Pope Francis names new head of Vatican doctrinal office

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, appointed prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope Francis, is pictured in this file photo at the conclusion of extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 18, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Located in the Palazzo Sant’Uffizio, an imposing 16th-century building just off St. Peter’s Square, the home of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith would be an intimidating place to walk into if you were a theologian summoned for a meeting about your work.

The oldest department of the Roman Curia, known as the Holy Office, was once responsible for the Inquisition. In the latter part of the 20th century, it became known for its investigations of theologians. For centuries, the underlying vision of the doctrinal office was to police orthodoxy and interrogate those deemed to have stepped over the border between true and false teaching.

Now it is undergoing a radical overhaul. Pope Francis has appointed a new prefect to lead the office. He is Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández, a trusted theological adviser to Francis and a prolific theologian. Archbishop Fernández becomes the first Argentinian and Latin American to take up the role.

He is going to adopt a very different approach from the past. Rather than occupying the enforcer role, he will seek to place the study and promotion of Christian doctrine at the service of evangelization. In a strong letter, more or less the equivalent of a job description, Francis said that Fernández’s dicastery in the past used “immoral methods.” Rather than promote theological knowledge, the pope wrote, possible “doctrinal errors” were pursued.

“What I expect from you is certainly something very different,” Francis explained. Make no mistake. The pope has set off something of an ecclesial earthquake. Archbishop Fernández, who will be made a cardinal on Sept. 30, is known to many by his nickname “Tucho.” It comes from the one given to high-scoring soccer player Norberto Doroteo Méndez, who played for Argentina’s national team between 1945 and 1956.

The new prefect has not yet got his feet under his desk at the Holy Office but has already shown a willingness to get onto the field of play. Rather than hold the media at arm’s length as previous prefects had done, Archbishop Fernández has given a series of interviews, a sign he wants to dialogue with the world around him.

So what can we expect from “Tucho”? Three things seem likely.

First, as a close adviser to Francis, who knew the pope from Argentina and helped draft key documents during his pontificate, the new prefect will ensure that publications from his dicastery incorporate recent papal teaching. Rather than rulings that give “yes or no” answers, the dicastery will likely focus on dialogue and accompaniment, as found in Francis’ encyclical on family life, “Amoris Laetitia.” It’s not new teaching. In “Amoris,” the pope’s reflections on conscience and “personal and pastoral discernment” are, one moral theologian told me, a recovery of Catholic moral teaching in line with Sts. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Alphonsus Liguori and John Henry Newman. While the office will retain the role of final arbiter of disputes, Archbishop Fernández will likely seek to resolve difficulties through dialogue and mutual listening instead of by trying to prosecute alleged errors.

Second, the dicastery will probably focus on a theology that speaks to real-world concerns, rather than answering questions no one is asking. That means remaining focused on communicating the truths of the Christian faith. “The greatest danger occurs when secondary issues end up overshadowing the central ones,” Francis explained in his letter to Archbishop Fernández, and there have been times when the doctrinal office seemed overly focused on questions of sexual ethics.

The Argentinian prelate has written more than 300 books and articles on various theological topics. He is a Scripture scholar — his new role includes the presidency of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the International Theological Commission — and his writings demonstrate a focus on a faith lived in dialogue with culture. Recent books include “El fruto del Espíritu Santo: Una vida diferente es possible” (“The Fruit of the Holy Spirit: A Different Life is Possible”) and “La fuerza sanadora de la mística” (“The Healing Force of Mysticism”), and his theological articles cover a wide range of topics including poverty, the environment and the need for the church to be in a permanent state of mission.

Third, Archbishop Fernández should be critical in the church’s synodal process. In the past, the doctrinal office might have seen its role as correcting what comes out of the synod and its major gatherings in October 2023 and October 2024. But the new prefect is expected to offer his view as part of the multitude, and to try and help develop the synodal reflections. Given that the synod will include discussions of a range of contested topics, and serious theological questions of church governance and decision-making, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith could play a key role in providing theological resources over time. Francis’ appointment of Archbishop Fernández opens a new chapter for the doctrine office and the Roman Curia. Watch this space.


  • congregation for the doctrine of the faith

Related Articles