2. How do we recognize false teachers?

“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” Matthew 7:15

In our prayer for unity on the Xacobeo católico, the Catholic pilgrimage to Compostela, we need to name the problems: how do we experience division in the Church? We must examine the fissures and the temptations to disunity and hold them up in prayer. the starting point must be the source of poor teaching. How are we being led astray?

Read the exegesis of Matthew 7:15 here on bible.org and see the context of these words of Jesus. The key question here is how to recognize false teachers? In the context of the earlier passage in Matthew, this clearly meant the Pharisees, but in a wider sense applied to our own time the wolf in sheep’s clothing (or to be more exact, shepherd’s clothing) is the false teacher, who will not only come from a rival and recognizable alternative religious establishment, but from within our own Church establishment.

We need to be alert to the possibility that the wolf in shepherd’s clothing may be a member of the Catholic hierarchy itself. This is not a new phenomenon but has been something Christians have experienced in the entire history of the Church. In my classes on Early Church History in the seminary I was astonished at how much time was devoted in the first centuries of the Church to fighting over the dogmas and doctrines of the Church, its liturgy and its canon of accepted scripture, rooting out heresy, arguing about right teaching, and mutual excommunications! It seems like most of the first centuries of the faith were spent arguing over these things.

In comparison with our own time we could say with confidence that the faithful have not been concerned about heresy and the faith has been available to all in an age where most adults are literate and books are affordable. The finer points of rarified theological debate do not trickle down to worry the average Catholic in the pew. The culture shock of Vatican II in the 1960s and 1970s engaged Catholics in arguments about liturgy, but there was no actual schism apart from small pockets of dissent (e.g. the Lefebvrists.)

What is different today and who or what is driving the Catholic Church to be so divided between so-called ‘traditionalists’ and ‘liberals’? How is it that these ‘parties’ divide politically so that half the Catholics in the USA supported a non-Catholic demagogue Republican in preference to a lifelong Catholic Democratic candidate offering a political programme that was more in tune with the social teaching of Pope Francis? More interesting still: how was it possible for dissenting views and false teaching in the Church to gain such a hold that it swayed a large number of Catholics from adherence to the authority of the Pope himself?

The similarity to what happens in polarised political debate is striking: for example in the Brexit argument, ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ became two tribes that divided the UK roughly 50/50, and in the era of social media echo-chambers people only listen to the voices they want to hear. There is no ‘debate’ as such: there is only allegiance to one side or the other and a shouting match from the trenches. The social media platforms are also notorious breeding grounds for conspiracy theories which drive more extreme variations on the oppositional group-think. It is a dynamic of ‘them-and-us’ similar to football supporters’ behaviour: they can only cheer for those who wear the same coloured scarf. To do anything else would be illogical.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò

Wearing team colours and shouting a lot would once have seemed a distinctly odd way of following the teaching of the Church, and yet we now see a significant number of Catholics writing on websites, blogs and social media in support of Archbishop Viganò, a relatively minor figure in the Church hierarchy (not even a cardinal) who nobody had heard of five years ago but now has aspirations to singlehandedly cancel Vatican II and in the cause of that project and many other plans, including the central idea that the world is controlled by freemasons, he has made it clear that he does not recognize the authority of Pope Francis.

If such a man had come to prominence in the Italian media in the 1980s or 1990s, he would have been regarded simply as an eccentric and soon forgotten. In the digital world of the 21st century things work differently. The Catholic Church had been already polarised on social media by the presence of two popes, the ‘traditionalist’ Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and the ‘liberal’ Pope Francis. The disappointment of the traditionalists over the resignation of Benedict in 2013 was such that many blogs began promoting conspiracy theories to explain his departure, and eight years after that extraordinary moment there is no sign that they ever regained their senses.

Archbishop Viganò knew how to play to this constituency: he had been the apostolic nuncio to the USA until 2016 and had some significant inside knowledge concerning one of the prominent sexual abuse cases. This was the sordid history of the disgusting former cardinal – now disgraced and secularised – Theodore McCarrick. As a traditionally-minded prelate Viganò decided to use this knowledge to challenge Pope Francis and challenge his liberal pontificate by accusing him of a cover-up and demanding his resignation. (The case is more complex but I am simplifying: read a more detailed version here if you are interested.)

Viganò suddenly found himself the poster boy of the traditionalist blog circuit and the right-wing Catholic media in the USA, as well as the unsavoury side of American politics, the white supremacist right and figures like Steve Bannon who were fomenting fascist dissent among extremists in Europe as well as in the USA. The same people who brought havoc to democracy in the assault on the Capitol building in Washington in January 2021 – the white supremacists, the extreme right in the Trump Republican party, and the mixed collection of right wing media that underpin these groups – have formed an unholy alliance with figures like Viganò. Hence we find Viganò publicly saying things like ‘antifa’ was responsible for attacking the Capitol, not Trump supporters; vaccination against Covid-19 is morally wrong; and along with the usual conspiracy-mongers of the Internet, he indulges in millennarian apocalyptic rhetoric of a “satanic New World Order” that aims to eradicate the Church.

I honestly believe Archbishop Viganò has become a victim of his own hyperbolic rhetoric. He wishes to uphold Catholic tradition as he sees it, but his own words place him in a very tenuous ecclesiastical position. An archbishop of the Catholic Church who makes such overt and egregious accusations against the sitting Roman Pontiff is clearly refusing submission to the Supreme Pontiff, which according to canon 751 of the CIC, places him at least in material schism from the Catholic Church. I say material schism because it would be up to competent authority to determine whether canons 1364 §1 or 194, §1, n.2 of the CIC apply to Archbishop Viganò.

Robert Fastiggi, Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and a member of the theological commission of the International Marian Association.

If Archbishop Viganò truly thinks Pope Francis is a heretic (as he suggests in numerous articles and speeches), then HE IS DENYING Christ’s promise to the Church, so in my understanding Viganò is not a Catholic. Likewise, if he does not believe the Church is the true Church of Christ, while led by Pope Francis, then he is a schismatic. He is out of communion with the Church. On a slightly more mundane matter, by using his position as an archbishop to tell the faithful that they should not accept a Covid-19 vaccine, the ‘pro-life’ Viganò is in practice pro-death.

What then should be our approach to such false teaching? How are we to respond to one who comes to us in the clothing of a shepherd yet is so easily identifiable as a wolf? Our intention in prayer must be to call upon such people in the Church to place themselves under proper obedience to the Apostolic See, but also to pray for others who have been led astray by schismatic voices. Should we engage in argument with people who have been deceived by false teaching? This is a difficult question but I would suggest that little good will come of argument on social media – for the reasons stated above – and in the tribalism with which we are now familiar, rational argument does not really go anywhere.

Prayer is the main remedy, but we can help when individuals express confusion or are perplexed, and the best help we can give them is to bring them back to the basic teaching of the Church. The Pope is the “visible source and foundation of faith and communion” as the Church teaches (Lumen Gentium, 18). Nowhere are we told that we should listen to the alternative opinion of a dissenting prelate who has spotted a gap in the market for apocalyptic populism and has some very unsavoury friends.

Further reading:

Is Archbishop Viganò in Schism?

Steve Bannon’s ‘War Room’ interview with Abp. Viganò

This is an example of the kind of false teaching now commonly found on so-called ‘traditional’ Catholic blogs. The alliance with the radical extreme right is explicit in this example, as the interview is done by Steve Bannon whose influence in promoting fascist movements all over Europe is well-documented.