Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

With this appointment, the Pope repudiates his predecessor

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 18, 2023

Since Archbishop (soon to be Cardinal) Victor Manuel Fernandez was named by Pope Francis to head the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), much criticism of the appointment has focused on the strange book Archbishop Fernandez wrote more than thirty years ago: Heal Me With Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing. Some of my conservative friends argue that the book is heretical; others say it is pornographic. Those criticisms miss the mark. The reality is worse.

Predictably enough the Argentine archbishop has dismissed the complaints, saying that they come from ”ultra-conservative sectors that deeply hate the Argentine Pontiff.” He assures us that the book “contains no heresy or error.”

No heresy, perhaps. (And isn’t a relief to know that the Vatican’s top doctrinal official has not pronounced material heresy?) But it was an “error” for a young priest to write a book about kissing. (Didn’t the Vatican tacitly acknowledge as much when, as his appointment was announced, The Art of Kissing was left off an otherwise comprehensive list of the archbishop’s published works?) Put it this way: If you knew that a young priest had shown such a keen interest in the details of make-out sessions that he wrote a how-to book about kissing, would you recommend him as a camp counselor?

Warning signs—ignored

I know; I know. Some readers will condemn that last sentence as uncharitable. Forgive me, but after thirty years of hearing and reading and writing stories about how Church officials ignored warning signs, I will not ignore them myself, not will I allow others to do so without calling them to account. Sometimes there are good reasons for taboos. When a celibate shows an inordinate interest in how young people express physical affection, there is cause for concern.

To be absolutely clear, I have no reason to believe that Archbishop Fernandez has violated any boundaries himself. But there is clear evidence that he has failed to recognize the signs of danger. As a young priest he rushed in to write a book about kissing—and he still does not acknowledge (at least not forthrightly) that youthful effort as foolish. Much more recently, as Archbishop of La Plata, in 2019 he defended a priest who was accused of abuse, and denounced the whistle-blowers, and, as the case proceeded through the courts, apologized to the priest rather than to the victims. That he violated a taboo as a young priest is unsettling. That he still had not learned to pay attention to flashing yellow lights, even as an archbishop, even after years of worldwide publicity about the dangers, is appalling.

And this is the prelate who will now preside over the Vatican office charged with investigating reports of priestly abuse! Archbishop Fernandez himself has admitted that “I do not feel qualified or trained” to handle abuse cases. While he will not be directly responsible for investigations—a separate section of the dicastery is devoted to that judicial process—his name atop the organization chart will do nothing to restore badly shaken public confidence in the Vatican’s handling of the problem.

The anti-Ratzinger

Archbishop Fernandez has disclosed that Pope Francis had asked him twice to accept the role as prefect of the DDF. He originally declined, he said, because of his concerns about handling sex-abuse cases. But when the Pope asked again, he accepted the job.

Meanwhile, rumors circulated in Rome that the top doctrinal post would go to a German prelate, Bishop Heiner Wilmer of Hildesheim. That was a frightening possibility; Bishop Wilmer is an enthusiastic supporter of the radical changes proposed by the German bishops’ “Synodal Path,” and during the Covid lockdown he made the astonishing complaint that some Catholics are “only fixated on the Eucharist.” His appointment to be prefect of the DDF would have signaled a frontal assault on traditional Catholic theology.

But an open offensive is not the style of Pope Francis. Archbishop Fernandez—who insists on his orthodoxy, while simply “raising questions” about contentious issues—is much more in tune with the papal approach. In fact the Argentine prelate has for years been closely linked to the Argentine Pontiff. Archbishop Fernandez reportedly had a hand in drafting the encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, and is generally acknowledged as the ghostwriter of Amoris Laetitia. (In fact the latter document includes passages taken verbatim from the published work of Fernandez—giving rise to the wry observation that plagiarism is inappropriate in a papal document.)

Many Vatican observers, noting how closely the thoughts of the archbishop match those of the Pontiff, have concluded that the new prefect of the DDF will play the same role for Pope Francis that then-Cardinal Ratzinger played for Pope John Paul II. The comparison is apt, and the contrast is striking.

The young Father Fernandez did us a favor, actually, by writing that book about kissing. He let us know that we should not take him too seriously. Not even the most virulent critics of Ratzinger/Benedict would dispute that he was a serious, rigorous theologian. Whereas Archbishop Fernandez, as a theologian, tends toward poetry rather than rigor.

And that, too, is in keeping with the approach of Pope Francis, who scorns rigorous theological analysis. In his letter appointing Archbishop Fernandez, he again denounced “a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything.” Quoting from his own encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (which, remember, means that he might have been quoting the work of Fernandez), the Pope said that the task of the DDF is “to give reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns.”

The second paragraph of that papal letter bears careful scrutiny:

The Dicastery over which you will preside in other times came to use immoral methods. Those were times when, rather than promoting theological knowledge, possible doctrinal errors were pursued. What I expect from you is certainly something very different.

What are the “immoral methods” to which the Pope alludes? Is he referring to excesses of the Inquisition, or to more recent DDF inquiries? The statement as it stands is ambiguous. But the Pope links those “immoral methods” to times when “doctrinal errors were pursued.” Could that be a description of the not-too-distant past, when Cardinal Ratzinger was head of the dicastery?

The degradation of doctrine

If so, then the appointment of Archbishop Fernandez can only be seen as an outright repudiation of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict. As Cardinal Gerhard Müller has disclosed, the CDF had a file on Fernandez, and the Congregation for Catholic Education held up his appointment as rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, because of concerns about his orthodoxy—that is, in pursuit of possible doctrinal errors. So in effect, is Pope Francis appointing a theologian whose views were once questioned to sit in judgment of those who questioned him? Not quite. The Pope is not questioning the orthodoxy of Ratzinger and Müller. But he is condemning their approach. One almost hears, in the Pope’s letter of appointment, an echo of the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote: “I even confess that all formulas in matters of faith seem to me only so many chains of iniquity, falsehood, and tyranny.”

In that letter, the Pope told the new prefect that instead of seeking to guard against error, the DDF should explore new horizons of theological inquiry. He writes that Archbishop Fernandez is the right man for the job because, as Archbishop of La Plata, “you knew how to bring theological knowledge into dialogue with the life of the holy People of God.”

Armed with this papal mandate, Archbishop Fernandez took aim at another example of the “old” approach to doctrine: the magisterial encyclical Veritatis Splendor of Pope John Paul II. That work, he told The Pillar is “not the most adequate text to encourage the development of theology.” The problem, he explained, is that Veritatis Splendor was written “to set certain limits,” whereas his plan is to encourage new lines of thought, because “growth is more effective than control.” Here the archbishop leans toward the thinking of John Stuart Mill, in his confidence that if free rein is given to all ideas, the truth will emerge on its own strength.

But however useful it might be to encourage new lines of theological inquiry, that is not the proper role of the DDF. Indeed it is not the proper role of the Holy See. The role of the Pontiff, as successor to St. Peter, is to unite the brethren: to be the focus of unity and guarantor of orthodoxy. The papal office serves to settle theological disputes—not to encourage new ones.

“In short,” observes Edward Feser in Catholic World Report “this main magisterial organ of the Church will largely no longer be exercising its magisterial function.” The Vatican office created to protect the integrity of doctrine will no longer do so.

Choose your own moral standards

And what will the DDF do instead? If the past collaboration between Pope Francis and Archbishop Fernandez is any indication, the new approach will affirm traditional Catholic moral teachings, while opening the door to possible exceptions. Dan Hitchens, in First Things, points to Amoris Laetitia as an example of a papal document “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.

In the first interview he granted after his DDF appointment was announced, Archbishop Fernandez applied the same sort of logic to the question of church blessings for same-sex couples. After strenuously insisting on the principle that the Church cannot recognize a homosexual relationship as a marriage, he allowed that “if a blessing is given in such a way that it does not cause confusion, it will have to be analyzed and confirmed.” So the door seems open to church blessings—just as, in Amoris Laetitia it is open to the reception of Communion by couples in invalid marriages.

And what other moral laws might be compromised by the DFF, under the leadership of a prelate committed to this sort of “pastoral” approach? How many Catholics will be encouraged to think that a universal moral law does not apply to my particular situation?

Ten long years ago, Pope Francis encouraged young Catholics from Argentina to “make a mess.” Now he has brought a model of youthful indiscretion to Rome, to make a mess of Catholic moral doctrine.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: FrHughM - Jul. 20, 2023 4:24 AM ET USA

    AL Ch. 8 text seems to me to confirm Dan Hitchens' speculation. That was the point that that in many ways thought-provoking chapter, went clearly over the line. Humanly speaking they are gearing up to change Church teaching - I'd imagine first step would dropping the CCC "intrinsically disordered" description of same-sex attraction. Sack cloth and ashes indeed.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 19, 2023 10:52 PM ET USA

    For all of my life as a catechist until 10 years ago, I could make the claim that the Vatican had my back when I explained or defended a speculative or moral doctrine. That ended with a bang: "Who am I to judge?" As you implied, if the DDF is not the primary organ to judge the orthodoxy of dogmatic and moral doctrines, then who is? The reality for the last 10 years has been misdirection. What has been our experience is condemnation after condemnation after condemnation of the orthodox faithful.

  • Posted by: Northern Digger - Jul. 19, 2023 8:15 PM ET USA

    When we get to the point where we are now, a rock & a hard place, there is only one banner to unfurl: “PRAY for the HOLY FATHER!” Have MERCY on us o LORD!

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Jul. 19, 2023 3:17 AM ET USA

    PF's letter to Fernandez reads like a letter from Uncle Screwtape to Wormwood. Who could have imagined such corrupt sophistry in the Vatican? Yet PF seems to have the acquiescence if not full support of many Catholics. O Lord, to whom shall I go?

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Jul. 18, 2023 7:14 PM ET USA

    We must pray that these misguided men not be allowed by the Holy Spirit to wreak havoc in the Catholic Church! And that the confusion they will (and hav already) sown will be undone quickly once they’re gone.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Jul. 18, 2023 6:03 PM ET USA

    Thus, the best strategy to destroy Christian morality is not to attack it directly, because such a direct attack would force orthodox, but cowardly members of the clergy, to speak out and resist. The best strategy is to attack it indirectly by seeding confusion, therefore providing an excuse to thee members of the clergy to be silent and look the other way. Sadly, this appears to be the strategy of the current pontificate. May God have mercy on the Church!

  • Posted by: IM4HIM - Jul. 18, 2023 3:01 PM ET USA

    The use of rationalization, or finding loopholes in the truth, has been practiced ever since the serpent tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, but now it's called "development of doctrine".

  • Posted by: padre3536 - Jul. 18, 2023 12:49 PM ET USA

    Yes, let us put on sackcloth and ashes