Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández is a man close to the pope — and his mission. The relationship between these two men can be traced back to their native Argentina, where, nearly a decade ago, then-Cardinal Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio “fought tooth and nail to clear the way for the promotion of his protege” to the position of rector at the Universidad Católica Argentina. It was a job the alumnus and faculty member of the Catholic University of Argentina had wanted for some time, but he was stopped by from obtaining it by the Congregation for Catholic Education. Why this obstruction in the career path of an up and comer under the tutelage of the future pope? It was in part because of work Fernández did on the topic of marriage and family. Work that was created as a counterpoint to a 2004 conference in Buenos Aires dedicated to the theology of the family in light of Veritatis Splendor. Work that would later re-appear nearly verbatim in the controversial eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia.
Of his work on the topic at the time, Vaticanista Sandro Magister writes:
During those years Fernández was professor of theology at the Universidad Católica Argentina in Buenos Aires.
And at that same university in 2004 an international theological conference was held on “Veritatis Splendor,” the encyclical of John Paul II on “certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine,” decisively critical of “situational” ethics, the permissive tendency already present among the Jesuits in the 17th century and today more widespread than ever in the Church.
Attention. “Veritatis Splendor” is not a minor encyclical. In March of 2014, in one of his rare and deeply pondered writings as pope emeritus, indicating the encyclicals out of the fourteen published by John Paul II that in his judgment are “most important for the Church,” Joseph Ratzinger cited four of these, with a few lines for each, but then he added a fifth, which was precisely “Veritatis Splendor,” to which he dedicated an entire page, calling it “of unchanged relevance” and concluding that “studying and assimilating this encyclical remains a great and important duty.”
In “Veritatis Splendor” the pope emeritus saw the restoration to Catholic morality of its metaphysical and Christological foundation, the only one capable of overcoming the pragmatic drift of current morality, “in which there no longer exists that which is truly evil and that which is truly good, but only that which, from the point of view of efficacy, is better or worse.”
So then, that 2004 conference in Buenos Aires, dedicated in particular to the theology of the family, moved in the same direction later examined by Ratzinger. And it was precisely in order to react to that conference that Fernández wrote the two articles cited here, practically in defense of situational ethics.
It would seem, then, that the Congregation for Catholic Education was right to block Fernandez from the top position at a Catholic university. However, as Magister notes, they were forced “to have to give in later, in 2009”, when Bergoglio exerted his considerable influence.
To say that Fernández knows the mind of the pope on his now-infamous post-synodal apostolic exhortation is an understatement; it was Fernández who was the author of much of what was written therein. And as we all know, the very substance of that document has sparked one of the most significant theological debates among some of the Church’s most preeminent scholars and clergy around the world.
It was also Fernández who, over two years ago, laid out the road map for the papacy when he made clear that the “reform” agenda of Pope Francis was, by design, intended to be “irreversible”. In May of 2015, Fernández was interviewed for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera by Robert Mickens — the openly homosexual journalist who lost his position as the Rome correspondent at the leftist UK Catholic publication The Tablet after referring to Pope Benedict XVI as “the Rat” and seemingly wishing for his imminent death. The same Robert Mickens who, in September of that same year, referred to the pope admiringly as a “Master Tactician” who is “keeping score” against those who get in his way. The same Robert Mickens who wrote just last month, with apparent anticipation, that “the reformer-pope has run out of patience with the obstructionists [in the curia] and now wants to move more decisively in replacing them with people who are much more eager to promote his agenda. After all, the clock is ticking.”
And perhaps only a sympathetic interviewer of Mickens’ stripe could have elicited such brazen candor from this Argentinian Archbishop who has ridden his patron’s coattails all the way to the episcopacy — and into Vatican’s inner circle.
“There’s no turning back.” Fernández told Mickens. “If and when Francis is no longer pope, his legacy will remain strong. For example, the pope is convinced that the things he’s already written or said cannot be condemned as an error. Therefore, in the future anyone can repeat those things without fear of being sanctioned. And then the majority of the People of God with their special sense will not easily accept turning back on certain things.”
Throughout the interview, Fernández displayed the same unwavering confidence in his mentor’s ability to get the job done: “You have to realize that he is aiming at reform that is irreversible. If one day he should sense that he’s running out of time and doesn’t have enough time to do what the Spirit is asking him, you can be sure he will speed up.”
A ticking clock indeed.
In June of 2016, on the heels of Amoris Laetitia’s publication, Fernández told La Stampa’s own resident papal sycophant, Andrea Tornielli, that the plan going forward was “decentralization of the Catholic Church.” Further, he said that it was time to consider giving
“…more power to the Bishops’ Conferences, including some doctrinal authority.” He adds: “Progress is very slow – not because the pope has not encouraged it, but because the theologians and pastors themselves do not dare react with generous creativity.”
The archbishop then explained that the pope’s intention – as expressed in Amoris Laetitia – is to give more scope to the local bishops to deal with moral questions “in dialogue with the pope.” Fernández still insists that the Church has to become “more merciful, more transformed by the primacy of love and also closer to the reality of the people.” He also repeated that there is a “pastoral door” opened with regard to the divorced and “remarried.”
This summer, Fernández is back in the news again, and he’s continuing his line of thought right where he left off. In a new interview with the Spanish-language theology journal Medellín, entitled “Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia: What Remains After the Storm,” Fernández came out swinging against critics of the ersatz moral theology in the document. As reported by Crux‘s Austen Ivereigh:
[Fernández] begins by asserting the pope himself gave an authoritative interpretation of chapter eight of Amoris, where the footnote on Communion is found, in a letter to the bishops of Buenos Aires on Sept 9, 2016.
In the letter, Francis thanked the bishops for guidelines they had drafted allowing for discernment leading in some cases to the sacraments, and said there was “no other interpretation” of Amoris than the one they had given.
Responding to critics that the pope cannot make an authoritative statement in such a format, Fernández cites past instances of papal correspondence to bishops being quoted in teaching documents (for example, in a note by Pope Pius IX cited in Lumen Gentium, a document of the Second Vatican Council).
Those precedents prove the “hermeneutical authority” of his letter to the Buenos Aires bishops, Fernández said. [emphasis added]
It should be noted here that the archbishop conflates two examples of the same form of papal writing with two examples of the same level of papal authority — a trick becoming increasingly popular with today’s papal positivists. (Recall that it in the modern Church, it is not so much the form but the content that is most helpful in determining the magisterial authority of a given teaching.) While it is true that a letter written by Bl. Pope Pius IX to a German bishop was cited in Lumen Gentium (and Vatican I before it), that correspondence is of a significantly different nature than that sent by Pope Francis to the bishops of the Buenos Aires region. Lumen Gentium 25 states:
Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.(40*)
The citation in footnote 40 includes a reference to “Pius IX, Epist. Tuas libener: Denz. 1683 (2879)” — the correspondence in question. Dr. Kurt Martens explained the history and significance of this particular piece of papal writing in an article last summer for the Catholic Herald:
The term ‘ordinary magisterium’ was first used by Pius IX in the letter Tuas libenter addressed to the archbishop of Munich and Freising on 21 December 1863.
Earlier that year, a meeting of Catholic theologians had taken place in Munich. The pope had been told that in the course of that meeting the opinion had been expressed that Catholic theologians were bound to hold only those truths of faith which had been solemnly declared.
Pius IX replied that “it must not be limited to those things which have been defined by the express decrees of councils or of the Roman Pontiffs and of this Apostolic See, but must also be extended to those things which are handed on by the ordinary magisterium of the whole church dispersed throughout the world as divinely revealed, and therefore are held by the universal and constant consensus of Catholic theologians to pertain to the faith.”
The teaching of Pius IX on ordinary magisterium was later incorporated in the documents of Vatican I, in particular the dogmatic constitution Dei Filius: “Wherefore, by divine and catholic faith all those things are to be believed which are contained in the word of God as found in scripture and tradition, and which are proposed by the church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal magisterium.”
It was understood that the addition of ‘universal’ to ‘ordinary magisterium’ was meant to relate the phrase to the teaching of the whole episcopate with the pope, and not the teaching of the pope alone.
It is ironic, therefore, that Fernández equates a letter from a pope praising pastoral guidelines implementing a pastoral document (Amoris Laetitia) that disclaims its own universal and magisterial application (AL #3) at the outset with a critical theological clarification made by a pope that helped to authoritatively define magisterial authority and its application in the first place (Tuas Libenter). (The irony deepens when one considers that said pastoral guidelines have themselves been argued to be “against the ordinances of God” — which excludes them from the faithful’s duty to assent.)
A Response to the Dubia?
Paraphrasing Fernández, Ivereigh — himself a known papal apologist and defender of Amoris Laetitia — argues that
Francis never claims general moral laws are incapable of covering every situation, nor that they are incapable of determining a decision in conscience, but that in their formulation they are incapable of addressing each and every situation, the archbishop said.
“It is the formulation of the norm that cannot cover everything, not the norm in itself,” Fernández said.
In the case of norms forbidding killing and stealing, for example, the norms are absolute, admitting of no exceptions; yet it is questionable, he said, whether taking life in self-defense is killing, or taking food to feed a hungry child is stealing.
From my reading, it appears that in the above, Fernández is backing away from the menacing specificity of the dubia.
Stranger still, he then appears to go on to attempt to answer the dubia. I didn’t catch it on my first read through, but as I parsed his statements, it occured to me that I should cross-reference them. I would not say that these are direct responses, and they aren’t prefaced as such, but it is almost impossible not to see a parallel structure between the dubia and the Archbishop’s carefully staked out defense of the pope. See for yourself:
It is asked whether, following the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (300-305), it has now become possible to grant absolution in the sacrament of penance and thus to admit to holy Communion a person who, while bound by a valid marital bond, lives together with a different person more uxorio without fulfilling the conditions provided for by Familiaris Consortio, 84, and subsequently reaffirmed by Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 34, and Sacramentum Caritatis, 29. Can the expression “in certain cases” found in Note 351 (305) of the exhortation Amoris Laetitia be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxorio? [emphasis in original]
“… It is also licit to ask if acts of living together more uxorio [i.e. having sexual relations] should always fall, in its integral meaning, within the negative precept of “fornication”. I say, ‘in its integral meaning,’ because one cannot maintain those acts in each and every case are gravely dishonest in a subjective sense. In the complexity of particular situations is where, according to St. Thomas [Aquinas], ‘the indetermination increases.’ Indeed, it is not easy to describe as an ‘adulterer’ a woman who has been beaten and treated with contempt by her Catholic husband, and who received shelter, economic and psychological help from another man who helped her raise the children of the previous union, and with whom she has lived and had new children for many years.” [emphasis added]
Turning to the process of discernment outlined in Amoris, Fernández said Francis nowhere claimed that someone can receive Communion if they are not in a state of grace, only that an objectively grave fault is not sufficient to deprive a person of sanctifying grace.
Therefore, “there can be a path of discernment open to the possibility of receiving the food of the Eucharist.” [emphasis added]
Dubia #2, 3, and 4:
2.) After the publication of the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (304), does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 79, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions?
3.) After Amoris Laetitia (301) is it still possible to affirm that a person who habitually lives in contradiction to a commandment of God’s law, as for instance the one that prohibits adultery (Matthew 19:3-9), finds him or herself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin (Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, “Declaration,” June 24, 2000)?
4.) After the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (302) on “circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility,” does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 81, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, according to which “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice”? [emphasis in original]
He said Pope Francis has resisted proposals of progressive moral theologians to drop altogether a distinction between objective sin and subjective guilt, and has maintained that sexual relations by divorced people in a new union always “constitute an objective situation of habitual grave sin,” even if culpability might not exist in a subjective sense in some cases.
Even in these cases, however, “for Francis it is not the concrete circumstances that determine the objective morality,” said Fernández, adding: “The fact that conditions might diminish culpability does not mean that what is objectively bad thereby becomes objectively good.”
Rather, the objectively sinful situation persists “because there remains the clear Gospel proposal for marriage, and this concrete situation does not objectively reflect that.” [Emphasis added]
After Amoris Laetitia (303) does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 56, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, that excludes a creative interpretation of the role of conscience and that emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object?
Discernment in such cases, he said, involves a person using his or her conscience to examine before God their real situation, together with its limits and practical possibilities, in the company of a pastor and enlightened by the Church’s teaching.
Such discernment, he went on, is not about the moral absolute of the norm, but about its disciplinary consequences. The norm remains universal, but its consequences or effects can vary. By making clear that this can be discerned by means of a “pastoral dialogue,” said Fernández, “this is what opens the way to a change in [sacramental] discipline.” [emphasis added]
Is it just me? Or is Fernández carefully stepping away from the danger zone on Francis’ behalf? His interpretations here are full of casuistry and would hardly be considered orthodox, but they appear to me to be moving away from the current position and in the direction of at least appearing to honor the Church’s moral norms. Or perhaps more aptly put, to at least to admit they exist.
I don’t know whether to be encouraged or concerned.
Fernández sums up his view of Francis’ paradigm shift in Amoris as follows:
“Francis’s great innovation,” he wrote, “is to allow for a pastoral discernment in the realm of the internal forum to have practical consequences in the manner of applying the discipline [his italics].” The general canonical norm remains, but “may not be applied in certain cases as a consequence of a path of discernment.”
This, said Fernández, is where Francis “is bringing in a change with respect to the previous praxis.”
Meanwhile, the pope’s letter to the bishops of the Buenos Aires region now appears as part of the official papal correspondence on the Vatican website. One can’t help but wonder, then, if there are plans to move it into the Acta Apostolicae Sedis — the journal of the official acts of the Apostolic See. Such a move would take the letter from the realm of personal correspondence and give it official status. The AAS “contains all the principal decrees, encyclical letters, decisions of Roman congregations, and notices of ecclesiastical appointments. The contents are to be considered promulgated when published, and effective three months from date of issue.”
Fernández is close to both the pope and the exhortation. He knows and has been broadcast
ing the papal agenda for some time now, and he hasn’t been afraid to disclose just how revolutionary it is. The appearance that he is circling the wagons, attempting to redefine terms and thereby shoring up the doctrinal bona fides of Amoris while simultaneously elevating the pope’s letter to the Buenos Aires bishops to the status of “authoritative” and “hermeneutical” interpretation is raising red flags, but I can’t put my finger on what I’m seeing.
What I know is that this is a new tactic from a team that always goes to the same playbook, time after time. Something is afoot.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.