Pope Francis has remained notably silent in response to the allegations by Archbishop Viganò that he had been made aware of Cardinal McCarrick’s predatory behavior in regard to seminarians. When initially asked about these charges on the plane home from Ireland, the Holy Father invited journalists to reach their own conclusions, but said “I will not speak one word on this.”
This silence is puzzling to many people, and the pope somewhat indirectly addressed the puzzle the following Sunday in his homily. As reported by the Catholic Herald, Pope Francis said: “‘With people lacking good will, with people who seek only scandal, with those who look only for division, who want only destruction,’ the best response is ‘silence. And prayer.’” Expanding on this in the context of the Gospel reading, the pope pointed to Jesus’s response to those who were challenging him and eventually sought to drive him away, while Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went away.” Thus, indicated the pope, “the truth is meek. The truth is silent. The truth is not noisy.”
This seems to be an empirical claim, and one that is not always verified. Sometimes the truth is best served by silence, but sometimes it is not. Silence can be ally of dishonesty: as Matthew Schmitz has noted, the now-disgraced Marcial Maciel chose the road of silence, in an attempt to appear like Jesus. But his silence was no more than an appearance. It was, in fact, a form of lying. By suggesting that his silence was like Jesus’s silence, he falsely asserted his own innocence. In his case, silence was an enemy to the truth.
On the other hand, there are cases where silence is the friend of truth. In at least some of those cases, silence brings the contradictions and inconsistencies in a false account to light. By remaining silent in the face of false and absurd charges, one might give the false accuser “enough rope” that he is shown for the liar he is. But this certainly does not always happen, and it does not seem that Viganò’s “testimony” obviously collapses under the weight of its own absurdity. That the pope should have rehabilitated McCarrick while knowing of his past offenses is shocking, but not impossible; there are tensions in Viganò’s account, and facts that do not fit all of his narrative, but it is simply not the case that it is self-evidently false in its entirety or essentials.
Justice and Mercy
I suspect there is a further thought in mind in the pope’s decision to remain silent, one in keeping with a primary theme of his pontificate. When a person is falsely accused of wrongdoing, it is eminently clear that such a person has a right to defend himself, a right that is a matter of justice. Lies against another person that defame him, take away his good name, and make false charges of immoral or irresponsible behavior do that person a wrong, and the person wronged is owed something: a clearing of his name, and a return, so far as possible, of what he lost as a result of being defamed. Accordingly, the first step demanded by justice in a case of defamation is an assertion of the truth: the charges must be denied, and a retraction sought.
But Pope Francis has made mercy a theme of his pontificate, and mercy can require something more than justice. Consider, for example, Germain Grisez’s treatment of mercy and rights. Grisez notes that rights may be claimed for three reasons. The first is “to claim them precisely because they are one’s own.” This, Grisez holds, is always inappropriate for any one: this manifests a bias toward oneself that “leads one to act out of love of self rather than love of justice.” Others assert rights out of a concern for justice, and Grisez writes that since this is founded on “an impartial love of justice, this approach conforms to the common requirements of moral responsibility.”
But, Grisez argues, Christians are called to a different response, one that emulates Jesus, and subordinates their own interests to those of others. Thus, “transforming justice into mercy, they should voluntarily forgo their rights and more than fulfill their duties.” This seems to me the truth in the pope’s approach: it is his right to defend himself, but mercy requires Christians in many cases to forgo the assertion of their rights in order to give witness to the specific task that Jesus has placed on his followers, to love one another as He loved them.
But Grisez notes an important qualification to this principle. Christians “ought not to be concerned about their rights but about the responsibilities entailed by their personal vocations.” So “Christians should seek to vindicate their rights when this is required to fulfill their responsibilities, but not otherwise” (my emphasis).
So the question is this: is it more called for by the pope’s responsibilities that he keep silent in the face of Viganò’s charges, or that he answer honestly and completely?
A Pope’s Responsibility to His Church
No doubt, there are cases where silence is the best policy. Any pope is the subject of harangues, defamations, and false accusations on probably a daily, if not hourly basis. No pope would serve the Church well by taking every personal slight as an opportunity for public correction.
But the facts in this case are different. The accusation comes from a fellow bishop, a servant of the Church. The accusations are taken seriously, likewise, by many other bishops, and by many Catholic laypeople. Some people, zealous to defend the pope, have argued or asserted that virtually all who take the charges seriously are aligned in a quasi-conspiracy to overthrow the pope, oppose his reforms, and remake the Church.
There are two possibilities: first, perhaps these defenders are correct regarding those who are concerned by the allegations; perhaps the majority of those expressing concern, and asking for greater transparency from the pope, are in fact seeking primarily to bring him down—they have “pounced,” in the uncongenial description given by the New York Times.
But if so, surely the effective response by the pope, and hence the response required by his responsibilities, is not silence, but the silencing that comes when false accusations are met with truth and knowledge. No doubt these enemies will not be fully placated by mere “denials” (though they are hardly placated by silence at all). But denials backed by the presenting of evidence would “shine a torch” on their mendacity and malevolence. This would be for the good of the Church—the good the pope is pledged to protect. So, a renunciation of justice in this case seems ill-advised.
On the other hand, the zealous defenders of the pope might be mistaken. Perhaps, rather than malicious plotters, many Catholics who take the accusations seriously include laypeople, priests, and bishops of good will. Perhaps these people wish, for the good of the Church, to know the truth of the matter, believing that the truth is the only source of hope for the reform of corrupt institutional structures.
Such Catholics of good will need not be thought overly credulous in finding the accusations of Viganò credible. Their trust in their leaders has, after all, been deeply shaken in the past two months, first by the revelations concerning McCarrick, surely one of the most influential, yet also most depraved, clerics of recent decades, and by the evidence of extensive cover-ups by Church hierarchs in Pennsylvania over a span of several decades. Given what we have learned about the Catholic hierarchy in that short span (to say nothing of the history of the Church more broadly), the idea of corruption that goes all the way to the top hardly requires an act of faith.
Such Catholics have genuine concern for the good of the Church; their worry that some or all of Viganò’s accusations might be true is neither groundless nor irresponsible; their great state of demoralization and distrust is a wound in the entire Church. What are this, or any, pope’s vocational responsibilities in such a situation?
Silence is Not Enough
The answer seems clear to me: silence is an inadequate way to meet those responsibilities. It gives the appearance that the pope himself has more to gain by remaining silent than by speaking the truth. But respect for the pope runs deep among these Catholics. If the pope says directly, letting his yes be yes and his no be no, that there are no grounds for the accusation as it bears upon him, and if he then orders a complete and transparent investigation into the allegations insofar as they bear upon numerous other high-ranking Catholic officials, even those personally close to him, then surely this will go a long way toward showing the faithful that the shepherd truly is one with the flock, that he smells like the sheep.
Right now, American Catholics know that for many years, their leaders included wolves. No good pope would knowingly solicit and heed the advice of such a wolf, but Pope Francis very clearly did solicit and heed the advice of McCarrick. The wound of the Church cannot begin to heal until he can, and does, honestly assert or deny that he did so knowingly.
Christopher O. Tollefsen is College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina.