When one thinks of Argentine Catholicism, one unanswered question emerges: who among the local Church figures is the closest to Pope Francis? Two candidates head the list: Víctor Manuel Fernández and Carlos Galli. Both have been dean of the theology department at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina (UCA), which has its base in Buenos Aires. Both were called on for advice by Francis after he became Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Fernández, the current rector of the UCA, where Bergoglio was grand chancellor, was made an archbishop during the current papacy, while Galli was made a member of the International Theological Commission.
Fernández was born in the Argentine province of Cordoba; Galli in Buenos Aires. Fernández, a natural leader, is generally affable and calm. Galli is the more vehement of the two, and more markedly precise in his terms. Both have written numerous books and articles, and have been regular contributors to Criterio, an Argentine current affairs magazine with a Catholic slant, whose past contributors include Jorge Luis Borges.
Furthermore, Fernández has a major public profile, which allows him to reach a massive audience. His accounts of the fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, which took place in May 2007 at the city and pilgrimage site of Aparecida in Brazil, written in the form of a diary, demonstrated his mental agility, competence and humour. This was an occasion when Jorge Mario Bergoglio appeared before the bishops of the subcontinent as a person of great stature, with immense capabilities of dialogue and hard work. By his side at that time were Fernández and Galli, his go-to theologians.
These two intellectuals are proud of their Latin American provenance, of their condition as citizens of the “end of the world”, somewhere they see as the continent of the future for the Catholic Church. Both adhere to the teología del pueblo (“theology of the people”) – equally interested in popular piety and in the Catholic roots of South American countries. It could be said that they are bound by an impetus that is innate to these Latin American latitudes.
Fernández was a teacher of various subjects at different seminaries and institutions: ethics, psychology, hermeneutics, anthropology, and moral and spiritual theology. He is a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture and, in 2015, was made a member of the final report-drafting committee for the family synod. He has been able to meet and get to know some of the personalities currently close to Francis, such as Fr Antonio Spadaro, the Jesuit editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, and the theologian Archbishop Bruno Forte, among others.
When Fernández became rector of the UCA, a series of conflicts took place between the then Cardinal Bergoglio and some important factions in the Roman Curia. Fernández was rejected by way of a “Roman silence” and was never received at the Vatican in a way that corresponded to his position. At this time he became a privileged observer of what, in the circumstances, was the ill treatment of Bergoglio by the Curia. At the same time, Fernández knows well both Bergoglio’s deepest thought and the extent of his political abilities and pastoral preoccupations.
Fernández is sometimes blunt in his public statements and does not attempt to hide his reactions in certain situations – something that at times provoked suspicion in Rome and even among his Argentine peers. He is known to be behind many papal texts and is the source for some of the terms used in Pope Francis’s works.
Likewise, he is a fierce defender of the positions of the current Pope. As he himself explains clearly: “The word pueblo is one that Bergoglio uses with shining eyes. He values the pueblo as a collective subject that must be at the centre of the preoccupations of the Church and indeed anyone in power. To say this is no small thing, when the pueblo is seen by some sectors of society and the Church to be a mass of people full of defects, which have to be healed with education by the ‘wise and prudent’.”
Fernández says that compassion is a central virtue of Bergoglio’s spirituality, and believes that “popular religion doesn’t always coincide with the ideas of the Church hierarchy, and that a home-grown dynamism can create its own forms of expression”.
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio valued popular expressions of religion so highly that many parishes soon became real sanctuaries, closer to humble sensibilities than those of a traditional liturgy.
For Fernández, the poor are Francis’s favourites, and for that reason he supports curas villeros (slum priests). According to Fernández, an austere mode of living is another characteristic peculiar to the Pope, as are evangelical simplicity, a commitment to ecumenism and interfaith dialogue.
The criticism from more conservative Church factions of Bergoglio’s positions is, of course, something that has not escaped Fernández. He affirms, however, that the Pope is “not strictly a progressive, and feels a serious respect for both traditional Church teaching and that of previous popes”. But he observes that Francis “is clear on the fact that there are certain central, fundamental things (love, justice, brotherhood) and that other* things don’t stop being secondary”.
José María Poirier is the editor of Criterio (Revistacriterio.com.ar). Translated by Miguel Cullen
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