ROME – A petition signed by some conservative Catholics claiming the coronavirus is an overhyped “pretext" to deprive the faithful of Mass and impose a new world order has run into a hitch.
The highest-ranking signatory, Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican’s liturgy office, claims he never signed the petition. But the archbishop who spearheaded it said Friday that Sarah was fully on board, and he has the recorded phone conversations to prove it.
Thus Sarah, the Guinean-born hero to the Catholic right-wing, has landed in another he said-he said controversy, following the polemics over a book he penned with retired Pope Benedict XVI on priestly celibacy that created a huge firestorm this year.
The virus petition, signed mostly by Italian clergy, academics and journalists, is the latest initiative by conservatives to frame COVID-19 lockdowns as an assault on religious liberty, a threat to the global economy and a conspiracy to separate families.
The petition calls the pandemic a “pretext” by unnamed actors to manipulate and control people through panic and deprive them of their fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of worship. It warns that contact-tracing devices, required vaccinations and “criminalized” visits between grandparents and grandchildren are “a disturbing prelude to the realization of a world government beyond all control.”
It's another manifesto from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former Holy See diplomat who achieved notoriety with his 2018 j’accuse of a high-level Vatican cover-up of sex abuse. Vigano has gone on to opine — negatively — on everything from the Vatican's China policy to Pope Francis' outreach to Muslims and the pope's Amazon synod.
Aside from Sarah and Vigano, the prominent signatories include three other conservative cardinals who have been critical of Francis’ papacy, including the ousted prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, and the retired archbishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen.
It was issued Thursday, the same day the Italian government and the bishops conference reached an agreement to resume Masses starting May 18, with strict protocols, after a two-month shutdown.
Vigano blindsided Francis’ papacy with his 2018 claims of a two-decade cover-up of disgraced American ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
Francis defrocked McCarrick after a Vatican investigation found he sexually abused adult seminarians and minors. The Vatican still hasn’t released its promised report into Vigano’s allegations.
Sarah grabbed headlines in January when he released a book with Benedict as co-author asserting the necessity of keeping Catholic priests celibate. It created a ruckus because it implied that the retired pope was trying to influence the ruling one, who was then weighing whether to allow married priests in the remote Amazon.
Benedict's secretary insisted the retired pope never agreed to be a co-author and asked that his name be removed from future editions.
Sarah insisted Benedict had indeed agreed and had contributed significant amounts of text. Seeking to clear his name, Sarah provided contemporaneous notes of his dealings with the retired pope.
Vigano is now using that tactic against Sarah to show that the cardinal was on board with the virus petition despite his claims to the contrary.
Sarah tweeted Thursday that while he might “share some questions or preoccupations” about fundamental freedoms raised by the petition, he didn’t sign it, and shouldn’t, given his role as a Vatican official.
Vigano, though, gave a time-stamped chronology of his communications with the cardinal, including a recorded May 4 phone call in which Sarah said: “I give my consent to put my name on it because it’s a fight we have to conduct together, not just for the Catholic Church but all humanity.”
Vigano said would forgive Sarah “for the grave crime he committed against the truth and myself."
In a final salvo, Sarah tweeted later Friday that he was leaving it to the conscience of anyone who wants to exploit the matter. “I decided not to sign this text. I fully accept my choice."
This version corrects Sarah's nationality to Guinea.