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Former Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S. Excommunicated

July 8, 2024


The very day that the United States of America celebrated the 248th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 2024), the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) concluded a canonical process against the former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. The DDF found Viganò guilty of the canonical crime of schism and declared that he has incurred the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae. According to a DDF press release, Viganò received notice of this decision the following day (July 5, 2024). That same day, Viganò himself posted the eleven-page decree of excommunication (in Italian). Mike Lewis of the website Where Peter Is published an English translation (admittedly using an automatic translation program, so there are imperfections in the rendering). 

Some readers might already be familiar with Viganò and the long-standing tension between him and the Holy See. However, for those who are not as familiar, or who could use further explanation, I will summarize the case answering three main questions: who, what, and why.

Who is Carlo Maria Viganò?

Carlo Maria Viganò was born in 1941 in Varese, Italy. He holds a doctorate in both canon law and civil law. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1968. He had a long career working for the Vatican Diplomatic Corps and was eventually consecrated to the episcopacy in 1992 with the title of Titular Archbishop of Ulpiana, serving as the Apostolic Nuncio to Nigeria. (A nuncio is essentially a representative of the Holy See, somewhat akin to an ambassador.) From 2009 to 2011, Viganò held the position of Secretary General of the Governorate of the Vatican City State, until he was appointed as the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States. He retired on April 12, 2016.

What is latae sententiae excommunication?

First, canon lawyer John M. Huels offers the following definition of excommunication:

A censure that forbids a person from having any ministerial participation in the celebration of the liturgy; receiving the sacraments; discharging any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or function, and placing acts of governance. There are further effects if the excommunication has been imposed or declared.1

In the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC), there are two basic ways of incurring the penalty of excommunication: ferendae sententiae and latae sententiae. As the CIC states: “Generally, a penalty is ferendae sententiae, so that it does not bind the guilty party until after it has been imposed; if the law or precept expressly establishes it, however, a penalty is latae sententiae, so that it is incurred ipso facto when the delict is committed.” In other words, a ferendae sententiae penalty (such as excommunication) is one that is imposed by a juridical authority upon the person in question, while a latae sententiae penalty is incurred automatically by the very commission of the canonical crime. The CIC itself specifies crimes that incur latae sentitiae penalties and the conditions under which they are incurred (see can. 1321–1330).

Technically, in Viganò’s case, the DDF did not impose the penalty of excommunication. Rather, the dicastery undertook a process to determine whether Viganò had indeed committed a canonical crime that carries with it the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae. The DDF concluded that he was guilty and therefore declared that Viganò had, ipso facto, incurred the penalty of excommunication, so that this fact would be officially recognized and made known explicitly.

The penalty of excommunication is listed by the CIC under the category of “medicinal penalties,” which are also called “censures” (can. 1312). In an interview with ZENIT, canonist Fr. John Beal explains that medicinal penalties “are ‘deprivations of spiritual goods,’ privations which are theoretically temporary, and whose ‘primary aim is to impress upon the offender the seriousness of his crime and thereby prompt him to repent and reform.’” In other words, the censure of excommunication is given with the hope that it will lead the person to conversion and to return to good standing with the Church.

Why has Viganò incurred the penalty of excommunication?

In short, Viganò was found guilty of the canonical crime of schism. The CIC defines schism as “the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him” (can. 751).

Viganò has been a vocal critic of Pope Francis, even calling for Pope Francis’s resignation in a lengthy letter written in 2018,2 tied at least in part to charges of a cover-up. According to some reports, however, after further investigation, it appeared that Viganò—through his failure to conduct the investigation he was ordered to undertake—might have actually been guilty of the very cover-up of which he accused Pope Francis.3 

None of that, in itself, constitutes the crime of schism. But Viganò’s public attacks against Pope Francis did not cease there. “On several occasions in recent years,” Vatican News reports, “[Viganò] had declared that he did not recognize the legitimacy of Pope Francis or the Second Vatican Council.” Most recently, on June 28, 2024, “Archbishop Viganò accused Pope Francis of ‘heresy and schism.’”4 Essentially, this means Viganò is a sedevacantist, that is, one who believes the See of Peter to be empty or vacant. 

If one denies that the pope is the pope, then one is certainly refusing submission to him.

As evidence, the decree of excommunication quotes several published writings by and videos of Viganò in which he denies that Pope Francis is truly the pope (see the decree, no. 13 a.–i.). Viganò repeatedly refers to Pope Francis as “Bergoglio,” even stating that “‘Bergoglio’s church is not the Catholic Church, but that ‘conciliar church born of the Second Vatican Council. . . . If it is from this “church” that I am declared separate by schism, I make it my reason for honor and boasting” (no. 13 h.). Thus, in addition to denying that Francis is the pope, Viganò was found guilty of rejecting the magisterial authority of the Second Vatican Council. Several quotes from Viganò were supplied as evidence to this fact (see the decree, no. 14 a.–f.), including his expression of hope that one day a pope “will heal this situation by declaring it illegitimate, invalid, null and void” (no. 14 d.).

The evidence is rather convincing. If one denies that the pope is the pope, then one is certainly refusing submission to him. If one says that the Church subject to Francis is not the Catholic Church and that one is honored to not be in communion with it, then obviously one is refusing communion with those subject to the Holy Father. Furthermore, the assessors of the case determined that “the rejection of the legitimacy and magisterial authority of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council” is “clear evidence of the Prelate’s [Viganò’s] schismatic disposition” (no. 16). They further concluded that none of the canonical conditions that would prevent one from incurring a latae sententiae penalty (such as psychological impediments) were met.

Viganò’s position is so extreme that even the Society of St. Pius X—which in my theological estimation is also schismatic—thinks he has gone too far in his statements. As Elise Ann Allen reports, “the breakaway traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X distanced itself from an Italian archbishop and former Vatican envoy to the United States accused of schism, saying his public statements have gone beyond the acts that got their own founder excommunicated.”

The fact that Viganò is guilty of schism and has thus been excommunicated is lamentable. The purpose of making that fact known is to awaken his conscience with the hope that it leads to his repentance. Accordingly, in charity, we should include Viganò in our prayers, desiring that the medicinal aims of the censure will become effective.

1 John M. Huels, J.C.D., The Pastoral Companion: A Canon Law Handbook for Catholic Ministry, 3rd ed. (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1995), 406.
2 See Emma Bubola, “Vatican Excommunicates Its Former Ambassador to the U.S.,” The New York Times (July 5, 2024).
3 See Junno Arocho Esteves (Catholic News Service), “Vatican’s McCarrick Report reveals crucial gaps in Archbishop Vigano’s ‘testimony,’America: The Jesuit Review (Nov. 10, 2020).
4 Courtney Mares/CNA, “Vatican Excommunicates Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò for Schism,” National Catholic Register (July 5, 2024).