Rorate Caeli

The appointment of the new prefect of the congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — by Roberto de Mattei

Roberto de Mattei

July 5, 2023

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.

For anyone who may wish to delve into these serious problems, sometimes treated with incompetence and superficiality, I recommend two recently published books: Super hanc petram. Il Papa e la Chiesa in un’ora drammatica della storia by Fr Serafino Lanzetta (Edizioni Fiducia, Rome 2022) and Non era più lui. Una risposta al Codice Ratzinger sulla rinuncia di Benedetto XVI by Federico Michielan and Francesco Patruno (Fede e Cultura, Verona 2023, with a preface by Mgr Nicola Bux).


There is no doubt, Fr Lanzetta explains, that with the pontificate of Francis there has been a fundamental blurring of the person of the pope and of the mystery-Church, with an attempt at a general revision of the previous magisterium and of the doctrine of faith and morality in crucial points. However, “if a pope should renounce the exercise of his munus proprio of confirming his brothers in the faith and even teach ambiguous doctrines bordering on heresy, this does not immediately mean that that pope is not a true pope. One should rather ask oneself how it is possible that the faith of a pope should falter. Although raised to the highest degree of dignity in the Church, with a grace proportionate to his status, he still remains that Simon who struggles to become Peter and lets himself be dazzled by the various sirens, by the spirit of the time, which now and again propose an easier way, a way that is not that of the Cross” (p. 43). Even if the pope were to become an instrument of doctrinal confusion, the legitimate criticism that should be addressed to him should not consist in questioning his munus - unless there evidence clear to all that attests to it - “but only in verifying in the light of the constant doctrine of the Church whether this munus is being exercised or not, whether the Petrine role is being fulfilled or not, whether the faith and morals taught by the pope are the faith and morals of the Church” (p. 45).

If Fr Lanzetta’s discourse takes place on a strictly theological level, the jurists Federico Michielan and Francesco Patruno address it on the level of canon law. There are those who argue that Pope Francis is not pope because Benedict XVI never renounced the pontificate. Michielan carefully examines all the contradictions, above all of a theological nature, that are found in the abdication of Benedict XVI, almost as if he had wanted to give up “acting as pope” without giving up “being pope”. These contradictions, expressed in the white habit that Benedict continued to wear, in the name he kept and above all in the unprecedented title of “Pope emeritus”, do not invalidate Benedict’s resignation. The confusion exists nonetheless, and it will be necessary for a future pope to dispel it with clarity.

In the second part of the book, Michielan interviews the lawyer Francesco Patruno, who immediately clears the ground of the theology-fiction conspiracism that is so widespread today. «It is more than normal», the canonist affirms, «that historians and canonists should engage in a scholarly debate on the legitimacy of a pope or on the validity of his resignation. What damages the seriousness of historical-juridical research is precisely the literature of a conspiracist stamp» (pp. 147-148).

One of the workhorses of these conspiracist theses is the affirmation of the “sede impedita”, according to which Benedict XVI was induced to make his “renunciation” because he was kept from governing. Patruno demonstrates how this thesis is unsustainable. Benedict XVI may have been “obstructed” by his enemies in some acts, but being obstructed does not mean being impeded, and does not compromise the validity of an election. Moreover, the idea that Benedict XVI deliberately devised an invalid resignation to set a trap for Cardinal Bergoglio would make him gravely guilty before God, because it would mean substituting Machiavellian cunning for trust in the action of the Holy Spirit and Divine Providence. Supporters of this thesis do not realise that they make Benedict XVI just as “diabolical” as the rival he is pitted against.

The thesis according to which pressure from the so-called “St Gallen mafia” invalidated the 2013 conclave is also without juridical foundation. All the conclaves of the twentieth century saw the existence of opposing groups, starting with the one that elected St Pius X, following the Austrian veto brought against Cardinal Rampolla. The very election of Benedict XVI in 2005 was probably due to a compromise between two factions that opposed each other in the conclave, Cardinal Martini’s “St Gallen Group” and Cardinal Ratzinger’s “Salt of the Earth Party”. According to a plausible reconstruction by Patruno, the compromise between the two groups envisaged the election of Cardinal Bergoglio after that of Cardinal Ratzinger, which in fact happened. The existence of such agreements, if proven, would not invalidate the 2013 election, much less that of 2005.

As regards the Mass una cum Bergoglio, the lawyer Patruno gives a good explanation of the passage of St Thomas, often quoted inappropriately, according to which anyone sins who hears Mass or receives the sacraments from heretical, schismatic or excommunicated ministers (Summa Theologiae, III, q.82, a.9). The passage refers to heretics, schismatics and the excommunicated who are deprived of the exercise of their powers by a sentence of the Church. Until this definitive pronouncement has been made, one may to go to Mass and receive the sacraments from priests subjectively considered heretical, etc. Communicatio in sacris with heretics is illicit when a sentence of the Church has declared them as such, but until that moment it is licit to receive communion from them and hear their Mass.

Pope Francis, the lawyer Patruno judiciously asserts, may be a debated figure, but “until there is the sententia ecclesiae, no one - layman or ordinary priest - may substitute himself for the teaching Church” (p. 213). At the most, the opinion that one might have about Francis could count as the opinion of a private scholar. But no man, apart from the pope, is by nature infallible: only the pope is, under certain conditions, when he exercises his mandate. Moreover, there can be no Church without a pope, and if today the pope is not Francis, who is or will be? These are unavoidable questions to which a “charismatic” answer cannot be given, outside the most elementary notions of theology and canon law.

The most reasonable path to follow in this painful situation seems to be the one traced by the Correctio filialis of 16 July 2017 (, a firm and respectful document presented by 40 scholars, later becoming more than 200, to urge the Holy Father to reject the heresies and errors he has promoted. This initiative deserves to be taken up again, but above all adopted by a suitable number of cardinals and bishops, not in order to “depose” the pope, but to admonish him filially, following the example of St Paul towards St Peter (Ad Gal 2:14).

In moments of serious crisis there is an obligation to denounce errors, even coming from the supreme ecclesiastical authority, with all due respect for the Vicar of Christ and without scandal for souls, as a Roman theologian, the Passionist father Enrico Zoffoli (1915-1996), reminds us, quoting the words of Saint Catherine of Siena: «Your Holiness, take care that I do not have to complain about you to Jesus Crucified. To no one else could I in fact complain, because You have no superior on earth!» (La vera Chiesa di Cristo, Pro Manuscripto, Rome 1990, p. 287). (Roberto de Mattei)