How Will Cardinal Fernández Influence the Vatican’s Gender Ideology Response?

ANALYSIS: The Vatican has addressed the topic before — but the new doctrine office head is expected to leave his distinctive mark on the forthcoming document.

Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández attends a courtesy visit of relatives following a Sept. 30, 2023, consistory for the creation of 21 new cardinals at the Vatican.
Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández attends a courtesy visit of relatives following a Sept. 30, 2023, consistory for the creation of 21 new cardinals at the Vatican. (photo: Tiziana Fabi / AFP via Getty Images)

When the Vatican releases a document on human dignity April 8 that addresses gender ideology, it won’t be the first time that Rome has tackled the vexing topic. Pope Francis has spoken out frequently on the phenomenon, which holds that one’s identity is independent of their bodily sex, calling it “the ugliest danger of our time” just last month.

But given that the new document will be the first comprehensive assessment of gender ideology published by the Vatican’s top doctrinal office, it will likely be the most far-reaching intervention yet, providing guidance to Catholic dioceses, ministries and individuals around the world.

However, Dignitas Infinita, as the text is called, will also differ from other notable Vatican interventions on the subject in another pivotal way: It’s likely to bear the full theological imprint of Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, its presumptive chief architect.

Since he became prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in September 2023, the Argentinian prelate and longtime Pope Francis confidant has made his mark on the Church’s doctrine through a torrent of teaching documents and clarifications, which some contend have subverted doctrinal truth in favor of pastoral exceptions.

None was more seismic than Fiducia Supplicans, the controversial December 2023 declaration that gave clerics permission to give non-liturgical blessings to sexual couples of the same sex, prompting confusion and backlash from around the world.

Given Dignitas Infinita’ expected focus on a subject as contentious as gender ideology, as well as other concerns like surrogacy and sex-change surgery, it may be the most important DDF document produced during Cardinal Fernández’s tenure to date.

And given Cardinal Fernández’s particular brand of theology, it’s worth considering ahead of time how the DDF prefect might influence not only the forthcoming text, but the Church’s engagement with gender ideology more broadly.

Previous Interventions

To be clear, Cardinal Fernández hasn’t been working from scratch in drafting the Vatican’s response to confusion about gender and sexual identity.

For one thing, there’s Pope Francis’s long track record of criticizing gender ideology, which he’s done in interviews and speeches, but also in magisterial documents like Laudato Si and Amoris Laetitia. In the former, for instance, the Pope wrote that “valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary,” and said that “it is not a healthy attitude which would seek ‘to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.’”

The Vatican has also addressed the subject more specifically, with the Congregation for Catholic Education (which is now part of the Dicastery for Culture and Education) issuing a 2019 document entitled “Male and Female He Created Them” on “the question of gender theory in education.” The document described gender ideology as an “anthropological disorientation” that has become “a widespread feature of our cultural landscape,” destabilizing the family and canceling out differences between men and women.

Additionally, Cardinal Fernández has said that Dignitas Infinita has undergone a rigorous and multi-round consultation process with the DDF’s cardinal members — a notable difference from Fiducia Supplicans, the publication of which caught even some of the most high-ranking clerics in the world off guard.

An Unpublished Document

But perhaps the greatest indicator that Fernández will leave his mark on the DDF’s gender ideology document in a unique way is that, prior to his arrival in Rome, the Vatican chose not to address the topic in a significant way.

In particular, a document on sacramental and practical issues related to transgenderism produced by the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (now the DDF) in 2018 that  was circulated among senior Vatican officials late that year, reportedly went unpublished.

According to a draft obtained by The Pillar, the text offered an explanation of a Catholic understanding of sexual identity (which it described as “composed of physical, psychological and social elements,” a passage that some Catholic experts have flagged to the Register as concerning), and also provided practical guidance on sacramental ministry to people who identify as transgender. 

For instance, it reportedly stated that a person who underwent so-called sex reassignment surgery could not validly contract marriage. Similarly, a man who felt himself to psychologically be a woman would not be suited for the priesthood, while a woman who identified as a man “is incapable of validly receiving Holy Orders.”

Following the publication of “Male and Female He Created Them” in 2019, there was media speculation that a more comprehensive document on gender ideology would be coming from the Vatican’s doctrine office, but the document was never published.

It’s unclear why the Vatican never published the DDF document on gender ideology — especially considering that bishops and other Catholic leaders from around the world have consistently requested guidance from the universal Church’s doctrinal office on the complex and controversial issue. 

In fact, The Pillar reported that the promise of publishing a gender ideology document at the universal level had been used as grounds for spiking a teaching document produced by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2018, though the conference has since issued a more focused doctrinal note on so-called sex reassignment surgeries, while a number of individual American bishops have offered their own catechetical and pastoral guidance.

Fernández’s DDF

But perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a major teaching document on a controversial subject wasn’t published by the DDF before Cardinal Fernández’s tenure.

Prior to July 2023, the doctrinal office was effectively a marginal dimension of Francis’ pontificate. After a conflictual relationship between the Pope and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who served as prefect following his appointment in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI until 2017, Cardinal Luis Ladaria served for the next six years, largely in a caretaker role. Relatively little was published by the DDF during this period, with some accounts describing a dynamic in which staff members of the doctrine office were at odds with the Pope, who in turn put the office on ice.

But that all changed when Cardinal Fernández became prefect in the fall of 2023 — and arguably as soon as he was named Cardinal Ladaria’s successor in July 2023. As Pope Francis’ longtime theological adviser and ghostwriter, Cardinal Fernández said he was brought to Rome to make sure the Church’s teaching becomes “transfigured” by the criteria of the recent Magisterium — meaning the emphases of the current pontiff. In particular, this has meant the DDF prefect has been less about enforcing doctrinal errors, and more about enhancing “pastoral sensitivity,” downplaying moral absolutes in favor of case-by-case moral evaluations. 

Some critics, like the Spanish theologian Father José Granados, have written that Cardinal Fernández overemphasizes “the immediate unavoidable context” of theology, meaning that concrete circumstances matter more than theoretical principles. Similarly, U.S. theologian Larry Chapp has said that the Argentinian prelate privileges “subjective” factors over “objective” ones in moral analysis, effectively elevating psychological and social concerns over “rigid” doctrinal ones.

Cardinal Fernandez’s pastoral emphasis has weaved through the flurry of DDF-produced documents since July — not just limited to Fiducia Supplicans, but including responses to pastoral quandaries, such as whether transgender-identifying people could serve as godparents or be baptized.

Given Cardinal Fernandez’s mandate to essentially shake up the Vatican’s doctrinal orientation, it is very unlikely that Dignitas Infinita will simply build upon the DDF’s previous work on gender ideology.

In fact, La Croix reported on March 5 that even though a document on gender ideology has been in the work for five years, Cardinal Fernández had “completely revised it” and that Pope Francis had “specifically instructed him to do so.” 

There’s already been precedent for this kind of move, with Cardinal Fernández criticizing the DDF’s 2021 guidance prohibiting blessings of same-sex couples because it lacked the “smell of Francisco,” and then effectively bypassing said guidance by issuing Fiducia Supplicans.

Dignitas Infinita Impact

So what would a Cardinal Fernández treatment of gender ideology look like?

On the one hand, given Pope Francis’s sharp criticisms of gender ideology at the conceptual level, it would be expected that the Church’s traditional anthropology will be affirmed in Dignitas Infinita. This is, after all, what Cardinal Fernández did in Fiducia Supplicans, affirming the Church’s teaching on the nature of marriage and sex.

However, when it comes to practical application, the new document might take a page out of the same-sex blessing text, which called on the Church to “shy away from resting its pastoral praxis on the fixed nature of certain doctrinal or disciplinary schemes.” Thus, some of the most difficult and practical questions related to gender theory — such as the use of preferred pronouns that don’t reflect someone’s actual sex, or the use of hormones to alter one’s sex characteristics — might not be directly addressed, or responded to in ways that, at least to some, aren’t clearly consistent with the doctrinal principles. 

This would actually seem to reflect Pope Francis’ own approach, which has included not only pastoral outreach to transgender-identifying people, but also the use of language inconsistent with an individual’s biological sex, all the while issuing critique after critique of gender ideology as a concept.

Whatever the case, all eyes will be watching Monday to see what direction the Cardinal Fernández-authored document goes. Some observers will be paying attention to see how Dignitas Infinita impacts other ongoing Church initiatives, such as the recently established Synod on Synodality study groups, one of which has been tasked to “reinterpret” the Church’s anthropological teaching.

Then, there’s Germany. Fiducia Supplicans was interpreted by some as an effort to placate the German Synodal Way, which had been pushing for liturgical blessings of same-sex couples. The Germans are similarly interested in incorporating principles of gender ideology into Catholic practice (for instance, allowing women who identify as men to pursue the priesthood, or changing the listed sex on someone’s baptismal record if they “transition”). What will Dignitas Infinita have to say to them?

Interestingly, in the context of pushback against Fiducia Supplicans, Cardinal Fernández suggested that the forthcoming document on gender ideology and human dignity more broadly would be welcomed by more conservative-minded Catholics. In contrast to the same-sex blessing guidance, he did not expect Dignitas Infinita to be controversial.

But La Croix’s Loup Desmond wrote that the April 8 document could “provoke more shockwaves throughout the Church.”

Stay tuned to find out.