Pope Francis and the Race to Secure His Legacy

ANALYSIS: The Holy Father’s appointment of Archbishop Victor Fernandez to lead the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith was 10 years in the making.

Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, is pitcured in 2014 at the Vatican Press Office. Pope Francis appointed the archbishop the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith July 1.
Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, is pitcured in 2014 at the Vatican Press Office. Pope Francis appointed the archbishop the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith July 1. (photo: Catholic News Agency)

The news is not the appointment of his trusted theologian as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Although recent rumors had focused more on the possibility that a German like Bishop Wilmer could take the seat of guardian of the Doctrine of the Faith, the name of Victor Fernandez had always been among the possible candidates as head of the former Holy Office.

But the real news is the letter, in Spanish, with which Pope Francis accompanies the appointment. At the same time, the bulletin of the Press Office of the Holy See does not fail to dwell on the list of publications of the new prefect, even going as far as, in a minimal ritual way, to underline that “between books and scientific articles, he has more than 300 publications, many of which have been translated into various languages. These writings show an important biblical basis and a constant effort of dialogue between theology and culture, the evangelizing mission, spirituality, and social issues.”

It is certainly not in the style of a Holy See’s Press Office press release. It was like if somebody had to justify the appointment, or to accredit it to a broader public. The Holy See Press Office seems to have received everything already packaged, including the Pope’s accompanying letter, released in Spanish and without any working translation.

But the real crux is the letter. Because in the letter, we find all the intent of Pope Francis to define a change of course for the Church, closing a path that had seen him, 10 years ago, appoint Fernandez archbishop when he was still rector of the Catholic University of Buenos Aires. An appointment that was supposed to be a signal because the archbishop of Buenos Aires Bergoglio had fought to have Fernandez rector against the opinion of the Congregation for Catholic Education, particularly of then-secretary Archbishop Brugués. Pope Francis found the latter as librarian of the Holy Roman Church but never created him a cardinal, sending him into retirement as archbishop.

Fernandez’s appointment as prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith completes a ten-year journey, during which Fernandez has always been in the background: he is considered the ghostwriter of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis’ programmatic exhortation, and Amoris Laetitia, the outcomes of two Synods of the Family where Archbishop Fernandez was pushing for a text that was certainly more open than the actual exhortation.

In some way, the appointment reveals the Pope’s thinking. Because in the letter, the Pope underlines that the dicastery “in other eras came to use immoral methods,” with which “rather than promoting theological knowledge, potential doctrinal errors were persecuted.”

And one wonders what other eras Pope Francis is thinking of because the words also sound like an indictment of recent decisions. And yet, if one thinks of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in recent years, and in particular the one led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, one thinks of one of the congregations with the most synodal methods possible: the feria quarta meetings, the constant discussions before reaching doctrinal warnings, the decision, should one proceed against a particular theological line or correct an error, to always work in the positive, never in the negative. And basically, the congregation drew up two documents on liberation theology, two instructions that one went to highlight its positive aspects and the other its negative drifts.

The Church of the recent past, after all, was not unmerciful. Benedict XVI underlined that “the name of God is mercy.” But it was also Benedict XVI who wrote, in his letter to the Catholics of Ireland in 2010, that the danger was in losing the sense of sin and the importance of Christian education, leading to abuses. In short, there was a search for balance.

This pontificate seems to be made up of two opposing pendulums. On the one hand, there is the pendulum that now hangs totally towards the idea of total mercy; on the other, the pendulum which, on the subject of abuses in the Church, has embraced the line of absolute zero tolerance. And on the one hand, there is the pendulum that aims at total synodality; on the other, a centralization of the Pope’s decisions which, in the end, makes the Church more of an absolute monarchy than ever.

In the letter, the Pope does not fail to recall the reform of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of February 2022. Previously, the congregation consisted of four offices: disciplinary, doctrinal, matrimonial, and the fourth section, which had the task of following up the question of relations with the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X and the application of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, and it no longer had any reason to exist after the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, which revoked the concessions of Benedict XVI to the use of the ancient rite.

With reform, the former CDF comprises two sections, one disciplinary and one doctrinal, with two secretaries: Monsignor Joseph Kennedy for the disciplinary section and Monsignor Armando Matteo for the doctrinal section. Thus, the managerial profile of the congregation seems to have strengthened, with a more hierarchical structure and a more precise division of competencies.

It is also true that the four offices, working with synchrony, highlighted a true collegiality in decision making and created specialists in specific subjects. Doctrinal questions always remained in the background in any decision. If the Pope wants the prefect to “look after at the faith” but no longer condemn, the risk remains that the disciplinary element will prevail over the doctrinal one.

In practice, there is the risk of punishing abuses but not being able to work starting from questions of faith. There is something like a separation between faith and life, characterized by the fact that — the Pope writes in his letter to Fernandez — ideas that do not start from God’s omnipotence and his mercy are inadequate.

In that letter is the legacy of Pope Francis fully, who, in practice, is forcing his hand, imposing his vision of the world with decisive and sometimes even harsh measures. It happened when he had to intervene in the Order of Malta, when he even intervened in the progress of processes of the Vatican State, also when in 2017 he sent a letter to the Argentinian bishops about the interpretation of the Amoris Laetitia and wanted it to be published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, giving credit and indicating a way, and now when he intervenes on how the prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith should carry out his mission.

But this nomination, which came almost suddenly, also tells of the Pope’s haste to secure his legacy. Matteo Matzuzzi, in the Italian newspaper Il Foglio, noted that the Pope is making a series of appointments of young bishops in critical positions who can remain in office for at least 20 years. This is the case of the new archbishop of Madrid, José Cobo Cano, or the new archbishop of Brussels, Luc Terlinden, and the new archbishop of Buenos Aires, Josè Ignacio Garcìa Cueva, to give three of the most recent examples.

And then, there is the Pope’s will to give a title to his direct collaborators. An essential trait is that all those that the Pope puts in charge of commissions that he deems to be financial, he makes a bishop. He appointed Diego Ravelli, pontifical master of ceremonies, as archbishop and papal legate of the Basilica of Sant’Antonio in Padua. It also happened for the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, whose papal commissioner, Rolandas Mackrickas, was ordained bishop in the middle of this year.

Pope Francis appointed Bishop Alejandro Cedillo dean of the Roman Rota, a position that in general was not occupied by a bishop. Cedillo also heads of the court of appeal, that manages some financial processes that have reached the second degree. If the financial part seems to be a central theme, widening the gaze, it can be seen that the Pope is also trying to break links in the field of Vatican justice.

He did so, for example, by reforming the Vatican Court of Cassation, traditionally led by the prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, which now has Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell as its president and Cardinals Mauro Gambetti, Matteo Zuppi, and Paolo Lojudice as judges. What is striking is the choice of Cardinal Farrell as president of the Cassation. Farrell is also Camerlengo (chamberlain), and he will be the one to manage the vacant see and, therefore, the administration, including the economy, of the Holy See [when Pope Francis dies or resigns].

However marginal they may appear, do these decisions tell us what the Pope’s government will be like in the coming months? Yes, they do say something.

First of all, they say that the Pope is creating a team of people who are loyal to him and reflect his thinking. They don’t have to be experts. Instead, they must be executors of the Pope’s will, people who are aligned with and able to carry forward his ideas.

Secondly, they say that the Pope wants to give the idea that he is following every situation closely, to the point of appointing direct collaborators to be informed or to involve these collaborators even more.

Fernandez’s nomination came suddenly, but he meets these criteria. He will be called to a difficult task, namely, to understand the Pope’s line fully.

Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has spoken of a general pastoral conversion, of going to the peripheries, and of putting the mission at the center. The apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium seeks to make this missionary spirit concrete. The Council of Cardinals, which recently met for the second time in its new composition, also discussed how to carry forward this missionary spirit and how missionary spirit and synodality can be combined.

However, these are abstract terms, still difficult to concretize, which fall within the celebration of a Synod, which instead aims to renew the life of the Church precisely on the principle of synodality or of walking together. But does synodality mean an ongoing discussion that is not reflected in any final decisions, or does it mean a conversation that leads to a shared conclusion?

We are probably in the third phase of the Pope’s pontificate. It is the phase in which the pontificate seeks its consolidation before its inevitable decline. And Pope Francis carries out this consolidation precisely by appointing bishops and prefects, favoring the most loyal. And, perhaps, thinking of the following unpredictable list of new cardinals that should come by the end of the year. A list that has been talked about for some time but which the Pope has kept to himself for now.

Editor’s note: This story by Andrea Gagliarducci first appeared today at MondayVatican.com. It is reprinted with the author’s permission.