Michael W. Higgins is the Basilian Distinguished Fellow of Contemporary Catholic Thought at the University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College.
Recently, Pope Francis has been racking up his momentum of change in church governance to an astonishing degree. You can see this in the appointment of young archbishops to several major Sees – Madrid’s José Cobo Cano, Buenos Aires’s Jorge García Cuerva, and Toronto’s Frank Leo – all youthful men in their 50s who are in sympathy with the Pope’s vision of a church shorn of the trappings of power and close to the poor, a church that is not timid but bold in its moral witness. Of course, the proof will be in the ecclesiastical pudding, but the signs are auspicious.
In addition, Francis has created a new batch of cardinals, drawn from both traditional and peripheral jurisdictions and illustrative of his continuing commitment to strengthening the diverse composition of a College of Cardinals that is numerically, and not just symbolically, representative of a global church. This strategically augmented college – the majority of its members created by Francis – is in position to elect a successor whose pastoral vision aligns with the current Pope, thereby ensuring a much-desired continuity.
But the most striking and original personnel change is at the helm of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. This Vatican body, or department, has undergone many nomenclature adjustments over the past few centuries, from the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to the now-renamed Dicastery. In the minds of the curial locals, it is often simply referred to as La Suprema. In every era, its mission has been to protect the Catholic faith and morals.
The Dicastery’s roots are complex and layered. In the 13th century, it was a Papal Inquisition largely run by friars; in the late-15th century, the Spanish Inquisition was created; the Roman Inquisition was instituted in the 16th century as a way of combatting the new heresies of the reforming Protestants. All of these structures were eventually abolished, but something of their style and mission remained part of the Holy Office up to 1965.
Admittedly, “inquisitor” is not a role most clerics want to have listed on their CV, and the role of Chief Doctrine Invigilator has been coloured by a history more ignominious than glorious. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, the Dominican inquisitors in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, to say nothing of the quirky and demonic cadre of faith enforcers found in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code universe, do nothing to enhance the job description. Until now.
Francis has reconceived the role of the doctrine office and put in charge an Argentinian theologian-adviser of long acquaintance: Victor Manuel Fernández. One of the new cardinals Francis has just created, Fernández is well equipped for the position: he is a prolific scholar, shares Francis’s pastoral sensibility and priorities, and has had his own brush with this Vatican policing body, so he personally knows something of how it works.
And how it works has been a problem. Many modern Catholic thinkers, including such prominent names as Americans Charles Curran, Elizabeth Johnston, Roger Haight, Belgian Jacques Dupuis, and Canada’s André Guindon, have experienced the power of La Suprema. Because they ran afoul of the Roman authorities as a result of their scholarship, or because they were informed on by Catholics suspicious of their Catholic credentials, cases were opened, inquiries made, and pressure applied – all under the veil of secrecy until such time as those under scrutiny were contacted and invited to address certain propositions the authorities defined as erroneous or leading to misinterpretation.
For years, Catholics have complained about the Dicastery’s process: accusers remain anonymous, and the burden of proof is on the accused to establish their innocence. One of the most respected priest-theologians in the Catholic Church, Bernard Haring, observed in his memoirs that he was interrogated many times by both the Gestapo and the Holy Office and concluded: “I would rather stand once again before a court of war of Hitler.”
It’s time to end this way of proceeding. When naming Fernández to his new job, Francis indicated in his letter of appointment that, in the past, the Dicastery used “immoral methods” in its pursuit of remedying doctrinal error. Rather, the church must now foster differing “currents of thought in philosophy, theology and practical practice … for this harmonious growth will preserve Christian doctrine more effectively than any control mechanism.”
Francis knows that the church needs an oversight body tasked to safeguard the faith, but also an oversight body that does not operate by repression, imposition and fear – instead, by openness, persuasion, and love.
Fernández has his mandate letter. And he knows what needs to be done. The Francis reform of the church continues.