ROME – Pope Francis’s new top theological advisor has attempted to reassure voices in the United States and elsewhere who’ve questioned his adherence to Catholic teaching and tradition, vowing that he’s not a “Soros spy infiltrated in the Church.”
“I am not a Freemason, nor an ally of the New World Order, nor a Soros spy infiltrated in the Church. Those are pure fantasies,” said Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, an Argentine theologian tapped by the pontiff July 1 as the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, traditionally the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog agency.
“I try to be an honest person, I confess often, I love the Church and its doctrine, most of my writings are about spirituality and prayer. I cannot conceive my life without God,” Fernández said.
“So [they may] have confidence, and it is better [for them] to look for enemies of the faith elsewhere,” said Fernández, who will turn 61 on July 18, in reference to his critics.
The comments came in an interview with Crux on July 5, conducted via email and in Spanish. It marked Fernández’s first conversation with an English-language news outlet since his appointment to his new role, which he will assume formally in mid-September.
A key papal ally and ghostwriter of several major papal documents, Fernández has used social media since his appointment to hit back against critics in the United States who, he’s said, have selectively mistranslated certain phrases from his writings, but he told Crux he has no generalized bias about Americans.
“In the United States, the population is very well educated, and the enormous development that the United States had in just a few decades speaks of the great capacity of that people. It would never occur to me to disparage such a noble and capable people,” he said.
“But there are also minorities that can be inclined to fanaticism, to hatred, and this leads to a partial gaze that only seeks the dark side of enemies,” Fernández said, asserting that “some assessments of the Holy Father and even of my person are unfair and not very objective.”
Fernández spoke of his own theological formation and said that in terms of his new role, in keeping with the instructions given by Francis, he’ll aim to promote “dialogue and a deepening of thought” rather than disciplinary actions against wayward theologians.
He also emphasized the importance of another charge given him by Francis, which is to ensure that all Vatican departments are in alignment with the “recent magisterium.”
“It can happen that answers are given to certain theological issues without accepting what Francis has said that is new on those issues,” Fernández said. “It’s not only inserting a phrase from Pope Francis, but allowing thought to be transfigured with his criteria. This is particularly true for moral and pastoral theology.”
The full interview with Fernández appears below, in a Crux translation from Spanish:
Crux: By now it is well known that you and Pope Francis share a close relationship. When did you first meet him, and how has your friendship developed?
Fernández: You know that I have never flaunted this relationship, but the truth is that since the year 2007, it has been a relationship of great trust. Before that, I didn’t know him very well. When I was vice dean of the Buenos Aires Faculty of Theology and he was the archbishop, sometimes we crossed paths and talked about a mutual friend. Then he congratulated me on an article of mine and proposed that the Argentine Episcopate invite me to the Latin American Conference in Aparecida. There he was in charge of the drafting team and at one point asked me for help because there was not enough time to write the final document. He was so worried that he would stay until 3 or 4 in the morning, and I was the last one to leave, along with him. There, a close relationship was born. I don’t talk about friendship, because I have a great respect for him.
What would you say is your theological formation? What writings and theologians have had the greatest influence on your own theological thought and approach?
During my undergraduate degree in Rome, I specialized in Sacred Scriptures. This also oriented me to hermeneutical studies, and I became especially close to the philosopher [Hans-Georg] Gadamer, who influenced me deeply. Then I did a doctorate in theology on the thought of Saint Bonaventure, particularly about the relationship between knowledge and life, an issue which also left a deep mark on my way of understanding theology and the service of theologians, oriented toward nourishing the spiritual life. With respect to modern thinkers, I focused especially on the great ones: Rahner and Von Balthasar. I received a lot from both.
At the Faculty of Theology, I taught classes on Theology (Pneumatology, the treatise on Grace, Anthropology) and also the Bible (Synoptics, hermeneutics and preaching, etc.). In addition to many popular writings, I certainly wrote more elaborate and speculative texts: numerous articles on Biblical exegesis, a manual on Grace, a Spiritual Theology manual, articles on the intermediate state and the person of the Father (in Angelicum magazine), articles about Pauline thought, relations with Judaism and on inculturation (in Nouvelle Revue Théologique), just to give examples.
Given your theological experience and formation, what is your vision for your new role, and for the dicastery itself?
My vision is illuminated particularly by the pope’s letter. A week ago, I was with him in Rome, and we spoke several times about these indications. Later he himself warned me that he was thinking of putting it in writing. Messages have been sent to me by many theologians, evangelical Catholics, and Jews, highlighting the value of this letter and considering it a ‘turning point.’
I see clearly that Francis wants the function of the prefect to be fully oriented toward a theological reflection in dialogue that helps to mature the Church’s thought. I understand that this will imply giving special importance to the two commissions that report directly to me: the theological and the biblical (for this reason, my double specialization as a theologian and as a Biblicist is important).
But this should also have an impact on the responses that the Dicastery gives to theological queries (and even accusations) that arrive. That is, it will be necessary to take advantage so that these interventions not only respond with a certain ‘format’ that is already consolidated but are also open to the possibility of greater deepening. On the other hand, I take very seriously the last thing the letter says: that I must ensure that both the documents of the dicastery and those of others ‘accept the recent Magisterium.’
This is essential for the internal coherence of thought in the Roman Curia. Because it can happen that answers are given to certain theological issues without accepting what Francis has said that is new on those issues. And it’s not only inserting a phrase from Pope Francis but allowing thought to be transfigured with his criteria. This is particularly true for moral and pastoral theology.
In his letter to you, Pope Francis said he doesn’t want you to persecute doctrinal errors, as has been the historical role of the dicastery, but that you encourage theological dialogue. This raises two questions for me. First, how do you think the task of your dicastery has changed since its establishment in 1542? That is, was there a time when it was necessary to make a clear distinction between doctrine and heresy? Why is a different approach needed now?
Look, in reality I would like to clarify that it should not be interpreted that I must do something that Cardinal [Luis] Ladaria did poorly. It’s not like that, because in fact we know that Cardinal Ladaria did not condemn anyone, he is a man of great understanding and dialogue. In that sense, his years as prefect have already produced a change. But he himself told me during the ad limina visit of the Argentine bishops that disciplinary matters absorbed most of the time, and that there was hardly any time left for theology. This point is important, because now the pope is asking me to dedicate myself to theology and to promote the deepening of thought.
Second, what does theological dialogue mean for you? How do you envision this task? What does it imply?
If you look at who makes up the International Theological Commission, you will see that they are people of different lines, and yet they have the task of producing a joint document. The experience of Aparecida, and Bergoglio’s objective at that time, consisted of achieving a final document that would reflect the richness and the variety of the discussion in those weeks. On the one hand, theological dialogue implies finding some consensus, but not everything is reduced to consensus.
A text can also collect and indicate that in addition to these consensuses, there is a diversity of opinions that can enrich that topic, on which it will be necessary to continue deepening. Not everything should be ‘closed.’ Let’s remember, for example, the famous de auxiliis controversy where two theological schools [the Dominicans and the Jesuits] argued and condemned each other. The pope at that time [Pope Clement VIII] did not want to close the issue and said that it was still a matter of free discussion that needed to be further explored.
On the other hand, today it is inevitably necessary to incorporate elements that come from ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, but it must be accepted that this does not imply that we all use the same theological categories or the same language. It is necessary to accept once and for all that there are different theological languages. Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas already said that theology is also done with metaphors. In interreligious dialogue, for example, the richest and most fraternal space occurs among monks, who speak from a spiritual experience where precious points of contact are found.
Some are clearly uncomfortable with this change in approach and fear that ‘theological dialogue’ will lead to a change in the church’s most important teachings and doctrines, such as its teachings on marriage and homosexuality. Do you consider these teachings open to change? What does dialogue on issues such as these mean for you?
All of the Church’s teachings have an enormous richness. To me, it sounds a bit vain to believe that one has everything clear on these issues. In them, the exciting mystery of human lives is in play, where not everything is mathematics. Did not St. Thomas say that ‘the more one descends into the particulars, the more confused God’s will becomes?’ And he was not a relativist. We have a lot to learn about so many things, and let’s say it very clearly: the doctrine of the Gospel does not change, but our understanding of it does change, and changes a lot.
Similarly, Pope Francis, like many before him, has often used the phrase, ‘development of doctrine.’ This makes some people nervous, because for them, development means change. How do you understand doctrine? And, therefore, how would you describe the process when doctrine ‘develops’?
The meaning, as I was telling you, is ‘development in our understanding of doctrine.’ But normally this leads to a change in the expression of doctrine, since a greater understanding requires that the language needs to be adjusted or enriched in order to express what has been better understood. That is, ‘the expression of doctrine’ is also developed.
On the other hand, if we assume the pope’s constant concern to achieve an evangelizing objective and a pastoral sensitivity, we can say that the form, the expression, becomes part of the content, because it can make it difficult to understand. For example, saying that God is immutable is correct and indisputable, but it must complement that expression with others, since when today many people hear that, they understand that God is boring or that he is deprived of dynamism.
Something similar occurs when we say that in Christ, there is only one divine person, the Son, not a human person. That is dogma, but one ought to enrich that expression with others to avoid it being misunderstood or that it is understood that Christ is not true man. This can help in understanding why the pope wanted a prefect who was a theologian but who was also a parish priest, catechist, and teacher. Connected with this is an issue on which Francis has insisted a lot: the hierarchy of truths, which implies not only a certain order of importance, but also that some truths are understood in light of others.
In some of your social media posts, you have said there are some Catholics in the United States who have criticized you and some of your writings, including your past booklet on kissing, in order to criticize the pope. Do you think this is due to a misunderstanding of yourself and Francis? What misunderstandings do you think Catholics in the United States have about this papacy and how can they be clarified?
You have to say ‘some’ Americans, as is the case with some Spaniards, French, or Poles, for example. In the United States, the population is very well educated, and the enormous development that the United States had in just a few decades speaks of the great capacity of that people. It would never occur to me to disparage such a noble and capable people.
But there are also minorities that can be inclined to fanaticism, to hatred, and this leads to a partial gaze that only seeks the dark side of enemies. When this is added to the fact that these minorities have a lot of economic power, it is possible that they achieve greater impact in the media and social networks. Many times, it is not evil, it is passion, and therefore I do not judge them, but I must say that some assessments of the Holy Father and even of my person are unfair and not very objective.
It’s no secret that the criticism will likely continue, as not everyone shares your vision. What would you like to say to those who are skeptical about the way in which you will carry out the task you are undertaking?
That I am not a Freemason, nor an ally of the New World Order, nor a Soros spy infiltrated in the Church. Those are pure fantasies. I try to be an honest person, I confess often, I love the Church and its doctrine, most of my writings are about spirituality and prayer. I cannot conceive my life without God. So [they may] have confidence, and it is better [for them] to look for enemies of the faith elsewhere.
Finally, it has been made clear that you will focus mainly on theological and doctrinal matters and will leave efforts in fighting the abuse crisis to the experts inside of your new dicastery. However, child protection remains a large part of what your dicastery does and it is an important topic for the Catholic Church. How will you support efforts in child protection and where does the abuse crisis fall in terms of your priorities as you step into your new role?
I will encourage the work of the disciplinary section, avoiding meddling in issues that are not my specialty. We must let the experts work. In recent years they have demonstrated great seriousness and professionalism.
For this reason, the Holy Father’s decision for me to concentrate on doctrinal matters in no way minimizes the importance of the fight against abuse, it is showing his confidence in those who know [best in these matters] so that they continue on the right path, which little by little is being consolidated. I will not stop encouraging them, offering them my support and gratitude, helping them in whatever way they need, but without conditioning them in their professional task.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen