Since he was appointed Vatican doctrinal chief July 1, Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández has given at least 20 interviews.
One topic he has frequently addressed is the Catholic Church in Germany. That’s not surprising since German Catholicism has attracted substantial global attention since the launch of the country’s “synodal way” in 2019.
The initiative, which formally ended in March this year, brought together Germany’s bishops and select lay people to discuss far-reaching changes to Catholic teaching and practice.
Participants endorsed resolutions calling for women deacons, a re-examination of priestly celibacy, lay preaching at Masses, same-sex blessings, the revision of Catholic sexual morality, and greater recognition of “gender diversity.”
Perhaps the boldest proposal called for the creation of a permanent “synodal council” of bishops and lay people with decision-making powers extending across the Church in Germany. If the body were established, it would give the synodal way’s supporters an enduring institutional foothold.
But the synodal way repeatedly ran into opposition in Rome, led at times by Fernández’s predecessor as doctrinal prefect, Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer.
What has Fernández — who is also known by the nickname “Tucho” — said about the German Church in his rash of interviews? And do his comments signal a change in the Vatican’s line on the synodal way?
What he’s said
In his first interview, published July 5 by the Spanish website InfoVaticana, Fernández explained that he had been too busy serving as archbishop of the Argentine Archdiocese of La Plata since 2018 to follow the synodal way closely.
“Germans always attract attention, and in my style as archbishop there has been no such concern about ordaining women or things like that,” he said. “Obviously it is now up to me to catch up on the matter, to listen, to talk, to consult.”
He added that he did not dismiss the German movement out of hand.
“Once Cardinal Ladaria told me that he hoped there was some heretic who would force us to deepen our faith. This historical question will leave something good for us although it may be necessary to polish things, specify them, mature them,” Fernández said.
In an interview posted two days later with the German Church’s official news website Katholisch.de, Fernández underlined that he needed to familiarize himself with the synodal way’s demands.
“Because, from my point of view, it would be unwise and harmful to make assessments at the moment,” he said. “After all, I lived 12,000 kilometers [around 7,500 miles] away and have not yet spoken to those responsible.”
On July 8, the Spanish news agency EFE quoted Fernández as saying that “the Germans are smart enough not to cross a line” when it comes to Church unity and that “on the other hand, many of them have legitimate intentions and a goodwill.”
In a July 9 conversation with Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, Fernández was asked if he shared the synodal way’s contention that Catholic teaching on sexuality is “a set of ‘noes’ far removed from reality.”
“There is always the risk of turning morality into mere prohibitions, and this certainly will not make it attractive or convincing,” he replied. “It is always better to show first the beauty of the proposal, the goal, the ideal to be realized, the banquet that God serves us.”
Fernández then told Rome Reports in a July 13 interview that his approach to the synodal way would consist of “listening in order to understand the legitimate intentions behind the proposals and analyzing the various alternative paths that may respond, at least partially, to these concerns.”
In a July 16 interview with Spain’s Alfa y Omega, he said: “I believe that the question of the German synodal way is not completely closed as long as there is not some answer for the people of God in Germany, who are demanding more real space for women and other things to which it would not be bad to pay more attention.”
In an interview published the same day with the Spanish online newspaper La Gaceta de la Iberosfera, Fernández was asked where he would draw his “red lines.”
“I think there are legitimate concerns, and I want to understand them better,” he replied. “The attempt to create a synodal body that could parallel the German bishops’ conference or place itself above the dioceses would not be in keeping with the constitution of the Church.”
“Moreover, we know that Francis does not like excessive structures, and how he has always resisted that everything must become a canonical norm. Perhaps they still need to better understand the spirit of Francis. We all need to understand him better.”
In addition to these direct references to Germany, Fernández has been asked frequently about the doctrinal dicastery’s 2021 ruling on same-sex blessings, which many commentators believe was directed at Germany.
Summarizing his position in a July 17 interview with The Pillar, he said that it “would not be bad to ‘rethink it,’ nothing more.”
“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.,” he said. “But — not necessarily to contradict what that document says, but perhaps to enrich and expand it.”
Fernández’s five steps
Considering Fernández’s comments as a whole, it’s possible to sum up his stance on the German Church as follows.
First, he recognizes that he is not yet fully informed about the synodal way. But he is committed to examining it in detail after he begins his service as doctrinal prefect in September.
Second, he thinks that the initiative embodies certain “legitimate” intentions, specifically concerning the expansion of women’s role in the Church but perhaps also in other areas.
Third, he thinks that the synodal way’s agenda contains elements that are at odds with the Church’s self-understanding or would fail to lead to authentic renewal, such as the synodal council.
Fourth, he believes that through a process of “listening,” he will be able to discern what is good within the German movement and then consider “various alternative paths” to address the concerns, at least partially.
Fifth, he is confident that the movement’s leaders are “smart” enough not to allow the Church in Germany to plunge into schism.
Change or no change?
Read one way, Fernández seems to be signaling a significant change in approach to the synodal way.
According to this reading, the Vatican’s doctrinal chief will no longer view the German initiative primarily with suspicion, but rather as a somewhat misguided movement that nevertheless has the potential to inspire authentic reform.
Fernández will give the synodal way’s protagonists a fair hearing — something they have frequently accused Rome of denying them. And he will do so confident that the German initiative will not split the Church because it is led by reasonable people with good intentions.
But there is another way to read Fernández’s remarks: By stressing their continuity with the established Vatican line.
The cardinal-elect appears, for example, to dismiss outright the initiative’s “concern about ordaining women or things like that” — a major element of the German project.
In this, Fernández seems to be at one with his predecessor Cardinal Ladaria, who told the German bishops last November that the synodal way’s texts failed to do justice to Church teaching that priestly ordination is reserved to men.
Similarly, the cardinal-elect also rules out the proposed “synodal council,” a possibly indispensable mechanism for imposing the synodal way’s vision throughout the German Church. In that, he is also following Ladaria, who signed a letter in January saying that the synodal way had no authority to establish such a body.
But what about Fernández’s commitment to listening? Isn’t that new? Doesn’t it promise a new level of engagement between the Vatican and synodal way leaders?
Not necessarily. Although the Vatican has made repeated interventions in the synodal way, it has been careful to keep channels with the German bishops open.
Even what was arguably Rome’s most consequential move — the rejection of the synodal council — came with a promise that “the dicasteries of the Roman Curia … remain always open to the continuation of a more extensive and in-depth dialogue.”
Yet Fernández could seek to break with the current position in which the Vatican only discusses the synodal way with Germany’s bishops, excluding the initiative’s co-sponsor: The influential lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK).
The cardinal-elect might want to have the ZdK at the table as well. But dicastery officials would likely resist this, arguing that it would further complicate an already tense conversation.
A useful ambivalence
Summing up Fernández’s recent comments about Germany, Katholisch.de opted for the term “ambivalent.” That’s apt: What he has said so far could be equally the prelude to a new Vatican opening toward the synodal way or further efforts to neutralize the initiative.
In any case, Fernández is unlikely to rely solely on his own instincts. He will probably follow the lead set by Pope Francis, who has criticized the German project with ever greater severity over the past few years.
Although Germany is often described as one of the biggest items in the doctrinal dicastery’s in-tray, Fernández may find there are more pressing issues when he settles into his office in mid-September.
A few weeks later, he will receive the cardinal’s red hat and the synod on synodality will begin. The doctrinal prefect could find himself swept up by the two-part event, billed as the most important Catholic gathering since Vatican II.
At the same time, the synodal way is in a strange kind of limbo after a minority of bishops blocked the financing of its successor body from a common fund. The body, known as the “synodal committee,” is due to meet for the first time in November. But even if it secures alternative funding in time, it may prove incapable of implementing the synodal way’s resolutions throughout the Church in Germany.
Regardless of whether the synodal way has reached a dead end or is about to take a new turn, Fernández has been careful in his remarks this month to preserve his freedom to act as he sees fit.