Vatican’s doctrine czar faces opposition for past and present decisions

Religion News Service - Missouri School of Journalism [Columbia MO]

January 16, 2024

By Claire Giangravé

Taking point position on Pope Francis’ insistence on opening the church to those who transgress traditional sexual morality, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández has been bushwhacked by critics who point to his own writings on sexuality.

In his first few months as the head of the Vatican’s department in charge of Catholic doctrine, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández had already drawn criticism from conservative and liberal Catholics alike. And since the issuance of a papal decision to allow priests to give blessings to same-sex couples, the cardinal’s own past and writings are now being called into question.

Pope Francis appointed Fernández to lead the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in October, over the complaints of those who said Fernández, an Argentine like Francis, lacked the experience or credentials for the role. Francis, however, signaled his confidence in his new doctrine chief by handing him the red hat of a cardinal.

After his appointment, Fernández quickly oversaw controversial pronouncements, one allowing transgender people to be baptized and act as godparents and another opening the door for women who had children out of wedlock to receive the Eucharist. The department once known for overseeing the Inquisition was suddenly seen as the advocate of acts long topping Catholics’ list of sins.

When on Dec. 18 Fernández published, with the pope’s approval, “Fiducia Supplicans,” the declaration allowing blessing of same-sex or “irregular” couples, provided the blessings don’t resemble Catholic marriages, conservative outrage forced Fernández to issue further explanation of the document, despite having previously said there would not be any clarification. African bishops nonetheless announced that they would not be offering gay couples blessings.

“The Mystical Passion: Spirituality and Sensuality,” by now-Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández. Courtesy book cover

Not long after Fernández’s appointment, critics had sought to embarrass him by discussing a book he published in 1995 called “Heal Me With Your Mouth. The Art of Kissing.” As Fernández was defending “Fiducia Supplicans” this month, a second book, “The Mystical Passion,” was brought to public attention. Published in 1998, it contained explicit descriptions of sex and orgasms, prompting some to question whether the cardinal is fit to lead the doctrinal department.

“When I read the articles about the book by Fernández I was triggered,” said Michael McDonnell, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, in an interview with Religion News Service on Friday (Jan. 12).

According to McDonnell, the language used in the book represents “a red flag for advocates, a red flag for people who have endured abuse for decades.”

In the book, Fernández states that an “orgasm, experienced in the presence of God, can also be a sublime act of worship to God,” and he lays out the differences in the sexuality of men and women, whom he described as “usually unsatiable” after climax.

The cardinal also quoted the 15th-century theologian Al Sonuouti, saying, “Praise be to Allah, who establishes penises as hard and straight as spears to wage war on vaginas.” In a comment to the Catholic outlet Crux, Fernández said that he would not publish that same book today.

“Individuals like Fernández have been part of the problem and not the solution,” McDonnell said, renewing his appeal for the cardinal to step down. In September, abuse survivors from numerous advocacy groups demanded that Fernández renounce his cardinal status in view of the admitted mistakes he made in handling abuse cases in his diocese of La Plata, Argentina.

Those mistakes have already caused Francis to excuse the prefect from overseeing or even attending the meetings of the discastery’s disciplinary section charged with handling cases of clergy abuse.

But the cardinal is not completely without support. In Germany, where blessings of gay couples have been happening for years in defiance of Vatican regulations, Fernández’s decision on the question has been welcomed as a small yet important step for the church.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx speaks during the Munich Security Conference in Munich, southern Germany, on Feb. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich acknowledged that the same-sex blessings will strike many only as a gesture of inclusion, but he added, “For some in the universal church, it is huge to hear that this should be possible.”

Such approval has only deepened the disdain of conservative Catholics, who have been vehement on social media about Fernández’s resigning. In a commentary on the Crux website, veteran Vatican analyst John Allen observed that Fernández’s youthful writings on sexuality are not unlike the series of essays and reflections made by St. John Paul II, a conservative hero, that addressed human sexuality, known today as John Paul’s “theology of the body.”AdChoicesSponsored

“The row is about current events, meaning the doctrinal content of this pontificate and Fernández’s role in developing and defending it, most recently his über-controversial document on blessings,” Allen wrote.

In what was perhaps an attempt to appease conservative opposition, Fernández announced that his department plans to publish a document on human dignity that would issue a “strong criticism” of modern moral questions on such issues as “sex-change surgery, surrogacy and gender ideology.”

Francis has spoken on these issues in the past, strongly chastising the growing popularity of the ideas and practices. He has described gender ideology as a form of “ideological colonization” and in a speech to global diplomats on Jan. 8 he called surrogacy “deplorable.”

While the opposition to Fernández and Francis keeps mounting, this pontificate shows no indication of slowing down as it promises to continue down its path to make the church more inclusive and welcoming.

“When you make a decision, there is a price of solitude that you have to pay,” said Francis in an interview with an Italian TV program. “Sometimes the decisions are not accepted,” the pope said, referring specifically to blessing gay couples, “but most of the time when one doesn’t accept a decision it’s because they don’t understand it.”