The appointment of Víctor Manuel Fernández, archbishop of La Plata, as head of the congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is one of the most disturbing acts of the pontificate of Pope Francis, not only for the choice of the questionable figure, but also for the unusual letter that accompanied his appointment. To Archbishop Fernández, known for his positions that often diverge from the Magisterium of the Church, especially in the field of morality, Francis wrote on 1 July 2023: «The Dicastery over which you will preside in other times came to use immoral methods. Those were times when, rather than promoting theological knowledge, possible doctrinal errors were pursued. What I expect from you is certainly something very different.».
What times is the pope referring to, and what are the immoral methods used by the congregation that, since it took its current name in 1965, has been led by, among others, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (1981-2005) and Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller (2012-2017)? Pope Francis urges the new prefect to avoid “pursuing” doctrinal errors. In fact, he affirms, quoting Evangeli Gaudium, the Church “‘grow[s] in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of truth’ without this implying the imposition of a single way of expressing it. For ‘Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology, and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow’”.
It would seem that the Church must tolerate within itself, in a dialectical manner, different theological opinions, as long as they are not too «rigid», namely too consistent with orthodoxy, and that one should not content oneself “with a desk-bound theology”, with «a cold and hard logic that seeks to dominate everything». The truths of the Catholic faith must not be presented in an assertive, universal manner rigorously in keeping with the previous Magisterium. No document prior to Francis’s pontificate, not even of Vatican Council II, is cited in the eleven footnotes that accompany the disconcerting document.
It is more than logical that an act of this kind should cause dismay and raise questions and perplexities. The pope is the Vicar of Christ, but before the pope there is the Church, and every Catholic, as a member of the Mystical Body, has the right to disagree with words or actions, even of a pope, that appear to be contrary to the faith received with Baptism. A Shepherd who ceases to confirm in the faith the flock entrusted to him does not appear worthy of the supreme mission that Christ has entrusted to his Vicar. An “unworthy” pope, according to such an eminent theologian as Mgr Brunero Gherardini (1925-2017), is the pope who exercises his primacy in an arbitrary way, putting himself above Christ and betraying his mission (Contemplando la Chiesa. Considerazioni teologi sul misteri della Chiesa, nn. 1-3 (2007), p 183). But an unworthy pope does not cease to be pope. The temptation into which some unfortunately fall today is that of rejecting Pope Francis as Vicar of Christ, without any sentence from the Church having so decreed. And today the rejection of Francis’s legitimacy comes not only from those who openly define him as a “usurper” and “antipope”, but also from those who, in a more ambiguous way, speak of him with contempt, simply calling him “Bergoglio” and encouraging priests not to mention his name at the beginning of the canon of the Mass (una cum). The mystery of the Church, holy in her doctrine and divine constitution but sinful in her humanity, must be approached with reflection and balance, with charity and prayer.
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