The appointment of Archbishop Victor Fernández to lead the Church’s doctrine office has set off an ecclesial earthquake. Not only has Pope Francis chosen a trusted theological adviser and fellow Argentinian to lead one of the most important Holy See offices, but he has announced a total overhaul in how the doctrine department does business.
The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the oldest department in the Roman Curia, is responsible for doctrine and discipline and was formerly known as the Holy Office responsible for the Inquisition.
During the 20th century, including under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it gained a reputation for investigating and silencing theologians. Some recent high-profile cases include Fr Jacques Dupuis, a Belgian Jesuit, and Fr Tony Flannery, an Irish Redemptorist, who said he experienced a complete lack of due process. Anyone subject to one of their investigations will attest to the psychological and emotional toll that it takes.
What the Pope revealed today is that he shares the concerns that have been raised about the doctrine office’s conduct.
“The Dicastery over which you will preside, at other times, came to use immoral methods,” Francis wrote in a letter to Archbishop Fernández. “Those were times when, rather than promoting theological knowledge, possible doctrinal errors were pursued. What I expect from you is certainly something very different.”
The Pope is opening up a new chapter for the doctrine office. He wants the doctrine prefect to focus on ensuring that Catholic teaching and theology are placed at the service of evangelisation and to allow a “harmonious growth” of different currents of thought.
“We need a way of thinking that can convincingly present a God who loves, who forgives, who saves, who liberates, who promotes people and calls them to fraternal service,” Francis wrote.
The Pope emphasised that future documents from the dicastery must contain the “perennial teaching of the Church” but also embrace “the recent magisterium”, including Francis’ encyclicals and letters. Over the last decade, documents produced by the doctrine office have sometimes appeared out of sync with this pontificate. Francis’ letter signals regime change.
Archbishop “Tucho” Fernández knows first-hand what it is like to experience opposition from within the Roman Curia. In 2009, the then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio appointed him Rector of the Pontifical Catholic University in Argentina, but the appointment was delayed after Rome withheld its approval.
Everything changed in 2013 with the election of Bergoglio to the papacy. The archbishop has been a major theological adviser to Francis and was a key helper to Cardinal Bergoglio in drafting the Central and Latin American bishops’ Aparecida document in 2007. He also played an influential role in Evangelii Gaudium, the manifesto document for the Francis papacy, Amoris Laetitia, the family life document and Laudato si’, the encyclical on the environment. Since 2018, he’s been Archbishop of La Plata and has combined academic theology (numerous books and more than 300 articles) with pastoral work.
Austen Ivereigh, the papal biographer, says that Archbishop Fernández’ appointment is significant in light of the Church’s ongoing synod process.
“Francis believes that the DDF has to now carry out its functions in the contemporary world, not so much by policing and controlling orthodoxy, but rather opening up new paths of theological reflection, above all that arise from a synodal church,” he told The Tablet.
“It's a key appointment in the light of the synod, and I think will have enormous implications for the developments that follow on from the synod on synodality.”
The recently published working document for the synod raises fundamental theological questions, from questions of female ministry to the exercise of a bishop’s ministry. All of these will need input from the doctrine dicastery as they are developed along with a prefect who is willing to explore the different proposals that arise. The past approach of investigating and silencing those asking questions, or proposing ideas, is no longer on the agenda.
It is also significant that Archbishop Fernandez is 60 years old, meaning that he is likely to serve for a long period as prefect, given the episcopal retirement age is 75. Dr Ivereigh added that this is a “legacy appointment” and comes after Francis has had a decade to consider how the doctrine office should function.
He’s made incremental changes which, over time, have proved decisive. After his election, Francis inherited Cardinal Gerhard Müller, appointed doctrine prefect less than a year earlier by Benedict XVI. Cardinal Müller claimed his job was to “provide the theological structure” for the pontificate because Francis is “more pastoral.” In other words: the Pope was not competent to deal with theological matters. Cardinal Müller was replaced by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, a Spanish Jesuit more loyal to Francis. But Ladaria, now 79, is steeped in CDF culture and not a natural reformer.
In 2022, Francis issued a legal ruling restructuring the DDF, separating it into two sections: one for doctrine and the other to handle disciplinary matters, including priests accused of sexual abuse.
Archbishop Fernández, the Pope has said, will not be focussed on the penal section as trained professionals run this. That legal ruling stated that the doctrine section should encourage an understanding of “faith in the service of evangelisation…especially in the face of the questions posed by the progress of the sciences and the development of society.”
To underline his intentions, the Pope appointed Fr Armando Matteo, an Italian theologian with expertise in transmitting the faith to young people, to lead the doctrine section. Fr Matteo has said that while “super-clear and super-distinct ideas” are “attractive”, they are not the answer.
Francis also moved Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, the former secretary or “number two” of the dicastery, by appointing him bishop of the northern Italian Diocese of Reggio Emilia-Guastalla. Archbishop Morandi is widely believed to have been behind the document banning Church blessings of same-sex couples, to which Francis “gave his assent” but then distanced himself from.
The appointment of Archbishop Fernández is the culmination of a slow but steady overhaul of the doctrine office and points to the quiet revolution that the Pope has been bringing about in the Church. It’s likely to spark some fierce pushback, but even at 86 and experiencing health difficulties, Francis refuses to be knocked off course.