The controversial Argentine theologian Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández is the new prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The Vatican announced July 1 that the Archbishop of La Plata would succeed the 79-year-old Spanish Jesuit Cardinal Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer as head of the dicastery, as well as president of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the International Theological Commission. Fernández, who will take up the role in mid-September, is the first Latin American to serve as the dicastery’s prefect.
Since Francis’ election in 2013, Fernández has been known as an influential papal theological adviser. He has been described as the “ghostwriter” of several papal documents, including the 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, which sparked intense debate with its reference to the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion.
Alongside the announcement of the appointment, the Vatican released a July 1 letter from Pope Francis to the archbishop setting out his expectations for the new prefect.
The pope wrote: “I entrust to you, as the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, a task that I consider very valuable. Its central purpose is to safeguard the teaching that flows from the faith to ‘give reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns’ (Evangelii gaudium, 271).”
“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.”
The pope traced Fernández’s ecclesiastical career, beginning with his terms as dean of the Faculty of Theology of Buenos Aires, president of the Argentine Society of Theology, and president of the Argentine bishops’ faith and culture commission.
“As rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina you encouraged a healthy integration of knowledge,” the pope wrote. “On the other hand, you were the pastor of Santa Teresita and until now Archbishop of La Plata, where you knew how to put theological knowledge in dialogue with the life of the holy People of God.”
The pope noted that the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith is divided into two sections, one doctrinal and one disciplinary.
“Since a specific section has recently been created for disciplinary matters — especially related to the abuse of minors — with highly competent professionals, I ask you, as prefect, to dedicate your personal commitment more directly to the principal purpose of the dicastery, which is ‘to guard the faith,’” the pope wrote.
Citing his 2022 motu proprio Fidem servare, which modified the dicastery’s structure, Francis wrote: “So as not to limit the significance of this task, it should be added that it is a matter of ‘increasing the understanding and transmission of the faith in the service of evangelization, so that its light may be a criterion for understanding the meaning of existence, especially in the face of the questions posed by the progress of the sciences and the development of society.’”
“These questions, taken up in a renewed proclamation of the Gospel message, ‘become tools of evangelization,’ because they allow us to enter into conversation with ‘our present situation, which is in many ways unprecedented in the history of humanity.’”
The pope continued: “Moreover, you know that the Church ‘needs to grow in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of truth,’ without this implying the imposition of a single way of expressing it. For ‘differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow.’ This harmonious growth will preserve Christian doctrine more effectively than any mechanism of control.”
The pope exhorted Fernández to encourage theologians, provided that they are not content “with a desk-bound theology.”
“It will always be true that reality is superior to the idea. In this sense, we need theology to be attentive to a fundamental criterion: that of considering inadequate ‘all theological notions that ultimately call into question the very omnipotence of God, and his mercy in particular,’” he wrote, quoting from the International Theological Commission’s 2007 statement on limbo.
He added: “We need a way of thinking that can convincingly present a God who loves, who forgives, who saves, who liberates, who promotes people and calls them to fraternal service.”
“This happens if the proclamation concentrates ‘on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.’ You know well that there is a harmonious order among the truths of our message, where the greatest danger occurs when secondary issues end up overshadowing the central ones.”
“In the context of this richness, your task also implies a special care to verify that the documents of your own dicastery and others have an adequate theological foundation, are coherent with the rich soil of the Church’s perennial teaching, and at the same time embrace the recent Magisterium.”
Fernández was born July 18, 1962, in Alcira Gigena, Córdoba Province. He was ordained a priest in 1986 for the Diocese of Villa de la Concepción del Río Cuarto.
He studied theology at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University and gained a doctorate from the Faculty of Theology in Buenos Aires.
From 1993 to 2000, he was pastor of Santa Teresita in Río Cuarto, Córdoba province.
He took part in the Fifth Episcopal Conference of Latin America at Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007, helping to draft the influential final document.
Fernández served from 2008 to 2009 as the dean of the Faculty of Theology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina and president of the Argentine Theological Society.
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and future Pope Francis, nominated Fernández as rector of the university in 2009. The then Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reportedly raised questions about Fernández’s work before he was able to take up the role, which he held until 2018.
Francis named Fernández as the titular archbishop of Tiburnia on May 13, 2013, not long after his election, in a clear sign of his favor.
The archbishop took part in the stormy family synods of 2014 and 2015, serving in the drafting groups.
He was elected president of the Argentine bishops’ faith and culture commission in 2017. A year later, he was named Archbishop of La Plata, an archdiocese in Buenos Aires province with a population of around 900,000 Catholics.
Fernández is the author of more than 300 theological works, including the 1995 “Heal me with your mouth. The art of kissing,” which was not included on the list of his publications released July 1 by the Vatican.
The Holy See press office said that the archbishop’s writings were marked by “a significant biblical basis and a constant effort to create a dialogue between theology and culture, evangelizing mission, spirituality, and social issues.”
Cardinal Ladaria had served as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith since 2017, when he succeeded the German Cardinal Gerhard Müller. Ladaria generally kept a low profile compared with his predecessors, who included Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
Fernández posted a photograph of himself with Pope Francis on his Twitter account June 30. He wrote that he had had “shared a week” with the pope, who “works more hours than anyone else in the Vatican.”
He noted that Francis seemed tired after five hours of demanding duties, “but after the siesta he was perfect and happy.”
The pope is likely to appoint the 60-year-old as a cardinal, meaning that he would be eligbile to vote in a future conclave for the next two decades.