Pope Francis and the Return of the ‘Suprema’

ANALYSIS: Only one visible presence has remained close to Pope Francis throughout the pontificate — Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández.

Newly elected Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, right, receives his biretta from Pope Francis as he is elevated in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023.
Newly elected Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, right, receives his biretta from Pope Francis as he is elevated in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. (photo: Riccardo De Luca / AP)

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was in the past called La Suprema — “The Supreme [Congregation]” — and the Pope himself was its prefect. Over time, the Secretariat of State surpassed and eclipsed the CDF. Paul VI made the Secretariat of State the coordination center of the entire Roman Curia.

Then came Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI, and chose Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as his secretary of state. Cardinal Bertone had been Cardinal Ratzinger’s second-in-command at the CDF, and he wasn’t a diplomat. Some described the choice as a return to the centrality of the doctrine of faith in the life of the Church, and even saw the appointment as a political act that certified a resurgency of the CDF as La Suprema.

Benedict XVI’s pontificate, however, showed that such a reading was rather inexact at best. Even during the busy and heady year of 2006, in which Benedict made many of the most significant changes in personnel and charted the course of his pontificate, he never behaved antagonistically.

Benedict tried to unite rather than divide. He called to his side long-time diplomats such as Cardinal Ivan Dias and Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo and, at the same time, members and former members of the CDF. During the pontificate of Benedict XVI, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith continued its work, and it was never perceived that it had a different weight or a more significant impact. No revenge for La Suprema, then.

For that irony of ironies, we’d have to wait for Pope Francis.

They say that during the pre-conclave meetings — “general congregations” in ecclesiastical jargon — Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio stopped to praise the work of the diplomats. It is also said that Bergoglio had praised the work of the apostolic nuncios in one of his spontaneous interventions to the congregations, which was not as widely disseminated as the one in which he spoke of the outgoing Church.

Then, at the beginning of his pontificate, he underlined that he was looking for the men of the old Curia, that is, those who knew the institution and who served the institution. That, too, seemed to be an olive branch extended to those who had been disappointed during the pontificate of Benedict XVI.

Furthermore, in every consistory, Pope Francis has almost every time created “remediation cardinals,” men past 80 years of age and ineligible to vote in conclave, so-called because they showed Francis’ disagreement with how things had been managed in the past. Upon closer inspection, one notes that many of them came from the diplomatic world. More to the point, Pope Francis has made cardinals of no fewer than three active nuncios.

All this, however, has not meant a new centrality for the Secretariat of State and the Vatican diplomatic world. Indeed, the Secretariat of State has steadily lost its centrality. For example, the secretary of state was always president of the Board of Superintendence of the Institute of Works of Religion (Vatican Bank). Francis put an end to that. The secretary of state no longer even sits on the board.

The Secretariat of State lost its administrative autonomy with respect to financial oversight in favor of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See following the investigations that led to the trial on managing the Secretariat of State’s funds.

Pope Francis, meanwhile, has increasingly centralized decisions. Sometimes, there is talk of a “magic circle” around Pope Francis, which filters information and guides decisions. This also appears to be an inexact description. It is more closely the case that Pope Francis has had multiple circles and has gone through several sets of people who at one time had his ear.

Even his nurse who saved his life hasn’t been seen at the Pope’s side for a while.

Only one visible presence has remained close to Pope Francis throughout the pontificate: Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández.

Pope Francis appointed him prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. With Cardinal Fernández, the DDF has once again come to merit its nickname, La Suprema. And this despite Pope Francis announcing his appointment with a letter denouncing some immoral practices of the past with which “rather than promoting theological knowledge, doctrinal errors were pursued.”

Therefore, La Suprema is back in a new form. It is not there to discipline wayward theologians or to correct opinions that risk being heretical, but rather to “promote theological knowledge.” This means new statutes for the International Theological Commission, greater openness to other disciplines, and significant autonomy in Cardinal Fernández’s choices.

The cardinal, for his part, hasn’t exactly been shy about making response documents public whenever he believes it is necessary to mark a change, even when that change has already occurred and is already being practiced. The Fiducia Supplicans declaration — which the Pope supported in the speech delivered to the plenary of the dicastery on Jan. 26 — is a clear example.

No one has ever refused a blessing when it consists of a Sign of the Cross on the forehead. Still, creating and publishing a declaration means giving the green light for a procedure that certainly doesn’t move the Catholic Church further away from legitimizing all sorts of “irregular” unions, even if it leaves doctrine in place and formally unchanged. In fact, some activist priests immediately rushed to provide blessings with photographers in tow.

Fiducia Supplicans has also caused particular dismay in the Eastern Orthodox world, as explained by Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, who spoke of having received some critical comments from the sister Churches. A few days later, Pope Francis made Cardinal Fernández a member of Cardinal Koch’s dicastery and named Msgr. Armando Matteo — who is secretary of the DDF — a consultant to Christian Unity.

There is a perfectly reasonable and run-of-the-mill explanation for making Cardinal Fernández a member of Christian Unity. Cardinal Fernández replaced his predecessor, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, who turned 80 a while back, and had already served five years as a member, so it was time for him to step down. Msgr. Matteo’s appointment is therefore the one that raises eyebrows.

Members of dicasteries are periodically convened in plenary assemblies which, based on the experiences, needs, and expectations of lay people worldwide, study the broad lines of the direction and programs of the dicastery. Consultants are generally called upon to give qualified opinions on theological, canonical, pastoral, and similar matters.

In any case, it is striking that Christian Unity is the ninth dicastery to which Pope Francis has appointed Cardinal Fernández as member. The Pope had initially assigned him as a member of seven dicasteries (for Evangelization, both to its section for the fundamental questions of evangelization in the world and to its section for the establishment and support of new particular Churches; for the Oriental Churches; for the Bishops; for the Laity, Family, and Life; for Culture and Education), and later also appointed him a member of the Dicastery for Legislative Texts, even though Cardinal Fernández has no legal expertise and begged off responsibility for the management of the canonical-disciplinary section of DDF.

By contrast, Cardinal Ladaria was a member of only five dicasteries.

Cardinal Fernández, therefore, is called to be present in various meetings, to bring his point of view, and also to make the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith an extension of Pope Francis’ personal secretariat, a department upon which Pope Francis can call any time he wants to change something.

So, La Suprema is back, only vested now with a different supremacy not linked to curial institutions but to the personality that heads the entire apparatus. Then again, the Francis pontificate is a very different pontificate, one characterized above all by the personality of the reigning pope.

La Suprema is back, but it hasn’t taken revenge. Indeed, La Suprema came back somewhat unrecognizable, personalized, and different from how we remembered her.

The risk is that the new Supreme Congregation will sow disunity. It is true, as Cardinal Fernández says, that he has not so much created conflicts as caused them to emerge. It may or may not be up to him to decide whether to let them re-submerge, or to fester on the surface.

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to supporters during a campaign rally at West Allis Central High School on July 23 in West Allis, Wisconsin.

Kamala Harris’ Record on Catholic Issues: What You Need to Know

Harris has consistently promoted abortion, scrutinized Catholic judicial nominees, and opposed pro-life pregnancy centers and activists. She has also embraced gender ideology as well as transgender and contraception mandates that have, at times, jeopardized religious freedom.