Vatican Charges Pope Critic Carlo Maria Viganò with the Crime of Schism

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, then the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, blesses the altar at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on March 24, 2016 in Washington.

ROME – He has called Pope Francis a liberal “servant of Satan,” demanded his resignation and suggested that the Vatican’s Swiss Guard arrest the 87-year-old pontiff. Now, after receiving years of withering verbal attacks, Francis appears to have struck back against Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former Vatican ambassador to the United States and the pope’s most ardent internal critic.

The Vatican’s disciplinary body, the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a formal decree – made public by Viganò on Thursday – assigning the senior cleric to a penal canon trial. The charges: the “crime of schism” and “denial of the legitimacy of Pope Francis.”

Such trials are exceedingly rare, and the move underscores a recent effort by the Vatican to take more-formal action against a gaggle of archconservatives who have sought to undermine Francis’s papacy from the inside. Conviction could lead to Viganò’s defrocking and excommunication, ending the career of the 83-year-old Italian who has been the leading symbol of resistance to a pope viewed by some traditionalists as wildly liberal.

On Thursday, Viganò said in a statement that he sees the “accusations against me as an honor.” He referred to Francis as he always does, eschewing his official title and using his name from before he was pope. “It is no coincidence that the accusation against me concerns the questioning of the legitimacy of Jorge Mario Bergoglio and … the ideological, theological, moral, and liturgical cancer of which the Bergoglian ‘synodal church’ is the necessary metastasis,” Viganò wrote.

Viganò hasn’t made many public appearances since calling for Francis’s resignation in 2018. But he has continued to deliver stinging missives on X and the conservative U.S. outlet LifeSiteNews. He has also talked about creating a seminary free of Vatican interference.

The crime of schism is defined as a rupture with the church’s “unity” under the pope. In this case, the Vatican cited Viganò’s public statements that have “resulted in a denial of the elements necessary to maintain communion with the Catholic Church,” as well as his rejection of Francis’s “legitimacy” and the reforms laid out by the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.

The trial amounts to an answer to just how far the Holy See, where the pope rules as the supreme power, is willing to go in allowing dissent.

Francis has weathered conservative criticism for years, including vitriolic attacks from within clerical ranks. But church codes require clerical fealty, and as criticism has grown louder in recent months, the Vatican has taken more-decisive action. Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Tex., was stripped of his diocese, while American Cardinal Raymond Burke lost his pension and Rome apartment.

“Now they’re hitting at the most visible character, who recently said this pope is an usurper of the throne of St. Peter, and that can’t be accepted,” said Marco Politi, a Rome-based author of several books on Francis. He added that Francis “no longer wants, within the church, organized groups that are frontal enemies of the pope.”

Viganò was ordered to appear at the Vatican’s disciplinary office on Thursday and told that he would be tried in absentia if he didn’t, according to a document advising him of the charges. It was not clear if he had presented himself after publicly signaling his defiance.

The conservative Italian prelate was recalled as U.S. ambassador, or apostolic nuncio, in 2016 amid allegations that he’d gotten caught up in the political fight against same-sex marriage.

Two years later, he made headlines with a bombshell letter that latched on to a vulnerability of the church – its record of dealing with sexual abuse cases – to accuse Francis of misconduct. Francis, he asserted, had ignored early warnings about Cardinal Theodore McCar­rick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., who had just resigned from the College of Cardinals.

The Vatican trial of Viganò comes three weeks after he published fresh allegations on X, claiming that Francis had committed the “same abuses” as McCar­rick when serving in a senior church position in Argentina. He again offered no evidence.

Viganò appeared to escalate his missives after a December ruling, authorized by Francis, allowing Catholic priests to conduct short blessings of people in same-sex relationships. He referenced the ruling in his lengthy response to the trial, writing, “Bergoglio authorizes the blessing of same-sex couples and imposes on the faithful the acceptance of homosexualism, while covering up the scandals of his protégés and promoting them to the highest positions of responsibility.”

On Thursday, the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told journalists in Rome that “Archbishop Viganò has taken some attitudes and some actions for which he must answer.”

“I am very sorry because I always appreciated him as a great worker, very faithful to the Holy See, someone who was, in a certain sense, also an example. When he was apostolic nuncio he did good work.

“I don’t know what happened,” Parolin said.