because the “weakness” shown by this person inevitably emboldens the Devil, who will then manifest himself, revealing the evil motivations he had concealed until that time.
In other words, by letting the accuser talk, the person who suffers in silence will give this accuser enough rope to hang himself. Let him talk. Sooner or later he will reveal the inconsistencies and lies in his accusations.
This is precisely what happened with Viganò. Flynn correctly notes that “the archbishop has changed his topic, from the McCarrick affair to conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic, the Marian apparition at Fatima, and the Second Vatican Council.”
In other words, Viganò is letting it all out now. His accusations do not serve the legitimate aim of doing justice for the McCarrick victims anymore, as they once appeared to do. Viganò’s accusations now seem to be ends in themselves; they seek to transform the Church according to the agenda of certain Catholics who pit themselves as the guardians of orthodoxy against the Vicar of Christ and an ecumenical council.
Not only that, but Viganò’s missives have become so unhinged, conspiratorial, and detached from reality, that at this moment, there is no excuse for a Catholic to follow him. By now, it is as clear as day: Viganò’s best refutation is Viganò himself. This is a much stronger argument than if Pope Francis had issued a point-by-point refutation of every single one of his claims. If someone is still following Viganò at this point, then I don’t know what the Vatican could say that would convince them. They are simply too far off. I believe that for this subset of our Church, only prayers, not arguments, will help.
Those who helped advance Viganò’s claims and supported his ideological agenda in 2018 and 2019 but believe today that he has lost the plot should do a serious self-examination of their role in leading these “little ones” astray.
The answer to JD Flynn’s question, “Why is the Vatican silent on McCarrick?” is to begin to know Francis. I answered this very same question in October 2018, in fact, when I wrote:
“Viganò’s testimony is accepted at face value, no matter how many inconsistencies and denials contradict it. If someone with authority and knowledge states Viganò is wrong, then it must be because that person is lying. If someone categorically rejects the existence of sanctions, then what that person said is spun in order to prove the sanctions existed. And so there were sanctions, even when they were not sanctions, but they were still sanctions insofar as they validate Viganò’s testimony. Viganò can invert the burden of proof and demand that Francis prove his innocence by releasing documents whose existence is uncertain, apart from Viganò’s own testimony (in other words, circular reasoning and petitio principii). If those documents are not released, then that is proof that Viganò is right (the archbishop states so in his second testimony). If they are released but do not prove what Viganò says they prove, then this is because the documents were tainted. In other words, Viganò’s testimony is non-falsifiable.
To this, I can only once again commend Pope Francis’s wisdom in maintaining silence before this crowd. All those who have asked for years that the Pope would clarify his teachings have now shown what they would have done if Francis had given them a clear answer (as Ouellet did) that they disagreed with. They would just spin the pope’s clarifications in a way better suited for their ideological narrative, just as they have done now. And all those insistent cries for an investigation are paradoxical, since they have proven they are not open to be led to “wherever truth may lead them” (as the Vatican statement puts it), but are rather searching for an “investigation” that will corroborate their pre-made conclusions.
Above all, if Pope Francis’s guilt has already been proven in their minds in a non-falsifiable way, why should Francis waste his time answering them? Silence is the appropriate answer. Whatever Francis might say in response to Viganò’s accusations would just feed the controversy, without satisfying his detractors in the least.”
If Francis’ approach to this kookery sounds familiar, in other words, it’s because it’s the same one Jesus took when the scapegoating mob of liars bent on his destruction overwhelmed him with accusations and lies. Instead of casting pearls before swine and giving what was holy to dogs, he did what Isaiah prophesied he would do:
like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth. (Is 53:7)
Which brings us to the absurd move Vigano and his prideful cult of personality has now made to paint anybody who will not vote for Trump as monsters in league with Satan. Of which more tomorrow.