Cardinal Müller Confirms Vatican Doctrinal Office Had File Warning About Archbishop Fernández

The Vatican was concerned about his lack of theological orthodoxy but the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith says ‘everything was resolved serenely.’

Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, Rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina at the Vatican Press Office, Oct. 8, 2014.
Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, Rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina at the Vatican Press Office, Oct. 8, 2014. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA / EWTN)

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Gerhard Müller has confirmed the Vatican’s doctrinal office had a file containing theological concerns about Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández, whom Pope Francis last week appointed to head that office. 

The file, also confirmed by a second senior Church source, dates to when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires appointed then-Father Fernández rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina in 2009. 

In July 5 comments to the Register, Archbishop Fernández downplayed the file’s contents, saying the Vatican’s concerns related to “accusations” based on his writings “were not of great weight,” and that after an exchange of letters with Vatican officials in which he “clarified” his “true thinking, everything was resolved serenely.” 

On July 1, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Fernández, a close papal adviser and purported drafter of some of the most contentious passages of Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, a position he will take up in August, brought forward from a previously announced start date of mid-September. 

Cardinal Müller, who from 2012 to 2017 was prefect of the dicastery (formerly called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), told the Register on July 4 that the file had been drawn up sometime in the late 2000s by Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès, Secretary at the then-Congregation for Catholic Education, after Cardinal Bergoglio had proposed then-Father Fernández as rector of the university.

The purpose of the file was to supply the CDF with enough information so it could either award or withhold a nihil obstat (nothing stands in the way) declaration — a requirement for any new rector to a Catholic university. 

“The CDF is always involved in giving the last word,” Cardinal Müller said. “The Congregation for Catholic Education must therefore ask for the nihil obstat from the CDF, in giving the official yes, so the Church can be absolutely sure there isn’t anything problematic with such an appointment.”

Due to the contents of the file, the CDF, then headed by Cardinal William Levada, delayed issuing the nihil obstat until the concerns had been resolved. 

Father Fernández was therefore not able to take the oath of office until May 2011, two and half years after his unofficial appointment, due to the ongoing concerns raised in the file about some of his theological views. 

Cardinal Müller stressed to the Register that despite the existence of the file, it was possible that Father Fernández had sent the CDF a letter “pledging to do better,” adding that this is “always the tactic for these things, to destroy any doubts.”

Archbishop Fernández appears to have taken that approach. He told the Register that after his appointment as rector in 2009, some articles he had written “arrived in Rome” and “from that moment on, an exchange of letters began in which I clarified my true thinking and everything was resolved serenely.” 

“It took more than a year at the Roman pace of work, but I want to make clear that the accusations were not of great weight,” he said. “For example, they questioned half a page I had written in a small newspaper in my city, in the interior of Argentina. There I explained that we priests could not bless gay unions because we had a certain conception of marriage. But nevertheless, we did not judge or condemn people.” 

“My accusers said that I had not sufficiently explained the Church’s understanding of marriage,” Archbishop Fernández continued. “Believe it or not, this took up several months of my time.” 

He added it was not deemed “necessary or appropriate” for him to publish a corrective article on the matter because he explained he was “not an expert on the subject.” In general, he said, “theologians try to write articles on subjects in which we have been able to specialize.”

In a July 3 interview with Perfil, an Argentine radio station, Archbishop Fernández reflected on the experience, recalling that the DDF used to be the Holy Office of the Inquisition and saying it “even investigated me.” He said the process “was really very annoying” and that he “spent months on the nonsense” having to justify himself.  

Archbishop Fernández continues to weigh in on the controversial subject of blessing couples in homosexual relationships. He told the Spanish Catholic website Infovaticana July 5 that nothing can compare to “marriage” in the “strict sense” between a man and a woman, and that “the greatest care to be taken is to avoid rites or blessings that could feed that confusion.” But he added: “Now, if a blessing is given in such a way that it does not cause that confusion, it will have to be examined and verified. As you will see, there is a point where we leave a purely theological discussion and move on to a question that is more prudential and disciplinary.”

He also said in the interview that although the Church’s doctrine cannot be altered, “our understanding” of doctrine can change, “and that in fact it has changed and will continue to change.” 

Archbishop Fernández said the Vatican’s concerns were removed not because of any pressure from Cardinal Bergoglio. “He was confident that, if I answered the questions sent to me, everything would be resolved sooner or later.” 

However, it appears that there were repercussions for Archbishop Bruguès. Pope Francis notably never made the French prelate a cardinal, despite him serving as archivist and librarian of the Holy Roman Church from 2012 to 2018, a prestigious position which has been led by a cardinal since the 18th century. 

Two months after his election as pope, Pope Francis elevated Father Fernández to archbishop, but without informing the CDF, then headed by Cardinal Müller. Although popes are under no obligation to ask the CDF for a nihil obstat before appointing a bishop, Cardinal Müller said they usually do so in order to be sure the candidate is doctrinally sound.

In his letter to Archbishop Fernández on his appointment, Pope Francis appeared to suggest that the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith under Archbishop Fernàndez will no longer scrutinize the orthodoxy of theologians to the same degree that Archbishop Fernàndez himself was subjected.

“The Dicastery over which you will preside in other times came to use immoral methods,” Francis wrote. “Those were times when, rather than promoting theological knowledge, possible doctrinal errors were pursued. What I expect from you is certainly something very different,” the Pope wrote.

In a July 1 statement on his appointment, Archbishop Fernández said the dicastery in the past “was the terror of many, because it dedicated itself to denouncing errors, persecuting heretics, controlling everything, even torturing and killing. 

“Not everything was like that, but this is part of the truth,” he continued. “Francis wrote to me that the best way to care for the doctrine of the faith is to grow our understanding of it, because ‘this harmonious growth will preserve Christian doctrine more effectively than any control mechanism,’ especially if we know how to present a God who loves, who frees, who lifts up, who empowers people.”

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