On May 10, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera published an interview with Archbishop Victor Fernández who is a close collaborator of Pope Francis. He is said to have ghost-written Pope Francis’ first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium and to be now involved in the drafting of the Pope’s encyclical on questions concerning the environment. He had previously worked together with then-Cardinal Bergoglio in Argentina, and headed Cardinal Bergoglio’s team redacting the touchstone Latin-American bishops’ (CELAM) document of Aparecida in 2007. His words are therefore to be taken very seriously, since, more than most people, he knows the Pope’s mind.
This interview immediately caused a stir in Rome because it turned out to be a more-or-less direct attack on the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller. “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,” Fernández said. “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.” This criticism aims unmistakably at Cardinal Müller and his prominent official remarks that his duty as the head of the CDF is “to provide the theological structure of a pontificate.” Vatican Insider journalist Andrea Tornielli had himself previously and quite sharply rebuked Cardinal Müller for his public remarks.
Fernández himself is already known for his earlier ridiculing of Cardinal Müller publicly. On the third day of the October 2014 Synod on the Family, where Pope Francis appointed him member of the drafting commission for the final report on the Synod, Fernández spoke to reporters and said that Pope Francis had invited everybody in the Synod to speak up “without fear that Cardinal Müller will come after you.” The reference to Cardinal Müller reportedly caused chortling in the press room. Cardinal Müller was and is among those prelates of the Church who have strongly opposed any altering of the Church’s essential moral teaching concerning marriage, as it was clearly taught by Jesus Christ.
Fernández is also known for his sardonic comments in an interview with the Argentine journal La Nación right after the October 2014 Synod on the Family, where he said, showing his own openness toward the liberal agenda at the Synod: “Really I thought that this topic [of the “remarried” divorcees] was not going to be treated, or that it was going to be mentioned in a passing way, because there were many other matters that concerned us more. What raises our attention is the possibility raised by many bishops that persons that are divorced and remarried could be allowed to receive communion. I would not talk about divisions, because those who brought the matter forward did it with much prudence, safeguarding the indissolubility of marriage and the ones that opposed it were thinking in the good of the families and of the children. There was only a group of six or seven very fanatical and somewhat aggressive persons that did not represent even 5% of the total persons that were attending the Synod. […] Perhaps we missed saying, at the very least, with Pope Francis: ‘Who are we to judge gays?’” With these words, Archbishop Fernández showed his own sympathies for the reformers during the last Synod, and for Pope Francis’ expression “Who am I to judge?” During the same press conference of 9 October 2014, he insisted that doctrine can be further developed: “When it’s said that this is a ‘pastoral’ synod, it doesn’t at all mean that one cannot deepen the doctrine,” he said. “We need to develop the doctrine on the family much more. If we came here only to repeat what we’ve always said, the church wouldn’t grow.” At the time, his words were considered to reflect Pope Francis’ own views.
Archbishop Fernández also published a book in which he comments on the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium which he helped to write. In this 64-page book, according to a report by the National Catholic Reporter, he insists that the importance of this document has been overlooked. In his eyes, the Pope’s first guidelines for his papacy call for changes, renewal, life and new energy. This document is a working plan for the Church. Fernández says: “It is a work plan for all Catholics and for all our communities.” Evangelii Gaudium “is not just about changing something,” he said. “The Pope says we must ‘transform all things’ to evangelize the world today” and to enter into a “permanent state of mission.” The Archbishop also says that the Pope “destabilizes everyone.” Finally, Archbishop Fernández rebukes once more the conservatives, saying that “some people listen to a pope only if what he says coincides with their own ideas.” And he concludes: “While these people seem to appear conservative as regards doctrine, fundamentally they seem not to have faith in the special assistance of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus promised the pope.”
With these words, Archbishop Fernández shows himself as a man of liberal tendencies who dismisses those who cling to the teaching of Christ. It is in this context that his recent 10 May interview to Corriere della Sera has to be seen, especially those parts that have been largely overlooked due to his controversial comments about the insignificance of the Curia which caused Archbishop Angelo Becciu, Substitute of the Secretary of State (the Vatican’s “minister for internal affairs”), to give an interview on May 11 to Corriere della Sera. In this interview, he said that indeed the Curia has developed its role over the course of 2000 years of the Church’s history, and according to the Church’s organizational needs.
The part of Fernández’ interview that has been largely overlooked has to do with the reforms that Pope Francis envisions for the Church. As Archbishop Fernández puts it in the 10 May interview: “The pope first filled St. Peter’s square with crowds and then began changing the Church.” When asked whether the Pope is isolated in the Vatican, he responds: “By no means. The people are with him [Pope Francis], and not with his adversaries.”
The 52-year-old archbishop adds: “The pope goes slow because he wants to be sure that the changes have a deep impact. The slow pace is necessary to ensure the effectiveness of the changes. He knows there are those hoping that the next pope will turn everything back around. If you go slowly it’s more difficult to turn things back.” The interviewer then asks whether it does not help his adversaries when they know that Pope Francis says that his papacy might be short. Fernández answers: “The pope must have his reasons, because he knows very well what he’s doing. He must have an objective that we don’t understand yet. 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.” These words could be read in the context of the ongoing, two-year-long procedure and discussion on the question of marriage and the family that has caused much confusion among the faithful.
Archbishop Fernández is convinced that Pope Francis’ changes within the Church will remain even after his own papacy:
No, there’s no turning back. 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.
When asked whether the Pope is causing a schism within the Church, the Argentinian responded:
No. There’s a schism when a group of important people share the same sensibilities that reflect those of a vast section of society. Luther and Protestantism came about this way. But now the overwhelming majority of the people are with Francis and they love him. His opponents are weaker than what you think. Not pleasing everyone does not mean provoking a schism.
In spite of his denial of a larger opposition against some of Pope Francis’ attempts to change the Church, Archbishop Fernández admits that probably today, a Conclave would not re-elect Pope Francis. He said, when asked about a possible re-election: “I don’t know, possibly not. But it happened.”
To sum up these very troubling comments: According to Archbishop Fernández, a closer collaborator of Pope Francis for years, the pope aims at a change within the Church by making statements that later on cannot be refuted, because they come from a pope, by going slowly so as to have the changes trickle down softly within the Church, and by making sure that his reform will by irreversible after his papacy. All of this can be done because the majority of today’s Church is with Pope Francis, and there is only a small opposing minority.
The future will show whether these remarks were in accordance with Pope Francis’ plans or not. In any event, since Pope Francis is not correcting this counsellor of his – on the contrary, just in these last days, the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano, as well as the Italian Bishops’ Conference press service Servizio Informazione Religioso have both found praise and support for Archbishop Fernández – his words will have to be taken seriously.