The new head of the doctrine office is someone in the Holy Father’s image: mission-oriented, willing to take risks, preferring dialogue over condemnation and with a tendency to do things in such a way that no one remains indifferent.
Saturday 1 July 2023 will be one of the landmark dates in the Francis pontificate. This was the day when the Holy See announced that Pope Francis had appointed Argentinian Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández as Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, becoming the first Latin American theologian to take charge of what used to be known as “the Holy Office” in its 481-year history. A trusted theological adviser to Francis, his appointment shows the Pope’s determination to speed up the pace of his reforms.
That day was also the deadline Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the former secretary to Benedict XVI, was given to depart the Vatican and return to his home diocese of Freiburg in Germany. Archbishop Gänswein, courtly, immaculately turned out and always close to power, epitomised the “old” ways of the Roman Curia. He was a centrifugal force for opposition to Francis in Rome, even releasing a tell-all book airing his grievances with the Argentinian Pope soon after Benedict had died.
Incidentally, 1 July was also the date in 2017 when Francis removed German Cardinal Gerhard Müller from the doctrine office and replaced him with Cardinal Luis Ladaria. Eight days later, keeping his foot firmly down on the accelerator, Francis announced that Fernández and twenty other prelates would be made cardinals this September. Cardinal-designate Fernández, known as “Tucho”, takes over the department that Benedict, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, led for 24 years, exercising enormous theological influence during the pontificate of John Paul II.
In appointing Fernández, who turns 61 on 18 July, to the doctrine role, inevitably several have suggested that Francis now has “his own Ratzinger”, but Tucho insists he’ll bring his own distinctive approach to the role. For one thing, he will devote himself to ensuring that the Church’s doctrine serves its mission; he is delegating to others in the dicastery the processing of cases of clergy accused of sexual abuse. In an email interview conducted in Spanish, the cardinal-designate told me that being the first Latin American and Argentinian doctrine prefect will bring new perspectives and a “richness” that were missing in the past. “From a certain context, it is possible to recognise aspects of the truth that are difficult to see from a different place. Those who grew up in poverty see things; those who are suffering in the midst of war see things; those who have just lost a child see things that others do not easily understand.”
Archbishop Fernández cited the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer who, he said, “explained so well that the background, the humus, and the context in which one lives becomes a source of knowledge”. He added: “This is not ‘prejudice’ in a negative sense; it can constitute a richness. I don’t know what this will mean for the Dicastery, but it will certainly contribute something.”
The doctrine office was for years known as “La Suprema”. It occupies a imposing sixteenth-century palace, reflecting a fortress-like mentality, rarely opening up to the outside world and keeping the media at a distance. Once responsible for the Inquisition, in the latter part of the twentieth century the Holy Office – renamed the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1965, and a Dicastery since June last year – became known for its investigations of theologians. These cases were heavily criticised for lacking due process and for the spiritual and emotional toll they took on those on the receiving end. In recent years, these investigations have ceased, although many theologians still live under the shadow of a negative ruling in the past.
The underlying vision of the doctrine department in the past has been the policing of orthodoxy and the prosecution of those who step over the borderline between true and false teaching. While a final arbiter in theological debate is necessary for the good of the Church, Francis believes things went too far. In a groundbreaking letter to Archbishop Fernández setting out the prefect’s job description, the Pope lamented the “immoral methods” used by the doctrine office in the past, “when more than promoting theological knowledge it chased after possible doctrinal errors”.
While Fernández’s task is to “safeguard the faith”, he should do so by allowing the “harmonious growth” of different schools of thought. This, the Pope explained, is more effective in helping to “preserve Christian doctrine” than “any mechanism of control”. Attention, he added, must also be given to the “recent magisterium”. I asked Fernández if he is planning to change the way the doctrine office responds to questions (known as dubia) submitted to it. The 2021 ruling on same-sex blessings was a response to the question, “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” The doctrine office gave the answer “No”, and then set out its reasons. “I think I will have to take very seriously what Francis asks of me at the end of his letter: that the documents take into account ‘the recent Magisterium’,” Fernández told me. “It will certainly not be possible to respond to dubia or doctrinal accusations without taking into account the criteria and the insights that Pope Francis has given us, and which we still find difficult to take on board clearly.”
Francis prefers dialogue over condemnation and spiritual accompaniment rather than Yes or No answers. The archbishop stressed that Francis wants “nothing to overshadow the power and mercy of God”, and the Pope told Fernández not to allow “secondary issues” to overshadow the primary ones. “This [focus] cannot fail to illuminate in a very concrete and forceful way,” he said. “Nor can one ignore what the Pope has taught in his encyclicals and exhortations. This in itself should produce significant effects.” It already looks like Fernández might re-examine the current ban on the blessing of same-sex relationships.
He told the Spanish news agency EFE that the doctrine office’s 2021 ruling “doesn’t smell of Francis” and he is quoted on the InfoVaticana site as saying that proposals for blessings which do not confuse the distinctiveness of marriage need “to be analysed and confirmed”. The new doctrine prefect is himself a prolific theologian and spiritual writer, having written more than 300 books and articles. He is a scripture scholar, and his new role includes the presidency of the Pontifical Biblical Commission as well as of the International Theological Commission.
His doctorate was on the thought of St Bonaventure, the thirteenth-century Italian Franciscan bishop, theologian and philosopher, and he has combined his theological work with pastoral ministry. His theology is pastorally engaged, focussing on a lived faith and dialogue with culture. Recent books include El fruto del Espíritu Santo: Una vida diferente es posible (“The fruit of the Holy Spirit: A different life is possible”) and La fuerza sanadora de la mística (“The healing force of mysticism”) and his theological articles cover a wide range of topics including poverty, the environment and the need for the Church to be in a permanent state of mission.
He is widely believed to have helped Francis draft some of the major documents of his pontificate, including Evangelii Gaudium (which many regard as his manifesto), Amoris Laetitia (his teaching on relationships and family life) and Laudato si’ (on the environment). Previously, he had worked with the then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio on the drafting of the 2007 Aparecida document, a blueprint for the mission of the Latin and Central American Church.
Oscar Elizalde Prada, the director of the Centre for Communication at CELAM (the Episcopal Conference of Latin America), told me the new prefect’s theological work “is profound and academically rigorous” but he has his “eyes open” to the challenging realities the Church’s mission faces. He is wary of a purely “desk theology”, he told me, but sensitive to the culture and the lives of ordinary people, especially the marginalised.
Fernández’ appointment immediately came under attack from those opposed to the Francis pontificate. One of his many books and articles has been singled out for particular ridicule by traditionalists. In Heal Me With Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing, a book he wrote in 1995 as a young pastor as a catechesis for teenagers, Fernández writes that the kiss represents God’s embrace of humanity. “I was inspired by a phrase from the time of the Fathers of the Church that said that the incarnation was like a kiss from God to humanity,” he has explained on his Facebook page. Fernández, who told me his nickname “Tucho” comes from the one given to the high-scoring footballer Norberto Doroteo Méndez, who played for the Argentina national team between 1945 and 1956, is already outfoxing the opposition. (The nickname had originally been his father’s, and Fernández was called Tuchito – little Tucho – after he was born.)
Since his appointment, he’s given many interviews and has swiftly responded to criticisms on social media, using Facebook as his rebuttal platform. His willingness to be open to the media is a big shift. The last time a doctrine prefect wrote to The Tablet was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1991, when he “corrected” positions taken in an article by the moral theologian Theodore Davey on divorce and remarriage. Fernández told the Argentine radio station Perfil that he himself had been investigated by the Holy Office in the past. “People here sent in articles of mine that they considered heretical, and I spent a few months replying to them.”
In 2009, after Cardinal Bergoglio nominated then-Father Fernández as rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, he could not formally take up the position for two years after Vatican officials raised questions about elements of his theological works. Some of these appeared to centre around his views on same-sex relationships. Now the tables have been turned. But will Fernández be able to change the culture in the Vatican? Just before his appointment was announced, the Dicastery for Culture and Education (with, in reality, advice from the doctrine office) refused permission for the moral theologian Fr Martin Lintner to take up the role of dean of the Philosophical-Theological University of Bressanone, in German-speaking northern Italy.
The decision, taken due to questions about Lintner’s writings on sexual morality, has been sharply criticised. Further dialogue over this appointment is continuing, and Fernández’s impending arrival in Rome is a potential game changer. The synod process will be another game changer. The new prefect will play a crucial part in the Synod assembly in October. “The Synod will be a precious space for listening to voices from all over the world, from different cultures, with very varied concerns. How can we not learn from this ecclesial event?” he told me. “I will also have something to say, and I will say it, but even if I am prefect, my contribution will be a drop of water in a multicoloured spring poured out by the Spirit.”
The appointment of Fernández and his remarkable letter to him has once again shown Francis’ willingness to shake things up. It’s a shake-up already being noticed outside the Catholic Church. “You can’t imagine how many evangelical pastors and rabbis have written to me in awe of those words,” Fernández said about the Pope’s letter. “It seems incredible because, in a way, they were already said by Saint John Paul II, but Francis has the uncanny ability to say things in such a way that no one remains indifferent.” All eyes will be on “Tucho” as the cardinal-designate takes up a vital role at a critical moment in this papacy. The Francis revolution continues.
In the latest Tablet podcast, Ruth Gledhill and Christopher Lamb discuss the appointment of Argentinian Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández as Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.