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Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, left, and Bishop Athanasius Schneider, right. (Left: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky; Right: video screen grab)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — An outspoken critic of Pope Francis, the Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazakhstan, said that while Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s public opposition of the pope “is irreverent and disrespectful,” the Vatican should think twice before excommunicating him.

“I think the pope would be wise and prudent if he were to not excommunicate Archbishop Viganò,” Schneider told Religion News Service in an interview on Monday (June 24), adding that, “with this act, the Holy See will increase divisions even more.”

The Vatican Department for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Vatican’s Inquisition, summoned Viganò to trial on June 28 under charges of schism, which can incur the penalty of excommunication. Viganò wrote in a public statement that he has no intention of attending the “fake trial” and doubled down on his criticism of the pope and the Vatican.

Schneider said Vatican officials should invite Viganò privately, and not in a judicial setting, to smooth over differences. “I lament that Archbishop Viganò uses disrespectful language,” he said, adding that “it’s not edifying or helpful to anyone.”

Viganò, who was papal nuncio to the United States, rose to fame in 2018 when he published a lengthy letter accusing Pope Francis of covering up reports of sexual abuse of minors by the influential U.S. ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick. In the letter he asked the pope to resign from his position.

In the following years, Viganò’s positions became increasingly radical, criticizing the Second Vatican Council, condemning the COVID-19 vaccines and praising Russian President Vladimir Putin as the savior of Christianity.

The archbishop also claimed Pope Francis’ election was illegitimate, leading many papal critics to distance themselves from Viganò.

“He is in error, because he is voicing a new theory of the probably invalid theory of Francis’ illegitimate election,” Schneider said, adding that Viganò’s positions have “no foundation.” Schneider also claimed to have asked Viganò, who has been living in hiding since he published his public statement in 2018, to avoid using disrespectful language concerning the pope.

Regardless, the Kazakh bishop believes Viganò should not be excommunicated. “I think that today the church has so much internal division that it would be imprudent, even if there is some canonical ground to judge Archbishop Viganò.”

Schneider is the latest among a number of papal critics who have disassociated themselves from the fiery archbishop. Conservative Italian pundits welcomed the pope’s decision to finally take action on Viganò, while the traditionalist Society of Pius X, founded in 1970 by the schismatic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, stated that they do not support Viganò’s claims that Francis’ election was illegitimate.

An ethnic German raised in Kazakhstan under the Soviet Union, Schneider emigrated to Germany with his family to escape the communist repression of Catholicism. He has criticized Pope Francis’ limitations on the Latin Mass and his decision to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. When Pope Francis prayed with Indigenous people at the Vatican gardens during the 2019 summit of bishops on the Amazon region, Schneider said it constituted “implicit pantheism.”

He has also criticized the pope’s ecumenical and inter-religious efforts to foster dialogue, claiming they undermined the “one true religion.” His diocese was the first to reject the application of the 2023 Vatican declaration “Fiducia Supplicans,” allowing priests to bless same-sex and irregular couples.

His new book, “Flee from Heresy,” details the history of schismatic and heretical schools of thought in the church and is scheduled to publish July 16. “Even a blind person perceives that we are living in a time of great confusion regarding clarity of doctrine and morals. It felt necessary to help the faithful and priests to speak about the common errors not only of our time, but also of the past,” he said.

Schneider said relativism is the greatest challenge facing the church in its suggestion that “truth is not something absolute, but relative.” He pointed to gender theory as a consequence of this mindset and condemned international organizations that defend and support it globally.

“The Holy See is becoming an instrument of the global elites,” he said. “It is sad that this global new ideology managed to succeed to a great extent in taking the Catholic Church hostage and turning the Holy See and the episcopates into its collaborators.”

Schneider said he believes his new book will help inform Catholics about their faith. In October of last year, he presented another book, “Credo: Compendium of the Catholic Faith,” with suggestions for updating official doctrine to address gender, sexuality and modern technology.

While the pope has welcomed dialogue, and even criticism, from his opponents, he has recently cracked down on some critics, including Viganò. Last year, Francis asked Cardinal Raymond Burke to leave his Vatican apartments, and he removed outspoken papal critic Bishop Joseph Strickland from his diocese in Tyler, Texas.

At the time, Schneider took Strickland’s defense, calling the accusations against him “insubstantial and disproportionate” in a public letter.

Schneider told RNS that his criticism of Francis is “an expression of true and sincere love for the pontiff,” while underlining the duty of bishops to call out the head of the church when he is in error. “I will not be judged by Pope Francis when I die,” he said. “Only God is my judge.”

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