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Colleen DulleJuly 06, 2023
Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, appointed prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope Francis July 1, 2023, is pictured in this file photo at a session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 6, 2015. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Pope Francis has appointed Archbishop Victor Manuel “Tucho” Fernández to succeed Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer as the head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, its central doctrinal office. In the days since his appointment was announced on July 1, conversations and debates have swirled about Archbishop Fernández’s mandate, as described by Pope Francis in a letter, and about controversies from his past.

Archbishop Fernández is currently the archbishop of La Plata, Argentina, a city just outside the pope’s hometown of Buenos Aires. He has worked closely with the pope over the years and was credited as a “ghostwriter” for Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”). Turning 61 years old this month and likely being made a cardinal later this year, Archbishop Fernández appears to be one of Francis’ “legacy appointments”—someone who will continue to wield influence in the Catholic Church well after his five-year term as prefect of the D.D.F, which is often extended, expires.

A new direction for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith

Archbishop Fernández’s appointment comes at a transitional moment for what was once the Vatican’s top office. In his new constitution for the Roman Curia—the central offices of church governance—in 2021, Pope Francis elevated the Dicastery for Evangelization to the top position, above the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was previously a congregation and was known as “La Suprema.” Its mandate, the pope wrote, is “promoting and safeguarding the integrity of Catholic teaching on faith and morals. It does this by drawing upon the deposit of faith and seeking an ever deeper understanding of it in the face of new questions.”

In the days since Archbishop Fernández’s appointment was announced on July 1, debates have swirled about his mandate from Pope Francis and controversies from his past.

In a letter to Archbishop Fernández upon his appointment as prefect, Pope Francis wrote, “The dicastery that you will preside over in other epochs came to use immoral methods,” which appears to be a reference to when what is now the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith was called the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, a collection of tribunals that investigated and punished heresies, sometimes employing torture or handing heretics over to secular authorities to be killed.

In contrast, Pope Francis described Archbishop Fernández’s role as “promoting theological knowledge” rather than “chas[ing] after possible doctrinal errors.” Even as recently as the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was involved in a number of high-profile cases of investigating and censuring theologians whom it deemed insufficiently orthodox.

Villanova University church historian Massimo Faggioli said that although Pope Francis’ comment about the dicastery using “immoral methods” was widely covered in the media, it is not all that new. In 2015, Dr. Faggioli said, then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, “explains how the role of the dicastery is no longer in terms of repression of heresies, but it’s more about the promotion of doctrine.”

“It’s more about the choice of the person than about what Pope Francis said in his letter,” Dr. Faggioli said.

The biggest change he sees in the appointment of Archbishop Fernández is the shift away from what he calls “the Ratzinger era” of the last 40 years. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI, was appointed head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981 by Pope John Paul II, a position Cardinal Ratzinger held until he was elected pope. Cardinal Ratzinger was succeeded as C.D.F. head first by the American Cardinal William Levada, whom Benedict appointed, then by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who “was a follower [of Ratzinger], a devotee,” and most recently by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, a Jesuit who was the congregation’s secretary under Müller.

Pope Francis described Archbishop Fernández’s role as “promoting theological knowledge” rather than “chas[ing] after possible doctrinal errors.”

“So, this is a turning point from these last 40 years, and most visibly a departure because [Fernández] is a Latin American,” Dr. Faggioli said, alluding to how the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was involved in suppressing Latin American liberation theologians following the Second Vatican Council. He described the “Ratzinger era” appointees as Germans, usually, who were appointed for their opposition to other, more progressive German bishops’ efforts to liberalize theology.

In contrast to the academic “desktop theology” style of German theologians, Dr. Faggioli said, Latin American theology is characterized by working among the faithful and being “in touch with the existential condition of real people.”

He anticipates that this new style will face some opposition within the Vatican. “I think that Fernández might find in Rome an environment that will not be very welcoming, because if we have learned anything over the past 10 years of Francis, if it has not been easy for the pope, it will not be easy for the men he’s appointed.”

Concern raised over ‘kissing book’

Already, Archbishop Fernández’s appointment has been met with criticisms focusing on a book he had written about kissing, his handling of sexual abuse in the diocese of La Plata and comments he had made expressing an openness to blessing gay and lesbian couples.

On social media this week, some critics have circulated a translation of a poem from a book that Archbishop Fernández wrote as a priest in his early 30s, called Heal Me With Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing. The book explores the idea of kissing as the physical expression of a mystical kiss between God and humanity, first exploring the reasons people kiss and how kisses are spoken about in poetry and “on the street.”

Archbishop Fernández’s appointment has been met with criticisms focusing on a book he wrote about kissing, his handling of sexual abuse and comments he made expressing an openness to blessing same-sex couples.

In the poetry section, then-Father Fernández excerpted poems by famous authors as well as some that appear to be written by him that are signed “Victor M. Fernández” and “Tucho.” In a poem signed “Victor M. Fernández,” a free English translation of the book available on Medium reads: “How was God/ so cruel/ as to give you that mouth…/ There is no one who resists me/ bitch/ hide it.”

Archbishop Fernández responded to the controversy over the poem on his Facebook page, saying that Catholics in the United States who are critical of Pope Francis had mistranslated the word “witch” (“bruja”) as “bitch” (“puta”). He also said that “anti-Francis groups” had “for years” used the book to discredit him.

Explaining further, he wrote:

At that time I was very young, I was a pastor, and I was trying to reach the young. So it happened to me to write a catechesis for teens based on what kissing means. I wrote this catechesis with the participation of a group of young people who gave me ideas, phrases, poems, etc.
Well, what these extreme groups do is say: ‘Look at the low quality this theologian has, look at the nonsense he wrote, look at the low level he has.’ They’ve been humiliating me for years with quotes from that book.
But a catechesis for teenagers is not a Theology book, there is a huge difference in literary genre. You can’t ask a pastor’s catechesis for teens to be a Theology textbook.
And I’m proud to have been that young pastor who was busy reaching out to everyone using the most diverse languages.

He also said he had published “high-level books” and articles in the journals Angelicum and Nouvelle Revue Théologique. “But the task of a theologian is not reduced to these texts,” he added.

Criticism of Fernández’ handling of sexual abuse cases

Negative reactions to Archbishop Fernández’s appointment also came from those concerned about his handling of a sexual abuse case in the Archdiocese of La Plata.

The criticism concerns one priest, the Rev. Eduardo Lorenzo. In 2008, “the sponsor of a teenage boy living in a group home had filed a criminal complaint accusing Lorenzo of sexually abusing the boy for nearly two years,” according to a summary on Bishop-Accountability.org. The criminal case was dropped in 2009 and a church investigation found no basis for the allegations; however, in 2019, when Father Lorenzo was set to be transferred to a new parish, the criminal case was reopened after protests from parents at the new parish. The archbishop canceled the transfer after Lorenzo sent him a letter saying he no longer thought it was a good idea, although he maintained his innocence.

A statement from Bishop Accountability co-director Anne Barrett Doyle said that Archbishop Fernández had “publicly defended” Father Lorenzo and “publicly agreed with Lorenzo that his critics had another agenda,” but the letter the statement cited was described by the diocese as private and was later published by El Dia, a La Plata newspaper, in February 2019.

Four more alleged victims came forward that year, and in October, Archbishop Fernández removed Father Lorenzo from the parish, saying he had requested a leave for health reasons. According to Ms. Barrett Doyle, “In December 2019, hours after a judge issued an order for his arrest, Lorenzo committed suicide.”

Negative reactions to Archbishop Fernández’s appointment also came from those concerned about his handling of a sexual abuse case in the Archdiocese of La Plata.

Catholic News Agency reported July 3 that a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of La Plata “categorically denied” Ms. Barrett Doyle’s accusation that Archbishop Fernández had sided with the priest.

“As new testimonies appeared, the archbishop was taking new measures, beginning by prohibiting him from all activities with minors until confining him in a Caritas department,” the spokesperson told C.N.A. “At the beginning it was only a matter of reopening a criminal and canonical investigation that had been closed years before. Subsequently, other new testimonies appeared and new measures were taken before them.” The spokesperson went on to cite other recent cases in which the bishop had acted in accordance with Vatican guidelines on handling abuse allegations.

As prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Fernández will head the office tasked with investigating sexual abuse cases, which make up 80 percent of the dicastery’s work. In his letter to the archbishop, however, Pope Francis asked the archbishop to focus more on matters of faith than disciplining abusers. This appeared to be in response to concerns Archbishop Fernández expressed “not feel[ing] qualified or trained to guide” the D.D.F.’s work on sexual abuse.

“Given that for disciplinary questions—related especially to the abuse of minors—there was recently created [in the dicastery] a specific section with very competent professionals, I ask you that as prefect you dedicate your personal commitment in a more direct way to the principal aim of the dicastery, which is ‘to safeguard the faith,’” the pope wrote.

The disciplinary section of the dicastery includes the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors, which has faced high-profile departures in recent years, including that of its co-founder, the safeguarding expert Hans Zollner, S.J., who cited a lack of transparency and responsibility in the council as his reason for leaving. Some Vatican watchers have suggested that the pope asked Archbishop Fernández to focus more on theology because further reforms to the disciplinary section will be made soon.

Fernández expressed openness to blessing same-sex couples.

Finally, in an exclusive interview published July 5 in InfoVaticana, the incoming head of the D.D.F. expressed openness to blessings for same-sex couples. Saying he was as opposed to same-sex marriage as he is to abortion (“and I challenge you to find someone in Latin America who has written more articles against abortion than I have”), Archbishop Fernández said that he understands that

“marriage” in the strict sense is only one thing: that stable union of two beings as different as male and female, who in that difference are capable of generating new life. There is nothing that can be compared to that and using that name to express something else is not good or correct. At the same time, I believe that gestures or actions that may express something different should be avoided. That is why I think that the greatest care that must be taken is to avoid rites or blessings that could feed this confusion. Now, if a blessing is given in such a way that it does not cause that confusion, it will have to be analyzed and confirmed.

The Vatican office that Archbishop Fernández will soon lead issued a controversial document in 2021 saying that God “does not and cannot bless sin” and thus the church would not bless gay couples. Pope Francis was reportedly frustrated with the 2021 statement, although it was published with his approval. He removed the archbishop, Giacomo Morandi, who was seen as the driving force behind it, in early 2022.

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