VATICAN CITY (VATICAN CITY)
America [New York NY]
July 1, 2023
By Gerard O’Connell
In an unexpected and highly significant move, Pope Francis has appointed the Argentine theologian and archbishop Victor Manuel “Tucho” Fernández as the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican announced today.
Pope Francis wrote a letter to the new prefect in which he told him in Spanish, “As prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, I entrust to you a task that I consider invaluable. It has as its main purpose to safeguard the teaching that comes from the faith ‘to give reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns.’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 271).”
“The dicastery that you will preside over in other epochs came to use immoral methods. Those were times when more than promoting theological knowledge they chased after possible doctrinal errors. What I expect from you is something without doubt much different,” Francis said.
The dicastery, previously a Vatican congregation, was long known as “La Suprema” among Vatican offices. It is entrusted with Catholic doctrine and discipline. Historically, particularly during the Inquisition but also in the 20th century, the congregation had a reputation for its free hand in censuring or silencing theologians, though under Francis its actions have been curtailed. The dicastery also oversees the majority of sex abuse cases referred to the Vatican, which today constitutes over 80 percent of its work.
In the letter (unofficial America translation below), Pope Francis asks the new prefect to promote theological thinking more than controlling it, and not to occupy himself so much with the abuse question, for which there is a disciplinary sector in the dicastery, so as to concentrate on the theological area that requires development. “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,’” Francis wrote.
Fernández, 60, is currently the archbishop of La Plata in Argentina. He succeeds the Spanish Jesuit theologian, Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, who has held the post since 2017 but at the age of 79 is long beyond the official retirement age of 75. Archbishop Fernández’s name had not previously been among those mentioned in the press as a candidate to replace Cardinal Ladaria.
Archbishop Fernández is the first Argentine that Francis has appointed to a senior post in the Roman Curia, the central administration of the Catholic church, during his ten-year pontificate. He is considered to be in harmony with the pope at both the pastoral and theological levels, and Francis’ choice of him is the clearest indication yet of the pope’s determination to continue on the path of theological and pastoral renewal of the Catholic church in the implementation of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.
Sometimes referred to as Francis’ “trusted theologian,” Archbishop Fernández has a relationship with the pope that dates back to his work for the Argentine Bishops’ Conference, where he was recognized for his ability to bring together different points of view in drafting documents. As a theologian, Fernández also played a key role assisting Cardinal Bergoglio at the Aparecida conference of CELAM (the Bishops’ Conference of Latin America) in 2007 in drafting the final document of that conference, which provided the background for some of Pope Francis’ major writings, including “Evangelii Gaudium” and “Laudato Si’,” to which the archbishop is also believed to have contributed in significant ways. He participated in the synod of bishops on the family (2014-2015) as a member, and also served on the editorial groups for that synod.
Born on July 18, 1962, in Alcira Gigena in the Córdoba province of Argentina, Fernández was ordained a priest on Aug. 15, 1986 for the diocese of Villa de la Concepción del Río Cuarto. He was then sent to study in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he obtained a licentiate in theology with a specialization in biblical theology in 1988. Two years later, he earned a doctorate in theology from Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina (UCA).
He subsequently served in parish ministry in Río Cuarto and worked in the formation of seminarians and lay people. Author of many books and more than 300 articles, he has long been recognized for his close collaboration with Francis—sometimes being referred to as the pope’s ghostwriter.
When Cardinal Bergoglio appointed Fernández as rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina (UCA) in 2009, the cardinal initially encountered strong opposition from the Roman Curia. Fernández served as dean of the faculty of theology at the university from 2008-2009, then as rector from 2009 to 2018. When Francis became pope in 2013, he immediately named Fernández an archbishop. Francis then appointed him as archbishop of La Plata on June 2, 2018.
The Argentine archbishop was in Rome this past week, and accompanied the new archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Ignacio Garcia Cuerva, when the pope blessed the palliums (a symbol of authority worn by bishops that is given by the pope) in St. Peter’s Basilica on June 29, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Fernández spent much of the time with Francis, as he revealed in a tweet that carried a photo of the pope and him on June 30. “I shared a week with Francis,” he wrote. “He works the whole day. He holds audiences and meetings in the morning and late afternoons. He works more hours than anyone in the Vatican. I saw him tired after 5 hours of dense events but after a siesta he was perfect and happy.”
Francis is expected to make Archbishop Fernández a cardinal at the next consistory, likely to be held before the end of this year.
Pope Francis’ Letter to Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
(Unofficial America translation from the Spanish original by Gerard O’Connell; official transcript to follow)
I entrust to you, as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, a task that I consider invaluable. It has as its main purpose to safeguard the teaching that comes from the faith “to give reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns” (Evangelii Gaudium, 271).
The dicastery that you will preside over in other epochs came to use immoral methods. Those were times when more than promoting theological knowledge they chased after possible doctrinal errors. What I expect from you is something without doubt much different.
You were dean of the Faculty of Theology of Buenos Aires, President of the Argentine Society of Theology and you are president of the Commission of Faith and Culture of the Argentine Bishops, and in all cases voted by your peers, who in this way have appreciated your theological charism. As rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina you encouraged a healthy integration of knowledge. On the other hand, you were parish priest of “Santa Teresita” and up to now archbishop of La Plata, where you knew how to put in dialogue theological knowledge with the life of the holy People of God.
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”
So as not to limit the significance of this task, it should be added that it deals with “increasing the understanding and transmission of the faith in the service of evangelization, so that its light may be a criterion for understanding the meaning of existence, especially in the face of the questions posed by the progress of the sciences and the development of society.” (Fidem Servare, n.2).
These questions, received in a renewed announcement of the gospel message, “become tools of evangelization” (EG 132), because they permit us to enter in conversation with “our present situation, which is in many ways unprecedented in the history of humanity.” (LS 17).
Furthermore, you know that the church “needs to grow in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of truth” (EG 40), without this implying imposing one way of expressing it. Because “differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow.” (EG 40). This harmonious growth helps to preserve the Christian doctrine more effectively than any mechanism of control.
It is good that your task expresses that the church “encourages the charism of the theologians and their effort for theological research” in a way that “is not content with a theology of the desk” and with “a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything.”(Gaudete et Exsultate, 39). It will be certain always that reality is superior to the idea. In this sense, we need a theology that is attentive to the fundamental criterion: consider “all theological notions that ultimately call into question the very omnipotence of God, and his mercy in particular, are inadequate.” (International Theological Commission: The hope of salvation for infants who die without being baptized: n.2).
We need a thinking that knows how to present in a convincing way the God who loves, who pardons, who saves, who liberates, who moves persons and summons them to fraternal service.
This happens if “the message concentrates on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.” (EG 35). You know well that there is a harmonious order in the truths of our message, where the greatest danger is produced when secondary questions end up overshadowing the central ones.
In the horizon of this richness your task involves moreover the special care to verify that the documents of your dicastery, and of the others, have an adequate theological support, that they are coherent with the rich soil (humus) of the perennial teaching of the Church and also receive the recent Magisterium.
May the Most Holy Virgin protect you and take care of you in this new mission. Please do not forget to pray for me.
Gerard O’Connell is America’s Vatican correspondent and author of The Election of Pope Francis: An Inside Story of the Conclave That Changed History. He has been covering the Vatican since 1985.