Pope Francis Taps a Like-Minded Portuguese Cardinal to Head the New Dicastery for Culture and Education

Cardinal José Mendonça is a published poet whose priestly service has centered on cultural dialogue and education, as well as ministry to homosexuals.

Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça is shown in 2021 as apostolic librarian at the Vatican exhibit, "EVERYONE: Humanity On Its Way."
Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça is shown in 2021 as apostolic librarian at the Vatican exhibit, "EVERYONE: Humanity On Its Way." (photo: Franco Origlia / Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has chosen to head the Vatican’s newly merged department for education and culture a Portuguese poet close to Francis’ thinking, but who has also been criticized for sympathizing with heterodox approaches to homosexuality and allying himself with a radical feminist Benedictine sister who promotes abortion and same-sex “marriage.”

Cardinal José Tolentino Calaça de Mendonça, 56, a native of the Portuguese island of Madeira, was appointed Sept. 26 to head the Dicastery for Culture and Education, a new curial department that brings together the former Congregation for Catholic Education and Pontifical Council for Culture. The two dicasteries were merged as part of the Roman Curia’s new apostolic constitution, Praedicate Evangelium (Preach the Gospel).

According to the constitution, as prefect Cardinal Mendonça’s tasks will include working with bishops worldwide to promote the teaching of the Catholic religion in schools, and ensuring that “the integrity of the Catholic faith is safeguarded in doctrinal teaching.” He will also be tasked with developing “the fundamental principles of education regarding schools, Catholic and ecclesiastical institutes of higher education and research.” 

As of 2020, Catholic universities number around 1,500 worldwide, while Catholic schools total approximately 200,000 serving 62.2 million students.

Cardinal Mendonça will also be in charge of promoting the Church in the world of culture, showing a “preference for dialogue as an indispensable tool of true encounter” so that “cultures may become ever more open to the Gospel, as likewise the Christian faith towards them.” The dicastery also “promotes dialogue with those who profess no religion but ‘seek an encounter with God's truth.’” 

The Portuguese prelate replaces Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi and Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, both 79. They headed the former dicasteries of culture and education respectively. 

Born in Funchal, Madeira, in 1965, and the youngest of five children, José Tolentino de Mendonça spent his first 10 years in then-Portuguese-run Angola where his father was a fisherman. During that time, he witnessed seeing a man killed in cold blood. “It’s something I still think about today, it was the first time I was afraid,” he said in a 2015 interview. “There were armed groups. We lived on the run on a boat far from land for several days.” 

But he has mostly fond memories of his time in Africa, which he left in 1975 with his parents and siblings to settle in Funchal. Once there, Mendonça soon embarked on a spiritual path and was eager to enter seminary, but his parents thought he was too young. He subsequently graduated with a licentiate in theology from the Catholic University of Portugal in Lisbon in 1989 and was ordained the following year for his home diocese of Funchal.

By that time, Father Mendonça had long been a voracious reader and avid fan of literature, and in 1990 published his first book of poems, Os Dias Contados (The Numbered Days). After ordination, he taught at the seminary and two years later, graduated with a master’s degree in biblical sciences at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. 


Priestly Service

From 1992 to 2018, then-Father Mendonça held numerous positions, including parish priest in his native diocese, rector of the Pontifical Portuguese College in Rome in 2001-2002, and chaplain, lecturer and eventually vice-rector at his alma mater in Lisbon. 

From 2010 he was rector of the Capela do Rato, a private chapel in Lisbon known previous to his arrival for welcoming homosexuals and other marginal groups. In the early 2010s, he undertook research at the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice in New York.

By 2011, having served seven years as the first director of a body promoting dialogue between the Church and the wider culture for the Portuguese bishops’ conference, the cardinal caught the eye of Benedict XVI who appointed him consultor of the Pontifical Council for Culture. 

But it wasn’t until the current pontificate that he became more widely known as he rose rapidly through the ecclesiastical ranks. 

Pope Francis chose Father Mendonça to preach at the Lenten spiritual exercises for the Roman Curia in 2018, and four months later, he appointed him archivist and librarian of the Holy Roman Church, elevating him to bishop. Just over a year later, in October 2019, Francis made him cardinal and since then has appointed him a member of the Dicasteries for Bishops, Evangelization, and Causes of Saints. 

The reasons for Cardinal Mendonça’s meteoric rise are most likely due to having a similar ecclesial vision to that of Pope Francis, as well as his love of education and his willingness to engage with the outside world. 

He has said in previous interviews that he greatly values the creativity of the classroom and that he prefers to live “in that kind of periphery that is the world of culture.” If he is “too immersed in the ecclesiastical world,” he said in the 2015 interview, “I feel like a fish out of water.

In the same interview, he said he believes “theology needs the world,” which is why he is “very interested” in how modern culture uses the Bible. 

“I’m very interested in what Bruce Springsteen does with the Bible, what [Andrei] Tarkovsky's cinema or popular culture does,” he said. The relationship between Christianity and culture is at the heart of his many writings, which have won him a number of literary prizes and awards. He also firmly believes Francis is bringing disaffected Catholics back to the Church.

But Cardinal Mendonça also seems to have supported the expression of a number of positions that conflict with Church teaching. These most notably include statements he made in a positive preface to a 2013 book called A teologia feminista na história (Feminist Theology in History) by Catalan Benedictine Sister Maria Teresa Forcades i Vila. A religious sister who has long promoted the acceptance of homosexuality in the Church, Sister Maria Teresa is also opposed to legislation banning abortion, says all women should carry the “morning after” pill in their purses, and supports women’s ordination. 

In his preface, Cardinal Mendonça stressed how Sister Maria Teresa’s apostolate must be taken as a model to “free” Christianity from the dogmatic bonds of the past and the present. 

“Teresa Forcades i Vila is a name that, for many reasons, is worth keeping,” he wrote before praising her for “courageously pointing out contradictions and looking for alternatives of interpretation that support a break in meaning and civilization.” He added that “the essential thing” to recognize is that Jesus “neither codified nor regulated; Jesus lived, that is, he built a relationship ethic.” 

Sister Maria Teresa, who has spoken in favor of a “Queer Revolution” in the Church, teamed up again with then-Father Mendonça in 2016 when she spoke at the launch of his new book, Vers una Spiritualitat dels Sentits (Through a Spirituality of Feelings). The Register asked the cardinal on Sept. 29 if he regretted allying himself so closely with Sister Forcades, but he had not replied at the time this article was published.


‘I Don’t Judge’

Other comments of Cardinal Mendonça have also caused concern that the prelate is soft on teaching that the Church’s position that active homosexual lifestyles are contrary to God’s plan for sexuality. These include those made in the same 2015 interview in which he was asked how he found being chaplain at the Capela do Rato, where he worked with homosexuals. 

“Very natural,” he replied. “I don’t choose the people with whom I have to walk. Since I don’t choose, I don’t judge. The attitude of the Church has to be one of welcome, of a normal accompaniment of what people live and are.” 

Cardinal Mendonça said in the 2015 interview that for his generation, the Second Vatican Council “is the normal way of looking at the Church, the world” and that he did not think Francis’ pontificate was any more disputed than its predecessors. What was new, he said, was to see a pope contested by a “more conservative wing,” and by some “important names, even cardinals, who in some ways are willing to put traditionalism above tradition.” 

“Tradition has always been the recognition that Peter was the guarantor of unity, of communion,” he added. “Today it seems, in some positions, that one wants to almost try to impeach the Pope, a symbolic impeachment. But these are specific cases,” he said. “And looking at Pope Francis, it’s very interesting to see how he handles this whole situation. He leads with a fine sense of humor. And when a pastor leads us with a sense of humor, I think we’re well taken care of.”

In another interview in 2016, he compared the community at Capela do Rato to what Francis has described as a “field hospital,” saying he felt this very much there, where “many people” had been “touched by the witness of Pope Francis and were willing to retrace their own relationship path with Christianity.” 

“Whether remarried Christians, those wounded by the experience of marital breakdown, or the reality of new [irregular] families, or homosexual people, the Church must find a space for listening,” he said. 


Shift in Direction?

The former Congregation for Catholic Education has, in the past, been clear in its opposition to homosexual activity, notably issuing an instruction in 2005 barring homosexuals with “deep-seated tendencies” from entering seminary. In 2019, it also firmly spoke out against gender ideology in Catholic schools.

But more recently it has aligned itself with the secular approach of international bodies such as the United Nations, most notably by founding the Global Compact on Education, a Holy See initiative “to create a global change of mentality through education” so that education “may become a creator of fraternity, peace, and justice.” In January, The Vatican congregation released a document titled “The Identity of the Catholic School for a Culture of Dialogue, which highlighted the Global Compact on Education as a vehicle for responding to the context of the “epochal change” that the document said is now underway. 

In a speech to relaunch the initiative last year, Pope Francis said he hoped the compact would “rekindle our dedication” for a “more open and inclusive education, including patient listening, constructive dialogue and better mutual understanding.”

“[We] want to be defenders of the identity and dignity of every individual and to teach young people to accept everyone without discrimination,” Francis continued. “For this reason, education commits us to accept people as they are, not how we want them to be, without judging or condemning anyone.”