Archbishop Fernández and the learning curve

In several of his (numerous) post-appointment interviews, the archbishop betrayed a sorry lack of familiarity with the creative moral theology that has been developed in the Church since John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor.

Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández giving a talk in March 2020. (Image: YouTube)

“Pope Francis has just given the Vatican his Ratzinger,” declared one July 2 headline; “Pope Francis Finds His Ratzinger,” announced another, four days later. Both quickie assessments of Argentinian Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández’s appointment as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith were wrong. Archbishop Fernández is no Joseph Ratzinger in either theological heft (a point Fernández himself implicitly acknowledged in one of his post-appointment interviews) or in his relationship to the pope he will serve.

To the latter point: John Paul II did not make Joseph Ratzinger a great figure in the world Church; Ratzinger, one of the most important theologians at Vatican II, was a globally influential churchman long before the Polish pope tapped him as prefect of what was then called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [CDF].

Archbishop Fernández’s career, however, has been almost entirely a creation of Pope Francis. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio appointed Fernández the president of the Catholic University of Argentina (over the objections of CDF and the Congregation for Catholic Education), and once he came to Rome, “Pope Bergoglio” (as the Italians refer to him) has made extensive use of his protégé in various capacities.

Nor are the intellectual relationships here symmetrical. John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger worked in close harness for a quarter-century. But their ways of thinking were by no means identical and they disagreed (without being disagreeable) at several key moments, as I demonstrated in Witness to Hope. Moreover, the two men had quite different views of late modernity: John Paul II was rather sanguine about the prospects of the post-Cold War world; Ratzinger tended to think of the destruction of the Bavarian Catholic culture of his youth as a preview of coming distractions for the entire West. By contrast, it is hard to detect a centimeter of distance between the thinking of Pope Francis and Archbishop Fernández, not least because the younger man seems to have been a scriptwriter and amanuensis for his patron.

When Joseph Ratzinger became the chief doctrinal adviser to the pope, he was one of the most learned men in the world, deeply versed in biblical studies, philosophy, history and political theory as well as the various sub-disciplines of theology. Archbishop Fernández is an intelligent man, but no one could possibly claim that he is as competent, across as wide a range of subjects, as Ratzinger was.

In fact, in several of his (numerous) post-appointment interviews, the archbishop betrayed a sorry lack of familiarity with the creative moral theology that has been developed in the Church since John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). In one conversation, for example, Fernández opined that, while Veritatis Splendor had been a necessary corrective to certain untoward tendencies in post-conciliar Catholic moral theology, the encyclical had not fostered theological creativity with real pastoral impact.

I beg to differ. Serious Catholic moral theology and moral philosophy in the English- speaking world have been energized over the past 30 years by John Paul’s brilliant theological and pastoral analysis of the moral life.

As Archbishop Fernández prepares to take up his new duties in Rome, perhaps he could accelerate his learning curve by familiarizing himself with such creative, post-Veritatis Splendor books as “Veritatis Splendor” and the Renewal of Moral Theology (edited by Joseph Augustine DiNoia, Avery Dulles, and Romanus Cessario); Morality, the Catholic View (by Servais Pinckaers);Living the Truth in Love: A Biblical Introduction to Moral Theology (by Benedict Ashley); The Abuse of Conscience: A Century of Catholic Moral Theology (by Matthew Levering); Biomedicine and Beatitude: An Introduction to Catholic Bioethics (by Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco); Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy (by Mary Hirschfeld); Good and Evil Actions: A Journey through Saint Thomas Aquinas (by Steven Jensen); Action and Conduct: Thomas Aquinas and the Theory of Action (by Stephen Brock); Cooperation With Evil: Thomistic Tools of Analysis (by Kevin Flannery); Sharing in Christ’s Virtues (by Livio Melina); and The Christian Moral Life (by John Rhiza).

Veritatis Splendor enraged Catholic Lite moral theologians in 1993 by its vigorous defense of the classic Catholic understanding that some acts are ‘intrinsically evil” — wrong in any circumstance — and the encyclical has been a bone in the throat of the establishment Catholic theological guild ever since.

It would be beyond tragic if the new prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith used that office to promote the guild’s false claim that Veritatis Splendor was an exercise in papal nay-saying that underwrites theological torpidity and pastoral rigidity.

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About George Weigel 458 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. “I beg to differ. Serious Catholic moral theology and moral philosophy in the English- speaking world have been energized over the past 30 years by John Paul’s brilliant theological and pastoral analysis of the moral life.”

    If moral theology and moral philosophy have been energized over the past 30 years I would ask, To what effect? Check the statistics from the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate (CARA). Over the last 30 years, and more, Catholic beliefs in the evil of abortion, homosexuality, so called “same sex marriage”, cohabitation, etc. have all gone downhill.

    I am sure that the books cited are all worthwhile, but none of this filters down to the parish level (or even the diocesan level). I have been a member of several parishes over this period of time and attended Mass at others. There is essentially no moral teaching during the homily. And, this is where most adult Catholics get their only continuing Catholic education. I say essentially because one might hear a word or two opposing abortion during Right to Life month.

    It seems to me that what we have is Catholic academics speaking to other academics. The effect of these energized developments and even of Veritatis Splendor have been about what the effect of Ex Corde Ecclesia has been on Catholic higher education – which is to say little or none.

    If I am wrong in my perception of this I am open to discussion.

    • It has been energized by faithful Catholics during a time of moral deprivity in our society and necessary for Catholics to hear as yes many catholics have fallen away and don’t follow the moral Truths of the Church.

    • I thought the same thing. What did happen was a faction of the faithful fully subscribed to St. JP2’s theology, which was good for many. However, we’re now clearly in an era where every pope will have their own fanbase of whatever current pope’s philosophy. PF has his own now as we know. Not even going to touch the constant clamoring for canonization of various recent popes – which will cause more confusion in the church if this trend continues for every pope.

      The only solution I can surmise is a cultural shift away from expecting manna from every pope’s mouth. Most of the saints are not popes. Most popes are not saints. Perhaps there was a reason for this. Only 2 of the 23 doctors of the church were popes. Again – perhaps there was a reason for this.

      We have no historical basis to treat every pope as the next reformer or doctor of the church. Perhaps we should be quoting more from Church Doctors and utilizing the words of the numerous saints in our homilies instead of the same 2-3 recent popes. Such a short term mindset, as if before recent popes the church had little to say. The world is generally in search of authority from those in high places – we need to keep our focus on the Divine for our authority and our manna.

  2. The new Dicastery for the Doctrine of Fernández will promulgate a path to progress without purgation. Mercy and union with God will be offered without the Cross of Christ. Everyone will be called to Communion without repentance.

    Even if Tucho doesn’t directly challenge Traditional orthodox teaching, he will wield writings of weaponized ambiguity, seeking to implement his ideas in Amoris Laetitia throughout the world. Beyond his “pastoral” soft porn poems and prose for youth, we must take Tucho seriously when he admits no willingness to uphold Church discipline at his DDF. The Pope does not hide Tuch’s mandate at the DDF to continue encouraging all manner of heteropraxy. The new DDF is the German Synodalweg in slow motion. Now that contraception is ubiquitous and concubinage is tolerated, same-sex blessings, etc., are only a Synod away. Unchecked, Tucho will lead the Church beyond Pope Francis, Synodaling away sin and repentance. The new DDF is eventually capable of destroying all Catholic moral practice.

  3. This papacy is a huge disappointment. The Church deserves better but God allows incompetence for purposes we’re not always able to discern.

    • No doubt! Even if some wacky Synod of People tries to enshrine heteropraxy, the exciting part is how Jesus Christ will save His Catholic Church. He always does in the most mysterious ways. (St. Newman) Maybe it will be next week, maybe in a thousand years – regardless, Jesus Christ is Lord and He will have His Way! In the meantime, expect suffering…what St. Francis called Perfect Joy!
      Saints have already come with the theological solution. Tucho says these new Sts. Alexander, Athanasius, Basil and Gregorys have failed. How would he know? He can’t even quote them. For practice of the Faith, look no further than St. Teresa of Kolkata. For theology, the last several Popes, those mentioned by George Weigel or for my money, Fr. Aidan Nichols, OP – Hec, anything published by our host Fr. Fessio! For law, the new code of 1983. For clear teaching, the CCC of 1992. Even if we are getting crushed politically, we have all we need to live the Catholic Faith.

      • For more than half a century the moral theologians that receive favorable media attention are those who interpret their enterprise as “rethinking” evil acts in such a manner in order to discover imaginary goods, disguising the discredited practices of proportionalism and consequentialism so effectively, they even convince themselves they are simply doing something that no one has ever done before in the human experience, and they are really all about charity and mercy. Like sinning and lying about it hasn’t been done to death, or that sin can ever be without victims whose numbers increase when we pretend that God makes understanding the whole process esoteric and obscure.

  4. Actress Candice Bergen confides that it took a long time to recover from the family dinner table where her ventriloquist father (Edgar) spoke to her only through Charlie McCarthy, his wooden-headed dummy mouthpiece.

    Enter stage left: Archbishop Fernandez. And how long will it take the Church to recover from forthcoming servings on letter-headed Vatican dialogues of one sort or another? Pass the butt-er.

  5. To put things “diplomatically,” it does not build confidence in the Church Establishment (Pontiff Francis, on down…) when its brand new chief minister of “the-dicastery-for-The-Spirit-of-Vatican-2,” Eminence Fernandez, kicks off by declaring that (despite controlling 90% of the Church establishment for 50 years) the same “Spirit-of-Vatican-2-Establishment” has failed to produce any great theologians.

    That’s stepping on your own message, Your Grace.

    Beginning your tenure with an indictment of your own team.

    As if to announce to the world: “Please understand that I am not a man to be taken seriously as a Bishop, etc.

  6. To me, this appointment and all the hand wringing over it illustrates a weakness in contemporary Catholicism that I, as an orthodox Catholic, is wrestling with.

    Why is our Faith so dependent on one bishop in Rome and the appointments he makes? Surely our Faith is more substantive and deeper than the latest from Rome (i.e. Bible, Creeds, Councils) Fathers, Saints etc). Perhaps the Orthodox are right in the we have assigned far too much power to Rome.

    As it stands, the Church resembles a secular state whose laws and direction are determined by whatever political party is in power. In the Church’s situation we are bashed about by “liberal” or “conservative” forces. Thus leadership in the Church is a mere power play where the different sides fight for one another for dominance and influence. It’s exhausting. Surely the substance of the Catholic Faith is deeper than policy, personnel and the tastes of whoever is in charge for now. In the present situation we will be always be at the whims of whatever Pope comes along.

    • Anon:

      I agree 100%.

      An essay by Professor Farrow of Canada, some 2 years ago if I recall correctly, published here at CWR, points out that it is crucial to reinforce the Pauline teaching that “Christ is the head of the Church,” not the Pope (who by his office is no more than a steward).

    • I share your concerns and recognize the pain you articulate. Catholics are being put to the test. Suffering is teaching the limits and scope of papal infallibility, etc.
      Schism is tempting because it offers a solution that promises less mystery and mess. St. Catherine of Siena said: “A schismatic is a fool.” (Ouch!;) There is never a good reason to leave the Catholic Faith. As sinners, we all belong. Scripture teaches that Christ was crucified for our sins. Where did we get the idea that the obedience of disciples would be easy? It wasn’t from the Word of God.

    • We read: “Surely the substance of the Catholic Faith is deeper than policy, personnel and the tastes of whoever is in charge for now.”

      So, it’s probably a deception to still cast things as “liberal” versus “conservative” forces. Which faction, if we must, is adhering to the “substance of the Catholic Faith,” and if it’s not all that clean, than in what ways are each, more or less, adhering?

      As far as “change” is concerned, probably the name-callers (naming “bigots, backwards, rigid, fixistic” types) need a diaper change.

      • It’s hard to know what the substance of the Faith is these days when the very person and institutions we believe God has put in place to protect that faith might say otherwise.

        I bet you the Orthodox don’t say things like…I wonder if the new Patriarch will be conservative or liberal? I wonder if he’ll change the liturgy or “modernize” Church teaching on certain aspects of faith and morals? That seems to be a uniquely modern Catholic problem.

        If someone rebuts and says, Patriarchs don’t have that authority, my answer would be…exactly and thank goodness for that.

        • Anon:

          You are putting your finger on the current pathology, indeed a disease, in the Roman Catholic Church.

          Christ established his Church to preserve and teach the revelation handed down in tradition and scripture (per St. Paul, among others), and established the apostolic office of Bishops (Bishops united in the Bishop of Rome), to preserve the Revelation given as endowment, whole and unspoiled.

          When Bishops and Popes assume that their subordinate office authority can be wielded to dissolve revelation itself, (which so many of them obviously think they can), they arrogate themselves to the point of behaving as if THEY ARE THE GODHEAD, literally shoving aside God Most High and substituting what they truly revere: themselves.

          Mere human office that labors to dismantle the authority of the apostolic faith descends down into nothing other than the idolatrous dungeon of those who have succumbed to the seduction that The First Commandment is about the Church obeying them, while they declare themselves free to disobey the Uncreated God.

      • Laughing out loud Peter.

        Definitely, this is the “diaper-clad” regime in the Church establishment, in Rome, and seemingly worldwide.

    • Anon:

      Here is the essay by Douglas Farrow, on the need to “reform” the notions about the papacy, from 2018:

      Per St. Paul (to whom Farrow refers), succinctly: “Christ is the head of the Body, the Church.” (Colossians 1:18)

      Papalotry says: The Pope is the head of the Body.

      This gruesome error is what Fr. Robert Imbelli aptly describes as “decapitating the Body of Christ,” in his essay (2020?) in the Journal Nova et Vetera: “No Decapitated Body.”

    • It seems so…unfortunately…in some quarters of the faculty lounge, the “great commandment” of THE COUNCIL is “we avoid the words apostasy and heresy.”

  7. If he, Card Carlo Martini, eventual founder of the St Gallen Mafia [as they laughingly called themselves], initiated by invitation of secretary general Council of Bishops Conferences Europe, Bishop Ivo Fürer, as a hierarchal think tank turned conspiratorial, found his man in Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis had also found his man in then Bishop ‘Tucho’ Fernandez. They think alike, so it seems.
    Although it may be relevant, it doesn’t appear that Archbishop Fernandez requires a learning curve regarding Veritatis Splendor. He’s very likely read it. Fernandez requires a conversion to the content of the Gospels. What that says about Pope Francis may not be determined, since both believe a relaxation of doctrinal permanence is what a numerically collapsing Church requires. And both have their own predilections despite appearances. Although a study of the Thomistic texts Weigel recommends for learning would be helpful, it’s not entirely reason that stirs the visioning of both. Rather it’s sentiment. Prayers are needed besides reasoned criticism

  8. Unfortunately, Mr Weigel, it seems like so many others do not know the fundamental Truth: this is not about theologians and their take, classical or otherwise, no, it is about ‘God the Holy Spirit and His Teaching us The Truth and It’s Way’, and false disciples rejecting God the Holy Spirit, not their rejecting some Pope, Prefect, theologian…. it “is rejecting The Father who sent Christ, Christ who came, and the Holy Spirit sent by the Father and Son to consecrate the Church in Truth, recall all Christ Taught and lead in the Truth” [cf John 14-17].

    Please quit presenting a non-Catholic Gospel, Covenant and Church by making it about human theologians when it is about the Blessed Trinity-Lamb (Omniscient).

    It is the Holy Trinity that Omnisciently Teaches that there are acts that are ‘intrinsically evil’…the Holy Spirit preserves and passes on in the Church, and the Church with and in the Holy Spirit’, the Revelation and Truth. It is the Blessed Trinity-Lamb that is the Divine Bone stuck in the throats of the rejecters of God (Luke 10:16) who voice full-throatedly their father’s lies and deeds against God (cf John 6).


    (Veritatis Splendor enraged Catholic Lite moral theologians in 1993 by its vigorous defense of the classic Catholic understanding that some acts are ‘intrinsically evil” — wrong in any circumstance — and the encyclical has been a bone in the throat of the establishment Catholic theological guild ever since.)

    • Amazing comment. For all the wrong reasons. Not only do you misread and misrepresent the essay, you miss how ironic it is that you dismiss, and even condemn, theological writings on Church teaching while employing theological writing to do so.

      • But then again as a priest he would bear concerns that you and I could only guess at, as laymen, I think.

        Mr. Olson why not publish Pokorsky’s essay at CATHOLIC CULTURE, here into CWR. I got it from Chris in Maryland above and the historical backdrop is just brimming!

        There are some things in the “VATICAN II ex post” timelines that are getting away all the time and still remain to be addressed correctly and forthrightly.

        Bring us back full circle to Padre.

      • Considering how abortion took hold of society long before VATICAN II, I should include the “ex ante timelines” into the history review as well!

        In those days while it remained outlawed it had been secreted into the medical practice and inculturated with lies and hush-hush; generating a new self-tailored taboo against talking about it and against looking down on any of it.

        Interesting how JFK met his death not having extricated himself from the Kennedy family meeting with those members of the hierarchy to decide to normalize abortion politics. Robert also. Ted lived on to fulfill the dedication in the family name.

        Queen Elizabeth II legalized abortion first, on a national level, so as to profess a “total honesty” in civic life. She died never having retracted the abomination. Her son says she was an ambassador of Jesus Prince of Peace.

        Reagan “caught the spirit” earlier as Governor in California.

        And I take no pleasure in saying these things.

        Neither VATICAN II nor Humanae Vitae says to postpone the time of reckoning! Now what does the Holy Ghost declare.

  9. Per Fr. Morello, and extending beyond that…

    It seems quite reasonable to conclude that the intentions of Pontiff Francis and Excellency-soon-Eminence Fernandez is nothing other than to take the stage, wink, and declare to the faithful and the world: “We have not come to bury Jesus and his Apostles, but to praise them…”

  10. Bergoglio had ample time to move into the papal palace and to proclaim the truth of Christ. Seems more like a coup against the Catholic faith. Many denounce the German rebellious defection and that the German church is dead. In the Marian shrine of Maria Vesperbild in Bavaria 5000 people visited the candle vigil of Assumption day and by the end of the day of the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary over 20,000 people participated. Jesus Christ counts on us the foot soldiers of Christ.

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