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Antonio Spadaro, S.J.September 14, 2023
Monsignor Victor Manuel Fernandez, archbishop of La Plata, shakes hands with a a man after a Mass at the Cathedral in La Plata, Argentina, Sunday, July 9, 2023. Fernandez was appointed by Pope Francis to head the Holy See's Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)Monsignor Victor Manuel Fernandez, archbishop of La Plata, shakes hands with a a man after a Mass at the Cathedral in La Plata, Argentina, Sunday, July 9, 2023. Fernandez was appointed by Pope Francis to head the Holy See's Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

This summer, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández of La Plata, Argentina, to be the new prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith; he will be made a cardinal on Sept. 30. In a newly published interview by Antonio Spadaro, S.J., for La Civiltà Cattolica, Archbishop Fernández reflected on the work ahead of him, in particular his mandate from Pope Francis to “promot[e] theological knowledge” rather than to correct “doctrinal errors.” What follows are excerpts from their conversation, edited for length and clarity. The full interview is available to read here. The text has been edited according to America’s house style.

Who do you consider to be your guide in theology?

Although the training I received was strictly Thomistic, my great teacher was another giant of scholasticism, St. Bonaventure. I delved into his thought as a seminarian, continued to read him with profit, and my doctoral thesis was on the relationship between knowledge and life in his thought. The insistence, derived from his Franciscan context, on a theology capable of nourishing the spiritual life and, at the same time, affecting the actual lives of people, left an indelible impression on me. It goes back to Francis of Assisi himself, who wrote to St. Anthony of Padua, “I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers, provided that in this occupation you do not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion, as it is written in the Rule.” Do we not see this same concern in Pope Francis’ insistence that all Christian thought, at every stage of formation, be marked by the proclamation of the kerygma aimed at stimulating an experience of faith?

Archbishop Fernández reflects on the work ahead of him, in particular his mandate from Pope Francis to “promot[e] theological knowledge” rather than to correct “doctrinal errors.” 

Do you find a similar perspective in 20th-century authors?

Yes, for example, I found something similar in philosophy, especially in Maurice Blondel’s thought and his desire to make philosophy relevant to the needs of everyday life. One of his central concerns was the relationship between thought and life. This is well reflected in his writing on human action, where he was able to explore considerations of great existential weight. For example, he focused on the daily need to protect personal energies from dispersive and chaotic expression and channel them into a determined purpose that binds them together and expresses them effectively.

Indeed, he says, in this way energies are not dissipated and consumed in action, but are revived. Therefore, to the extent that voluntary activity penetrates and dominates the powers of the body, the more it receives from them. Moreover, he suggests ways and means to arrive at a motive for action that is capable of re-establishing unity. Here is an author who knows how to go beyond merely theoretical philosophy, or mere “desk philosophy.”

Among theologians, I have drawn nourishment above all from the argumentative precision of Karl Rahner, the spiritual depth of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the ecclesiology of Yves Congar, and undoubtedly from the valuable work of Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI. In all of them there is an intimate connection between thought and spiritual experience, although each achieves it in his own way. The same applies to some Thomist philosophers, like Étienne Gilson and Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.

If there is an important relationship between theology and personal life, how do you view the relationship between spirituality and pastoral care, which in turn underpins theological thinking?

I am Latin American, so do not be surprised if I highlight authors who speak to the context and concerns of my continent, such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, O.P., the Rev. Lucio Gera and the Rev. Rafael Tello. I had the good fortune to know them personally and they transmitted to me a great love for the church, a passion for evangelization, an intense affection for the poor and their culture, and an ability to connect theology with the anxieties, dreams and hopes of suffering people.

Thought unfolds in the light of revelation, but it necessarily plunges into the inescapable context of the life of those people who are enlightened by the revealed Word and in turn challenge it so that they bring out more and more of their own richness. At the same time it thinks in the context of praxis, and this engaged praxis opens new horizons for thought.

The apostolic constitution “Preach the Gospel” (“Praedicate Evangelium”)explicitly refers to the “development of theology in different cultures” (No. 71) and calls for “the integrity of Catholic doctrine on faith and morals” to be protected by “seeking also an ever deeper understanding in the face of new questions” (No. 69). Pastoral sensitivity opens theological paths in dialogue with the world.

Does philosophy help us to value experience?

In the philosophical field I found something similar in Hans-Georg Gadamer, who was appreciated and consulted by St. John Paul II. From him I drew on two insights in particular: first, the value he places on vital experience as permitting access to certain aspects of truth. This, translated into the Latin American context, implies, for example, the appreciation of popular culture as a humus [soil] that gives a different perspective on the truth, so much so that one can speak of a wisdom proper to the poor. But from this point of view one can also explain, when discussing issues with agnostics, the legitimacy of the church’s participation in the public debate with its Gospel message.

The pope asked me to “guard the teaching that flows from faith.” The words guard and care are among Francis’ favorites.

Secondly, Gadamer also invites attention to consequences, and today those who work in theology cannot ignore the outcomes of what they say, since it can be recognized that something may be correct in terms of the intention of those who affirm it, but may perhaps be wrong in terms of the effects it produces on those who hear it. I can also cite Jacques Maritain, who was able to rework a form of Thomism when grappling with the problems of the society of his time.

The relationship between theology and the life of God’s people especially applies to moral theology. How do you understand this relationship?

Moral theology cannot ignore, for example, how the poorest, most limited people face life, those excluded from the benefits of society, who have to endure the daily struggle to survive hand-to-mouth. Therefore, Francis warns us, “in such difficult situations of need, the church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy. Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would ‘indoctrinate’ that message, turning it into ‘dead stones to be hurled at others’” (Amoris Laetitia, No. 49).

Along these lines is a new consideration of the weight of conditioning in discernment. In this regard Francis proposed to moral theology a very important step.

He did so by accepting the guidelines of the bishops of the Buenos Aires region with respect to the application of “Amoris Laetitia.” They speak of the possibility of divorcees living a new union in continence, but add that “in other more complex circumstances, and when it has not been possible to obtain a declaration of nullity, the option mentioned may in fact not be feasible.” They then state that “nevertheless, a path of discernment is equally possible. If one comes to recognize that, in an actual case, there are limits that mitigate responsibility and culpability, especially when a person considers that he or she would fail by harming the children of the new union, “Amoris Laetitia”opens the possibility of accessing the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist.” Francis immediately sent them a formal letter, confirming that this is the meaning of Chapter Eight of “Amoris Laetitia.” He added, “There are no other interpretations.” There is no need to expect different answers from the pope. Both the guidelines and the pontiff’s letter have been published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, along with a rescript declaring them part of the “authentic magisterium.” Consequently, there are no longer any doubts, and it is clear that discernment, which takes into account conditioning or mitigating factors, can also have consequences in sacramental discipline.

It is clear that discernment, which takes into account conditioning or mitigating factors, can also have consequences in sacramental discipline.

Let’s come to the work ahead of you. What are your perspectives on the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith?

To become aware of the prospects that may open up in the work of the doctrinal section of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, there is nothing better than to gloss what Francis said in the letter with which he accompanied my appointment. In it he unfolds very broad and exciting horizons for the dicastery.

The pope called for “bringing theological knowledge into dialogue with the life of the holy People of God.” In introducing me, along with my academic qualifications, Francis recalled that I was pastor of St. Theresa’s. It is already clear that the pope cares in a special way that theological knowledge does not just come from above to “enlighten” the people of God, but that it allows itself to be stimulated by it, to be wounded and disarmed by it.

So he asked me to “guard the teaching that flows from faith.” The words guard and care are among Francis’ favorites. It is no accident that he is especially devoted to St. Joseph. Care, for him, is a fundamental attitude that flows from the Gospel. But just as one cares for people, one must do the same with the doctrine that emerges from faith. This involves first of all a deep appreciation of what is to be cared for, that is, it implies that one loves that doctrine as a precious treasure, that one is rightly proud of that divine gift. There is no place for inferiority complexes toward the world: the most legitimate appreciation and gratitude of feeling touched by grace, privileged by this gift given by the Lord to his church, should prevail.

As St. John Paul II used to say in various ways, we need to develop “maximum dialogue with maximum identity.”

Francis also asked you to “increase the understanding and transmission of the faith in the service of evangelization.”

To guard something is also to improve it. Of course, it is not a question of improving doctrine, but developing the understanding and communication of it. On this point recent decades do not show us a comforting result. How many theologians can we name of the stature of Rahner, Ratzinger, Congar or von Balthasar? Nor does so-called “liberation theology” have theologians on the level of a Gutiérrez. Something has failed. There have been controls, yes, but few developments.

To guard something is also to improve it. Of course, it is not a question of improving doctrine, but developing the understanding and communication of it.

I realize that Francis wants to initiate a stage in which the growth of Christian thought is more far-reaching because he knows that this directly affects the service of evangelization. The great theologians who have engaged with reality have brought wide repercussions, in different ways, even regarding the pastoral care of the smallest and poorest parishes. Therefore we cannot remain indifferent to the developments in theology since the end of the last century.

You are well aware that there are “different lines of thought” in the church, and the pope believes that welcoming them can make the church grow. How do you understand this request in a context that seems somewhat polarized?

What Francis says about the “polyhedron” also applies to the church’s thinking. But he is aware that resistance is encountered on this: “To those who dream of a monolithic doctrine defended by all without nuance, this may seem an imperfect variety of focus. But the reality is that such variety helps to better manifest and develop the different aspects of the inexhaustible richness of the Gospel” (“Evangelii Gaudium,” No. 40).

I would like to recall that on this point Francis draws inspiration from the theology of creation of St. Thomas Aquinas, when he points out that “the distinction and multiplicity of things come from the first agent,” who willed that “what one lacks in order to well represent divine goodness be made up for by the other” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, q. 47, a. 1.) Therefore, we are to grasp the variety of things in their manifold relations (Cf. a. 2, ad 1; a. 3.). For Francis, this can be affirmed all the more if we place ourselves before the inexhaustible mystery of the Gospel, which cannot be confined to a specific mental thought pattern, however convincing it may appear.

Let us come to the topic of church reform. You participated in a seminar that La Civiltà Cattolica organized in 2015 on this very topic. What are your thoughts on it?

Francis recognizes that “missionary outreach is paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity” (“E.G,” No. 15). Thus no reform can be thought of except from this perspective. This becomes explicit in another statement by the pope: “The reform of structures, which demands pastoral conversion, can be understood only in this sense: to make them all become more missionary, to make ordinary pastoral work more expansive and open, to inspire in pastoral agents a constant desire to go forth” (“E.G.” No. 27). The church, faithful to its own nature, is thus a church engaged with the world and decentralized in its task of evangelizing. This exit from the self is not the result of a pure effort of the human will, but is a supernatural dynamism inspired by the Holy Spirit in individuals and in the whole church.

The church, faithful to its own nature, is thus a church engaged with the world and decentralized in its task of evangelizing.

The reform movement aimed at bringing the church out of itself is not only pneumatological but also Christological. In fact, the Spirit introduces us to the whole truth (cf. Jn16:13), Christ himself. Therefore, the Spirit does not push us outside the mystery of the Incarnation but, on the contrary, introduces us ever more fully into the mystery of Christ and his Gospel. Therefore, the Spirit and the Gospel—as an objective paradigmatic source—are simultaneously what makes possible the church’s going out of itself in missionary reform. Francis says that when we return to the heart of the Gospel, everything is renewed; evangelization is always “new” (““Evangelii Gaudium,” No. 11) and “the message is simplified” (“Evangelii Gaudium,” No. 35). This openness to the self-transcendent dynamism of the Spirit must be at the same time a return to the objectivity of the Gospel, which simplifies, brings back to the essential and makes possible the cleansing and reform of obsolete structures.

The preservation of the doctrine of faith has often been associated with a “control” mechanism. Instead, the pope seems to focus on the harmonious growth of its understanding. Does this mean that the function of refuting error is destined to disappear?

If one reads the pope’s letter attentively, it is clear that at no time does he say that the function of refuting errors should disappear. Clearly, if someone says that Jesus is not a real man or that all immigrants should be killed, decisive intervention will be necessary. But at the same time this will provide an opportunity to grow, to enrich our understanding. For example, in such cases the person in question will need to be accompanied to better explain the divinity of Jesus Christ, or conversations will need to be had about some flawed, incomplete or problematic migration laws.

Heresies have been eradicated better and faster when there has been proper theological investigation, whereas, when we have been limited to condemnations, those errors have spread and become entrenched.

Francis is asking me for greater efforts to help the development of thought, even when difficult questions arise, because, if doctrine is to be respected, it is more effective to increase understanding of it than to increase controls. Heresies have been eradicated better and faster when there has been proper theological investigation, whereas, when we have been limited to condemnations, those errors have spread and become entrenched.

In this regard, a fundamental criterion to be preserved and held firm is that “any theological conception that in the final analysis casts doubt on God’s omnipotence and, especially, on his mercy” must be considered faulty.

The statement that it is a “fundamental criterion” is very strong. It means that it cannot be ignored or taken lightly. Recall that Francis takes this expression from the International Theological Commission and in doing so gives it special relevance. What is more, this is a text referring to the salvation of children who died without baptism, to show that God’s omnipotence and mercy, capable of granting salvation, must not be denied or obscured by any theological reasoning. If this is applied in a general way, as a fundamental criterion, it undoubtedly forces us to rethink many other things.

Francis, in his letter to you, asks you to develop and promote thinking that presents “a God who loves, forgives, saves, liberates, who promotes people and summons them to fraternal service.”

Christian thought cannot be divorced from the heart of the Gospel, which is the theological kerygma and the moral kerygma. For “nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation” (“Evangelii Gaudium,” No. 165), and at the same time it is the message that makes one fall in love and captivates. It is the proclamation that helps us to live, to move forward, to struggle, to engage, with enormous practical and existential resonance.

 The magisterium is not a mere “deposit,” but is also a present gift that is active through Francis.

On the other hand, I would like to add that this does not imply an option for a merely practical theology that downplays highly speculative research, because Francis also calls for ensuring that the Holy See’s documents have “adequate theological support.” While it is appropriate to avoid a “desk theology,” this should never lead to the thought that the church does not “encourage the charism of theologians and the effort they put into theological research.” Study, as St. Thomas understands it, is a full-time activity. It is a receptive opening to the truth, but in total consciousness and self-giving, with desire and the highest attention, equal to that of one who devotes all his interest to listening to a friend. This contemplation is life at its fullest.

Again in light of the need to develop and promote thinking that presents “a God who loves,” Francis calls for attention to be paid to the hierarchy of truths, since “the greatest danger is produced when secondary truths end up overshadowing the primary ones.”

The problem is that it is relatively easy to develop a theme out of all context, to push it forward with a strong will to the point of being carried away by obsessive fanaticism. For Francis this is “the greatest danger.” It is far more difficult to situate that reasoning in the rich context of the whole teaching of the church and let it transfigure itself in the light of the central truths, the heart of the Gospel. Indeed, “All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel. In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (“Evangelii Gaudium,” No. 36) and, at the same time, with respect to morality, “works of love for neighbor are the most perfect external manifestation of the interior grace of the Spirit” (“Evangelii Gaudium,” No. 37).

Francis in his letter places together the perennial teaching of the church and the recent magisterium. This seems to me an interesting emphasis.

It is significant that he also mentions the recent magisterium, in addition to referring to the perennial teaching. This is an important clarification, because it is the recent magisterium that is engaging with the present circumstances found in the world and in the church, with their culture and challenges. The magisterium is not a mere “deposit,” but is also a present gift that is active through Francis. If the magisterium also succeeds in enlightening us in our pilgrimage at this moment in history, we must allow ourselves to be guided by its recent and current interventions, and there is no doubt that this is tantamount to continuing to drink from that bottomless well that is the ever-existing and ever-current revelation.

I sincerely wish you well in your work! I am sure there will be much to do.

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