Archbishop Fernández Outlines His Vision as the Vatican’s New Doctrinal Chief

The new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith also makes some bold assertions in a lengthy interview with the Jesuit publication ‘La Civilta Cattolica.’

Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez of La Plata officiates Mass at the Cathedral in La Plata, Argentina, Sunday, July 9, 2023.
Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez of La Plata officiates Mass at the Cathedral in La Plata, Argentina, Sunday, July 9, 2023. (photo: Natacha Pisarenko / AP)

VATICAN CITY — In an extensive new interview published Thursday, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández has outlined his vision as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, one that places an emphasis on engaging contemporary culture and real-life experiences, and stressing the importance of charity in both moral theology and theological reflection.

Speaking to La Civilta Cattolica’s outgoing director Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, the Argentine theologian and Cardinal-elect made a number of bold statements, accusing some Churchmen who profess to guard the faith as being only concerned about power, not reason, and that morality should “absolutely not” be reduced to mere fulfillment of the Ten Commandments.

Archbishop Fernández also said the Lord’s mercy “must not be denied by theological reasoning” and reiterated what he said in earlier interviews: that rather than condemn erring theologians, he wants to try to understand them, be enriched by their thinking, and accompany them.

As for more practical concerns, he said the dicastery will no longer be giving “quick answers in a standard format” to complex issues, and that he plans to “inculturate the Gospel” by meeting theologians and visiting episcopal doctrinal commissions “in various regions of the world” if means and resources permit.

Archbishop Fernández began the interview by saying that although the Church defends reason, and dialogue between faith and reason, he warned against those who have a more “philosophical than theological” mindset “to which everything else must submit, and which ultimately takes the place of Revelation!”

Those Churchmen who possess such a mindset, he said, believe they can “determine the correct interpretation of Revelation and truth” and think that they alone are “serious,” “intelligent,” “faithful.” Such an attitude, he added, “explains the power that some ecclesiastics arrogate to themselves, going so far as to establish what the Pope can or cannot say, and presenting themselves as guarantors of the legitimacy and unity of the faith.”

The mindset in which they “consider themselves absolute guardians, is a source of power that they wish to safeguard against everything.”

“It is not reason,” he added, “it is power.”

The archbishop also offered details about his theological background and training. His formation was “strictly Thomist,” he explained, and his “great teacher” was St. Bonaventure whose theology “left an indelible impression” on him because it is “capable of nourishing the spiritual life and, at the same time, of affecting the concrete existence of people.”

He cited favorably 20th-century authors such as the French Catholic philosopher Maurice Blondel whom he admires for “his desire to make philosophy dialogue with the needs of everyday existence,” and for knowing “how to go beyond a mere ‘desk philosophy.’”

Among theologians, he praised the “argumentative precision of Karl Rahner, the spiritual depth of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the ecclesiology of Yves Congar, and, without a doubt, the valuable work of Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI.” In all of them, he said, “there is an intimate connection between thought and spiritual experience, although each achieves this in his or her own way,” adding that “the same applies to some Thomist philosophers like Étienne Gilson or Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange.”

He also praised liberation theologians, all of whom he has known personally: Dominican Father Gustavo Guttiérrez, as well as Fathers Lucio Gera and Rafael Tello, the creators of the “Theology of the People” admired by Pope Francis. “They passed on to me a great love for the Church, a passion for evangelization, an intense affection for the poor and their culture, and an ability to connect theology with the anxieties, dreams and hopes of the suffering people,” he said.

Archbishop Fernández went on to explain why he believes pastoral practice “opens up new horizons for thought,” and said the “integrity of Catholic doctrine on faith and morals” can be safeguarded by “seeking an ever deeper understanding of [Catholic doctrine] in the face of new questions.”

Turning to philosophy, he cited Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jacques Maritain as influences, both of whom he sees as showing the value of experience in accessing “certain aspects of truth” in dialogue with the world. Archbishop Fernández also discussed his own volume of Systematic Spiritual Theology, which explores the relationship between theology and pastoral care, and he contended that pastoral care is not a degradation of spirituality but a field through which the Holy Spirit works to deepen spiritual life and theological understanding.

As in his Sept. 8 interview with the Register, Archbishop Fernández again referred to his book The Five Minutes of the Holy Spirit and said theologians should not be ashamed of writing for a broader audience as he has received “countless messages of gratitude” for it. He says it has helped people to convert, avoid suicide, enter a monastery and rehabilitate their marriage.

Theology, he continued, is capable of “creating new things in the world and in the Church” and entering into dialogue “with all the knowledge of its time” but without imposing “an ancient, medieval or modern culture.” Rather, he said, it “starts from the culture of its listeners in order to communicate the truth.” He stressed the importance of using “beauty and seduction of images, figures, examples, and sensations” to make the Gospel “accessible to the people of the 21st century.”

The interview also explores the relationship between theology and moral theology, particularly in the context of Pope Francis’s emphasis on charity. The archbishop emphasized the primacy of charity in moral theology and as a driving force in theological reflection, arguing that it should influence moral discernment and decision-making rather than seeking to, in Pope Francis’ words, “indoctrinate the Gospel, turning it into ‘dead stones to be thrown at others.’”

Charity, he said, encompasses the order of reason and its influence is essential in moral decision-making. Asked if morality can be reduced to fulfilling the Commandments, he replied: “Absolutely not.”

Archbishop Fernández also referred in the interview to Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation which the archbishop reportedly ghostwrote, stressing how Francis’ acceptance of the interpretation of the Buenos Aires bishops regarding the controversial chapter on access to Holy Communion for remarried divorcees marked a “very important step in moral theology.”

The interview also delves into Archbishop Fernández's personal relationship with Holy Scripture. He shared his experiences studying Sacred Scripture in Rome and how it has influenced his theological work. “Biblical studies open up enormous perspectives, and we cannot fail to recognize the weight of progress in biblical research with regard to the renewal of Catholic theology,” he said.

Alluding to the letter the Pope wrote to him upon his appointment, he said it reveals “very broad and exciting horizons for the dicastery” and Francis’ wish to bring theological knowledge into dialogue with the life of the People of God. But he lamented that the Church has no theologians of the “stature of Rahner, Ratzinger, Congar or von Balthasar.” Something “has failed,” he believes, arguing that “the great theologians” who have had “far-reaching effects” are those who have “thought in dialogue with reality.”

Turning to Church reform, he said he believes that Pope Francis’ words on missionary outreach is a major part of that process. Referring to Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he said that the Church must be “faithful to its own nature” by being “in dialogue with the world and decentralized in an evangelizing ecstasy.” Such a “going out of self,” he said, is not achieved by human will but the result of a “supernatural dynamism provoked by the Holy Spirit in individuals and in the whole Church.”

The archbishop denied the dicastery’s function of refuting errors was destined to disappear. “Obviously, if someone says that Jesus is not a real man or that all immigrants should be killed, decisive intervention will be necessary,” he said. “But at the same time this will provide an opportunity to grow, to enrich our understanding. For example, in such cases, the person in question will have to be accompanied in his legitimate intention to better show the divinity of Jesus Christ, or there will have to be a conversation about some imperfect, incomplete or problematic migration laws.”

For the new DDF prefect, increasing understanding is more effectual than increased control, and proper “theological investigation” is more effective at eradicating heresies than “condemnations” that he believes have led to them becoming “widespread and entrenched.” Furthermore, he believes that “God’s omnipotence and mercy, capable of granting gratuitous salvation” in such cases as unbaptized children who have died, “must not be denied or obscured by theological reasoning.”

“If this is applied in a general way, as a ‘fundamental criterion,’ it undoubtedly forces us to rethink many things,” he said. He argued against a “desk theology,” but stressed the importance of “theological research.” At the same time, he warned against theologians developing a theme “out of context” and then carrying it forward “with an iron logic to the point of being carried away by a certain obsessive fanaticism.” For Francis, he said, “this is the greatest danger.”

Asked by Father Spadaro about how Pope Francis combines the perennial teaching of the Church and the “recent magisterium,” something the Jesuit calls “an interesting fact,” Archbishop Fernández replied by saying it is “significant” that the Pope mentions both. “This is an important clarification,” he contended, “because it is precisely the recent magisterium that engages in dialogue with the current circumstances of the world and the Church, with its culture and challenges. The magisterium is not a mere ‘deposit,’ but is also a living gift that is active through Francis,” he said.

“If the magisterium is also able to enlighten us in our pilgrimage at this moment in history,” he added, “we must allow ourselves to be guided by its recent and current interventions, and there is no doubt that this is tantamount to continuing to drink from that bottomless well that is ever-present and ever-relevant Revelation.”

Archbishop Fernández said that when it is necessary to issue DDF documents, “the teachings of this Pope” will be “indispensable.”

“It is not just a matter of inserting a few quotations from him, but of ensuring that the thought is enriched and developed in the light of his specific contributions,” he said. “This will also require sustaining a dialogue with the other Dicasteries.”