Abp. Viganò, the Pope, & the “Vicar of Christ” Nothingburger

Abp. Viganò, the Pope, & the “Vicar of Christ” Nothingburger April 6, 2020

With Catholic Theologian Dr. Robert Fastiggi and Apologist Karl Keating

On 3 April 2020, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò: Pope Francis’ biggest critic among the bishops, issued a statement called “You Have Said So.” Here is the bulk of it (my bolding added):

On March 25, the 2020 Pontifical Yearbook was published with a real novelty. It may seem like a typographical trifle, in the part dedicated to the reigning pontiff, but this is not the case. Until last year, in fact, Francis’s titles were listed at the top of the page, beginning with “Vicar of Christ”, “Successor of the Prince of the Apostles” etc., and ending with his birth name and a very brief biography.

In the new edition, on the other hand, the secular name JORGE MARIO BERGOGLIO stands out in large letters, followed by the biography, the date of election and the beginning of his “ministry as universal Pastor of the Church.” Separated by a dash and the words, “Historical titles,” all the titles of the Roman Pontiff are then listed, as if they were no longer an integral part of the Munus Petrinum that legitimizes the authority which the Church recognizes in the Pope.

This change in the layout and content of an official text of the Catholic Church cannot be ignored, nor is it possible to attribute it to a gesture of humility on the part of Francis, which is not in keeping with his name being so prominently featured. Instead, it seems possible to see in it the admission — passed over in silence — of a sort of usurpation, whereby it is not the “Servus servorum Dei” who reigns, but the person of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who has officially disavowed being the Vicar of Christ, the Successor of the Prince of the Apostles and the Supreme Pontiff, as if they were annoying trappings of the past: only mere “historical titles.”

An almost defiant gesture — one might say — in which Francis transcends every title. Or worse: an act to officially alter the Papacy, by which he no longer recognizes himself as guardian, but becomes master of the Church, free to demolish it from within without having to answer to anyone. In short, a tyrant.

. . . [He] releases himself from his role as Vicar to proclaim himself, in a delirium of pride, absolute monarch even with respect to Christ.

Moreover, it’s reported that Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican’s former doctrinal chief, writing for the German weekly Die Tagepost, contended that the section marked “historical titles” included “Vicar of Christ” with other titles that “have nothing to do with primacy and have only grown historically but [have] no dogmatic meaning, such as ‘Sovereign of Vatican City State’. . . . It is a theological barbarism to devalue the Pope’s titles ‘Successor of Peter, Vicar of Christ and visible head of the whole Church’ as a mere historical ballast.”

Words fail me, I must confess (and that’s a rare thing). Blessedly, my friend, Dr. Robert Fastiggi has responded to these accusations, and has given me permission to post his thoughts (written to various people) on my blog:

I agree with him that it would have been better not to list the titles of the Pope as “historical titles.” I think, though, that he and others are reading too much into this than is warranted. These titles are historical, but this does not mean they are not still actual titles. As Catholics, we are obliged to seek to give a favorable interpretation to what our neighbor says or does (CCC, 2478). Archbishop Viganò, though, not only gives an unfavorable interpretation, but he goes so far as to compare Pope Francis to Judas. This is similar to his reaction to Pope Francis’s Dec. 12, 2019 homily in which he compared Francis to the serpent tempting Eve. This strikes me not only as hyperbole but as supreme disrespect to the Holy Father. I know some people regard  Archbishop Viganò as a hero. I also was grateful for his demand for an explanation with respect to the influence of  Theodore McCarrick. Unfortunately,  Archbishop Viganò’s rhetoric in recent months has become hyperbolic. I noted this in a letter to Inside the Vatican, which has not yet been published but was posted by my friend, Dave Armstrong on Patheos. I really believe  Archbishop Viganò needs prayers (as does Pope Francis).


Thank you for sharing this story. I had not heard of this change before. It seems, though, that most of the significant papal titles are listed as “historical titles.” To call them historical does not mean that they are not valid today.
I noted this passage in the story:
Usually, the presentation of the members of the Church’s hierarchy – College of Cardinals, bishops of the world and the Vatican’s dicasteries – starts with the Roman Pontiff, under the title “Vicar of Jesus Christ” (“Vicario di Gesù Cristo”). Then follow the additional titles of the Pope, all of which carry a “different or even no dogmatic significance” as does the first title, according to Horst. These are: Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman province, Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City, and Servant of the Servants of God.
Actually, the title “Successor of the Prince of the Apostles” might be the most significant because Vatican I anathematized those who denied that the Roman Pontiff is the successor of Blessed Peter (Denz.-H, 3058).  It also should be noted that Vatican II applies the title “Vicar of Christ” to bishops as well (LG, 27). The Roman Pontiff is the supreme Vicar of Christ on earth, but he’s not the only “Vicar of Christ” according to Vatican II.
As you might recall, there was some controversy over the dropping of the papal title “Patriarch of the West” in 2006 in the Annuario Pontificio. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity subsequently  came out with an explanation for this change (see Denz.-H 5106). I really think the main reason was that Benedict XVI didn’t want the Eastern Orthodox to have the idea that the Roman Pontiff’s authority is only over “the West.”
I don’t think the LifeSite story is fake news, but I think some people are reading more things  into the reference to “historical titles” than are really there.
We don’t really know if Pope Francis doesn’t like the title Vicar of Christ. This is the questionable inference that Viganò and others have made on the basis of a minor editorial change in the Annuario Pontificio.
I looked again at the Italian page of the Annuario. At the end of the biographical section it mentions March 19, 2013 as the “solemn initiation of his ministry as Pastor of the Universal Church.” To be “Pastor of the Universal Church” is certainly the supreme responsibility of the Roman Pontiff. This does not suggest any distancing from the role of being the Vicar of Jesus Christ.
The other titles are under the heading “historical titles.” As I’ve noted, to say these titles are historical does not at all mean that they are not applicable today.
The titles listed as historical are:
Vicar of Jesus Christ
Successor of the Prince of the Apostles
Primate of Italy
Archbishop and Primate of the Roman Province
Sovereign of Vatican City State
Servant of the Servants of God
Some of these historical titles are rooted in the deposit of faith, and others are more recent. For example, “Sovereign of Vatican City State” would apply only since the 1929 Lateran Treaty. Perhaps this is the reason why these titles are listed as historical. Some of them might not apply in the future. As you know, the title “Patriarch of the West” was dropped in the Annuario in 2006 (and there was some controversy at the time).
Perhaps Pope Francis wanted these titles listed as “historical” out of humility, but that’s simply speculation. The title “Pastor of the Universal Church” is not listed as historical and that title flows from the fact that the Pope is the successor of St. Peter and the supreme Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth.
Viganò and others are making conclusions based on questionable inferences. This is similar to the whole idolatry accusation. It’s unjust and uncharitable to draw conclusions without evidence.
The article in Catholic Herald, drawn from Catholic News Agency, allows the Vatican to explain:

Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See press office, told the Italian bishops’ newspaper Avvenire that the yearbook was not declaring that the title Vicar of Christ was merely of historical significance.

If that were the case, Avvenire reported, the title would simply have been removed. Bruni cited Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to drop the title “Patriarch of the West” from the Annuario in 2006. This was widely understood to be an ecumenical gesture aimed at healing the centuries-long breach between Catholics and other Christians.

Bruni said that the titles were classified as “historical” because they are tied historically to the title bishop of Rome. A new pope acquires them the moment he is elected in a conclave. [italics for proper names added]

Lastly, Catholic apologist Karl Keating has chimed in as well, on his public Facebook page (4-4-20):
Some people have made far too much of this, as I have commented on some Facebook threads. But no one of stature, so far as I know, has gone as far as Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. . . .

It doesn’t “seem possible” to see in the change that the pope is disavowing being the Vicar of Christ and so on. It would be one thing to assert that the editorial change had no particular justification and should have been left undone. It’s something else to say the pope is, in effect, denying being the pope. (If a pope denies being the Vicar of Christ, he pretty much is denying that there is a papacy.)

I have appreciated much of what Archbishop Viganò has said over the last few years, without necessarily agreeing with his phrasing, but this goes far too far.

Keating added in various comments underneath his post:
[Abp. Vigano’s opinion is] going to hold less weight if he keeps saying cockamamie things like this.
He didn’t misspeak. He wrote out a statement that he issued to the press.
Viganò claims that the pope “has officially disavowed” being the Vicar of Christ, which must mean that he has disavowed being the pope–and has done so officially. Viganò isn’t claiming Francis to be a heretic. That would be a different claim.
“The Pope has denied being Pope”? Show us exactly where. You’re jumping from legitimate criticism of some of his actions to conspiratorial nonsense. It’s bad for the Church and bad for you.
He isn’t “refusing” to acknowledge his titles.They’re right below his biography!
I’m sure it wasn’t a printer’s mistake. I think the most likely reason was to make the pope’s entry in the yearbook be in the same format as the other entries, which all begin with the bishop’s name.
As so often in these matters, it’s claimed that Pope Francis denies something or other; then it is easy enough (via the Vatican website, that has a very good search engine) to find him asserting the thing he supposedly denied (or in this case, he uses one of the titles of the popes). In fact, Pope Francis has referred to “Vicar of Christ” at least three times:
I received with great joy the kind letter you sent me, on your own behalf and on behalf of the Society of Jesus, on the occasion of my election to the See of St Peter. In it you informed me of your prayers for me and for my apostolic ministry, as well as of your total willingness to continue serving the Church and the Vicar of Christ unconditionally, in accordance with the precept of St Ignatius of Loyola. (Letter to the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, 3-16-13)
The Pope is a bishop, the Bishop of Rome, and because he is the Bishop of Rome he is the Successor of Peter, Vicar of Christ. There are other titles, but the first title is “Bishop of Rome” and everything follows from that. To say, to think that this means being primus inter pares, no, that does not follow. It is simply the Pope’s first title: Bishop of Rome. But there are others too … (Airplane Press Conference, 7-28-13)
The Institutions to which you belong — formed into a Consortium by Pope Pius XI in 1928 — are entrusted to the Society of Jesus, and share the same desire “to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the Cross … and to serve the Lord alone and the Church, His spouse, under the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on earth” (Formula, 1). (Address to the Community of the Pontifical Gregorian University et al, 4-10-14)
If someone objects (rather desperately, I would say) that “he only did it three times!” I reply that many other popes only used it just a few times, too:
Ven. Pope Pius XII used it eleven times; Leo XIII, six; Pius XI, five; St. Pius X, three; and St. John XXIII, just twice.   Others used it more: Pope St. Paul VI, 24; Pope St. John Paul II, 63; but then the use was reduced quite a bit with Pope Benedict XVI (19). Clearly, there is no requirement to use it a lot. Pope Francis is simply similar in this respect to four other popes: two of them saints, and one (St. Pius X) particularly renowned for his traditionalism and opposition to modernism; and he referred to it only three times, just as Pope Francis has.

Popes exhibit all kinds of non-dogmatic differences of emphasis amongst themselves. For example, Pope St. John Paul II wrote a considerably greater amount of material about the Blessed Virgin Mary than Pope Benedict XVI did. Does this “prove” that the latter pope loved Mary less, or held to a heterodox Mariology? No, not at all; he simply didn’t write about her as much, and when he did, he was relatively less expressive and “flowery” than St. John Paul II. Possibly, he may not have written as much, precisely because his predecessor had done quite a bit, and there were many other topics to be addressed, as always. Different strokes . . .

So once again, the current anti-Francis “controversy” (only the latest of an endless wrongheaded supply) is a tempest in a teapot, much ado about nothing; a nothingburger. This is my 168th time defending the Holy Father, and I must say that it has been pretty easy to do, too (such is the utter weakness of the attempts to discredit him), in all but a very few cases. Back to your regularly scheduled program . . .

Related Reading

Bishops Viganò & Schneider Reject Authority of Vatican II [11-22-19]

Viganò, Schneider, Pachamama, & VCII (vs. Janet E. Smith) [11-25-19]

Pope Francis vs. the Marian Title “Co-Redemptrix”? (+ Documentation of Pope Francis’ and Other Popes’ Use of the Mariological Title of Veneration: “Mother of All”) [12-16-19]

Abp. Viganó Descends into Fanatical Reactionary Nuthood (. . . Declares Pope Francis a Heretical Narcissist Who “Desacralized” & “Impugned” & “Attack[ed]” Mary) [12-20-19]

Pope Francis’ Deep Devotion to Mary (Esp. Mary Mediatrix) [12-23-19]

Dr. Fastiggi: Open Letter Re Abp. Viganò, Pope Francis, & Mary [2-22-20]

Radical Catholic Reactionaries vs. Catholic Traditionalism web page

The Papacy and Infallibility web page

Pope Francis Defended: Resources for Confused or Troubled Folks [347 articles]

Replies to Critiques of Pope Francis (Dave Armstrong) [168 of my own articles]


Photo credit: from the article, “Words We’re Watching: ‘Nothingburger'” (Merriam-Webster).


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