Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Asserts Itself, in Support of Church Teaching

Under the leadership of its current prefect, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the Vatican office has made a number of recent moves that have garnered praise from theologians.

The CDF is the second-most-important Vatican department, behind only the Secretariat of State.
The CDF is the second-most-important Vatican department, behind only the Secretariat of State. (photo: Photo by Artur Dziuła on Unsplash)

 VATICAN CITY — Theologians have praised recent documents and actions emanating from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), leading some to believe the dicastery is enjoying a kind of resurgence after a less active period during much of Pope Francis’ pontificate. 

A document affirming the Church’s teaching on end-of-life issues, a statement underlining the valid formula for baptism, a warning against the German Church’s proposal for “Eucharistic hospitality” with Protestants, and the disciplining of a dissenting theologian are just some of the recent initiatives cited. 

Founded to defend the Church from heresy and once known as Sacred Roman and Universal Inquisition and later the “Holy Office,” the CDF is the oldest of the Vatican’s congregations and nowadays responsible for promulgating and defending Church doctrine. Spanish Jesuit Cardinal Luis Ladaria has served as the CDF’s prefect since July 2017.

The congregation’s document on end-of-life issues, Samaritanus Bonus (The Good Samaritan), published in September, has been widely praised. A work of many expert theologians, it addresses the sensitive issue of care of persons in the critical and terminal phases of life and makes special reference to the moral issues involved in euthanasia and assisted suicide. 

Work began on the document three years ago, after a number of bishops stressed to the congregation the importance of having such an instruction in the face of a “profound spiritual crisis” concerning end-of-life issues, according to a Vatican source. The document is not limited to condemning euthanasia or assisted suicide, but also discusses how to handle people who had agreed to be euthanized or assented to assisted suicide — an aspect that the Vatican had not addressed before. 

The document was also born out of a 2017 decision by a group of Belgian Catholic hospitals run by the Belgian Brothers of Charity to allow euthanasia. (The CDF withdrew the hospitals’ Catholic status earlier this year.)

“It is a rich theological meditation” that “adds to the tried and tested and always valid approach of rejecting euthanasia on the basis of natural law,” said Father Mauro Gagliardi, professor of theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome. “From different points of view, it is an excellent document, both on the philosophical-theological level and in its spiritual and pastoral dimensions,” he told the Register.

A month earlier, the CDF responded to two questions aimed at clarifying valid baptismal formulas, stating that changes to the formula to emphasize community participation, such as “We baptize you” instead of “I baptize you,” are not permitted. Not everyone thought the response was adequate — a Vatican source told the Register that the CDF response was too short and should have addressed the “whole formula,” where “we” is used to include parents, grandparents and others — but the clarification was welcomed for alerting the faithful to the error. It allowed at least one priest to recognize the invalidity of his baptism and to be properly baptized. 


German Intercommunion Proposal

Another example of a more assertive CDF came in September, when the congregation criticized a proposal by German Protestant and Catholic theologians to allow intercommunion — what they called “reciprocal Eucharistic hospitality” — between Catholics and Protestants. 

In a letter and four-page doctrinal note sent to Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference, the CDF wrote that the proposal did not do justice to the Catholic understanding of the Church, the Eucharist and holy orders. Signed by Cardinal Luis Ladaria and the congregation’s secretary, Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, the missive criticized the document for undervaluing “the question of the unity of the Eucharist and the Church.” It also said that Second Vatican Council teaching on the matter had “unfortunately not been adequately reflected in the text.” 

The response marked a notable change from two years ago, when the Pope drew criticism for declining to rule on the matter of German bishops’ guidelines on reception of the Eucharist by non-Catholic spouses and then passing the issue to diocesan bishops to decide. Cardinal Ladaria was criticized internally at the time for leading talks between the CDF and German bishops, but acquiescing too easily to the German bishops’ demands. 

Part of the difficulty, according to Vatican sources, is that the CDF’s relations with the German bishops is “a complex situation” and, according to one informed source, like a “game of tennis” — the ball is served and returned, and it is not possible to predict the subsequent steps. 

“What we’re trying to do is avoid a schism,” the source said. “They’re pushing the envelope, but the Pope is being very strong on this.” 

The CDF has also been praised for disciplining dissenting theologians such as Irish Redemptorist Father Tony Flannery, an advocate of women’s ordination, homosexual lifestyles and same-sex “marriage.” The CDF suspended Father Flannery from public ministry in 2012 and ruled in September that he should not return to public ministry unless he vowed to never speak publicly about his dissenting views. 

Father Flannery rejected the Vatican’s offer. Cardinal Ladaria said the CDF had done “everything possible” to dialogue with Father Flannery, adding that the CDF’s “responsibility” is to take such action, and not to do so “would be an error.” 


Pope Francis and the CDF

These initiatives have come after the CDF’s influence and even authority during this pontificate appeared to have been lessened, seemingly in accordance with the Pope’s frequently expressed view that rigidity in doctrine and governance is an obstacle to mission, evangelization and a more open and pastoral Church.

Soon after his election, he told a group of religious sisters not to “worry” if they receive a letter from the CDF, telling them to “explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward.” Investigations into theologians and the public disciplining of dissenters also appeared to come to a halt, and Francis rehabilitated some theologians whom the CDF had earlier disciplined. 

The Pope has also pushed for decentralization of doctrinal matters, passing significant responsibility from the Vatican to bishops, which critics have said has led to “doctrinal anarchy” and precipitated the controversial “Synodal Path” in Germany. Questions of lack of clarity have also dogged Francis’ own teachings and words, whether given extemporaneously in interviews or in magisterial documents — the most recent example being his comments supporting same-sex civil unions, which some critics said directly contradicted previous teaching, notably a 2003 CDF doctrinal note

The Pope and his own group of theological advisers have also frequently bypassed the CDF, not only with regard to messages and off-the-cuff statements, but in seeking theological scrutiny of papal documents. The Pope and his advisers have made unilateral changes to apostolic exhortations and other papal texts after the CDF had proofed them and suggested corrections that were then ignored, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the CDF from 2012 to 2017, confirmed to the Register in an interview after he was replaced as prefect.


Improved Output

But according to Father Nicola Bux, a theologian and former consultor to the CDF during Benedict XVI’s pontificate, recent decisions by the congregation have been “consistent with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and statements made by Pope Francis.” He also affirmed that the CDF has been “aware of the current doctrinal problems in the Church, even before this or that papal teaching.” 

Vatican sources say part of the reason for the improved output from the CDF is the good relationship Cardinal Ladaria has with the Pope, helped by them both being Jesuits and because both are Spanish speakers. This has reputedly led to a better functioning congregation and improved morale. 

Cardinal Luis Ladaria CNA
The CDF has been headed by Cardinal Luis Ladaria since 2017.(Photo: 2015 photo, Daniel Ibañez/CNA)

But the CDF is still burdened with disciplinary cases often linked to abuse — an area that now takes up as much as 80% of the congregation’s work. 

“The energy for doctrinal issues has been drained by the enormous weight of disciplinary cases that keep coming in, hundreds and hundreds of them,” the informed source said, adding that procedures are nevertheless “working extremely well,” that handling these cases has “matured,” and that some of the officials involved in discipline are “superb.” 

Father Gagliardi, author of an extensive new work on dogmatic theology called Truth Is a Synthesis: Catholic Dogmatic Theology, does not see the CDF’s recent apparent resurgence as pointing to a “rebirth” of the CDF, firstly because he said that would imply a “negative judgment on the work of the congregation in recent years or decades.” He referred to “many documents of great value and importance in the post-conciliar period” when the CDF was led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, such as Donum Veritatis (1990) and Dominus Iesus (2000), acknowledging that “many others could be added.” 

He said it is also important to bear in mind that a new apostolic constitution for the Roman Curia will be published soon that will likely contain a reconfiguration of the CDF, but the exact details are not yet known. According to a draft of the constitution leaked last year, the CDF would be downgraded from being the second-most important Vatican department, behind only the Secretariat of State, to the third-most important, after the creation of a new dicastery dedicated to evangelization. 

Father Gagliardi told the Register, “We must therefore wait to see what tasks, what prerogatives and what limits will be assigned to it in the future.”