Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith Takes Pastoral Turn

ANALYSIS: With Cardinal Fernández at the helm, the DDF has become the right hand of Pope Francis’ pontificate.

The 16th-century Palace of the Holy Office, located near St. Peter’s Basilica, is the seat of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith
The 16th-century Palace of the Holy Office, located near St. Peter’s Basilica, is the seat of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (photo: Jim McIntosh / CC BY 2.0)

Since Cardinal Víctor Fernández has been prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the dicastery’s website has made public several answers given on behalf of Pope Francis to questions arriving from all over the world, from the dubia of five cardinals to the request of a Filipino bishop on what to do in the face of growing affiliation with Freemasonry among the faithful.

The novelty lies not so much in the fact that these questions reach the Pope, but in the frequency with which the replies to them are published. Until now, standard practice has been to reply privately, except in cases where topics of general interest were discussed.

Now, however, the practice seems almost inverted. At least, publishing responses is becoming more frequent. This may signal a change in the work of the DDF, which ultimately reflects the Pope’s way of governing.

After trying to change the perception of the papacy, Pope Francis is working in the same way on the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ultimately, it’s not surprising. He had written to Cardinal Fernández, then archbishop, at the time of the appointment that “in the past,” the congregation had operated too rigidly and even immorally. The papal letter that came with Cardinal Fernández’s assignment was already a novelty in history — no prefect before Cardinal Fernández got one — and the application of the letter is equally singular.

Pope Francis has always wanted to remove the veneer of secrecy from the papacy, cutting off the intermediate bodies step by step. This is one of the reasons he has chosen to give so many interviews. He has also subjected himself to questions from journalists during in-flight press conferences. It is almost as if Pope Francis sees himself as the chief driver of his own narrative.

We must be clear: Francis makes decisions alone. He does not always provide reasons for his choices. On the contrary. But the fact that he has shown transparency, openness, even naivety — if we want to call it that — in his public expressions has been part and parcel of a genuine desire to make the papacy something closer to the people. The people must be able to feel close to the pope, and the pope must be close to the people.

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith is called to do the same. Already reformed by Pope Francis and divided into two sections with specific responsibilities, the dicastery is now called to be open and transparent in its responses — and above all, to be pastoral. The response to the five cardinals’ dubia is a classic example. The dicastery does not answer Yes or No; instead, it makes an extended examination of the situation, to the point, in fact, of leaving an open interpretation.

This does not mean that Pope Francis wants to change the doctrine. Instead, it means that Pope Francis wants to change how the doctrine of the Church is lived. It is a pragmatic shift, which also becomes paradigmatic. In the end, practice often reflects life, which is messy.

An example of how some doctrinal bases remain firm is the response to the question about Catholics becoming Freemasons. It is forbidden, it is said clearly, referring to the 1983 document of the same congregation, which made it clear that Catholics couldn’t enter Freemasonry. However, what is being asked for is pastoral action and, at most, a public declaration. Above all, catechesis is advised so that people understand.

The issue of formation is crucial, and it is also essential for Pope Francis, who launched the global compact for education. The point, however, is to define what type of training it is. Pope Francis explained it clearly in his reform of the Pontifical Academy of Theology, but even before that, in Veritatis Gaudium. The Catholic world, he says, must also be able to borrow the categories of disciplines other than theology to explain the faith. The topic is thorny. One could object that the theological world should instead find a language of its own — a language proper to the faith — to describe the world. Pope Francis, however, thinks that this is the path, along with the theme of interdisciplinarity (or trans-disciplinarity), and the central one. It is a more pragmatic approach, but it is Francis’.

Again, Pope Francis has shown a certain disaffection for institutional decisions. He has often used documents issued motu proprio (of his own volition) and “light” magisterial documents to make choices, escaping from the meshes of theological control, with the conviction that “realities are greater than ideas” and that “time is superior to space.” The Pope initiates processes and then watches to see how these will be carried out.

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith seems to act similarly. The absence of protocol numbers on the responses was noted, as was the absence of the date in the margin. There is a certain disaffection for the generic rules with which documents in the Vatican have been compiled for years. Previously, the protocol number alone helped define a document’s authenticity or otherwise. Now, authenticity is given not by its form, but by its publication on the official website — impossible without the authorization of the superior.

This detail leads to another issue, namely that, without specific rules, it is the superior who decides everything. Just as Pope Francis governs alone, Cardinal Fernández makes decisions, speaking directly with the Pope. Perhaps there will be a session of Feria Quarta — the regular Wednesday meeting of the DDF — for general discussion with all the officials of the dicastery, but the impression is that this meeting will not be so decisive.

This brings us to the last point. The reform of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith divided the dicastery into two sections. Previously, four offices converged on the theme of faith, and the Wednesday meetings brought together all the most critical issues under one umbrella.

The reform instead divided the dicastery into two distinct sections — a doctrinal section and a disciplinary section — each with its responsibilities. The clear division of tasks should guarantee, in Pope Francis’ intentions, more efficiency. The risk is to lose the overall and ideal vision in favor of a better organization.

It’s a difficult balance to achieve, but that’s what Pope Francis is looking at. So much so that even the last consistory, in 2022, divided the cardinals into groups for discussion, and the Synod on Synodality immediately divided the participants into smaller circles, each with its sub-theme to discuss.

With Cardinal Fernández at the helm, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has somehow become the mirror of the Francis pontificate. He replaced the Secretariat of State as the most critical department, even if not in a functional way, but rather due to the personal closeness of its prefect to the Pope, which is paradoxical.

When Benedict XVI became pope, one part of the narrative was that he gave the diplomatic side of things short shrift in favor of the doctrinal watchdog office. It was sometimes styled as a sort of “revenge” of the former Holy Office, which reprised its role as “La Suprema” to the detriment of the diplomats in the Secretariat of State — a reading exemplified by the appointment of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, former secretary of the Doctrine of the Faith, as secretary of state. Francis praises diplomats at every turn, but a blind man can see that Cardinal Fernández in the DDF is Francis’s right hand. That, too, is paradoxical.