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Colleen DulleJanuary 23, 2024
Pope Francis poses for a photo with Msgr. Armando Matteo, left, secretary of the doctrinal section of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, dicastery prefect, during a meeting in the library of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican Dec. 18, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

In just three months at the helm of the Dicastery (formerly Congregation) for the Doctrine of the Faith, Argentine Cardinal Victor Manuel “Tucho” Fernández has rapidly changed what was once the Vatican’s most formidable department.

Once known as “La Suprema” for its position as the most important Vatican office, the dicastery, under Cardinal Fernández’s leadership, has charted a new course—one that is less concerned with censuring theologians and more concerned with developing a theology that meets people in the complex situations of modern life.

Pope Francis’ instructions

This new course was directly set by Pope Francis in his letter to then-Archbishop Fernández, which summed up some of the changes Francis had wanted to see in the doctrinal office since the beginning of his pontificate.

The July 1 letter, which accompanied the then-archbishop’s appointment to the D.D.F., stated in no uncertain terms that a change was coming. “The Dicastery over which you will preside in other times came to use immoral methods,” Pope Francis wrote. “Those were times when, rather than promoting theological knowledge, possible doctrinal errors were pursued. What I expect from you is certainly something very different.”

Different how?

The pope specifically said that the D.D.F. should work to “increas[e] the understanding and transmission of the faith in the service of evangelization,” quoting from the 2013 apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), in which Francis laid out his vision for his pontificate soon after his election.

Francis cemented this shift toward evangelization as a priority in his 2022 reform of the Roman Curia, the governing offices of the church, when he promoted the newly created Dicastery for Evangelization to be the Vatican’s number-one office, bumping the former “Suprema” to second place. In that reformed constitution for the Curia, Pope Francis summarized the role of the D.D.F. as “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.”

Already, the pope’s desire for a D.D.F. that would help develop Catholic teaching was apparent—a desire he hammered home when he wrote that the D.D.F. should enable a “harmonious growth” reconciling “differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology, and pastoral practice” rather than acting as a “control mechanism.” He warned specifically against the danger of letting “secondary issues” overshadow “central ones”—the central one being the mercy of God.

Francis reassured Fernández in his letter that he had chosen him because he was not “content with a desk-bound theology,” having served as a parish priest and led an archdiocese in Argentina. The two have known each other since at least the 1990s, having worked together closely to draft CELAM’s Aparecida document in 2007; then-Cardinal Bergoglio appointed Fernández as rector of Argentina’s pontifical university in 2009.

At that point, Fernández’s nomination stalled for a year and a half as he was investigated by the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for possible unorthodoxy in his theology—an experience that, while “resolved serenely,” neither Francis nor Fernández forgot. After Francis’ election as pope, he made Fernández a bishop and, some say, included him in the drafting of that first programmatic document, “Evangelii Gaudium.” Fernández is also often credited as a ghostwriter of Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), which opened the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. Francis also appointed Fernández to two synods and as a consultor to the Congregation for Catholic Education, the body that years before withheld approval of Fernández as university rector following concerns from the Vatican’s doctrine office that he now heads. And just today, Pope Francis appointed him a member of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Christian Unity.

With this long history of collaboration, it seems Francis may have had Fernández in mind for this role for years.

With this long history of collaboration, it seems Francis may have had Fernández in mind for this role for years. As the church historian Massimo Faggioli told me in an interview when Fernández was appointed, “It’s more about the choice of the person than about what Pope Francis said in his letter.… This is a turning point from these last 40 years, and most visibly a departure because [Fernández] is a Latin American.” Mr. Faggioli said the appointment marked the end of the “Ratzinger era” of D.D.F. heads, which he saw extending through its last prefect, Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, a Jesuit who was the congregation’s secretary under “Ratzinger devotee” Cardinal Gerhard Müller. Mr. Faggioli drew a contrast between that era’s “desktop theology” approach and the Latin American style, which prioritizes, Mr. Faggioli said, being “in touch with the existential condition of real people.”

As Francis has said many times, including in his letter at Fernández’s appointment, “reality is superior to [ideas].”

Cardinal Fernández’s D.D.F.

Some of the decisions Fernández has made in his three months as Vatican doctrine chief seem to take inspiration from Francis’ letter. The widely reported declaration “Fiducia Supplicans,” for example, which outlined a theology of blessings and allowed priests to bless couples in what the church calls “irregular situations,” including same-sex and unmarried cohabitating couples, seemed primarily concerned with extending the mercy of God to people living in real-life situations who the church had arguably neglected in the past.

This approach is similar to the one that Francis, and possibly Fernández, took to divorced and remarried couples in “Amoris Laetitia.”

Other decisions by Fernández seem to combine the pastoral approach Francis has championed with Fernández’s own style of frequent communication.

Fernández has always been a prolific writer, having penned many short speculative and advice-style books as well as weightier theological works, and he had often posted publicly on Facebook, even responding to critics of his appointment, up until he was made a cardinal in September 2023. He has given many interviews since his appointment and is seen as the D.D.F. prefect who has been most open to the press in modern history by a significant margin.

The D.D.F. has communicated more since Fernández’s appointment than many Vatican watchers can recall it doing in the past.

Likewise, the D.D.F. has communicated more since Fernández’s appointment than many Vatican watchers can recall it doing in the past. After refusing to respond to five cardinals’ “dubia” (“doubts” about a teaching as expressed in yes-or-no questions) on “Amoris Laetitia” for seven years, after Fernández’s appointment the office quickly responded to two new dubia: One from some of the same cardinals asking for clarification on a series of hot-button issues including Communion for the divorced and remarried, women’s ordination and blessings for same-sex couples, and another from a Brazilian bishop which clarified that transgender people can be baptized and serve as godparents, provided that transgender people serving in these roles did not cause “public scandal.”

The D.D.F.’s responses to the cardinals held Francis’ line on access to Communion and women’s ordination and offered a cautious openness to blessings for same-sex couples, which it would further explore in its December 2023 declaration.

Another example of the D.D.F.’s more frequent communication under Fernández is its Jan. 4 press release responding to some of the criticisms of “Fiducia Supplicans,” which urged bishops and priests “to reflect serenely [on the declaration], with the heart of shepherds, free from all ideology” and stated that the document is not “heretical,” nor are priests who offer such blessings.

How the decisions are reverberating through the church

Cardinal Fernández’s appointment as prefect of the D.D.F. has widely been interpreted as an effort by Pope Francis to shore up his legacy—perhaps the most significant one after the 2021-24 synodal process. Up to now, Francis had avoided making any major changes in the doctrinal office, first keeping the Benedict XVI-appointed Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who has emerged as a prominent critic of the pope, to serve out his five-year term as head, then replacing him with Cardinal Müller’s D.D.F. secretary, Cardinal Ladaria. While not a vocal critic of Francis, Ladaria did issue a 2021 response to a dubium that banned the blessing of same-sex “unions” (rather than “couples,” which the 2023 declaration addressed) that Francis was reportedly unhappy with, despite having signed off on.

His decision up until now not to make major changes to the leadership of the D.D.F. was generally seen as a desire not to deepen the polarization that has increased in the church over the last decade. Francis’ choice to appoint a key ally to the office, while likely aimed at integrating his more pastoral approach into the church’s doctrine, also runs the risk of deepening the divisions in the church, as has been seen in some of the backlash to “Fiducia Supplicans.”

Francis, it seems, does not want to alienate those who are not prepared for such changes: This month, he consented to the decision of the African bishops, under the leadership of Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, that they “generally prefer” not to bless same-sex couples. America Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell has reported that Cardinal Ambongo discussed this with both Francis and Fernández.

But such nuances tend to go unnoticed amid media reports on the declaration and backlash to it from some bishops and commentators. Despite the pope’s willingness to allow different pastoral applications—even one that seems to disagree with his declaration outright—the narrative of Pope Francis as a “liberal” or “progressive” persists. As America’s national correspondent Michael J. O’Loughlin pointed out in a recent “Inside the Vatican” roundtable episode on “Fiducia Supplicans,” media perception of an event often dictates its reality in the popular imagination.

With a doctrine chief who seems to be prioritizing frequent and frank communication, both from his office and in interviews, while also implementing changes Pope Francis wants to cement that may have been met with resistance from the doctrine office in the past, it seems likely that political polarization in the church will continue to deepen. This could remain a reality even if the Vatican continues to allow for a wide variety of pastoral practice, which seems to be a key tenet of Francis’ governance.

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