Complexities and paradoxes in the history of the Church

The appointment of Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has a symbolic weight of great import. In a certain sense, it represents the culmination of the pontificate of Pope Francis, who has meant to send a clear sign to those he referred to, at his meeting on 24 November 2022 with the members of the International Theological Commission, as the “backward-looking” of the Church.

Another signal in this direction is the appointment of 21 cardinals — including Fernández himself — for the consistory in September, which will precede the opening of the Synod on synodality. Francis wants to ensure that the direction in which he has steered the Church will not be changed by his successor, since “there is no going back”.

So, are they in the right who are convinced that Pope Francis’s latest selections are the expression of a radical break with the pontificates that preceded his? Is Francis the worst pope in history, or perhaps, as some think, even an antipope?

For the historian, the reality is more complex. In the last sixty years, the points of departure from the Tradition of the Church have been many, but the first and most eloquent reversal of perspective dates back to the 11 October 1962 address Gaudet Mater Ecclesia with which John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council.

Pope Francis’s letter to the new prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, in its language and content, has much which resonates with that document. In the central passage of Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, John XXIII explained that Vatican II had not been convened to condemn errors or formulate new dogmas, but to present the Church’s traditional teaching in language suited to the new times. John XXIII affirmed that:

“[A]s for the present time, the Bride of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy instead of taking up the weapons of rigour; she thinks that she must meet the needs of the day, presenting the value of her teaching more clearly rather than condemning… In fact, the deposit of Faith is one thing, that is, the truths that are contained in our venerable doctrine; the way in which they are announced is another, but always in the same sense and with the same acceptation. Great importance must be granted to this method, and if necessary, it must be applied with patience; that is, one must adopt the form of exposition most in keeping with the magisterium, the nature of which is predominantly pastoral.”

John XXIII attributed a specific pastoral character to the Council that was opening. Historians of the school of Bologna have defined the pastoral dimension of Vatican II as “constitutive”. This pastoral dimension became the form of the Magisterium par excellence. At first this was not evident to all, but in the following months and years, it became clear that John XXIII’s allocution was the manifesto of a new ecclesiology. And this ecclesiology, according to progressive theologians, was supposed to be the foundation of a new Church, opposed to the “Constantinian” one of Pius XII. A Church no longer militant, no longer defining and assertive, but itinerant and in dialogue: a synodal church.

In this new perspective, the Holy Office, which for centuries had been the Church’s bulwark against the errors that attacked it, no longer had a reason to exist, or in any case, had to change its mission.1

On 8 November 1963, the cardinal archbishop of Cologne, Josef Frings (1887–1978), asked to speak and, to general surprise, launched a violent attack against the Holy Office, directed by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani (1890–1979). In front of all the bishops of the Church gathered under the presidency of the pope, Frings denounced the “immoral methods” of the Holy Office, stating that its procedure “no longer suits our age, harms the Church and is an object of scandal for many”.

Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani replied with a vibrant speech in which he defended the mission of the Holy Office:

“I feel obliged to raise the highest of protests against what has been said against the supreme Congregation of the Holy Office, whose prefect is the Supreme Pontiff. The words that have been spoken demonstrate a grave ignorance — I abstain, out of reverence, from using another term — on what is the procedure of the Holy Office.”

The clash between Frings and Ottaviani was, according to the historian Mgr Hubert Jedin, “one of the most emotional scenes of the whole Council”.2 Josef Frings was not only the archbishop of Cologne; he was the president of the German Bishops’ Conference and one of the most authoritative representatives of the alliance of Central European bishops that opposed the conservative side. Cardinal Ottaviani was the most eminent member of the Curia, at the head of a congregation — called, due to its primary importance, “la Suprema” — of which the pope and not Ottaviani was the prefect. But Paul VI did not publicly defend the Holy Office and gave de facto credence to Frings’s position.

Three years later, in 1968, Cardinal Frings led the contestation of the Central European bishops against the encyclical Humanae Vitae of Paul VI. Fr Joseph Ratzinger, who had been the inspirer and ghostwriter of Cardinal Frings at the Council, as Archbishop Victor Fernández has been of Pope Francis, at that time began to distance himself from the more progressive wing of the Church, founding the journal Communio in 1972, with Hans von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac and Walter Kasper. In 1981, having been appointed archbishop of Munich and cardinal, he was appointed by John Paul II as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which he directed for 24 years. Cardinal Frings’ theologian became the head of the congregation that Frings had publicly attacked at the Council.

After Paul VI closed the Second Vatican Council on 8 December 1965, the “reform” of the Curia was the first initiative to implement the conciliar revolution launched by John XXIII. The curial edifice, built up by previous popes over the centuries, was systematically demolished by Paul VI. What was needed, for starters, was a symbolic event: the transformation of the Congregation of the Holy Office, which on the eve of the closing of the Council was also given a new name with the motu proprio Integrae Servandae. On the afternoon of 6 December 1965, L’Osservatore Romano published the decree that abolished the Index of Prohibited Books and turned the Holy Office into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stating that “it now seems better that the defence of the faith should take place through the effort to promote doctrine”.

Paul VI appointed the Belgian theologian Charles Moeller (1912–1986), a champion of ecumenist progressivism, as undersecretary of the Congregation, pending the anticipated resignation of Cardinal Ottaviani, which came on 30 December 1967. “Moeller,” Fr Yves-Marie Congar wrote in his Diary, “is 100% ecumenism, he is openness to man, interest in his pursuits, in culture. He is dialogue.”3

Congar himself, on two occasions (in 1946 and in 1954), urinated on the door of the Holy Office, as a sign of contempt for the supreme institution of the Church.4 On 26 November 1994, he was made a cardinal by John Paul II. This, no less memorable than the appointment of Archbishop Fernández by Pope Francis, demonstrates how complex and sometimes paradoxical history is — rich in events, on a symbolic level.


  1. Cf. Roberto de Mattei, Il Concilio Vaticano II. Una storia mai scritta (Lindau, Turin, 2011) pp. 346–347.
  2. Mgr Hubert Jedin, Chiesa della fede, Chiesa della storia, (Morcelliana, Brescia, 1972) p. 314.
  3. Yves-Marie Congar, Diario del Concilio (1960–1966) (Cinisello Balsamo, 2005) vol. II, pp. 434-435.
  4. Yves-Marie Congar, Journal d’un théologien (1946–1954) (Editions du Cerf, Paris, 2000) pp. 88, 293.