Pope drops bombshell – naming new Vatican doctrinal chief

doctrinal chief

Pope Francis, who has a knack for dropping bombshells in July when his predecessors would normally leave town for a summer holiday.

He has again started off the month with a bang by naming Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández of La Plata (Argentina) as the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF).

Fernández, (pictured) who will be 61 in July, has been one of Francis’ most trusted theological advisors and ghostwriters, going back to the days when the pope was still the cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires.

He closely collaborated with then-Cardinal Bergoglio in writing the final document at the 2007 conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) in Aparecida.

A former president of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, “Tucho” – as he is familiarly called – is also understood to have been the principal author of Evangelii gaudium (the Joy of the Gospel), the apostolic exhortation that is the programmatic document of Francis’ pontificate.

Traditionalists sure to be angry

Fernández replaces Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the 79-year-old Spanish Jesuit who has been prefect since 2017.

The Argentine theologian also becomes the president of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and head of the International Theological Commission.

By bringing Fernández to Rome, the pope now has another key ally in one of the most important Vatican offices. This should greatly boost the 86-year-old Francis in helping clear internal opposition to his ecclesial reforms.

But the appointment of the new DDF prefect is also certain to infuriate Catholics who are not in agreement with the pope’s vision of the Church.

In an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera in May 2015 Archbishop Fernández raised the ire of traditionalists when he said the People of God would not tolerate any attempts by a future pope to reverse the changes Francis has already brought to the Church.

Immediately afterwards, Sandro Magister, a veteran Italian journalist who has been one of the vaticanisti most critical of the current pontificate, belittled Fernández’ qualifications as a serious theologian. He egregiously mocked him for stating – correctly, by the way – that the Roman Curia was not an “essential part of the Church’s mission” and that “cardinals could disappear”, too.

Magister claimed the archbishop had signed his own death warrant by taking on the curia and specifically for criticising Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who was still prefect of the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It now seems ironic that it was exactly six years ago to the day from Fernández’s appointment when Francis dropped another July bombshell by refusing to renew Müller for another five years as prefect.

The German, who was only 69 years old and still six years from retirement, has held no other post since Francis dismissed him in 2017.

“To promote and encourage, not to condemn”

In announcing Fernández’s appointment, the Holy See Press Office released an unusually long curriculum vita for the new doctrinal chief.

And even more unusually, it published his full bibliography of books, essays and articles. In addition, it made public a personal letter Pope Francis wrote to his fellow Argentine, in which he urges the new DDF prefect to help promote the faith rather than condemn heresies.

“The dicastery over which you will preside used immoral methods in former times. They were times when, rather than promoting theological knowledge, it persecuted possible doctrinal errors,” the pope says.

“What I expect from you is without a doubt something very different,” the pope adds, in a letter that quotes Evangelii gaudium extensively.

Francis goes on to praise Fernández for his theological and pastoral experience, saying he’s confident the new prefect is “very capable of bringing theological knowledge into dialogue with the life of the holy People of God”.

While pointing out that the DDF also has the task dealing with the most serious clergy sex abuse cases, the pope says the main task of the doctrinal office is to “guard the faith” and “become an instrument of evangelization” that helps the Church “enter into conversation with the people of the world in a context that is unprecedented for the history of humanity”.

“Hacer lío!”: dropping bombshells

Francis urges the new DDF prefect to promote a theology that “convincingly” presents God as “the God who loves, who forgives, who saves, who liberates, who promotes people and summons them to fraternal service”.

Pope Francis loves to tell young people: “Hacer lío!”, a Spanish phrase that can mean anything from “shake things up” to “make a mess”. And the appointment of Victor Manuel Fernández is certainly part of his own penchant for dropping bombshells in the month of July.

It all began in his first months as Bishop of Rome when – on July 1, 2013 – the Holy See Press Office announced he would be flying a week later down to Lampedusa.

Lampedusa is the island off of Sicily that had become emblematic of the unfolding crisis of African migrants and refugees, many who were perishing at sea in an attempt to reach Europe. The July 8th visit would set the tone for the rest of the pontificate.

But three days before leaving on that dramatic day trip, Francis did something else that shocked some Catholics but delighted many others.

He approved the canonization of John Paul II and the beatification of Alvaro de Portillo, the second prelate of Opus Dei.

Halting the Old Latin Mass

Who can forget the surprise announcement on July 4, 2021 that the Jesuit pope had been taken to Gemelli Hospital and that same Sunday afternoon underwent the first of now two abdominal surgeries?

But the real bombshell came a week after he returned from his hospitalization. That’s when released his “motu proprio” Traditionis custodes. This effectively overturned Summorum Pontificum, the “motu proprio” Benedict XVI issued in 2007 to allow for an unfettered celebration and promotion of pre-Vatican II Mass.

The following year – on July 13, 2022 – Francis dropped another bombshell by appointing three women to be members – members, not mere consultants – of one of the most important Vatican offices, the Dicastery for Bishops. This was the second shock in as many years for Catholic traditionalists.

Sacking two cardinals

On July 27, 2018 the Vatican announced that the pope had accepted Theodore McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals.

Francis actually forced McCarrick to resign after the former archbishop of Washington had been credibly accused of sexually abusing adolescents and seminarians. The pope also forced him out of active ministry and sentenced him to a life of prayer and penance. McCarrick was eventually removed from the clerical state altogether.

And, of course, there was the previously-mentioned announcement on July 1, 2017 that Francis had decided Cardinal Gerhard Müller would not be extended as the Vatican’s doctrinal chief.

It could not be foreseen back then that Francis would eventually give the post to his Argentine friend and theological aide. Yes, this is certainly another bombshell. But don’t think for even one moment that it will be the last.

  • Robert Mickens is the La Croix International Editor. Each week he publishes the Letter from Rome, unravelling the issues and policies that are alive in the Vatican and within the Church.
  • First published in La Croix International. Republished with permission.


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