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‘The growth of Catholic theology’ - Pope Francis’ doctrinal chief speaks

Earlier this month, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez as prefect of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith. 

The archbishop, an Argentine, had been since 2018 the Archbishop of La Plata, and was before that the rector of Argentina’s Catholic University — a role to which he was appointed by then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.

Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez with Pope Francis. Credit: Archbishop Fernandez via Twitter.

Widely regarded as the author of the 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, Fernandez has long been a close collaborator of the pope.

Since his July 1 appointment, Fernandez has made waves — because of comments on the possibility of same-sex liturgical blessings, his handling of abuse allegations, and because of “Heal me with your mouth,” a 1995 book the archbishop wrote on the subject of kissing.

Amid those waves, Pope Francis named Fernandez a cardinal July 9 — he will officially join the College of Cardinals in late September.

In an interview by email July 17, Fernandez offered his assessment of the moral landscape, and discussed his mandate in the Church, and his sense of the place and moment of Catholic theology.

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What, in your opinion, are the three or four central moral questions facing the Church at this moment in history? What is the role of the DDF in addressing them? What is the pope's approach to these issues?

If we talk only about morality, I would say these four:

1) The absolute primacy of grace and charity in Catholic moral theology.
2) The inalienable dignity of each human person, and the consequences of that.
3) The preferential option for the poor, the last, and those abandoned by society.
4) The individualistic, hedonistic and egocentric approaches to life that make the option for marriage, family and the common good difficult.

But we would be off to a bad start if we separated morality from theology. 

We should remember that for Francis, moral issues must be approached with the great announcement of the kerygma: a Father who loves us and who seeks our human fulfillment, reflected in a Christ who saved us, who saves us today, and now lives to communicate his new life to us.

In his letter to you on your appointment, Pope Francis said that previously, the [DDF], “rather than promoting theological knowledge, possible doctrinal errors were pursued. What I expect from you is certainly something very different,” something you have since called a “turning point.” 

However, Praedicate evangelium, also written by Pope Francis says that the DDF “works to ensure that errors and dangerous teachings circulating among the Christian people do not go without suitable rebuttal.”

These two documents seem to present different views of the role of the DDF in the safeguarding of doctrine. How do you think they can be reconciled? What is your approach to your appointment at the DDF?

Look, if you read the pope's letter carefully, it is clear that at no time does he say that the function of refuting errors should disappear. 

Obviously, if someone says that Jesus is not a real man or that all immigrants should be killed, that will require strong intervention.

But at the same time, that [intervention] can be an opportunity to grow, to enrich our understanding.

For example, in those cases, it would be necessary to accompany that person in their legitimate intention to better show the divinity of Jesus Christ, or it will be necessary to talk about some imperfect, incomplete or problematic immigration legislation.

In the letter, the pope says very explicitly that the dicastery has to "guard" the teaching of the Church. Only that at the same time – and this is his right – he asks me for a greater commitment to help the development of thought, such as when difficult questions arise, because growth is more effective than control. 

Heresies were eradicated better and faster when there was adequate theological development, and they spread and perpetuated when there were only condemnations.

But Francis also asks me to help collect the recent magisterium, and this evidently includes his own. It is part of what must be “guarded.”

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There seems to be increasing criticism of Veritatis splendor in the Church today, and even a desire to reexamine it. Why is that? How should it be addressed?

Veritatis splendor is a great document, powerfully solid. 

Obviously, it denotes a particular concern — to set certain limits. For this reason it is not the most adequate text to encourage the development of theology. In fact, over the last decades, tell me how many theologians can we name with the stature of Rahner, Ratzinger, Congar or Von Balthasar? 

Not even that which they call “liberation theology” has theologians at the level of Gustavo Gutiérrez. 

Something has gone wrong. 

There were controls, [but] not so much development.

Today perhaps a text will be needed that, collecting everything valuable from Veritatis splendor, has another style, another tone, which at the same time allows for encouraging the growth of Catholic theology, as Pope Francis asks of me.

What is the starting point of moral and pastoral theology? How does it begin?

The starting point of any theology is divine Revelation. 

But theology develops in concrete contexts. It is not the same to do theology in the middle of a war, [or] in a conversation with a filmmaker, [or] in a neighborhood full of starving children, or with a group of missionaries in Japan. 

So, although the starting point is Revelation, it is the inexhaustible Word that comes into contact and conversation with the most diverse human situations, and thus allows different aspects of its immeasurable mystery to emerge.

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You’ve spoken about your openness to investigating and possibly approving blessings for same-sex couples, so long as there is no confusion with marriage. And you have said that the DDF’s 2021 declaration on the same subject doesn’t “smell like Francis.”

You said that “it wouldn't be wrong to rethink [the document] in light of everything Pope Francis has taught us.'“

Still, it was Pope Francis who specifically authorized the 2021 statement. So how should Catholics understand the pope’s mind on this issue? Is it evolving, or has something in particular changed in the last two years? Does the approach of the Belgian bishops reflect the pope’s mind?

I said that it would not be bad to “rethink it,” nothing more. But an interview is not the most appropriate place to do that. 

I will have to talk to many people, and listen to the dicastery itself, pay attention to what comes up in the synod [on synodality], etc. 

But — not necessarily to contradict what that document says, but perhaps to enrich and expand it. 

On the other hand, there are expressions that are theologically correct but that can easily be misunderstood. For example, the expression “God does not bless sin” is certainly a phrase that Francis would not use so easily without making sure that respect is clear for what specific people might be experiencing.

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You’ve mentioned that Pope Francis told you that disciplinary matters, especially those pertaining to abuse cases, will be handled by the DDF’s team of experts, instead of by you directly, and that in the past that was the reason why you refused the post, as you did not feel prepared to handle abuse cases at such a high level. 

However, as prefect, the ultimate decisions will still go through your desk and through your approval and criteria. Even if you delegate this task completely, you will still be the ultimate responsible party.

Considering that you personally admitted to errors in handling abuse cases in La Plata, do you feel up to that task?

I will see what I will [be expected to] sign according to what the pope tells me, consistent with what we have already discussed. 

In any case, the prefects in general have not been canonists, and in these matters they give approval [by] trusting in the seriousness of the work of their collaborators.

To be precise, in a case from La Plata I did not admit “errors,” because I followed the procedures that were in force at that time, and always in consultation with the dicastery. What I admitted is having acted “insufficiently.” I could have done more, I could have taken the most drastic measures more quickly. In any case, you also learn from your own experience. Today we have better procedures than at that time and that makes things easier.

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How do you hope your appointment will serve the Church?

There will be nothing spectacular. I only have the certainty that each [person] that passes brings something of their own. I will leave something good behind.

How would you like Catholics to pray for you? What can they pray for?

I would like that they sincerely ask for the help of the Holy Spirit, not to do what I think, or what others think, but what responds to the will of the Lord and his plan. That prayer can be made by anyone, even someone who feels inclined to hate me. I’d be grateful [for that].

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