Cardinal tries to disavow petition that raises conspiracies about coronavirus lockdowns

Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican's liturgy office, claims he never signed a petition claiming the coronavirus is an over-hyped "pretext" to deprive the faithful of Mass.

Petition frames lockdowns as an assault on religious liberty

Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea has found himself trying to fend off controversy within the Catholic Church for the second time this year. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images)

A petition signed by some conservative Catholics claiming the coronavirus is an over-hyped "pretext" to deprive the faithful of Mass and impose a new world order has run into a bit of 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 in fact fully on board, and said he has the recorded phone conversations to prove it.

The virus petition, signed mostly by Italian clergy, academics and journalists, is the latest initiative by conservative believers from a variety of faiths to frame COVID-19 lockdowns as an assault on religious liberty, a threat to the global economy and a conspiracy to separate families.

It was issued Thursday, the same day the Italian government and bishops conference reached an agreement to resume Masses starting May 18, with strict security protocols in place, after a two-month shutdown.

The petition includes several uncontroversial statements, including expressing concern for the separation of the weak and elderly from their families and a hope that coronavirus remedies are developed for the "common good" and not driven by close relationships between corporations and governments.

But it also says the virus emergency is a "pretext" by unnamed actors to manipulate and control people through panic and deprive them of their fundamental freedoms, including freedom of worship.

'A disturbing prelude'

It warns that measures to impose contact-tracing devices, require vaccinations and "criminalize" contact between grandparents and grandchildren is "a disturbing prelude to the realization of a world government beyond all control" and that political responsibilities should not rest with unaccountable "experts."

It is the latest manifesto from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former Holy See diplomat who achieved notoriety with his 2018 denunciation of a high-level Vatican cover-up of sex abuse and who has gone on to criticize everything from the Vatican's China policy to Pope Francis's outreach to Muslims.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, seen in 2015, has often made his views publicly known since Francis was elected Pope. (Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)

Vigano called on Francis to resign over the church's handling of American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who Francis defrocked after a Vatican investigation found he sexually abused adult seminarians and minors. The Vatican has yet to release its promised report into Vigano's allegations.

Aside from Sarah and Vigano, the prominent signatories to the petition over the coronavirus include three other conservative cardinals who have been critical of Francis's 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.

The petition's targets include the media, which it accuses of "alarmism about COVID-19 [that] appears to be absolutely unjustified."

"Public health must not, and cannot, become an alibi for infringing on the rights of the millions of people around the world, let alone for depriving the civil authority of its duty to act wisely for the common good," the authors say. "This is particularly true as growing doubts emerge from several quarters about the actual contagiousness, danger and resistance of the virus."

Citizens must be free to refuse vaccinations, contact tracing or similar tools that are developed, it says.

Sarah again in the middle

Cardinal Sarah grabbed headlines in January when he released a book with Pope Benedict XVI as co-author asserting the necessity of keeping the Catholic priesthood celibate.

It created a controversy because it implied that the retired pope was trying to influence the ruling one, who at that very time was weighing whether to allow married priests in the Amazon in order to relieve a priest shortage.

As in the back-and-forth over who agreed to what in the coronavirus petition, Benedict's secretary insisted the retired pope never agreed to be co-author of the book and asked that his name be removed from future editions of it as an author.

Seeking to clear his name and show Benedict was indeed on board, Sarah provided contemporaneous notes of his dealings with the retired pope.

It's a similar tactic to the one Vigano is now using to show that Sarah was indeed 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.

WATCH l Keeping the faith virtually during a pandemic:

Faith communities have moved many of their services and support programs online with religious holidays including Passover, Easter and Ramadan approaching. 2:54

In a statement Friday, Vigano made clear Sarah had indeed signed on, but said he would act "profoundly charitably" toward the cardinal and forgive him "for the grave crime he committed against the truth and myself."

He then proceeded to give a time-stamped chronology of his communications with the cardinal, saying he had the duty to issue a "fraternal correction" to set the record straight.

He quoted Sarah as telling him on May 4: "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."

Francis preaches obedience

For his part, Francis last week called for "prudence and obedience" to government protocols to prevent coronavirus infections from surging again.

"As we are beginning to have protocols to get out of quarantine, let us pray that the Lord gives his people, all of us, the grace of prudence and obedience to the protocols so that the pandemic doesn't return," said Francis.

Francis's appeal came just two days after Italian bishops bitterly complained that the Italian government offered no provisions for Masses to resume in its plan to reopen Italian business, social and sporting life starting May 4. 

Pope Francis celebrates Easter Sunday Mass inside an empty St. Peter's Basilica on April 12. (Andreas Solaro/The Associated Press)

At the same time, Francis has also chafed at the lockdown, saying early on that he felt like he was in a "cage" and lamenting more recently that the church isn't really "church" without a community of faithful present and the administration of sacraments.

Francis has been celebrating daily Mass to empty pews in observance of the Vatican's own lockdown measures.

The Vatican itself has recorded more than 10 positive coronavirus cases. 

With files from CBC News

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