How’s That Again About Your Job, Your Eminence?

The latest changes to the former Holy Office make it unrecognizable as a defender of Catholic doctrine.

The Pillar recently interviewed the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, soon-to-be-Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez. It was quite a scoop for The Pillar, and they asked Fernandez, albeit very politely, the de rigueur questions about his appointment. These included some questions about his handling of abuse allegations, his comments on same-sex couple blessings and the apparent shift of the mission of the dicastery.

In the old days, the institution now entrusted to his care was called the Inquisition (which should be distinguished from the Spanish Inquisition, which was a branch of the monarchy). Later, it was called the Holy Office and, now, “the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith,” known by its initials DDF.

Pope Francis, perhaps remembering the troubles his friend Leonardo Boff had with the same department, wrote Fernandez a letter saying that in the past, the institution, headed for years by his learned predecessor Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, “rather than promoting theological knowledge, possible doctrinal errors were pursued. What I expect from you is something very different.” Fernandez has called this admonition a “turning point.”

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It seems to me that this concept of the dicastery is really “something different.” An institution that was forged in the heat of conflicts that threatened the truth of the Faith has a mission to defend orthodoxy. To say that its mission is to promote presumably “new” theological knowledge seems to want to combine the operations of the brake pedal and the accelerator of a vehicle.  An institution that was forged in the heat of conflicts that threatened the truth of the Faith has a mission to defend orthodoxy. Tweet This

Fernandez justifies the new mission by lamenting the lack of theologians of the stature of “Rahner, Ratzinger, Congar, or von Balthasar.” He cannot think that they were nurtured and promoted by the Holy Office, can he? They were the product of their religious congregations or academia, often with a certain tension vis-à-vis the Holy Office. 

I wonder how the theologians who are practicing today think of Fernandez’s lack of esteem for them. It reminds me of an old joke in the British magazine Punch: “Nearly all our best men are dead! Carlyle, Tennyson, Browning, George Eliot!—I’m not feeling so well myself.” The absurdist playwright Ionesco improved this with a contemporary twist: “God is dead. Marx is dead. And I don’t feel so well myself.” Fernandez is supposedly the ghostwriter of two encyclicals, which certainly makes him an important theologian in his own right.

Fernandez marched on from his nostalgia of “the greats” with this comment on liberation theologians, “Not even that which they call ‘liberation theology’ has theologians at the level of Gustavo Gutierrez. Something has gone wrong.” I’d like to know what the holy remnant of liberationists thinks about this insight of the new prefect.

Liberation theology certainly was discredited by the fall of the Soviet Bloc. One liberation theologian said only months before the fall of the Berlin Wall that East Germany was truly a workers’ utopia. The collapse of European Marxist governments took the theologians by surprise. The fall of those governments came about, said Joseph Ratzinger, because the Communist regimes “had changed the world without knowing what was good for the world and what was not; without knowing in what direction it must be changed so as to be better. Mere praxis gives no light” (“New Questions that Arose in the Nineties” in Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, Ignatius Press).

But certainly, the demise of European communist dictatorships was not due to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s teaching on liberation theology in two documents. Is Cardinal Fernandez in charge of finding new geniuses for the intellectual discipline of theology? If so, that makes me nervous.

So does the prefect’s example of what would require an intervention regarding a doctrinal error: 

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 [sic] 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. 

Docetism peaked too early and genocide must be talked to reasonably! It is hard, sometimes, to come up with examples spontaneously, but these are egregiously awkward. 

His comment on the dicastery’s 2021 negative estimation of an approved blessing for same-sex couples is that the declaration does not “smell like Francis.” How does he intend to deodorize or perfume the ideas it expressed? He believes that “there are expressions that are theologically correct but that can be easily misunderstood.” He gives the smelly sentence “God does not bless sin” as an example. I wonder what his theological olfactory sense detects about Veritatis Splendor, although he says that it is quite “solid.”

The Pillar, which zealously publishes allegations of priestly abuse, rather gently asked about the prefect’s responsibilities with regard to abuse cases. Cardinal Fernandez said that accusations of his own “errors” in cases in his archdiocese were not to the point because he “followed the procedures that were in force at the time…Today we have better procedures than at that time and that makes things easier.”

Somehow, the prelate’s now famous book on kissing did not come up in the interview. Fernandez wrote the book Heal Me with Your Mouth way back in 1995. He said the book was catechesis for young people on kissing. I’m sure it got their interest. 

The text says that he was not writing from his own experience, but a lot of it sounds convincing. I remember a conversation with a Dominican priest and theologian who once described the house of a benefactor as having “the decor of a Persian bordello.” I asked him how he knew to make the comparison. “Wide reading,” he said, without missing a beat. 

The interview was probably related to the pushback that came because of the announcement of the appointment. That’s a bit frightening. If this is “damage control,” what can we expect in the future?

[Photo Credit: Catholic News Agency]


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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