Pope Francis has appointed Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández as a member of the Dicastery for Legislative Texts, the Vatican department charged with authoritatively interpreting canon law, despite the pope’s September decision to excuse the cardinal from participating in his own department’s most sensitive legal work.
Cardinal Fernández’s appointment was announced in the daily Vatican news bulletin on Oct. 20. The appointment comes after Fernández was created a cardinal by Pope Francis in September, and assumed the role of prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in the same month.
While it is customary for DDF prefects to serve on the council, Fernández’s nomination is unusual. At the time of his appointment as DDF prefect, Pope Francis specifically urged him to focus on doctrinal matters and to leave the department’s legal work overseeing major canonical crimes in the hands of “competent professionals.”
On the day Fernández took office, Pope Francis also granted a special dispensation from the DDF’s governing regulations, exempting the cardinal prefect from the responsibility of chairing or attending regular departmental meetings to decide canonical cases of sexual abuse handled by the dicastery.
The Dicastery for Legislative Texts, previously known as the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, was created out of the commission for the reform of the Code of Canon Law which was charged with revising the Church’s universal legal code in the years following Vatican Council II.
According to the apostolic constitution governing the Roman curia, Predicate Evangelium, the legislative department “promotes and encourages in the Church the understanding and acceptance of the canon law” and “formulates the authentic interpretation of the Church’s laws” with papal approval.
Bishops from around the world, individually and through bishops’ conferences, regularly write to the dicastery asking for clarification on the meaning of particular laws, or questioning the correct way to apply them.
The dicastery also assists all other Vatican departments in the drafting of decrees, instructions, and other documents with legal force to ensure their compliance with universal canon law.
Heads of other Vatican departments, especially senior ones like the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, are often named as members of the Dicastery for Legislative Texts, including those who are not necessarily canon lawyers.
On the name day that Fernández was appointed to the DLT, Pope Francis also named Cardinal Lazzaro You Heung-sik, prefect of the Dicastery for the Clergy, as a member though Cardinal You is also not a canonist.
Fernández’s appointment to the legal department is singular, however, in that the pope has made clear the cardinal is to stay clear of his department’s canonical section.
The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith is charged with overseeing doctrinal matters throughout the universal Church, but also handles all legal processes by which instances of abuse of minors and crimes against the sacraments are investigated, prosecuted, and judged.
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.
The disciplinary 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.
Francis’ instruction to Fernández to leave the canonical work of his own department in the hands of “competent professionals” went beyond an exhortation in the cardinal’s letter of appointment, however.
On Sept. 11, Pope Francis signed a derogation from the DDF’s operations regulations, obtained by The Pillar, excusing Fernández from leading and even attending regular meetings of the disciplinary section when it meets to discuss and decide cases of clerical sexual abuse.
While Fernández still attends and chairs weekly meetings of the disciplinary section on cases involving crimes against the sacraments, when the section meets to decide on cases of abuse of minors, the Secretary for the Disciplinary Section chairs the meeting and Fernández is not to attend.
Even more unusually, the prefect has no input into the department’s decisions on abuse cases. Instead, by special papal delegation, the section’s secretary informs Fernández of the section’s decisions after the fact.
The papal change to the DDF’s legal section and the effective sidelining of the prefect from cases clerical sexual abuse followed considerable criticism of Fernandez’s suitability for the role of DDF prefect.
While the previous five prefects of the dicastery, Cardinals Ladaria, Müller, Levada, Ratzinger, and Šeper, were also not canon lawyers, they still oversaw the disciplinary section’s work and led its meetings.
Unlike his predecessors, Fernández’s faced particular criticism over his record handling of abuse cases in his previous office of Archbishop of La Plata, in Argentina.
Shortly after his appointment was announced in July, the website BishopAccountability.org 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.
Fernández himself has publicly acknowledged his lack of legal training and said he initially turned down Francis’ nomination to the DDF, saying in an interview in July that “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.”
“I am not a canonist,” Fernández said, “and in fact when I arrived in La Plata I had little idea of how to deal with these issues.”
Despite this own frank assessment of his canonical abilities, and his having been excused from overseeing his own department’s most sensitive legal matters, Cardinal Fernández will now help steer the Vatican department charged with issuing authoritative legal interpretations across the universal Church.