(ANALYSIS) The doctrines that govern Catholicism have been very much in the news this summer. This isn’t normal with the mainstream press.
So, why is this the case?
This question has several answers. The Synod of Synodality, a multi-year process involving bishops and parishioners, could very well change church doctrine on a number of key issues. (See Terry Mattingly’s recent post and podcast for more background.)
The second involves the pope’s recent appointment of Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernandez as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Both are connected in that they have to do with the future direction of the church and Pope Francis’ legacy. This pontiff very much wants to leave a lasting impression on the global church, in part acting through the synod, and Cardinal-elect Fernandez could very well help shape it. Let’s face it, it has been a very busy news cycle since my last post on the media coverage (and noncoverage) of the synod.
The other major question reporters need to ask themselves is this one: Who is Archbishop Fernandez, and why does any of this matter?
It depends on who you read in the Catholic press. Like a Supreme Court nominee, the man now tasked with overseeing church doctrine — and possibly making changes going forward — is seen as a controversial choice. This is especially true in contrast to the most famous recent theologian who held this post, as in Cardinal Ratzinger Joseph Ratzinger, who became the very orthodox Pope Benedict XVI.
Like Francis, Fernandez is an Argentine and soon-to-be cardinal after the pontiff announced a new consistory this past Sunday where 21 men will be given red hats on Sept. 30.
Again, why does this matter?
It matters because the cardinal who heads the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith — an office dating back to the 1500s — wields much power and is automatically considered what the Italian press calls “papabile” (popeable), meaning a candidate who can be pope someday.
Once again, Ratzinger was the man who held this title under Pope John Paul II, a partnership that helped shape the current Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The news coverage of regarding all these developments has largely played out in the Catholic press on the doctrinal left and right.
The Catholic press can be adversarial, especially during the Pope Francis era, which often creates some very good journalism.
Eighteen years ago, a College of Cardinals largely appointed by the pope whose reign had just ended wanted continuity, and so they elected the man who’d been the intellectual architect of the previous administration. Thus it was that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, as the natural heir to the doctrinal and spiritual legacy of Pope John Paul II.
After yesterday, one has to ask: Is Pope Francis trying to align the stars for history to repeat itself by naming his own theological right hand, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández, to the same post once held by Ratzinger as the Vatican’s doctrinal czar?
Before proceeding, an important caveat: The point here is not to compare the quality or significance of the intellectual output of Ratzinger and Fernández, which is off-topic and, anyway, above my pay grade. It’s rather to suggest that politically and personally, Fernández is now poised to be roughly to Francis what Ratzinger once was to John Paul, albeit with some important differences.
If anything, the bond between Francis and Fernández, both Argentines, runs even deeper than that which linked the Polish John Paul and the German Ratzinger.
The connection goes back at least to 2007, when the future pontiff was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires and Fernández was a professor at the Catholic university in the Argentine capital. He acted as Bergoglio’s peritus, or theological advisor, during the conference of Latin American bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, which produced a document that proved to be a blueprint for Francis’s papacy.
This context always makes Allen a good read, but also the background needed for any reporter not versed in Vatican politics and church hierarchy. Andrea Gagliarducci, writing for MondayVatican.com and reprinted in the National Catholic Register, wrote an analysis piece that focused on Fernandez’s appointment as tied to Francis’ legacy.
Gagliarducci pulls the curtain on what he thinks this all means. Here’s how he started his piece:
The news is not the appointment of his trusted theologian as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Although recent rumors had focused more on the possibility that a German like Bishop Wilmer could take the seat of guardian of the Doctrine of the Faith, the name of Victor Fernandez had always been among the possible candidates as head of the former Holy Office.
But the real news is the letter, in Spanish, with which Pope Francis accompanies the appointment. At the same time, the bulletin of the Press Office of the Holy See does not fail to dwell on the list of publications of the new prefect, even going as far as, in a minimal ritual way, to underline that “between books and scientific articles, he has more than 300 publications, many of which have been translated into various languages. These writings show an important biblical basis and a constant effort of dialogue between theology and culture, the evangelizing mission, spirituality, and social issues.”
It is certainly not in the style of a Holy See’s Press Office press release. It was like if somebody had to justify the appointment, or to accredit it to a broader public. The Holy See Press Office seems to have received everything already packaged, including the Pope’s accompanying letter, released in Spanish and without any working translation.
Legacy aside, the fact that Fernandez is a controversial figure also came through in a lot of the coverage (especially in the traditional Catholic press on the doctrinal right) for his past writings. The great folks at The Pillar wrote the following:
The new head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office has said that he is opposed to same-sex blessings that feed “confusion” over the nature of marriage.
But he suggested that blessings that did not create such confusion should be “analyzed and confirmed.”
Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández made the remarks in an interview published July 5 by the Spanish Catholic website InfoVaticana.
The Argentine archbishop, who will take up the post of prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) in mid-September, was asked if he agreed with the dicastery’s 2021 declaration — published with specific papal approval — which said that “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex.”
Fernández replied: “Look, just as I am firmly against abortion (and I challenge you to find someone in Latin America who has written more articles than me against abortion), I also understand that ‘marriage’ in the strict sense is only one thing: that stable union of two beings as different as male and female are, who in that difference are capable of engendering new life.”
“There is nothing that can be compared to that and to use that name to express something else is neither good nor correct. At the same time, I believe that we must avoid gestures or actions that could express something different. That is why I think that the greatest care must be taken to avoid rites or blessings that could feed this confusion.”
The term “confusion” would very much become a buzzword throughout a lot of the mainstream coverage. Once again, this is par for the course in the Francis era — with journalists seeking to draw links between this pope’s words and his actions.
In “First Things,” Dan Hitchens criticized Fernandez as a “preacher of chaos” regarding culture war issues as it pertains to sex and marriage. This is what he argued:
It was Archbishop Fernández who authored the crucial passages in Chapter Eight of Pope Francis’s 2016 document on marriage, Amoris Laetitia. At least, Fernández’s authorship has been widely reported without denial, the wording is very close to his own prose at certain points, and he has publicly enthused at great length about its contents. And Chapter Eight is, deservedly, the most notorious text in modern Catholic history. It amounts to a sustained reflection on the Church’s teaching that the divorced and remarried can only receive Communion if they give up sexual relations with their new partner. Chapter Eight never quite challenges that teaching, but it is written so ambiguously as to open the door to intellectual and pastoral chaos.
Take one example out of a dozen. The document — Fernández, presumably — proclaims that “A subject may know full well the rule, yet … be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.” What on earth does that mean? On one reading, it means that having extramarital sex is, for some people, just impossible to avoid: a sad inevitability, like getting hay fever in the spring. Someone wrote a bizarre book (reviewed here) inspired by this passage, arguing for the inexorable force of adulterous sexual intercourse. Three high-ranking cardinals promoted it, and the pope even gave it a vague endorsement. Then nobody ever talked about the idea again, so maybe Chapter Eight didn’t mean that after all. Or maybe it did. This is what I mean about chaos.
And it has spread like a lethal disease. Jean Vanier, at the time an enormously influential figure, backed assisted suicide on the basis of Amoris Laetitia’s Chapter Eight: “Pope Francis continues to tell us that everything cannot be regulated by a law.” (In hindsight, Vanier had his own reasons for preferring a more flexible moral code.) A theologian at a Vatican academy claimed that Church teaching on contraception could now be discarded. The title of his paper? “Re-reading Humanae Vitae in light of Amoris Laetitia.” In May, the Flemish bishops of Belgium cited Amoris Laetitia to justify giving same-sex blessings. And so on. For this epic confusion, Fernández bears a great deal of responsibility.
The news coverage also unearthed key elements of Fernandez’s past. For example, the National Catholic Register reported that the Vatican’s doctrinal office had a file containing various theological concerns raised by others about the work of Fernandez.
This is what they reported:
VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Gerhard Müller has confirmed the Vatican’s doctrinal office had a file containing theological concerns about Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández, whom Pope Francis last week appointed to head that office.
The file, also confirmed by a second senior Church source, dates to when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires appointed then-Father Fernández rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina in 2009.
On July 5 comments to the Register, Archbishop Fernández downplayed the file’s contents, saying the Vatican’s concerns related to “accusations” based on his writings “were not of great weight,” and that after an exchange of letters with Vatican officials in which he “clarified” his “true thinking, everything was resolved serenely.”
On July 1, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Fernández, a close papal adviser and purported drafter of some of the most contentious passages of Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, a position he will take up in August, brought forward from a previously announced start date of mid-September.
It’s not surprising that media not in agreement with Fernandez on doctrine would be more aggressive in their reporting on his past.
In response, Vatican News, the Holy See’s official news website, published a Q&A interview with Fernandez on July 8 regarding his thoughts on doctrine. This is a key section:
Q: How does one proclaim the Gospel and how does one transmit the faith, in the increasingly secularized contexts of our societies?
By always trying to better show all its beauty and attractiveness, without disfiguring it by infecting it with worldly criteria, but always finding a point of contact that allows it to be truly meaningful, eloquent, precious for those who listen to it.
Without dialogue with culture, we risk our message, however beautiful, becoming irrelevant. This is why I am grateful for my time as a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture, where I learnt a lot alongside Cardinal Ravasi.
Q: What is the meaning and relevance of the words that Benedict XVI placed in the introduction of the encyclical Deus caritas est: ‘Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’?
It is appropriate to remember these words today. No religious doctrine has ever changed the world unless there has been an event of faith, an encounter that re-orients life. And this does not only apply to Christianity, but can be seen in the history of religions. For example, in the crisis of Hinduism and its subsequent renewal, with hymns to Krishna and many other occasions.
Without an experience of the living Christ who loves and saves, we cannot shape our ‘being Christian’, and concentrating on arguing, and debating with everyone, will not help mature this development in people. This statement by Benedict XVI invites us to develop a solid and well-founded theology that is clearly oriented towards the service of this event.
The Fernandez news coverage quickly reached such a boiling point, especially in the United States, that the archbishop took to his own Facebook page to dispel criticism from what he termed “anti-Francis groups” of a book he wrote while serving as a priest in the mid-1990s — “Heal Me With Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing.”
This is how Catholic News Agency reported on it:
Writing on his personal Facebook page on July 3, Fernández said the book was written as “a pastor’s catechesis for teens” and “not a theology book.”
Pope Francis appointed Fernández, the archbishop of La Plata, Argentina, the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. The theologian will take up the Vatican post in September.
As Pope Francis’ newest Vatican appointment, Fernández has faced significant criticism, including over the 1995 work, which is no longer included in most official lists of the archbishop’s publications.
Fernández, who has over 10,000 followers on Facebook, said there are “anti-Francis groups that are outraged [at my appointment], and they get to use unethical means to harm me.”
Attacks against the 79-page book on kissing, the archbishop said, “come from Catholics in the United States” who do not know Spanish and mis-translate one of the text’s poems.
In the poem, the word “witch,” he said, has been mistakenly translated into English as “bitch.”
“In the end, they will continue to say a lot of things, and they will ally with whomever to attack Francis for nominating me. But those who know me closely know who I am. Thank you for the trust and love forever,” he said.
Fernández explained that the book in question was written by a very young pastor trying to reach the young, and that it “no longer exists.”
It should be noted that mainstream news coverage of any of this book and its contents was nonexistent.
This is only a theory, but there could be a number of factors at work here. Secular newsrooms no longer believe the Catholic Church is a political and cultural force — and that is true throughout much of the West — and not worthy of news coverage to readers who largely don’t care.
The other is that the mainstream press, increasingly partisan and openly rooting for politically leftist causes, have decided not to give voices on the other side in any news coverage. Why investigate questions linked to the views of people who journalists already know are wrong?
This has resulted in media bias by omission. This would also explain why the Synod on Synodality has received next to zero mainstream news coverage in the United States.
America, the Jesuit magazine on the doctrinal left, did take a look at Fernandez’s record and past. This is what it reported:
Archbishop Fernández’s appointment comes at a transitional moment for what was once the Vatican’s top office. In his new constitution for the Roman Curia—the central offices of church governance—in 2021, Pope Francis elevated the Dicastery for Evangelization to the top position, above the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was previously a congregation and was known as “La Suprema.” Its mandate, the pope wrote, is “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.”
In a letter to Archbishop Fernández upon his appointment as prefect, Pope Francis wrote, “The dicastery that you will preside over in other epochs came to use immoral methods,” which appears to be a reference to when what is now the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith was called the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, a collection of tribunals that investigated and punished heresies, sometimes employing torture or handing heretics over to secular authorities to be killed.
In contrast, Pope Francis described Archbishop Fernández’s role as “promoting theological knowledge” rather than “chas[ing] after possible doctrinal errors.” Even as recently as the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was involved in a number of high-profile cases of investigating and censuring theologians whom it deemed insufficiently orthodox.
Villanova University church historian Massimo Faggioli said that although Pope Francis’ comment about the dicastery using “immoral methods” was widely covered in the media, it is not all that new. In 2015, Dr. Faggioli said, then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, “explains how the role of the dicastery is no longer in terms of repression of heresies, but it’s more about the promotion of doctrine.”
Meanwhile, the synod, I should add, did get some mainstream coverage — but only because the list included the Rev. James Martin, who has long advocated for the embrace of LGBTQ+ people, among those who would represent the United States at the series of meetings at the Vatican.
NBC News reported on Martin’s appointment on their website. It should be noted that Martin is constantly quoted in news stories by mainstream news outlets.
This is what NBC reported:
The Vatican unveiled the names of bishops, priests, nuns and laypersons who will take part in the weeks-long meeting that the pope has called for in October. Among those chosen is the Rev. James Martin, who has long been a prominent advocate of greater inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the Catholic Church.
Official Catholic teaching considers any sexual act outside of marriage between a man and a woman sinful.
Ahead of the gathering, known as a synod, there was an unprecedented canvassing of Catholics worldwide, which found that the faithful want to see concrete steps to promote women to decision-making posts as well as a “radical inclusion” of the LGBTQ+ community in the church.
After the pope, in an interview with The Associated Press in January, decried as “unjust” laws that criminalize homosexuality and declared that “being homosexual is not a crime,’’ Martin, who is a Jesuit like Francis, asked him for clarification, given the church’s teaching on the subject. Francis then clarified that he should have said that any sexual act outside marriage is a sin.
Throughout his 10-year-old papacy, Francis has upheld Catholic teaching on sexuality but has made outreach to LGBTQ people a priority.
It will be very interesting to see how the synod is covered in October and, even more important, how what Fernandez does and says over the next year will impact church doctrine regarding a number of third-rail issues.
Many parts of the liberal and orthodox Catholic press, especially in the United States, will continue to put Fernandez under the microscope. That makes them a must-read regarding this ongoing issue of doctrine and how the church interacts will modern life, culture and mores.
It’s true that Francis’ papacy over the last decade has been controversial. It’s also true that Fernandez is not only a lightning rod, but he could very well be pope someday.
This post originally ran at GetReligion.