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A question of ‘discipline’: Is Archbishop Fernández up to the DDF job?

Following his appointment Saturday as the new prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Francis’ choice of Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández faced immediate criticism. 

While much of the reaction to Fernández’s appointment has concerned his theological writing and engagement with issues like blessings for same-sex couples, some has focused on his canonical qualifications and experience handling accusations of clerical sexual abuse.

Piazza del Sant Uffizio sign in Rome. Credit: Peter Probst / Alamy.

As the incoming head of the DDF, beginning in September, Archbishop Fernández will lead the Vatican department charged with overseeing doctrinal matters, but also the legal processes by which instances of abuse of minors are investigated, prosecuted, and judged.

But while some commentators have noted Fernández’s lack of canonical qualifications and the criticism of his record as a local bishop, what is actually expected of the prefect in matters of discipline, and is he actually underqualified for the role?


At the time of Fernández’s appointment, the Holy See took the unusual step of publishing Pope Francis’ letter of appointment to the archbishop, in which the pope said the “Given that for disciplinary matters - especially related to the abuse of minors - a specific Section has recently been created with very competent professionals, I ask you as prefect to dedicate your personal commitment more directly to the main purpose of the Dicastery which is ‘keeping the faith’.”

The pope was referencing his own reform of the dicastery last year, in which he enlarged the department so that both its doctrinal and disciplinary sections now have an archbishop secretary responsible for overseeing each half of the dicastery’s work, with both secretaries reporting to the cardinal prefect of the entire congregation.

Previously, the then-congregation had only one secretary, who functioned like a departmental COO or a general manager, overseeing both sections, with the help of an undersecretary on each side. 

The disciplinary section of the DDF is charged with overseeing the Church’s canonical prosecution of graviora delicta, or “grave crimes” in canon law. Those crimes include most instances of clerical sexual abuse. But they also include certain acts of sacrilege against the Eucharist, violating the seal of confession, or concelebrating the Eucharist — or even attempting to — with non-Catholic priests or ministers.

The section’s workload has exploded over the last two decades. With the Church, especially in Latin and North America, grappling with revelations of decades of abuse of minors and the failure of local bishops to address instances of abuse according to canonical norms, in 2001 Pope St. John Paul II made it a legal requirement that all cases of abuse of minors had to be sent immediately to the DDF.

Since then, every allegation of abuse of a minor has had to be sent to the DDF, with the disciplinary section either handling the case itself, or authorizing local dioceses to investigate and proceed with a canonical process, while the DDF reviews the final result.

Fernández himself appeared to frankly acknowledge his lack of canonical training for overseeing that aspect of the DDF’s work — and how seriously he takes it — in an interview Tuesday, saying he’d previously declined the job for that very reason.

“The first time [Pope Francis] offered me this position, I answered no, first of all because I did not consider myself suitable to lead the work in the disciplinary area,” Fernández told the Spanish-language outlet InfoVaticana

“I am not a canonist,” he went on, “and in fact when I arrived in [the archdiocese of] La Plata I had little idea of ​​how to deal with these issues.”

But while handling cases of abuse of minors is one of the most sensitive aspects of the dicastery’s remit, it’s also the work of a highly specialized and trained set of officials, even if they are understaffed relative to their workload. 

It’s not the case that the prefect is ordinarily called upon to weigh in on the progress of individual cases, or pass judgment on their results. When the dicastery does have to make a final decision, it’s either taken as a vote among a college of the wider cardinal-members of the dicastery or through a special Apostolic Tribunal, with expert judges appointed to hear the case.

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As a rule, prefects of the department are usually theologians, not canonists — reflecting Francis’ observation that the department’s primary remit is “keeping the faith,” and the reliance on the specialists of the disciplinary section to know their field best. 

Indeed, while some commentators might debate the merits of Fernández's work and publishing history as a theologian, the notion that his not being a trained canonist makes him somehow unqualified for the job of prefect doesn’t seem to hold water.

Fernández’s immediate predecessor, Cardinal Luis Ledaria Ferrer, was also not a trained canonist, and yet he had oversight of the disciplinary section’s work for fifteen years, first as secretary of the DDF — a role he was appointed to by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 — and later as prefect.

In fact, the five previous DDF prefects, Cardinals Ladaria, Müller, Levada, Ratzinger, and Šeper, have not arrived to the job with a canonical degree. The last prefect to have formal legal training was Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, who retired in 1968.

Of course, the work of the DDF’s relatively new responsibilities for handling cases of abuse of minors has made the disciplinary section of its work much more prominent in recent years, and many predicted that Ladaria’s eventual successor could be a canonist — specifically Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, adjunct secretary of the dicastery and the department’s former chief prosecutor.

But even with the renewed scrutiny of the DDF’s disciplinary work, many within the dicastery itself, as well as senior cardinals in and around Rome, were known to be unhappy at the idea of a lawyer, rather than a theologian, serving as prefect. 

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Apart from his academic qualifications, Fernández has faced criticism for his personal record on handling abuse cases, too. 

Shortly after his appointment was announced, the website criticized the archbishop’s appointment and expressing “great concern” over his “recent handling of a clergy sex abuse case in his home archdiocese,” in which the site claimed Fernández “publicly defended” a priest facing multiple accusations of abuse who later committed suicide. 

The archbishop and the La Plata archdiocese have denied that characterization, and insisted that Fernández has always said that alleged abuse victims should be believed as a matter of principle, but that he acted as archbishop to restrict accused priests’ ministry in line with canonical due process and as details of each case were made known to him.

But even taking the criticism at face value, and without trying to parse the details of individual cases, the archbishop will not be the first prefect at the DDF to face questions about his record as a diocesan bishop: Under Benedict XVI, the American Cardinal William Levada was appointed in 2005 to succeed the newly elected pope as head of the then-CDF. But Levada has also faced significant criticism over his own handling of individual cases in his former dioceses of Portland and San Francisco. 

In his interview Wednesday, Fernández described his experience in learning to deal with abuse allegations and called the situation “complex.” 

“It is complex because in principle one has to believe those who present accusations of child abuse, one must believe them, and on the other hand one cannot convict the priest without due process, which requires time,” the archbishop said. “And in the middle come all the claims to which one has to respond by saying as little as possible so as not to interfere.”

As Archbishop of La Plata, Fernández said he “let [himself] be guided by the canonists and I was learning, but with enormous suffering for fear of being unfair to one or the other. You imagine that having to go to Rome to take care of that was torture.”

His reluctance to assume ultimate responsibility for the Church’s disciplinary function worldwide to one side, as a basic statement of how he relates to the canonical process for handling abuse allegations, the new prefect’s comments will likely strike many canonists and diocesan chancery officials as reasonable — even sympathetic. 

In apparently proven cases of abuse of minors, there is an understandable impatience among local Catholics and survivors advocates with dioceses appearing to take too long to act definitively out of respect for canonical due process. 

At the same time, the rush by many dioceses to publicize allegations against priests while removing them from ministry, before any actual process has reached a conclusion, has contributed to a breakdown in trust between local clergy and their bishops.

Steering a middle road between the two has been a task many dioceses, especially in the United States, have struggled to manage. 

Last year, the DDF issued an updated handbook on handling allegations of clerical sexual abuse of minors which harmonized its standing guidance with recent revisions by the pope to canon law. 

But the text also highlighted the distance still remaining between the Vatican’s preferred legal praxis and the methods used by dioceses. It especially warned against bishops turning the initial phases of receiving and investigating an allegation into a kind of summary judgment against an accused priest.

“Statements [on allegations] should be brief and concise, avoiding clamorous announcements, refraining completely from any premature judgment about the guilt or innocence of the person accused,” the DDF’s handbook says. 

At least going by what he has said so far, the new head of the dicastery would seem to be at least familiar with his own department’s best practice on the subject of handling abuse allegations, which is by no means something that can be assumed of every diocesan bishop or archbishop, from any theological camp. 

While some might have preferred a prefect more explicitly qualified to ultimately oversee the working of the Church’s most sensitive legal section, at least on the information we have now, Fernández seems no less qualified for the job than his recent predecessors.

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