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Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández has had a difficult first four months as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF). 

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Pope Francis and Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández. Image via Sky.it

Taking over the role in September, the pope’s pick for the doctrinal department started by being effectively sidelined from half of the dicastery’s remit, after the pope excused him — some would say excluded him — from playing any part in its handling of clerical sexual abuse cases.

Since then, Fernández has had to weather repeated questions about his suitability for the role in the light of his previous writings, and overseen the highly contentious rollout of a declaration on blessings for couples in same-sex or irregular relationships.

While rumors of the cardinal offering Pope Francis his resignation are almost certainly overblown, Fernández has become a lightning rod for criticism and controversy, drawing often unwelcome attention to a department which has kept a lower profile under the current pope.

At the same time, many of the cardinal’s strongest critics and fiercest defenders share a common assessment that Fernández is doing what Francis intended with the role — pushing boundaries and leading a bold, even radical push to embed the pope’s pastoral vision into the Church’s teaching.

But was that what Pope Francis wanted when he named Fernández to the role? 

Not necessarily, according to some working in the Vatican and in the papal orbit. 

Indeed, as some tell it, Fernández wasn’t the pope’s preference for the job at all, and his appointment was a gamble which, some say, doesn’t appear to be paying off.

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When then-Archbishop Fernández was announced as the incoming prefect of the DDF last summer, many Vatican commentators hailed the selection as a bold and in some ways obvious choice by Pope Francis. 

A fellow Argentine, friend, and longtime collaborator of Francis, “Tucho,” as he’s known to friends, seemed a natural fit to cement the pope’s curial overhaul at the DDF, after the promulgation of the apostolic constitution Praedicate evangelium in 2022.  

And as the often-credited ghostwriter of some of the pope’s most talked about texts, including the most controversially received passages of Amoris laetitia, some Church watchers confidently claimed that Fernández had always been in the papal mind, as the man to convert the DDF from doctrinaire thought police into a forward-thinking pastoral think tank. 

But that sense of inevitably around Fernández’s appointment overlooked previously adamant predictions that the role was going elsewhere. 

In December 2022, the Vatican rumor mill went into overdrive that Pope Francis was poised to name Germany’s Bishop Heimer Wilmer to lead the DDF. 

In a pattern that has repeated itself more than once during the Francis pontificate, Vatican blogs broke news of the plan, which met with furious criticism from some quarters, before being defended by staunch supporters of the pope, only to then never materialize.

In between, Wilmer’s supposedly pending appointment was reported widely and with enough confidence that senior cardinals, including the then-incumbent prefect Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer S.J., were said to have raised concerns with the pope personally, according to Vatican sources.

After the non-event of Wilmer’s non-appointment, some Vatican watchers claimed that a furious backlash from a critical mass of the College of Cardinals had scared Francis off his decision; others argued that Wilmer was never a serious contender for the job at all, but that Francis had cannily used his name to draw fire and make his eventual actual preference for Fernández appear less controversial.

Absent an unburdening of the papal mind, we will probably never know how close Wilmer came to being the pope’s actual choice to lead the DDF. 

But the idea that his candidacy was floated to clear the way for Fernández seems implausible — Francis does not have the reputation of a pope who cares much about upsetting so-called conservative opinion once he’s made his mind up.

But some senior figures close to the appointment process have told The Pillar that Francis was sincerely open to the idea of naming Wilmer and was convinced against the idea by the weight of the negative feedback he received.

“The pope did not want to cause a fight with any appointment,” said a senior curial official close to the DDF. “He has a vision for how he wishes to see the dicastery work, but it does not involve creating conflict.”

The same source told The Pillar that Francis is concerned to see his style and vision of pastoral care “received” across the Church, but that this goal would be best served through “sensitive” presentation which did not create or exacerbate division. 

With that in mind, sources told The Pillar, while Fernández was an obvious candidate in that he is attuned to the pope’s thinking and priorities, he was not Francis’ first or only choice for DDF prefect. And that, far from courting controversy, the pope had actually preferred someone who could act as a steadying force at the doctrinal office.

“In fact, Pope Francis was convinced the right man for the role was Cardinal [Joseph] Tobin [of Newark],” one senior source at the Secretariat of State told The Pillar

The official with knowledge of the pope’s apparent preference said that Cardinal Tobin was preferred because of his record as a prelate who could speak to sensitive pastoral issues while steering clear of episcopal partisan divisions — pointing to the USCCB’s public and at times acrimonious dispute over the issue of “Eucharistic coherence,” from which Tobin remained largely aloof.

But, the senior official said, Francis in the end decided against appointing Tobin to the DDF because he preferred to keep him as a senior figure in the United States.

“[The pope said] ‘It should be Tobin, I know it should.’ But he said he ‘needs’ him in America.” 

The same source said Tobin’s continued voice in the US bishops’ conference was one consideration, but that the pope was primarily concerned with the cardinal being available to move to the Archdiocese of Washington in the medium term. The current archbishop in the American capital, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, is 76.

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“[Cardinal Fernández] was not the pope’s final preference, but he chose him because [without Tobin] he could work with [Fernández] well, as they have, and other issues could be resolved.”

The same source pointed to Fernández’s sidelining from the DDF’s clerical abuse caseload as a matter of preempting criticism of the cardinal’s handling of cases in the Archdiocese of La Plata. 

“The Holy Father does not want a mess [on abuse cases], and he does not want to create accusations of making a mess.”

But if Fernández’s selection to lead the DDF was something of a calculated bet, offsetting the benefits of his closeness to the pope’s thinking against his potential liabilities, it increasingly appears to have been a miscalculation.

The issuing of the pre-Christmas decree Fiducia supplicans caused instant and global divisions to open among the College of Bishops, with entire conferences and even continents appearing to reject both its theological premises and its application outright, while others immediately sought to apply the document beyond its own stated limits.

Fernández was forced to undertake first a lightning round of explanatory interviews to try to calm the controversy, before issuing a five-page press release seeking to offer the kind of detailed interpretive guidance of the text he’d previously said would not be forthcoming.

In Rome itself, Fiducia supplicans has also caused problems. Cardinal Arthur Roche, prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship, is said to have complained that his department was not consulted on the text, its publication, or how it is to be applied, and that widely reported examples of priests appearing to bless same-sex unions have created a headache for his department.

To make matters worse for Fernández, his ability to bring his first big project under control has been further hampered by the resurfacing of a 1998 book he wrote while still a priest. 

That text, “Mystical Passion,” an often graphic meditation on sexuality and spirituality, has again forced the cardinal to distance himself from his own previous work, saying publicly that he would not write such a thing now, and he did not support its continued circulation.

Apart from criticisms of the text itself, the book has also raised new questions about Fernández’s suitability for his role as prefect, since it in some parts questions the culpable sinfulness of extra-marital sex acts and in others advances a potentially problematic sexualization of spirituality.

But, as Fernández faces significant personal headwinds, the more pressing concern for Pope Francis may be what his DDF prefect’s serial crises mean for his own legacy.

At 87, Pope Francis is, by any reasonable expectation, into the later years of his pontificate. If his primary concern in naming a DDF prefect was to cement his theological vision, ensuring that it will outlast his own time in office, Fernández may be on course to effect the opposite.

More than any other pope, Francis has diversified the College of Cardinals, preferring to name prelates from what he calls the “global peripheries.” Ironically though, it is in many of the peripheral regions, especially Africa, that opposition to Fiducia supplicans has been most keenly expressed, along with criticism of Fernández.

Far from bedding in Francis’ legacy, his increasingly scandal-prone DDF prefect may end up creating a backlash to it. In that event, it becomes a question how long Francis will be willing to keep even a longtime friend and collaborator in office.

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