After the Pope, the person who holds (used to hold, at least) enormous power in the corridors of the Vatican is the head or the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.
Arguably, one can say that the portfolio of the Secretary of State is equally important -if not more, as he is a kind of Vatican’s Prime Minister- since he holds diverse and crucial responsibilities at various levels.
Pope Francis has been reforming the Roman Curia (the conclave that elected him mandated him with this work) and to this end, in March 2022 he published Preach the Gospel” (Predicate Evengelium), an Apostolic Constitution that sets the parameters for this complicated and uphill task.
The proposed changes are substantive, organizational, and, at times, include even name-changing: accordingly, we have a re-named Dicastery for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF turns into DDF). In the new order of importance, the primacy of place (rightly so) goes to the Dicastery for Evangelization.
In July, Pope Francis appointed the 61-year-old Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez as the new head of the DDF. On September 11, Archbishop Fernandez assumed the responsibility. Like Pope Francis, Fernandez also comes from ‘far away’ Argentina, where he served as the archbishop of La Plata. He will be created a cardinal on September 30 this year.
Some of us may recall that before he was elected and introduced as Pope Benedict XVI to the world, for 24 long years Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the Prefect of the CDF. He was succeeded by Cardinals Gerhard Muller and Ladaria Ferrer. The primary function of the DDF has been to promulgate and defend the Catholic doctrine.
There is hardly a file that does not go through the DDF’s office to ensure that what is formally communicated or taught, promulgated, or published in the Church (including those who are appointed to different ecclesial positions) is free of theological or doctrinal errors. Some of the famous cases that the CDF has dealt with in the past include those of Jesuit Fathers in India — Tony De Mello and Jacquis Dupuis — and Father Tissa Balasuriya of Sri Lanka.
Pope Francis clearly and firmly desires a change in the way the DDF comes across to the faithful (note the way it shifts from exclusively being that of a cop who investigates, judges, warns, and punishes). The intent and heart of Pope Francis is revealed in the letter he wrote to Archbishop Fernandez, published along with the appointment letter:
“The Dicastery over which you will preside over in other times came to use immoral methods. Those were times when, rather than promoting theological knowledge, possible doctrinal errors were pursued. What I expect from you is certainly something very different…. I ask you as prefect to dedicate your personal commitment more directly to the main purpose of the Dicastery, which is ‘keeping the faith.’”
Note that the change is not only in the goalkeeper: there is a slight shift in the goalposts themselves. Proclamation of the Gospel, in known and innovative ways, gets primacy and DDF serves in this mission.
Archbishop Fernandez, having deep knowledge of the faith, diverse cultures, and the world’s religions, and, coming from the global peripheries, is perhaps the best suited to do the wonderful job as the DDF’s new prefect.
Fr. Stanislaus Alla, SJ is a professor of moral theology at the Vidyajyoti College of Theology in Delhi.
This commentary piece was first published by Matters India