ROME – Eighteen years ago, a College of Cardinals largely appointed by the pope whose reign had just ended wanted continuity, and so they elected the man who’d been the intellectual architect of the previous administration. Thus it was that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, as the natural heir to the doctrinal and spiritual legacy of Pope John Paul II.
After yesterday, one has to ask: Is Pope Francis trying to align the stars for history to repeat itself by naming his own theological right hand, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández, to the same post once held by Ratzinger as the Vatican’s doctrinal czar?
Before proceeding, an important caveat: The point here is not to compare the quality or significance of the intellectual output of Ratzinger and Fernández, which is off-topic and, anyway, above my pay grade. It’s rather to suggest that politically and personally, Fernández is now poised to be roughly to Francis what Ratzinger once was to John Paul, albeit with some important differences.
If anything, the bond between Francis and Fernández, both Argentines, runs even deeper than that which linked the Polish John Paul and the German Ratzinger.
The connection goes back at least to 2007, when the future pontiff was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires and Fernández was a professor at the Catholic university in the Argentine capital. He acted as Bergoglio’s peritus, or theological advisor, during the conference of Latin American bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, which produced a document that proved to be a blueprint for Francis’s papacy.
A primary contributor to Francis’s 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, Fernández has been an informal advisor and sounding board for Francis on every important doctrinal question he’s faced.
Textual analysis in 2016, when Francis issued his controversial document Amoris Laetita opening the door to reception of communion by civilly divorced and remarried Catholics, showed striking similarities with articles Fernández had written on the same subject in 2005 and 2006.
Fernández went on to become one of the most prominent defenders of Amoris Laetitia, at one point arguing that critics citing Scripture to oppose the pope’s position were engaged in a “death trap” intended to force others to “assume a particular logic.”
During the ten years under Francis that German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, generally seen as a conservative, and then Spanish Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, perceived as more of a moderate, both headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, most observers regarded them as less influential than Fernández in shaping the pontiff’s own theological stances.
By now naming Fernández to the post, Francis essentially has brought a key member of his “kitchen cabinet” into his administration, giving him the formal powers that many observers believed he already wielded behind the scenes. It also sets up Fernández to be a major force in the pope’s looming Synods of Bishops on synodality, set for this October and October 2024.
It’s widely expected that Francis will also make Fernández a cardinal whenever he next holds a consistory.
Once upon a time, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, still popularly known as the “Holy Office,” was dubbed la suprema, “the supreme” department of the Vatican, because of its power over doctrine. Up to this point it’s never had that kind of relevance under Francis, but with Fernández at the helm it’s instantly back in the game.
Just to make sure that no one missed the watershed nature of the moment, Pope Francis took the virtually unprecedented move of publishing an almost 800-word letter to Fernández in tandem with the announcement of his appointment, highlighting his expectations.
Francis told Fernández to avoid the use of “immoral methods” in defending the faith, without quite defining what he considered those methods to be.
“They were times where, more than promoting theological knowledge, possible doctrinal errors were persecuted,” Francis wrote. “What I expect of you is undoubtedly something very different.”
On the contrary, Francis said, Fernández’s role “has as its main purpose to safeguard the teaching that comes from the faith ‘to give reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns’.”
In essence, the choice of Fernández is a “legacy” appointment, in the sense that his clear mission is to institutionalize Francis’s vision in the church’s intellectual life, beginning in the Vatican itself – to make it more difficult, as Fernández himself once said in a 2015 interview, “to turn back” under a new pope.
That mandate seemed clear in another charge Francis gave: “Your task also implies a special care to verify that the documents of the dicastery itself and of others have adequate theological support, are consistent with the rich humus of perennial Church teaching, and at the same time accept the recent Magisterium.”
Note the phrase “and others,” suggesting that Fernández will now play the role Ratzinger did at his prime under John Paul II of passing theological judgment on the output of other Vatican departments, effectively acting as the pope’s “quality control” officer.
Granted, there are important dissimilarities between Fernández under Francis and Ratzinger under John Paul, beginning with the discrepancy in age – Ratzinger was 78 at the end of John Paul’s papacy, while Fernández will turn just 61 on July 18. Ratzinger also served John Paul almost from the beginning, while Fernández is joining Francis’s administration later in the game.
Moreover, John Paul II was largely content to delegate internal administration to others, which boosted the importance of all his aides in their areas of responsibility. Francis prefers to call the consequential shots himself, which means no deputy to this pope can ever hold quite the same degree of authority.
Yet while every analogy is inexact, there are nevertheless three striking parallels.
First, the Argentine prelate overnight becomes arguably the single most powerful figure in Francis’s Vatican, perhaps even more so than Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, just as Ratzinger once held even more sway than Cardinal Angelo Sodano.
Second, Ratzinger was a lightning rod for the most controversial elements of the John Paul papacy, from its battles against liberation theology to its teaching on sexual ethics. He was a hero to conservatives, but a love-to-hate figure among progressives – at times, one could almost hear the Imperial Death March from “Star Wars” playing in the background as liberal Catholic commentators talked about Ratzinger.
Fernández already has a similar profile in equal-and-opposite fashion among Catholic conservatives, and it will only grow as they get to know him better.
Third, assuming Fernández does become a cardinal, he will inevitably be considered a candidate to become pope himself, especially for all those who don’t want the Francis Revolution to end with the pope who launched it.
Of course, his candidacy will seem unthinkable to papal critics who won’t be able to believe that a majority of cardinals would vote for such a controversial figure – but I remind you, exactly the same thing was said of the candidacy of Joseph Ratzinger 18 years ago.
How the Fernández saga will play out from here depends on many variables, not the least of which is how much time the pope he serves has remaining. It also depends on how Fernández comports himself in his new role. Even among Ratzinger’s fiercest critics during his term at the Holy Office, he won points for being personally gracious and humble – it remains to be seen what sort of impression Fernández will leave.
Yet no matter what happens, Francis has injected a compelling new character into the already intense drama of this papacy, which can’t help but make the Vatican an even more gripping show to watch.
Back in 1984, Italian journalist Vittorio Messori published a widely read interview book with Ratzinger translated into English as The Ratzinger Report, which defined the battle lines in Catholicism for an entire generation. It became so controversial that during a Synod of Bishops in 1985 on the 20th anniversary of Vatican II, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls got so sick of taking questions about it that at one point he snapped, “This is a synod about a council, not a book!”
All we need now is for someone to publish The Fernández Report ahead of this fall’s synod, and the circle will be truly complete.