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VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pope Francis has appointed as the Roman Catholic Church's "guardian of orthodoxy" a heterodox and highly controversial Argentinian prelate who is accused of covering up clerical sexual abuse.
The Holy See Press Office announced Saturday that Francis has chosen Abp. Víctor Manuel Fernández to be the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's watchdog overseeing doctrinal matters and enforcing disciplinary measures.
The pontiff expressed his concerns about the past conduct of the dicastery, stating that it had previously employed "immoral methods" and focused on pursuing "possible doctrinal errors" rather than "promoting theological knowledge."
"What I expect from you is certainly something very different," the pontiff wrote.
Francis urged "Tucho" Fernández to encourage theologians "as long as they are not 'content with a desk-bound theology,' with 'a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything.'"
Emphasizing a significant departure from the historical role of the office once known as the Holy Inquisition, Pope Francis said that the new prefect should focus on providing "reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns."
In the letter, Francis also directs Fernández to dedicate himself to the dicastery's primary mission of "keeping the faith," shifting the focus away from the issue of clerical sex, since a dedicated section has recently been established to handle cases related to pedophile priests.
Even though the Argentine archbishop is not a biblical scholar with a doctorate in biblical studies, he has been made president of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Francis has also elevated Fernández as head of the International Theological Commission.
The Holy See Press Office highlighted the new prefect's academic accomplishments, citing over 300 publications that underscore his biblical knowledge and unwavering dedication to fostering dialogue between theology, culture, evangelization, spirituality and social matters.
However, the Vatican's press office did not mention Fernández's most controversial book, Heal Me With Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing, a volume containing erotic prose and pictures, first published in Spanish in 1995 and later translated into English.
In the book's preface, the prelate clarifies that his work is not solely based on personal experiences but rather draws inspiration from the lives of individuals who engage in kissing.
The 61-year-old archbishop inserts snippets of his own poetry in the book, writing:
How was God
as to give you that mouth...
There is no one who resists me,
"All things being equal, and had he had time to write one, this might have functioned as a working title for Judas' autobiography," Dr. Gavin Ashenden, theologian, columnist and Anglican convert to Catholicism, tweeted, commenting on Fernández's book.
Fernández, an old friend and ghostwriter for the pope, expressed his acceptance of the promotion "with joy, even though I will have many who will be against me: There are people who prefer a more rigid, structured way of thinking, at war with the world."
Both conservatives and progressives slammed Francis' elevation of Fernández to the Church's highest doctrinal office.
"With the most recent personnel decision, Francis shows once again how indifferent he is to those affected and that he doesn't let his friends get in the way — whether they are perpetrators like Rupnik or have a problematic track record like Fernández," Dr. Doris Reisinger, a liberal academic, lamented.
Reisinger, a former nun raped by a former priest at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, tweeted an article from BishopAccountability.org that raised concerns over Fernández's recent handling of a clergy sex abuse case in his home archdiocese of La Plata.
"In his response to allegations, he stood in stout support of the accused priest and refused to believe the victims. Showing disregard for the safety of children, Fernández kept the priest at his parish post even as more victims came forward," the article states.
In February 2019, Fernández publicly defended an influential La Plata priest, Fr. Eduardo Lorenzo, after a child sex abuse complaint against the priest from 2008 resurfaced.
Fernández published on the archdiocesan website a letter from Fr. Lorenzo that denied the allegation and accused his detractors of "slanders, insults and defamations." A month later, the archbishop traveled to the priest's parish to concelebrate a Mass at which Lorenzo renewed his commitment to the priesthood.
By September 2019, two more alleged victims of Lorenzo came forward, but Fernández continued to keep the priest in parish ministry, merely reminding him of the archdiocese's rule forbidding priests to travel or spend time alone with minors, the website reported.
In October 2019, the archbishop finally removed Lorenzo from his post as the criminal case intensified, saying that Lorenzo had requested the leave "for health reasons."
Lorenzo committed suicide in December 2019, after five victims came forward and a judge issued an order for his arrest.
"His continual cronyism can be nothing except extremely divisive for the faithful, creating factions and favorites, not to mention fear, in the heart of the curia," Lambert, founder of the Defense of the Integrity of Catholic Education, added.
On May 13, 2013, two months after his election to the See of St. Peter, Pope Francis conferred on his friend the honorific position of "archbishop," even though Fernández was rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina and not overseeing a diocese.
Only in June 2018, did Fernández assume the office of archbishop of the archdiocese of La Plata.
In a May 2015, interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Fernández angered conservatives when he said the people of God would not tolerate any attempts by a future pope to reverse the changes Francis has already brought to the Church.
In 2016, Vaticanist Sandro Magister outed Fernández as the ghostwriter of Amoris Laetitia — Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation that sparked scandal for changing centuries-old Church praxis and permitting public adulterers to receive Holy Communion.
A year later, Fernández published a highly controversial essay in Medellín, the theological journal of the Latin-American bishops' conference, titled "Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia: What Is Left After the Storm."
The archbishop argued that the supposed reversals of magisterial teaching first on slavery and later on religious freedom and salvation outside the Church at Vatican II are precedents for Francis to create an "irreversible novelty" in Amoris Laetitia, even if it contradicts his predecessors.
"This novelty invites us to recall that the Church can really evolve, as has happened in history, both in our understanding of the doctrine and in the application of its disciplinary consequences," Fernández maintained.
"But some have an enormous difficulty in admitting that something similar can occur in questions related to sexuality," he remarked.
"Can Francis accept what was taught by St. John Paul II and yet open a door that was closed?" the archbishop asked. "Yes, because an evolution in the Church's understanding of Her own doctrine and its disciplinary consequences is possible."
Fernández gained notoriety after he dismissed a young professor and father of four from the University School of Theology of Mar del Plata for posting on Facebook in 2020 Abp. Carlo Maria Viganò's criticisms of Francis' human fraternity document, Church Militant reported.
In a Sunday homily in the La Plata Cathedral in March 2023, Fernández blasted the Church for historically developing "a whole philosophy and morality full of classifications, to classify people, to put labels on people."
He added, "This one can receive Communion; this one cannot receive Communion. This one can be forgiven; this one cannot," the archbishop preached. "Terrible that this has happened to us in the Church. Thank God, Pope Francis is helping us to free ourselves from these patterns."