‘The growth of Catholic theology’ – Pope Francis’ doctrinal chief speaks

The Pillar [Washington DC]

July 17, 2023

By Edgar Beltran

Earlier this month, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez as prefect of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith. 

The archbishop, an Argentine, had been since 2018 the Archbishop of La Plata, and was before that the rector of Argentina’s Catholic University — a role to which he was appointed by then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.

Widely regarded as the author of the 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, Fernandez has long been a close collaborator of the pope.

Since his July 1 appointment, Fernandez has made waves — because of comments on the possibility of same-sex liturgical blessings, his handling of abuse allegations, and because of “Heal me with your mouth,” a 1995 book the archbishop wrote on the subject of kissing.

Amid those waves, Pope Francis named Fernandez a cardinal July 9 — he will officially join the College of Cardinals in late September.

In an interview by email July 17, Fernandez offered his assessment of the moral landscape, and discussed his mandate in the Church, and his sense of the place and moment of Catholic theology.

What, in your opinion, are the three or four central moral questions facing the Church at this moment in history? What is the role of the DDF in addressing them? What is the pope’s approach to these issues?

If we talk only about morality, I would say these four:

1) The absolute primacy of grace and charity in Catholic moral theology.
2) The inalienable dignity of each human person, and the consequences of that.
3) The preferential option for the poor, the last, and those abandoned by society.
4) The individualistic, hedonistic and egocentric approaches to life that make the option for marriage, family and the common good difficult.

But we would be off to a bad start if we separated morality from theology. 

We should remember that for Francis, moral issues must be approached with the great announcement of the kerygma: a Father who loves us and who seeks our human fulfillment, reflected in a Christ who saved us, who saves us today, and now lives to communicate his new life to us.

In his letter to you on your appointment, Pope Francis said that previously, the [DDF], “rather than promoting theological knowledge, possible doctrinal errors were pursued. What I expect from you is certainly something very different,” something you have since called a “turning point.” 

However, Praedicate evangelium, also written by Pope Francis says that the DDF “works to ensure that errors and dangerous teachings circulating among the Christian people do not go without suitable rebuttal.”

These two documents seem to present different views of the role of the DDF in the safeguarding of doctrine. How do you think they can be reconciled? What is your approach to your appointment at the DDF?

Look, if you read the pope’s letter carefully, it is clear that at no time does he say that the function of refuting errors should disappear. 

Obviously, if someone says that Jesus is not a real man or that all immigrants should be killed, that will require strong intervention.

But at the same time, that [intervention] can be an opportunity to grow, to enrich our understanding.

For example, in those cases, it would be necessary to accompany that person in their legitimate intention to better show the divinity of Jesus Christ, or it will be necessary to talk about some imperfect, incomplete or problematic immigration legislation.

In the letter, the pope says very explicitly that the dicastery has to “guard” the teaching of the Church. Only that at the same time – and this is his right – he asks me for a greater commitment to help the development of thought, such as when difficult questions arise, because growth is more effective than control. 

Heresies were eradicated better and faster when there was adequate theological development, and they spread and perpetuated when there were only condemnations.

But Francis also asks me to help collect the recent magisterium, and this evidently includes his own. It is part of what must be “guarded.”