ROME – In what’s likely to be seen as a classic example of the adage that “personnel is policy,” Pope Francis on Saturday tapped an Argentine archbishop widely seen as a close ally and ghostwriter for several major papal documents as the Vatican’s new doctrinal czar.
In a July 1 statement, the Vatican said the mandate of Spanish Jesuit Cardinal Luis Ladaria as head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), president of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and head of the International Theological Commission has come to an end.
The announcement said that Pope Francis has named Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández of La Plata, Argentina, to succeed Ladaria, formally taking over in mid-September.
A long-time protégé of Francis, Fernández is widely seen as one of the pontiff’s ghost-writers, including for major landmark texts such as his 2015 eco-encyclical Laudato Si’; his 2016 post-synodal exhortation on the family Amoris Laetitia; and his first-ever apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudim, published in 2013 and widely considered a tone-setting text for the rest of Francis’s papacy.
Among other things, Francis has charged Fernandez with ensuring that Vatican documents not only reflect perennial Church doctrine but also “accept the recent Magisterium,” suggesting that part of his assignment will be to review the output of other Vatican departments for consistency with Francis’s teaching.
A priest at the time of Francis’s election, Fernández was appointed by the pope as rector of the Pontifical University of Argentina, and he was Francis’s first episcopal appointment.
Considered to be among Argentina’s most influential prelates, largely due to his close relationship with the pope, Fernández in the past has been touted as the pope’s personal theologian due to his influence on Francis’s writings.
He participated in the 2014 and 2015 Synods of Bishops on the Family, during which the pope decided to open a cautious door to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion, and in 2017 was named president of the Argentine bishops’ Commission for Faith and Culture.
Fernández in the past was a member of the Vatican Dicastery for Culture and was a consultor to the Dicastery for Catholic Education. He is now a member of the new mega-dicastery for Culture and Education.
He has published over 300 works, most of which have been translated into various languages.
According to a Vatican-provided biography of Fernández, his works “show an important biblical basis and a constant strength of theological dialogue with culture, evangelic mission, spirituality and social issues.”
The Vatican also provided a list of nearly 50 of his books and articles.
The statement announcing Fernández’s appointment was accompanied by a highly unusual personal letter from Pope Francis, expressing his expectations of Fernandez in his new capacity as head of the DDF.
Francis told Fernández that his main task “is to safeguard the teaching that springs from faith in order ‘to give reason for our hope, but not as enemies who point out and condemn.’”
In the past, Francis said, the dicastery “came to use immoral methods,” without specifying what he had in mind.
These, the pope said, “were times where, more than promoting theological knowledge, possible doctrinal errors were persecuted. What I expect of you is undoubtedly something very different.”
He pointed to several prestigious positions Fernández has held, noting that in every case, he was “voted by your peers, who have thus valued your theological charisma.”
As rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, “You encouraged a healthy integration of knowledge,” and as pastor of Saint Teresita parish and later as archbishop of La Plata, “You knew how to put theological knowledge in dialogue with the life of the holy People of God,” he said.
One area which Francis seemed to mark as off-limits concerns the fight against clerical sexual abuse. Noting that a special disciplinary section was recently created within the DDF, which, among other things, deals with cases of sexual abuse against minors, the pope directed Fernández to spend his time elsewhere.
In general, Francis seemed to urge Fernandez to encourage theological exploration more than to police the boundaries of orthodoxy.
“In order not to limit the meaning of this task, it must be added that it is about ‘increasing intelligence and the transmission of the faith at the service of evangelization, so that its light is a criterion for understanding the meaning of existence, especially in the face of the questions that are raised by the progress of science and the development of society,” the pope said, quoting his encyclical Laudato Si, which Fernández is believed to have ghost-written.
These questions, the pontiff said, if they are welcomed in the spirit of evangelization, “‘become instruments of evangelization,’ because they allow us to enter into conversation with ‘the current context in what is unprecedented in the history of humanity.’”
Continuing to quote extensively from previous documents, including his 2013 exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, also believed to have been ghost-written by Fernández, Pope Francis said the church “‘needs to grow in its interpretation of the revealed word and in its understanding of the truth’ without this implying the imposition of a single way of expressing it.”
Francis argued that different strains of philosophical, theological, and pastoral thought, “if they allow themselves to be harmonized by the Spirit in respect and love, can also make the Church grow.”
This growth, he said, will preserve Christian doctrine “more effectively than any control mechanism.”
Pope Francis told Fernández that his work must encourage “‘the charisma of theologians and their effort for theological research,’ as long as they are ‘not content with a desktop theology,’ with ‘a cold and hard logic that seeks to dominate everything.’”
“It will always be true that reality is superior to the idea. In this sense, we need theology to be attentive to the fundamental criterion: to consider ‘inadequate any theological conception that ultimately questions the omnipotence of God and, especially, his mercy,’” Francis said.
He called for theological thought “that knows how to convincingly present a God who loves, who forgives, who saves, who frees, who promotes people and calls them to fraternal service.”
This will happen only “‘if the announcement focuses on the essential, which is the most beautiful, the greatest, the most attractive, and at the same time the most necessary,’” he said, telling Fernández, “You know very well that there is a harmonious order between the truths of our message, where the greatest danger occurs when the secondary issues end up overshadowing the central ones.”
“On the horizon of this richness, 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,” he said, indicating that a significant number of future Vatican documents will have to cross Fernández’s desk before being published.
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