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Have you heard about the scandalous writings by the new head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office? No, no: I don’t mean Heal Me With Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing, the 1995 pamphlet that has occasioned so much comment since Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández was elevated to Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope Francis last week. Kissing is, I suppose, a reasonable subject for theological reflection; though having said that . . . 

But let’s leave kissing aside for the moment. First, I want to talk about adultery.

It was Archbishop Fernández who authored the crucial passages in Chapter Eight of Pope Francis’s 2016 document on marriage, Amoris Laetitia. At least, Fernández’s authorship has been widely reported without denial, the wording is very close to his own prose at certain points, and he has publicly enthused at great length about its contents. And Chapter Eight is, deservedly, the most notorious text in modern Catholic history. It amounts to a sustained reflection on the Church’s teaching that the divorced and remarried can only receive Communion if they give up sexual relations with their new partner. Chapter Eight never quite challenges that teaching, but it is written so ambiguously as to open the door to intellectual and pastoral chaos. 

Take one example out of a dozen. The document—Fernández, presumably—proclaims that “A subject may know full well the rule, yet . . . be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.” What on earth does that mean? On one reading, it means that having extramarital sex is, for some people, just impossible to avoid: a sad inevitability, like getting hay fever in the spring. Someone wrote a bizarre book (reviewed here) inspired by this passage, arguing for the inexorable force of adulterous sexual intercourse. Three high-ranking cardinals promoted it, and the pope even gave it a vague endorsement. Then nobody ever talked about the idea again, so maybe Chapter Eight didn’t mean that after all. Or maybe it did. This is what I mean about chaos. 

And it has spread like a lethal disease. Jean Vanier, at the time an enormously influential figure, backed assisted suicide on the basis of Amoris Laetitia’s Chapter Eight: “Pope Francis continues to tell us that everything cannot be regulated by a law.” (In hindsight, Vanier had his own reasons for preferring a more flexible moral code.) A theologian at a Vatican academy claimed that Church teaching on contraception could now be discarded. The title of his paper? “Re-reading Humanae Vitae in light of Amoris Laetitia.” In May, the Flemish bishops of Belgium cited Amoris Laetitia to justify giving same-sex blessings. And so on. For this epic confusion, Fernández bears a great deal of responsibility.

Indeed, Fernández seems to have confused himself. In a homily this past March, he lamented that the Church had historically acted as though “This one can receive Communion, this one cannot receive Communion. . . . Terrible that this has happened to us in the Church. Thank God Pope Francis is helping us to free ourselves from these patterns.” Rules barring anybody from Communion, apparently, are simply “terrible.” Yet in 2018 Fernández wrote an article on Amoris Laetitia proposing various rules about who could receive the Eucharist. There should be “firm limits,” he said, to exclude any remarried person who has been through a “recent divorce” or who has “failed in his obligations” to his family. Communion discipline, then, is outrageous when it is based on Scripture and tradition and depends on the renunciation of sin. It is fine if it is based on Archbishop Fernández’s opinions and depends on time limits and character assessments.

From this intellectual catastrophe, pastoral catastrophe soon followed. Thanks to Chapter Eight, some parishes abandoned the Church’s restrictions on Communion. An Argentine bishop gave Communion to thirty remarried couples at once as though Catholic teaching was no more. In Malta, couples were told to receive the Eucharist if they felt “at peace with God,” two millennia of sacramental discipline elbowed aside by the language of Eat Pray Love.

What qualities should one hope for in a Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith? High on my list would be, first, an unswerving attachment to Church teaching, a deep aversion to error and ambiguity in matters of doctrine; and second, a certain serenity, a sober wisdom that sees to the heart of things. Archbishop Fernández, on both points, gives the opposite impression. And no, that impression is not exactly dispelled by Heal Me With Your Mouth, with its weirdly intense poetry: “How was God so unmerciful as to give you that mouth. . . . There is no one who resists it, you witch.” Or, indeed, by the archbishop’s indignant self-defense, this week, that his intended audience for this stuff was the teenagers in his parish. Or by his bombastic Facebook posts about his “rigid” enemies and their “humiliating” attacks on him. Or, above all, by the chaos he has unleashed in the Church. And if he could do that as a relatively obscure theologian, what could he do from his new position of power?

For such a man to be elevated to such a height is a terrifyingly bad joke, in some ways the culmination of the decade-long tragicomedy of this pontificate. All I can suggest by way of consolation is St. John Henry Newman’s remarks about Church crises and their unexpected ends:

Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now. So far is certain; on the other hand, what is uncertain, and in these great contests commonly is uncertain, and what is commonly a great surprise, when it is witnessed, is the particular mode by which, in the event, Providence rescues and saves His elect inheritance. Sometimes our enemy is turned into a friend; sometimes he is despoiled of that special virulence of evil which was so threatening; sometimes he falls to pieces of himself; sometimes he does just so much as is beneficial, and then is removed. 

Some of us, surely, will live to see that “great surprise.” I hope Archbishop Fernández does too.

Dan Hitchens is a senior editor at First Things.

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