Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández gave another eye-catching interview this week, dedicated to one of the most controversial aspects of his work.
In the Oct. 10 conversation with the Spanish website Religión Digital, the new prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) spoke about his department’s responsibility for clerical abuse cases.
The interview took place in the context of the synod on synodality, in which the newly minted cardinal is an active participant. This week, the assembly elected him as a member of the synod’s information commission, representing Latin America.
The vote could be read as an endorsement of the communication skills that Fernández has shown since his appointment as DDF prefect was announced in July. In more than 20 interviews, he has tackled even the most sensitive theological issues, appearing to signal that the Fernández era will be marked by candor and openness.
The cardinal — who is nicknamed “Tucho” after the Argentine soccer legend Norberto Méndez — gave the new interview in the wake of a protest in Rome in which victims called for his removal as doctrinal chief because of his record on handling abuse cases in his native Argentina.
Religión Digital’s José Manuel Vidal said that the interview sought to address a perception that the DDF’s disciplinary section — which oversees abuse cases — has been weakened following the publication of a document reorganizing the dicastery’s inner workings.
The text — signed by Pope Francis Sept. 11, the day that Fernández formally took up his position at the DDF — set out the requirements for the regular meetings involving the prefect and members of the dicastery’s two sections: Doctrinal and disciplinary.
The document seemed to formalize a provision that Pope Francis made in his July 1 letter. The pope wrote: “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.’”
That prompted commentators who worried that the Vatican’s commitment to child protection was already flagging to ask whether the disciplinary section risked being reduced to an afterthought.
In the new interview, Fernández was at pains to stress the section’s professionalism.
“I can assure you that the dicastery’s disciplinary section has very good professionals who work very rigorously,” he said. “I am close to them, not to interfere in their work, but to support them so that they work freely and without pressure.”
“I offer them whatever they need and in fact the disciplinary section will continue to have many more officers than the doctrinal section, as well as the resources they need.”
Fernández also addressed the vexed question of the dicastery’s relationship with the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. The 2022 Vatican constitution described the commission as being “established within the dicastery,” but it was not immediately clear what this meant in practice.
The cardinal insisted that the commission “has autonomy and refers to the Holy Father,” though it is under the dicastery’s umbrella.
“We have the specific task of imparting justice in cases of abuse,” he noted. “However, I believe that this dicastery can collaborate with them and with the other bodies of the Holy See in delving deeper into the causes of pedophilia. Delivering justice is essential, but it is even more important to prevent others from having to suffer the same tragedy in the future.”
Fernández also sought to push back against the idea that he was so absorbed with theological matters that he was disconnected from the disciplinary section’s work.
“They keep me informed and I constantly encourage them to impart justice with conviction,” he said. “But I have the peace of mind of seeing that they work very well and keep a steady hand. I can assure you of that and I do not think it is advisable for a theologian to interfere in their specifically canonical work.”
The widely read Italian Catholic website Il Sismografo said that Fernández was reiterating what he said after his appointment in July: That he would focus on the doctrinal side of the prefect’s role, while allowing specifically qualified officials to handle the disciplinary side.
But the website argued that there was one topic on which the “talkative” cardinal was silent: The scandal surrounding the mosaic artist Fr. Marko Ivan Rupnik, in which the dicastery has played a notable role. Rupnik, who faces numerous of allegations of spiritual and sexual abuse, was briefly excommunicated for attempting to absolve a sexual partner.
Il Sismografo lamented that Fernández had missed the chance “to clarify once and for all the question of the excommunication imposed by his dicastery and then, within two weeks, revoked by the same.”
“His silence on the Rupnik case confirms: This question is forbidden in the Vatican,” the website said.
In certain respects, Fernández has brought a new transparency to the role of doctrinal prefect. In the barrage of interviews after his appointment, he showed a willingness that’s rare among Vatican officials to muse publicly on some of the Church’s most controverted questions.
In this, he is strikingly different from his immediate predecessor, the reserved Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, though arguably similar to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who served a high-profile term as the Vatican’s doctrine czar from 1981 until his election as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
But will the frankness that Fernández brings to doctrinal issues also be extended to disciplinary matters?
Here, the dicastery seems no more communicative than before. One current example may suffice: That of Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard. French media reported last month that the dicastery had imposed restrictions on the retired prelate, following his admission that he had abused a 14-year-old girl in 1987.
More than two weeks after the initial report, there has been no official confirmation of the restrictions, which could prove highly controversial as they reportedly permit Ricard to exercise public ministry in the diocese where he lives, but not elsewhere. Ricard also seems to remain eligible to vote in a future conclave until his 80th birthday in September 2024.
If one case doesn’t suffice, then how about that of Belgium’s Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, who stood down as the Bishop of Bruges in 2010 after admitting to abusing a nephew? He remains in the priesthood despite repeated attempts by the Belgian bishops to jolt the Vatican into further action, most recently in November during their ad limina visit to Rome. The Vatican has made no public comment on the matter.
Concern at the lack of transparency is clearly shared in some parts of the Vatican. In its recent “call to action,” the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors said bluntly that “we are long overdue in fixing the flaws in procedures that leave victims wounded and in the dark both during and after cases have been decided.”
Perhaps Fernández would dismiss the suggestion that his department should communicate with equal openness about disciplinary cases as it does doctrinal ones. He could always tell himself that his mandate is to focus on theological matters, and it is up to the experts to determine what (if anything) should be shared with Catholics in the pews about disciplinary cases. Alternatively, he might believe that ultimately this is for Pope Francis to determine, not him.
In the new interview, Fernández stressed that he is constantly encouraging the DDF’s disciplinary section to “impart justice with conviction.” Yet as the old legal adage has it, justice must not only be done, but also be seen to be done.