Drawing upon a recent article in German by Giuseppe Nardi, the blogger at “The Radical Catholic” (RC) informs us that Pope Francis’s long-awaited encyclical on ecology is going to remain just that–even more long-awaited.
According to Vaticanist Sandro Magister [LINK], Pope Francis has decided to postpone the publication of his long-awaited encyclical on the environment. The reason, according to Magister, is that the Pope realized that the document in its current state had no chance of receiving the approval of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under the leadership of Cardinal Gerhard Müller. If it seems somewhat improper for a Cardinal to be telling a Pope what he can and can’t write, don’t fret, gentle reader: the text wasn’t written by Pope Francis at all.
The ghostwriter behind the heavily discussed encyclical is one Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández of Tiburnia, a native of Buenos Aires. Archbishop Fernández, who belongs to Pope Francis’ inner circle in the position of most trusted theological adviser, was already heavily involved in the writing of Evangelii gaudium, and spent the Summer of 2013 in Rome for that purpose. Last March, as Pope Francis set about to compose his Eco-Encyclical, Archbishop Fernández was again flown in to do the heavy lifting. The close working relationship apparently stretches back to the time when Pope Francis was still Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, with Fernández working largely behind the scenes, drafting the future Pontiff’s important speeches and letters.
The RC blogger adds that, “In an interview published in Corriere della Sera last Sunday, he took the current wave of Ultramontanism to new heights,” wherein Fernández made the following remarks:
I have read that some say that … this Prefect guarantees the unity of the Faith and facilitates serious theology from the Pope. But Catholics know from reading the Gospel that it was to the Pope and the Bishops that Christ granted a special governance and enlightenment — and not to a Prefect or some other structure. When one hears such things, one could almost get the impression that the Pope is merely their representative, or one who has come to disturb and must, therefore, be monitored. […] The Pope is convinced that what he has written or said cannot be treated as an error. Therefore, all these things can be repeated in the future, without having to fear receiving a sanction for it.
It is reassuring that Pope Francis sincerely believes that his words cannot be “treated” as error, but as Catholics we know that what matters is not how our words are “treated,” but whether they do or do not express error, whether they do or do not conform with Catholic teaching. A wound that is left untreated is still a defect, a risk for infection, and thus potentially lethal.
“The arrival of a theologian like Benedict XVI in the Chair of St. Peter was no doubt an exception. But John XXIII was not a professional theologian. Pope Francis is also more pastoral and our mission at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to provide the theological structure of a pontificate [viz., of Francis’s pontificate].”
It is this suggestion which Abp. Fernández, whom Pope Francis consecrated as a bishop in June 2013 and whom he also personally appointed to last year’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family, finds so objectionable. For, as Andrea Tornielli also notes, with apparent disdain for Müller’s suggestion, does not article 48 of the 1988 Apostolic Constitution, Pastor Bonus, teach that “The proper duty of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals in the whole Catholic world”? What place, Tornielli suggests, is there for giving theological “structure” to a papacy? Müller’s desire for greater theological cogency in Francis’s magisterium, Tornielli adds, “is probably the reason why the Prefect gives public statements on such a frequent basis, like never before.”
This is not the first time that a major (and South American) advisor of Pope Francis has crossed ideological swords with Cdl. Müller. In a January 2014 interview, Cdl. Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, touted by some as the pope’s right-hand man in “the big revolution,” discussed Müller’s (and thus the CDF’s) total rejection of opening Holy Communion to divorced persons living as remarried with the following remarks:
“I think I understand him. He is German, it has to be said. He is above all a German Theology professor and he only thinks in black-and-white terms. [But] the world isn’t like that, my brother. You should be a bit flexible when you hear other voices, so you don’t just listen and say, ‘here is the wall’.” The Honduran prelate claims he is certain that Müller “will eventually come to understand other points of view as well,” even though for now “he only listens to his group of advisors.”
It seems that Müller has still not come around.
Now, according to comments made by Cdl. Meisner at the end of 2013, Pope Francis is aware of problems among the faithful due to his “style of spreading the gospel through interviews and short speeches, questions which need some extended explanation for people who are not so involved [i.e., theologically literate],” but, as Abp. Fernández notes, he fully endorses his “style” of journalistic, aphoristic teaching. As he explained in his December 2014 interview with the Argentinian paper, La Nación:
Somebody did say to me once, “Of course, of course. Insight is so good for us but we need clearer things”. And I answered, “Look, I [co-]wrote an encyclical, true enough, it was a big job, and an Apostolic Exhortation, I’m permanently making statements, giving homilies; that’s teaching [i.e. ‘magisterium‘]. That’s what I think, not what the media say that I think. Check it out, it’s very clear. Evangelii Gaudium is very clear“.
The problem, in other words, is with those Catholics who are confused, not with the pope’s obvious gift for clear and consistent teaching. Indeed, Pope Francis is so emphatic that his interviews and obiter dicta comprise part of his official magisterium that he has approved the publication, by the Vatican itself, of his first four, eyebrow-raising interviews with Eugenio Scalfari. It is still unclear whether their fifth encounter, held in March 2015, and in which Pope Francis allegedly denies the immortality of the soul and the eternity of suffering in Hell, will also be published by the Vatican. All we know is that, whatever his position is on any topic, despite any and all appearances, Pope Francis’s position is simply and wholly that of the Church’s.
Indeed, this stalwart commitment to “the teaching of the Church” is a central feature of Francis’s conception of his own duties and capacities as a teacher. On his flight back from World Youth Day in Brazil in July 2013, Pope Francis had the following exchange with a Brazilian reporter (my emphasis):
Patricia Zorzan: Speaking on behalf of the Brazilians: society has changed, young people have changed, and in Brazil we have seen a great many young people. You did not speak about abortion, about same-sex marriage. In Brazil a law has been approved which widens the right to abortion and permits marriage between people of the same sex. Why did you not speak about this?
Pope Francis: The Church has already spoken quite clearly on this. It was unnecessary to return to it, just as I didn’t speak about cheating, lying, or other matters on which the Church has a clear teaching!
Patricia Zorzan: But the young are interested in this …
Pope Francis: Yes, though it wasn’t necessary to speak of it, but rather of the positive things that open up the path to young people. Isn’t that right! Besides, young people know perfectly well what the Church’s position is.
Patricia Zorzan: What is Your Holiness’ position, if we may ask?
Pope Francis: The position of the Church. I am a son of the Church.
Precisely because the teaching of the Church is so clear to him, Pope Francis sees no problem in exhorting the faithful, especially the younger generation, to “make a mess” in their parishes and faith-lives, as he said at the same World Youth Day. What could possibly go wrong? The teaching of the Church is clear, Francis insists, and orthodoxy can take care of itself. He effectively gave the same reply to Cdl. Meisner.
Strangely enough, though, the Church has already “spoken quite clearly” about corruption, caring for the poor, murder, gossip, unjust wages, equitable stewardship of the earth, and so on, yet Pope Francis does not hesitate to preach about such things on an almost weekly basis. The problem is that, if the teaching of the Church is so clear, then why, to recall Pastor Bonus, is it the proper duty of the CDF “to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals in the whole Catholic world” (my emphasis)? Indeed, if Pope Francis’s magisterium is as cogent and pellucid as Fernández says it is, then why are his services as a ghostwriter needed in the first place?
On top of this, Fernández’s trust in the reliability and coherence of all papal teaching seems very selective, since he clearly has no qualms about giving greater “theological structure” to the New Evangelization (Evangelii Gaudium), ecological stewardship of the earth (cf. promissory encyclical), or even the Theology of the Body, as his 1995 book, Heal Me with Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing, makes clear. On the last point, we must commend Pope Francis’s wise instincts for selecting such a talented writer. Fernández is so gifted a wordsmith that his book on the art of kissing was honored by being shown and read from in an Argentinian telenovela, Esperanza mia, about a priest who seduces a nun into a secret love affair. Something tells me Cdl. Maradiaga would appreciate the priest’s realism and flexibility.
In any case, the good news is that, if you find yourself occasionally, or even regularly flummoxed by the clarity of Pope Francis’s teaching, it may not be your fault. You may just need more time to adapt. As John Allen reported in October 2013, according to Fr. Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, we are witnessing in the papacy of Francis
“the emergence of a whole new genre of papal speech — informal, spontaneous and sometimes entrusted to others in terms of its final articulation. A new genre, Lombardi suggested, needs a ‘new hermeneutic,’ one in which we don’t attach value so much to individual words as to the overall sense. … This isn’t Denzinger, and it’s not canon law.”
Neither Denzinger nor canon law, you say?
Why, yes–it’s very clear.