ROME – Quite apart from a high-profile consistory and major ecumenical prayer vigil happening this weekend, ahead of a keenly-anticipated and much debated Synod of Bishops, there have been several other newsworthy developments that risk falling through the cracks amid the frenzy.

Not only has the pope sent an important message to Vietnamese Catholics in light of a historic deal allowing a resident papal representative in the communist nation, but survivor advocacy groups have also taken aim at a top Vatican official they say dropped the ball in his handling of abuse cases, and have asked him to resign.

Pope Francis has also announced artificial intelligence as the theme for his next message for the World Day of Social Communications as AI technologies continue to gain steam at a rapid global pace, and he has appealed for prayers for the upcoming, Oct. 4-29 Synod of Bishops on Synodality.

Survivors demand resignation of pope’s right-hand man

On Friday the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) advocacy groups issued a joint statement calling on Pope Francis to remove Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández as head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), and to rescind his elevation as cardinal, over past mishandling of abuse allegations.

“Among the responsibilities of the DDF is the handling of sexual abuse accusations brought against clergy. In fact, this responsibility constitutes 80 percent of its work. Yet earlier this year, Archbishop Fernández admitted that he made ‘mistakes’ in handling a 2019 case of a priest accused of sexually abusing children,” the statement said.

For this reason, “we too urgently call for Pope Francis to replace the Archbishop on the DDF, and to reconsider his selection as Cardinal,” the groups said.

Fernández, a papal ghostwriter and ally who only recently stepped into his role at the DDF, was appointed to the post in July and was named a cardinal shortly afterwards.

Part of the DDF’s work is to handle cases of clerical sexual abuse, with an entire section dedicated to processing allegations against priests and hierarchs.

Within days of his appointment as head of the DDF, Fernández wrote on social media that when it comes to clerical abuse, “I do not feel prepared nor trained for these issues,” and that he had only accepted the job because the pope assured him that his primary task would be theology, and that clergy abuse would be left to the disciplinary department tasked with handling those cases.

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Fernández also admitted to having made mistakes in handling previous cases, having allegedly refused to believe allegations by minors against Eduardo Lorenzo, a priest in the Archdiocese of La Plata, initially keeping him in ministry. At the end of 2019, hours after learning that an Argentine judge had ordered his arrest for the alleged sexual abuse of five children, Lorenzo was found dead in what was ruled a suicide.

Concerns immediately after his appointment were flagged by the Bishop Accountability advocacy group.

In their statement Friday, SNAP and ECA said that in their view, by tapping Fernández to lead the DDF, “Pope Francis demonstrates not only poor judgment, but also gross disrespect to Catholic victims around the world.”

Calling Fernández a “totally inappropriate fit” for the DDF, they said “the Catholic Church is still tone-deaf on the issue of clergy sexual abuse.”

“As we see it, the long and terrible history of clergy sexual abuse and its cover-up is still being written. By appointing Archbishop Fernández to the DDF and naming him a cardinal, Pope Francis clearly demonstrates that it is business as usual in the Catholic Church,” they said.

Concern for the victims of clerical abuse, “who have long borne the consequences of unconscionable decisions made at the highest levels, still have no place in the decision-making process,” the statement said, insisting that “until this changes, the clergy sex abuse scandal will continue, and more young lives will be forever blighted.”

A letter to Vietnamese Catholics

The Vatican published a letter on Friday from Pope Francis to Catholics in Vietnam following the recent agreement reached with the country’s communist government allowing a resident papal representative and the establishment of the Office of the Resident Papal Representative of the Holy See in Vietnam.

The Vatican and Vietnam have had no formal diplomatic ties since 1975, when the last Vatican envoy was expelled from the country after the communists took control of South Vietnam. Ever since, the relationship between Rome and Hanoi has been seen as a bellwether for the Vatican’s approach to China as well.

Both parties have been engaged in a decades-long process of rapprochement, and in 2011 Vietnam agreed to let the Vatican appoint a nonresident papal representative, at the time seen as a major step forward in the process to normalize relations.

A three-member Vatican delegation traveled to Vietnam last spring for a week-long working visit in a bid to accelerate the rapprochement process, and in July of this year, those aspirations finally came to fruition with the announcement from both Vatican and Vietnamese authorities that Vietnam has agreed to allow a representative of the Holy See reside in the country and to open an office.

The decision was announced during a visit to the Vatican by Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong, who met with Pope Francis and the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

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In his letter, Pope Francis voiced hope that the papal representative “will be a bridge in order to advance reciprocal relations,” and expressed gratitude for Van Thuong’s recent visit.

Throughout the various stages of dialogue between the Holy See and Vietnam, both parties “were able to walk together, listening to each other and arriving at a mutual understanding.”

“Although each of them came from different backgrounds and experiences of life, it did not prevent them from seeking together the best way forward for the good of the Vietnamese people and the Church,” the pope said.

He underlined the Church’s emphasis on charity and social works, as he did during his recent visit to Mongolia, and said the church’s commitment to helping others allows faithful to “live out their own identity as good Christians and good citizens.”

“In this regard, the Catholic faithful can foster dialogue and engender hope for the country whenever conditions favorable to the exercise of religious freedom are implemented,” he said.

Quoting a speech by Pope Benedict XVI to Vietnamese bishops during their ad limina visit in 2009, Francis said the Church’s goal is to build “a just, supportive and fair society,” and that its intention “is certainly not to replace government leaders; she wishes only to be able to play a just role in the nation’s life, at the service of the whole people, in a spirit of dialogue and respectful collaboration.”

“Today, more than ever, we need the concrete practice of charity,” Francis said, and, quoting Pope Saint John XXIII’s landmark encyclical Pacem in Terris voiced hope that through ongoing negotiations, “nations will come to a better recognition of the natural ties that bind them together as men and women.”

“We are hopeful, too, that they will come to a fairer realization of one of the cardinal duties deriving from our common nature: namely, that love, not fear, must dominate the relationships between individuals and between nations,” he said.

Pope Francis closed his letter asking that God would guide the Catholic community in Vietnam “so that, in your lives and in your relations with the civil authorities and with every person, without distinction of religion, race or culture, you may know how to bear witness to the love and charity of Jesus Christ.”

Artificial intelligence and prayers for the synod

On Friday the Vatican also announced the theme of the pope’s message for next year’s World Day of Social Communications, which is, “Artificial intelligence and wisdom of the heart: for a fully human communication.”

The announcement of the theme comes amid rapid developments in AI technology as well as growing ethical concerns over its uses.

Over the past few years, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life has led several discussions on the topic of artificial intelligence and has drawn several leaders in the tech industry – including John Kelly, executive vice president of IBM, and Brian Smith, president of Microsoft – as signatories of a pact called the “Rome Call for AI Ethics,” designed to promote an ethical vision of artificial intelligence.

In a statement published along with next year’s theme, the Vatican said the evolution of artificial intelligence “makes it ever more natural to communicate through and with machines, so that it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish computation from thought, and the language produced by a machine from that generated by human beings.”

“Like all revolutions, this one based on artificial intelligence, too, poses new challenges to ensure that machines do not contribute to a large-scale system of disinformation,” the statement said.

It also cautioned against the risk of increasing “the loneliness of those who are already alone, depriving us of the warmth that only communication between people can provide.”

“It is important to guide artificial intelligence and algorithms, so that there is in each individual a responsible awareness of the use and development of these different forms of communication that go hand in hand with social media and the Internet. It is necessary for communication to be oriented towards a fuller life of the human person,” the statement said.

Pope Francis also released his monthly prayer video Friday, asking for prayers for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on Synodality, which will take place Oct. 4-29 and is the first of a two-part, Rome-based gathering culminating in October 2024.

In his prayer video, the pope said mission is “at the heart of the Church,” especially when the Church is holding a synod.

“This synodal dynamic alone carries its missionary vocation forward – that is, her response to Jesus’ mandate to proclaim the Gospel,” he said, insisting that, “nothing ends here. Rather, we are continuing an ecclesial journey.”

Francis stressed that the synod, like the disciples walking the road of Emmaus, is a journey which involves listening to God, “who always comes to meet us. He is the Lord of surprises.”

“Through prayer and discernment, the Holy Spirit helps us carry out the ‘apostolate of the ear,’ that is, listening with God’s ears in order to speak with the word of God,” he said.

By doing this, he said, the Church will draw near to Christ, who “reveals to us that the heart of mission is to reach out to everyone, to seek everyone, to welcome everyone, to involve everyone, without excluding anyone.”

Pope Francis closed his video asking Catholics to pray for the Church, “that she may adopt listening and dialogue as a style of life at every level, allowing herself to be guided by the Holy Spirit towards the world’s peripheries.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen