Barely six months into his term as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández has certainly made his mark on his office.
In the opening months of his tenure, the cardinal has scarcely been out of the news, and his department has once again become the focus of Vatican affairs.
But is the cardinal overseeing a reborn DDF, one climbing back to its former perch as “la Suprema” in the Roman pecking order — or is he a one-man movement, stepping on toes and overstepping departmental boundaries?
Whether it is fielding criticism of his past published works, issuing — then clarifying — a declaration on the blessing of people in same-sex unions, reminding the Church at large about his department’s disciplinary remit, or issuing admonishments about sacramental abuses, Fernández has made more headlines since September than his predecessor in an entire term of office.
In making waves, the cardinal has also catapulted the DDF back to the forefront of Vatican departmental life, something few would have expected two years ago, when Pope Francis promulgated his apostolic constitution Praedicate evangelium, which reorganized the Vatican curia.
At the time that text was published, much was made by Vatican-watchers of the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s supposed downgrading from “la Suprema” to just another curial department, third in order of precedence behind the Secretariat of State and the Dicastery for the Evangelization.
The new subdued DDF would be more at the service of other dicasteries, so the thinking went, and adopt a more responsive posture to dioceses from around the world, offering them help when asked, rather than handing down its pronouncement from the Roman hilltop.
For a while, that seemed to be the new normal. Despite increasingly regular letters of concern, the DDF seemed unable to assert itself on matters of doctrine, especially in the face of the German synodal way. On discipline, departments like the Dicastery for Bishops and the Dicastery for Clergy began to feature more in the day-to-day conversations which mattered.
In the wake of Vos estis lux mundi, the bishops’ dicastery emerged as the new de facto reference point for headline disciplinary cases, while the Dicastery for Clergy also saw the visibility of its caseload enhanced by the normalization of its previously “special faculties” to laicize priests who deserted ministry, and with the new expanded legal definition of “vulnerable adults” in abuse cases.
And following the promulgation of Traditionis custodes, Francis’ motu proprio severely curtailing the celebration of the extraordinary form, it was the Dicastery for Divine Worship under Cardinal Arthur Roche that became known as the pope’s enforcement arm — issuing instructions and rescripts limiting the discretion and governing authority of local bishops.
But fast forward a few short years, and the DDF under Fernández is back at the center of every Roman conversation and controversy.
But is la Suprema really back? Or is the new prefect setting an unsustainable pace for himself and his team, and stepping on too many toes into the bargain?
Sources close to the Dicastery for Divine Worship tend towards the latter interpretation, telling The Pillar that the Vatican’s liturgical office has had little or no notice, or cooperation, from the DDF on its most notable publications to date.
Fiducia supplicans, the DDF declaration on the “pastoral meaning of blessings” took many in the DDW by surprise and, several curial officials have since told The Pillar, created headaches for the liturgical department in the immediate aftermath.
“It was a shock,” one official close to the liturgy dicastery said, “and quickly followed by an avalanche of questions and problems no one [at the DDF] apparently thought to ask about beforehand, but were entirely foreseeable.”
The official, who asked not to be identified, citing likely disciplinary action for speaking to press without authorization, said that the divine worship office was immediately confronted with examples of “pseudo-liturgical blessings” being performed by priests in the days after Fiducia supplicans, as well as wholesale pushback from the bishops of Africa.
“Anyone could have seen that coming,” the official said, “but no one thought to ask.”
Within days, Cardinal Fernández issued a clarification on the declaration, offering specific a do-and-don’t list for blessings of couples in same-sex relationships, and rowing back the DDF’s previously strong language, which appeared to limit the prerogative of local bishops to regulate such blessings.
More recently, the DDF published a lengthy document on the valid and licit celebration of the sacraments. Again, the topic is relevant to the Dicastery for Divine Worship, and again, Fernández apparently chose not to put the text out for consultation.
“[The Dicastery for Divine Worship] are meeting for [the annual] plenaria this week, perhaps it would have been better if [Cardinal] Roche had invited Cardinal Bigfoot [Fernández] to chair it,” the Vatican official sarcastically suggested.
“At least then people might have an idea what’s actually coming up next.”
Complaints about a lack of consultation on recent DDF publications go beyond the divine worship office, however. Crucially, they include the Secretariat of State. Officials close to that department, which is meant to act as the coordinating hub of Vatican interdepartmental business according to Praedicate evangelium, also complain of a lack of “collegiality” by the newly active DDF.
“Cardinal Fernández doesn’t wait in line,” one official told The Pillar, “and he doesn’t ask for anyone’s opinion except the pope’s, which he solicits directly and personally.”
The same official described Fernández as “clearly enjoying the pope’s favor” despite the controversy he has generated. While those close to the papal appointment process have previously spoken about Fernández not being Francis’ first choice for the role, the official noted that there is no question the pontiff considers the cardinal a loyal ally.
“I think it says something that everything [Fernández] does is framed as supporting the pope’s personal wishes or ‘magisterium’,” the official said. “It may be about securing the pope’s approval, or ensuring his support when there is a reaction. Either way, it works for him.”
But another curial official told The Pillar that Fernández’ habit of cutting other departments out of the usual channels of consultation could generate a backlash.
“The Secretariat [of State] isn’t as all-powerful as it once was,” the official said, “but neither is the DDF.”
“There’s a sense that Fernández is a bit insecure in his shoes, that he doesn’t want feedback on his work and takes criticism or feedback as a personal reflection on his abilities. It’s not how things have traditionally worked [around the curia].”
“Sooner or later, the empire is going to strike back,” the official predicted.
But if the new way of doing things at the DDF is ruffling feathers in other departments, it’s not clear that staff at the doctrinal department are enjoying the publicity.
One senior cleric close to the DDF described stress levels among staffers as “roughly a 15” on a scale from one to 10.
The same source reported morale in the disciplinary section of the department, from which Cardinal Fernández has been specially exempted by the pope, as operating at “near zero,” while the department is dealing with an already large caseload, together with increased public criticism over cases like that of Fr. Marko Rupnik, and without the traditional support which comes when an involved prefect acts as champion.
On the other side of the department, the same source described Fernández’s involvement in the doctrinal section as “indefatigable.”
“He seems to want to prove himself to the office, maybe the whole Vatican,” the official said. “But no one knows what he might do next.”
The picture that emerges, both around the curia and within the DDF, is of a cardinal with the papal ear and on a personal mission, rather than a prefect rebuilding the status and influence of his department.
But what that mission is, exactly, remains a mystery.
Some speculate Fernández is working flat out to entrench the 87-year-old pope’s legacy ahead of an inevitable future conclave.
Others see a man trying to prove himself in the Church’s top theological job, both driven and hampered by personal insecurity.
A third party sees in Fernández a cardinal who simply likes being the center of attention, giving more interviews in six months than many of his predecessors ever did in their entire terms of office, and reveling in his own controversy and delighting in his place within the papal inner circle.
Which is he? That’s not clear. But whichever he may eventually prove to be, few dispute Fernández has quickly made himself the biggest beast in the Vatican jungle.