Reset Saturday at the Vatican

COMMENTARY: Cardinal Fernández’s clarification of ‘Fiducia Supplicans,’ the Pope’s solidarity with the Jewish people, and the lack of priests at the Synod on Synodality were addressed by the Holy See last week.

The exterior of the Vatican, in black and white
The exterior of the Vatican, in black and white (photo: Unsplash)

On the feast of St. Blaise, the Vatican cleared its collective throat and made attempts to put things right on three separate fronts, all on the same day. Call it “Reset Saturday.”

First up was Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), who has had the most bruising month in the recent history of Curial prefects. After his declaration Fiducia Supplicans provoked an unprecedented rejection from many parts of the Catholic world, he was forced to back down by Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo on behalf of the African bishops. 

Pope Francis directed Cardinal Fernández to follow the lead of Cardinal Ambongo, serving in effect as stenographer to the evisceration of his own declaration. The Holy Father was monitoring Cardinal Fernández’s compliance over the phone. It must have been a humiliating experience.

After that, perhaps Cardinal Fernández desired something of a reset. That might be the reason for an official “Note” from the DDF, Gestis Verbisque, published on Saturday. 

It’s a curious document, in that it teaches what has been known for literally centuries — namely, that the minister of a sacrament (usually a cleric) may not alter the essential “form” and “matter” of the sacraments. If either one is altered, the sacrament is invalid. Why, then, the document now? The document demonstrates that Cardinal Fernández is capable of three things put in doubt by Fiducia Supplicans

First, that he can consult with his brother bishops, rather than ambushing them after working in secret, as was the case with Fiducia Supplicans. The publication of the note mentioned that it had been discussed and approved unanimously by the cardinals and bishops who attended the recent plenary meeting of the DDF. Pope Francis then added his approval.

Second, Gestis Verbisque maintains continuity with recent DDF teaching. On the specific issue of the formula for baptism, the DDF clarified in 2020 that it may not be altered to replace “I baptize” with “We baptize.” This recent document is in continuity with that, unlike Fiducia Supplicans, which taught the exact opposite of what the DDF taught on same-sex blessings in 2021. Demonstrating that the prefect can maintain continuity of teaching over several years is key to rebuilding confidence after his first six months on the job.

Third, it demonstrates that the prefect understands that his primary role is to protect the faith rather than offer an “innovative contribution,” as he claimed to be doing in regard to blessings.

Letter to ‘My Jewish Brothers’

A second reset came from the Holy Father himself, who published a letter to “My Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel,” dated Feb. 2 and released on Saturday. Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war with the terror attacks of Oct. 7, many Jewish voices have been highly critical of the Holy Father’s approach.

That was summarized in pointed remarks last month by Riccardo Di Segni, chief rabbi of Rome since 2001.

Speaking of “great disappointment” with the Vatican, and a “crisis” in relations, Di Segni took direct aim at the language of Pope Francis, lamenting “a jumble of political and religious declarations that have left us confused and offended.”

“Everyone wants peace, but it depends on what kind,” he said. “Whoever does evil must be defeated, as happened with the Nazis in 1945. You can’t just accept the idea that war, in itself, is a defeat for everyone.” That is a frequent line from Pope Francis.

Last November, some 400 Jewish leaders had addressed an open letter to Pope Francis. It was an appeal for solidarity at a painful time for Jews, both in Israel and in the diaspora. Saturday’s papal letter was framed as a response to that letter and offered assurances of that solidarity:

“Unfortunately, however, it must be noted that this war has also produced divisive attitudes in public opinion worldwide and divisive positions, sometimes taking the form of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. I can only reiterate what my predecessors have also clearly stated many times: the relationship that binds us to you is particular and singular, without ever obscuring, naturally, the relationship that the Church has with others and the commitment towards them too. The path that the Church has walked with you, the ancient people of the covenant, rejects every form of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, unequivocally condemning manifestations of hatred towards Jews and Judaism as a sin against God.”

Second-Class Synodal Process

The third reset on Saturday was that the Secretariat for the Synod would convene a meeting of 300 parish priests from around the world for several days of synodal discussions on synodality for a synodal Church. 

Last October, it was noted at the synodal assembly that the vast majority of “nonbishop” members, in the curious parlance employed, were more religious professionals working in ecclesial bureaucracies than engaged in direct pastoral work. That there were no parish priests present became a symbol of that. It was an embarrassment for the Synod Secretariat that, despite its insistent boasting that it was comprehensively inclusive, parish priests were not included. It became untenable to proceed as if the call for todos, todos, todos (“everybody, everybody, everybody”) by Pope Francis did not include pastors in their parishes. 

This October’s synodal assembly has the same membership as last year, so this gathering of parish priests is a second-class synodal process for them, not ideal, but the best that could be done, given the circumstances.

The parish priest reset comes amid concern that the entire synodal process on synodality might have been fatally compromised by Cardinal Fernández, who concealed from the synod participants that he was preparing Fiducia Supplicans at the very time that they had decided not to proceed along that path. That revealed, at least on that specific issue, that the Vatican seemed to have no intention of paying any heed to the synodal deliberations.

Recovering from that revelation will require more than a reset; it may not be possible at all.

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