Rorate Caeli

Nico Spuntoni: "Bergoglio's 'revenge' on Ratzinger: what's behind the appointment of 'Tucho' Fernández"

Nico Spuntoni
Il Giornale
July 9, 2023
(source in Italian)

Although the Roman Curia was not essential for him, Monsignor Víctor Manuel Fernández will lead its most important dicastery. Less than twenty years ago the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was in the hands of Joseph Ratzinger, until six years ago in those of the trusted Gerhard Ludwig Müller. Now the former Holy Office will pass from the hands of moderate Jesuit Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer to those of the 60-year-old Argentine of the man whom they call in his homeland "beloved disciple" and "major interpreter" of Francis.
The payback

By choosing him for the role that was believed until now to be the custodian of Catholic orthodoxy, Jorge Mario Bergoglio wanted to take personal revenge against past pontificates. In fact, as archbishop of Buenos Aires and grand chancellor of the Universidad Católica Argentina, then-Cardinal Bergoglio did not hesitate to clash with the Curia that wanted to deny pontifical approval to the appointment of his right-hand man Fernández as rector.

The then-primate of Argentina did not like to come to Rome as evidenced by his confession that he only saw the Sistine Chapel for the first time in his life in 2005 while attending the Conclave following the death of John Paul II. Nevertheless, in order to get the papal green light for his appointment as rector of the UCA, he took the plane and managed to win a two-year-long tug-of-war with the Curia.

This episode testifies to the iron relationship between Francis and the newly appointed prefect of the dicastery for the doctrine of the faith cemented in the days of the Fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops' Council in 2007, when the then-cardinal chaired the drafting committee for the final document and wanted the young Cordoba-based theologian beside him.

The result was that Aparecida Document - named after the Brazilian location of the meeting - which is considered the programmatic manifesto of the future Bergoglian pontificate and which, not coincidentally, the Argentine pope gives to the Latin American leaders received at the Vatican. Cardinal Angelo Scola, main competitor at the last Conclave, used the image of the "punch in the stomach of the Church" (however "healthy"), to define Francis' papacy: the appointment of Fernández to the dicastery for the doctrine of the faith is an example.

It was feared that the Bishop of Hildesheim, Heiner Wilmer, a great supporter of the German Synodal path agenda that risked causing a schism within the Church, might arrive at the Palace of the Holy Office. Fernández's choice in no way reassures those who feared Wilmer but, on the contrary, is interpreted as demonstrating that from now on, instead of being a brake in the face of the most radical instances, the former Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will become an accelerator of them.

The enfant prodige of the Argentine episcopate

From rector of the Universidad Católica Argentina unwelcome in Rome during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, Víctor Manuel Fernández found himself climbing the ecclesiastical cursus honorum in a short time after the election of his mentor Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Two months after the historic March 13, 2013, Francis elevated him to archbishop without assigning him a diocesan post but keeping him at the helm of the university as never before.

Then, in 2018, his appointment as archbishop of La Plata in place of Monsignor Héctor Rubén Aguer, a prelate with theological and pastoral sensibilities far removed from his own. A caesura reminiscent of the one that will take place today at the former Holy Office with the handover from Cardinal Ladaria Ferrer. Monsignor Aguer has distinguished himself in recent years for being a critical voice of the line of Francis' pontificate and even recently had harsh words for the upcoming Synod on Synodality in which Fernàndez will participate as head of the dicastery, arguing that "the synodal program, like that of the German Synod, draws another Church, heterogeneous with respect to the great and unanimous Tradition."

In the face of criticism that in recent years has not been lacking even in Argentina, Monsignor Fernández has always wanted to speak out publicly to defend the Pope. He did so, for example, in the face of the controversy triggered by the documentary that featured an excerpt of an interview in which Francis opened to civil unions.

At the time, Tucho - that's his nickname - wrote on social media that "Bergoglio has always recognized that, without calling it marriage, in reality there are very close unions between people of the same sex, which do not imply sexual relations per se, but a very intense and stable alliance." In dictating the line of the pontificate, in previous years Fernández told the Argentine press that "there are things the Church can no longer do: any condemning, aggressive, or authoritarian attitude toward those who think differently or have difficulty coping has become unacceptable weight of its limitations." Very similar words to those found in the letter written to him by Francis for his appointment as prefect where we read:

"The Dicastery that you will preside over in other times came to use immoral methods. Those were times when, instead of promoting theological knowledge, possible doctrinal errors were pursued. What I expect from you is certainly something very different."

The ideas of the new prefect

The theologian Víctor Manuel Fernández, as recalled by Luisella Scrosati in LaNuovaBq, has been open-minded about the use of contraception contrary to what St. Paul VI wrote in Humanae Vitae. On another of the hot dossiers, that of blessings of same-sex couples, the new prefect said he was against it in case they cause confusion that the only marriage is between a man and a woman, but at the same time he added that "if a blessing is given in such a way as not to create that confusion, it will have to be examined and confirmed." This is a softer position than the one formulated in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's Responsum of 2021.

In an interview granted to the daily Domani, Tucho declared himself a victim of prejudice by those who criticize him, considering him "an ignorant Latin American usurper." It is a fact that he came to the leadership of the former Supreme Congregation on the strength of a lasting friendship and collaboration with the Pontiff. Just as it is a fact that Latin American background cannot be considered a discrimination at the top of the Holy See since it unites the Pope, the prefect of the most important dicastery, and the deputy at the Secretariat of State.


The manner in which Monsignor Fernández's appointment took place, as recounted by the person directly involved, testifies to how Francis' pontificate has definitely entered a new phase. Tucho, in fact, revealed that the Pope asked him to accept the appointment with some insistence, phoning him from the hospital where he was hospitalized. This circumstance brings back to a concept expressed in the past by the new prefect: "No, there is no going back. If and when Francis was no longer pope, his legacy remains strong," he told Corsera in 2015. By choosing his longtime ghostwriter from the days of Aparecida and entrusting him with the task of making sure that the documents of the other dicasteries "take into account the recent Magisterium," Francis wants to try to armor-plate that legacy, knowing that the pontificate will not last another ten years.

The appointment of Fernández that has occurred now as well as other more recent appointments and renunciations tell another aspect of the current pontificate: on the part of the pope there has been some form of respect for Benedict XVI that, however, only slowed but did not at all halt the roadmap he had given himself. In fact, the letter to the new prefect - if there was any further need - confirms the desire for discontinuity with which Francis has decided to govern the Church. Although the intention to turn a page from the past was already evident since the evening of March 13, 2013, the Argentine pope partially sought to tone down his revolutionary drive as long as his predecessor remained alive: in this sense are to be interpreted the creation as cardinal of Gerhard Ludwig Müller chosen by Ratzinger at the former Holy Office or the appointment of Cardinal Robert Sarah to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments or the permanence - at first effective, then only formal - of Monsignor Georg Gänswein as prefect of the Papal Household, as well as the succession of Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki in the Archdiocese of Cologne in continuity with his friend Joachim Meisner.

Perhaps not even he - quoting Ratzinger's own words - had thought that "the last stretch of road from the Monastery to the gates of Heaven where Peter stands could be so long," and faced with the passage of years he decided not to delay any longer the measures he probably had in his mind from before. For example, Traditionis custodes which repealed the liberalization of the so-called Latin Mass desired by Benedict XVI was dated 2021, eight years after his election. Ratzinger's death in late 2022 and the simultaneous increase in his health problems hastened the implementation of Francis' program.

If the sand in the hourglass is flowing, it is no longer time for gradualism, and putting a loyalist in such a key post as the dicastery for the doctrine of the faith is a guarantee that the processes set in motion over these nearly 11 years will not be shelved.