The Viganò ‘schism’ in this post-Vatican II moment

By Massimo Faggioli, 7 July 2024
St. Peters Basillica in Vatican, Rome, Italy. Image: Shutterstock


The Viganò phenomenon highlights a significant post-Vatican II rift within Catholicism. While Viganò’s conspiracy theories are troubling, the main concern is the silent schism of disengagement and potential backlash against synodal decisions.

Will there be a Viganò schism? Surely not a schism like the ones in the handbooks of Church history. But news that the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith had summoned Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò to answer to charges of schism reveals something of this Catholic moment and Catholic culture.

From 2011-2016, the Italian archbishop served as apostolic nuncio to the United States, and in August 2018, he accused Pope Francis of abuse cover-up in an attempt to overthrow his papacy. Since then, he has released a series of increasingly extreme statements about the pope, the Vatican, and the authority of the Second Vatican Council from undisclosed locations and via the internet. He has also pushed conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia, and Ukraine and aligned himself with Donald Trump.

The Code of Canon Law, canon 751, defines schism as “the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” For a communion like the Catholic Church, which values unity and obedience to the pope very highly, the idea of breaking visibly that unity, at least as a threat, is appealing in its own way, much like all taboos.

The threat of a Viganò schism, propagated by some of Francis’ opponents, is notable as it highlights how papalist the Catholic Church has become, and with it also the notion of schism in relation to obedience to the pope, and recognition of the reigning pope’s legitimacy.

Schisms are part of the Church’s past

In the past ten centuries in Catholicism, the notion of schism has largely become identified with the notion of “papal schism,” that is, the refusal to obey the pope and the rise of a parallel church with its own anti-pope, pseudo-councils, Curia, cardinals, and obedience. Our notion of schism is still largely a medieval notion, even though other divisions took place in the church in the early modern and modern periods. However, other forms of schism took place, for example, in monastic communities, with abbots and anti-abbots, such as the monasteries of the order of Cluny in the 12th century.

Schisms are part of the church’s past as well as its future; like wars, economic recessions, pandemics, and earthquakes, they are recurring events. As German historian Reinhart Koselleck has shown, recurring events have a structuring effect on human experience. Our sense of the past is composed of historical iconography, and schisms are an integral part of our sense of the Catholic form of the Church in history.

Today, the notion of schism is inseparable from the virtualization of religious identities in online communities that “gather” on social media. The Viganò online saga, which a Catholic from just 20 years ago or a hermit living off the grid or offline today would have a hard time understanding, helps us realize that there is a pre-and a post-internet history of schisms in the Catholic Church. And now, we are in a particular moment in the history of the post-Vatican II Church.

The Viganò phenomenon

First, the Viganò phenomenon is an aberration that repositions the most important post-Vatican II rift within Catholicism. Paradoxically, an old schism is helping us measure this kind of real-virtual potential schism. The Lefebvrites have publicly distanced themselves from Viganò because he is giving their critique of Vatican II a bad name. They declared their intention to separate themselves from Viganò’s “declaration of sedevacantism” – the position that holds that the current pope is not pope. This public position of the Lefebvrites is one of the side effects of the Vatican’s decision to prosecute Viganò, and it is interesting because it singles out his cartoonish extremism. At the same time, the Viganò phenomenon contributes to normalizing the position of the SSPX, which has become more mainstream compared to their early years and the 1988 excommunication latae sententiae for ordaining new traditionalist bishops without the approval of the Holy See.

Archbishop Viganò’s fanatical statements on Vatican II – “the ideological, theological, moral and liturgical cancer of which the (Francis’) ‘synod church’ is the necessary metastasis” — make Marcel Lefebvre and the SSPX look like right-of-center Catholics, and not like the extreme traditionalists they actually are. This says something about the ground shifting under the feet of Vatican II Catholics. The summoning of Viganò is also a clear message to the approximately 20 American bishops who supported the former apostolic nuncio to the United States and failed to defend the pope during the shocking days of the summer of 2018 when Viganò called for Francis to resign. Interestingly, that 2018 peak in the tensions between Francis and U.S. Catholic conservatives led some of them to more prudent positions, given the para- or actually pre-schismatic company in which they found themselves.

Amid the “synodal process”

Second, the Catholic Church finds itself in the middle of the “synodal process.” Viganò’s tirades and conspiracy theories have to do with Pope Francis as much as with synodality as a key moment in the reception of Vatican II. We had schisms after Vatican I (the Old Catholic Church) and after Vatican II (the Lefebvrites). It is possible that there will also be one (or more) after the Synod on synodality. At Vatican II, some of the compromises between different theological options in the wording of the final documents were the result of fears and threats of a schism. This is happening again now during the Synod, though not out of fear of the Viganò schism but of something bigger. The prime problem for the Synod is not the sedevacantist extremism of the former papal nuncio but the silent schism of disengagement and disillusionment. There are also fears of strong reactions of rejection of synodal or post-synodal groundbreaking decisions (for example, on women’s diaconate) by some local or continental churches. The recent refusal of many Catholic Church leaders in Africa to implement Fiducia supplicans on blessings for same-sex couples has been accepted by the same Vatican Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith that has now summoned Archbishop Viganò to answer to charges of schism.

Our minor-celebrities culture

Third, it makes perfect sense for the Vatican to deal with Archbishop Viganò formally and officially. We naively tend to dismiss what happens in the virtual world as something that is unreal and inconsequential. The accusations of schism against Francis have been published in online statements — one of the longest on June 28, 2024. However, since his resignation in April 2016, Viganò has created a virtual realm of followers online, with an in-person following that is difficult or impossible to measure, making him no less serious or real.

There is also a lesson here for the enemies targeted by Viganò. In online Catholicism, social media activities and interactions work more for disruption than for constructing unity. This has to do with the turbo-capitalistic economy of the self. Taking a selfie with the pope enhances the social media profile but does not help the unity of the Church. For every Catholic with a social media profile picture showing their photo with the pope, there is a higher number of Catholics who see themselves on the opposite side. This is our minor-celebrities culture, from which the most active Catholic influencers, even those on Pope Francis’ side, are by no means immune. We could learn something important from the Viganò case.

Massimo Faggioli teaches history and theology at Villanova University near Philadelphia (USA) and is a regular contributor to La Croix International with his column ‘Signs of the times‘. You can follow him on X (Twitter).

Reproduced with permission from La Croix International.


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