A reflection on fidelity to the teaching of Peter’s successor in times of controversy and questioning

Introduction: The pain of a father being hurt

It has been very painful to witness in recent weeks numerous attacks, criticisms and suspicions against Pope Francis, against Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and against the ordinary Magisterium. It is painful because the pope, whoever he is, is the true successor of St. Peter, and therefore, “the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity.”[1] Cardinal Fernandez, for his part, is none other than the head of the Dicastery most directly involved in promoting and safeguarding the integrity of the doctrine on faith and morals, on the basis of the deposit of faith and seeking an understanding of it in the face of the new questions offered by contemporary culture. [2]

Likewise, it is painful to watch the attacks against Francis because beyond definitions, when a son sees his father hurt, humiliated, attacked, he can only feel pain. This expression is not intended to be a mere rhetorical pose or a candid feeling. Pope Francis has shown the world an extraordinary paternity, showing by word and example that the mercy of Jesus is infinite and should not be conditioned by customs, but facilitated by pastors who, without giving up the truth, know well that, just as charity without truth becomes sentimentalism, so truth without charity is repugnant and destructive. Such a paternity, which really opens a path of healing for many wounded people, can only be appreciated, loved and cared for with affection.

The center of the recent animosity flowing in various media and social networks has been the publication of the Declaration Fiducia Supplicans which deals with the pastoral understanding of blessings, and in particular, on the possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples.

The critical reactions to this document are very diverse. The reaction of a schismatic bishop who no longer accepts the Second Vatican Council is not the same as that of a Prefect emeritus who sees internal contradictions in the Declaration; that of a bishop who affirms that the Fiducia Supplicans is not heretical but chaotic as that of another who affirms that the document is against the natural law. If we dive into the environments of the lay groups, the critical reactions also embrace a very wide spectrum: some groups present legitimate doubts and perplexities, because of the lack of formation and/or information on some topics, which, with patience and good will, can eventually be solved. Others, on the contrary, are groups that had already offered resistance and criticism to some aspects of the pontifical Magisterium, for example, in matters of matrimonial morality (Amoris Laetitia), indigenous ministry (Querida Amazonia), or social ministry (Fratelli Tutti, Laudato Si’, Laudate Deum). With respect to the latter groups, some of the most active collectives in the rejection of the Declaration Fiducia Supplicans are precisely the environments that have been seduced by some form of ultraconservative political theology, and in which the estrangement with the social teaching of the pope was incubating to now hatch in much more visible ways at the present time.[3]

Is it legitimate for a Catholic to publicly express opposition to the ordinary Magisterium? Should fidelity to the pope be conditioned by my own understanding of the deposit of faith and ecclesial Tradition? Should I give up the use of my own reason when I accept in faith the teaching of the Magisterium or some pastoral disposition within the Church? All these questions are entirely legitimate. Not only because they respond to a contemporary sensibility regarding the rights of conscience, but also because they show the need to go deeper into a set of principles that go beyond conventional clichés about what is “right” or “wrong” in the life of the Church.

In the following paragraphs, unfortunately, we cannot deal with these questions in extenso. To do so, it would be necessary to study with some care those chapters on the apostolic ministry — and in particular on the ministry of Peter — which normally appear in robust studies of ecclesiology. Likewise, it will not be superfluous to familiarize oneself with the foundations of fundamental theology, so that the articulation between the demands of reason and the experience of faith can be understood with rigor and without simplifications.[4]

Our task, on this occasion, is rather more modest: to offer, by way of opinion, some minimal elements that are worth keeping in mind when looking at the painful scenario of dissidence and bitterness against the pope and against the Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. These minimal elements simply outline a path that will undoubtedly require further deepening. However, in the opinion of this writer, the elements listed below cannot be ignored or bracketed off as if they were obligatory for some and not for others. In other words, the Magisterium of the Church has already taught how the Magisterium itself should be received.

1. John XXIII: a more analytical and differentiated theological reading of the signs of the times

The Second Vatican Council was a true ecclesial Kairós. The passionate discussions and the diverse ecclesial tendencies of those who participated and debated, did not prevent the Holy Spirit from working and impelling the Church to a process of renewal, which has not yet culminated. The Second Vatican Council did not seek to make the Church “fashionable” but to refresh its face by returning to the most original sources for its adequate reform.[5] At that time, there was no lack of factions that saw any innovation as a compromise of the Church before the powers of the world. Pope St. John XXIII was well aware of the existence of a widespread ultra-conservative, anti-modern, “counter-revolutionary” mentality, full of fatal diagnoses that prophesied ecclesial fractures and endless crises. However, both he and the rest of the post-conciliar pontiffs achieved a theological reading of history that was more analytical and differentiated than the anti-modern one. In this way, among other things, they avoided falling into easy neo-Manichaean simplifications, which in the end helped constitute the ideological polarization that partially characterized the twentieth century. Let us see, for example, how in the opening speech of the Council, St. John XXIII affirmed with forcefulness:

“In the daily exercise of Our pastoral office, it sometimes happens that We hear certain opinions which disturb Us—opinions expressed by people who, though fired with a commendable zeal for religion, are lacking in sufficient prudence and judgment in their evaluation of events. They can see nothing but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. They say over and over that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages, is definitely deteriorating. One would think from their attitude that history, that great teacher of life, had taught them nothing. …

We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom, who are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were at hand. … Present indications are that the human family is on the threshold of a new era. We must recognize here the hand of God, who, as the years roll by, is ever directing men’s efforts, whether they realize it or not, towards the fulfillment of the inscrutable designs of His providence, wisely arranging everything, even adverse human fortune, for the Church’s good.” [6]

This concise text clearly does not align itself with the modernist reading of history, which seeks to uncritically add the Church to the myth of indefinite progress. Nor does the text fall into the temptation of the anti-modernist reading, so typical of the small groups that, full of fear and attached to a false idea of “Tradition,” sought to keep the Church within the “safety” zone defined by ultra-conservative and fundamentalist thought.[7] The “good Pope,” with great acuteness, and without any naivety, knows that Providence is what drives History and leads us to a new order of things, on a personal, social and ecclesial level.

The Church has not given up affirming truth and correcting error. In fact, errors swarmed within the conciliar debates. There was no lack of voices that suggested the pope should assume an attitude of combat and condemnation of error in order not to fall into “ambiguity” and “confusion” and to preserve “clear” doctrine. St. John XXIII, however, was convinced that the best way to correct error and sin is not in the form of combat or condemnation. He believed that the Second Vatican Council should not be a synthesis of condemnations, but a joyful affirmation of God’s mercy within history:

“The Church has always opposed these errors, and often condemned them with the utmost severity. Today, however, Christ’s Bride prefers the balm of mercy to the arm of severity. She believes that, present needs are best served by explaining more fully the purport of her doctrines, rather than by publishing condemnations.”[8]

2. The Second Vatican Council: bishops “when they teach in communion with the Roman Pontiff”

With these convictions firmly planted in their minds and hearts, St. John XXIII and later St. Paul VI conducted the Second Vatican Council, discerned its doctrine, and eventually the time came to promulgate its documents. Of all of them, I would like to highlight the Constitution on the Church, better known as Lumen Gentium. In this important text, among other things, are laid the essential foundations for the proper, truly ecclesial acceptance of the pontifical Magisterium. To accept it when I like it, and also when I do not like it:

“In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.”[9]

Indeed, the Second Vatican Council is very clear: the bishops are to be respected as witnesses to Catholic truth when they teach in communion with the pope. We, the faithful, for our part, are called to an interior adherence, to the “religious submission of mind and will” to the Magisterium. This expression does not mean giving up the vocation of reason or anything similar. It means learning to live in a spirit of faith, which is a rational assent to a revealed truth moved by grace, the teaching of the Church.

3. Legitimate questioning and detractors of the Pope

If, having done this, doubts and reservations still remain, questioning the Magisterium is legitimate when it is done in a private way, seeking to find the truth as a disciple, taking care of communion and avoiding scandal. On the contrary, seeking to object to the Magisterium outside of this channel quickly leads one to believe that the Magisterium deserves respect only when it coincides with one’s own opinion, which is elevated, often without realizing it, to the supreme criterion of interpretation of the faith. Moreover, it is not uncommon to find on social networks discussions on the Magisterium of Pope Francis that seek to end when someone quotes Chesterton (“when I enter the Church, I take off my hat, not my head”) or St. John Henry Newman, who in his letter to the Duke of Norfolk toasts first to conscience and then to the pope. In both cases, the quotations usually do without their true contexts, and seek to discredit the value of the contemporary Magisterium, when it does not coincide with their own worldview, often burdened by a mixture of fragments of Catholic thought and conservative or neoconservative ideologies of various kinds.

Will it be possible to get out of this impasse? Will there be any clue in the Magisterium of the Church from sources that are accepted by the main critics of Pope Francis that will shed light on these questions? From our point of view, it would be enough to study in depth the above-mentioned section of the Constitution Lumen Gentium to return things to their fundamental contexts. Now, it is a fact that an orderly and well-founded study of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church is usually hard to find among the pope’s detractors. The few who have studied this doctrine often do so without taking into account all of its antecedents and subsequent developments. This is not the place to delve into that question, which would lead us to considerations that far exceed this brief reflection.

However, it may be useful, at least in a didactic way, to observe how the critics of the Declaration Fiducia Supplicans, and in general, several of the factions that feel uncomfortable with Pope Francis and who usually long for the “clarity” and “precision” of the Magisterium, for example, of Benedict XVI, tend to forget that Cardinal Ratzinger himself — as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the formal authorization of St. John Paul II — had already laid the foundations for illumination in arduous moments of contesting and questioning of the ordinary Magisterium, such as those that are happening today.

4. The Instruction Donum Veritatis also applies to “non-progressive” critics.

In fact, the Instruction Donum Veritatis of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, presided over by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — which was used in the past by some as a battering ram to call “progressive” theological thought to order — applies also to today’s “ultra-conservative” challenges. There is no reason to think that this document of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church does not apply in its essentials when the objector comes from a “non-progressive” position.

Let us take a close look at a few decisive paragraphs. In the first place, we should note that Fiducia Supplicans, as part of the Magisterium of the Church, is not a teaching extrinsic to Christian truth or something superimposed on faith:

“The function of the Magisterium is not, then, something extrinsic to Christian truth nor is it set above the faith. It arises directly from the economy of the faith itself, inasmuch as the Magisterium is, in its service to the Word of God, an institution positively willed by Christ as a constitutive element of His Church. The service to Christian truth which the Magisterium renders is thus for the benefit of the whole People of God called to enter the liberty of the truth revealed by God in Christ.”[10]

Certainly there are different degrees and levels in the teaching of the Church. Fiducia Supplicans does not incorporate any novelty in dogmatic or moral matters but, in any case, its scope is pastoral, by introducing a relative disciplinary novelty in matters of blessings. In view of this, it must be said:

“Magisterial decisions in matters of discipline, even if they are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility, are not without divine assistance and call for the adherence of the faithful.”[11]

5. The importance of pontifical approval and communion with the Successor of Peter

The Declaration Fiducia Supplicans is not by “Tucho Fernández,” as some have reduced it. It is a true Declaration of the Dicastery, signed by the Cardinal Prefect, and with explicit pontifical approval:

“The Roman Pontiff fulfills his universal mission with the help of the various bodies of the Roman Curia and in particular with that of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in matters of doctrine and morals. Consequently, the documents issued by this Congregation expressly approved by the Pope participate in the ordinary magisterium of the successor of Peter.”[12]

Bishops who question the binding dimension of the Declaration, claiming that it contradicts the doctrine of the Church in some way, seem to forget that a condition of the authenticity of episcopal teaching is to exercise it always in communion with the Successor of Peter:

“The teaching of each bishop, taken individually, is exercised in communion with the Roman Pontiff, Pastor of the universal Church, and with the other bishops dispersed throughout the world or gathered in an ecumenical council. Such communion is a condition for its authenticity.”[13]

6. Interventions of the prudential order in the Magisterium are not deprived of divine assistance.

It is not novel to recognize that within the papal Magisterium that not every decision deals with immutable principles, but that many of them refer to questions on a prudential order on which it is necessary to decide and even take risks. These types of interventions can mature and develop over time, either because of a greater understanding of the deposit of faith or because of a renewed understanding of the social or pastoral context that needs to be understood and addressed. However, in all cases, being aware of the imperfection of some evaluations and assessments, and taking into account the contingency of some pastoral and disciplinary decisions, divine assistance to the pope and to the Church does not disappear or become sporadic:

“When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies. Bishops and their advisors have not always taken into immediate consideration every aspect or the entire complexity of a question. But it would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church’s Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission.”[14]

It is worth insisting and repeating this point: that “interventions in the prudential order” for the good of the pastoral governance of the Church are not always perfect. All the bishops of the world know this. These are the most common type of decisions. These decisions, moreover, in some cases, may ultimately admit of different means of contextual implementation: the same criterion can be applied in a different way, according to the cultural environment of each community.[15] Such decisions, which are subject to further perfection, are not outside the assistance promised by God to the successors of the apostles, and especially to the Successor of Peter.

7. Use of the media

Now, as we began to discuss above, to question, in conscience, a document of the ordinary Magisterium — either in part or in its entirety — is possible. Such questions or objections must be expressed formally to the competent authority, without making a public mockery of the pope or attempting to enter into a game of direct or indirect pressure. No one is asked to surrender their use of reason. However, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger affirms:

“Even if the doctrine of the faith is not in question, the theologian will not present his own opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions. Respect for the truth as well as for the People of God requires this discretion (cf. Rom 14:1-15; 1 Cor 8; 10: 23-33). For the same reasons, the theologian will refrain from giving untimely public expression to them.”[16]

“The theologian should avoid turning to the ‘mass media’, but have recourse to the responsible authority, for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders servite to the truth.”[17]

8. Dissent from the Magisterium does not have a merely “political” meaning.

Fundamentally, these and other instructions seek to safeguard communion as a way of being and for doing ecclesial work. Harming communion with the Holy Father, either with direct challenges to his teaching or with aggressive criticism of the Prefect responsible for making a magisterial Declaration, is extremely serious and should be avoided. And it must be avoided for the right reasons — as a profound experience of ecclesial communion. It is necessary not to confuse communion with a kind of “complicity,” of “sycophancy,” or with a mere “banding together” to protect a “power figure.” Ecclesial communion matures in charity, not in a politicized interpretation of a magisterial exercise. To believe that the question, for example, in the Declaration Fiducia Supplicans is one of mere power — to believe that the basic issue is “who is in charge here” when expanding the notion of “blessing” — and to affirm it publicly, is a serious mistake.

I suddenly remember a monographic issue published 20 years ago by the magazine Ixtus under the title “The Vocation of Peter.” In it appears a text by Hans Urs von Balthasar that is worth remembering:

Peter was led where he did not want to go (…) Today also the papacy is led where it does not want to go. But, I emphasize, this path perfects the promise made to Peter and, beyond giving him the final blessing, highlights the fundamental meaning of “authority” in this ministry and the perspective in which it can be exercised: that of the last place, where the “servus servorum” is found by its very definition; the place of contempt and extreme mockery, where waste is discharged, where one is “a worm and not a man”; this place, which is always accepted against one’s own will, is the place of the credibility of the ministry, the greatest credibility possible and, finally, reconquered.”[18]

I am convinced that the ministry of Peter is primarily a reality given in the mode of grace, not in the mode of the logic of power.[19] Through the fragility of the Successor of Peter, and not in spite of it, grace acts and makes the Petrine ministry a true mystery and foundation for ecclesial communion. For this reason, dissent with respect to the Magisterium has a different meaning than mere “political dissent.” Cardinal Ratzinger points out in this regard:

“The Church ‘is like a sacrament, a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men’. Consequently, to pursue concord and communion is to enhance the force of her witness and credibility. To succumb to the temptation of dissent, on the other hand, is to allow the “leaven of infidelity to the Holy Spirit” to start to work.”[20]

How easy it was to apply these and similar texts to those who dissented from the Magisterium from a “progressive” position — for example, in the last decade of the twentieth century! The ultra-conservative sectors did not hesitate to applaud the fact that the importance of due fidelity to the Holy Father and due respect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was pointed out “in all clarity.” They did not hesitate to affirm with singular enthusiasm that adherence to the Magisterium was necessary and pertinent.

Why, then, is this magisterial teaching on the proper acceptance of the Magisterium not taken up by the Holy Father’s current critics? I can only think that for some of them a partial and tendentious reading of the Magisterium of Benedict XVI seems to prevail — somewhat similar to what happened in the past with the teaching of St. John Paul II. In other words, it seems some of them like to “learn” from the Magisterium of Cardinal Ratzinger and/or Benedict XVI as if it were an “a la carte menu” and not in its proper organic understanding.

In addition, there is a subtle but no less important issue: on many occasions — implicitly or explicitly — the decisions of the Magisterium are thought to be “for others” but not “for us.”

9. In conclusion: With the Pope, always

In 2002, I began to participate in the group of theological accompaniment that, from time to time, was convoked by the presidency of CELAM. When, after the V General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate (Aparecida), the “Theological Reflection Team” was formally re-established, I continued to participate in a constant way until the year 2021. During all that time I had the opportunity to work with theologians of the most diverse sensibilities. Some of them were deeply wounded by the Instruction Donum Veritatis of 1990, in which Cardinal Ratzinger — with the full support of St. John Paul II — asked them to be ecclesial, not to generate scandal, and to think in communion. It was not easy to accept that document. For some, it represented a restriction on academic freedom and freedom of conscience.

With sincere admiration, I can testify that practically all the members of the “Theological Reflection Team” throughout the years privileged communion, respect, and not making public statements that hurt ecclesial unity. The theologians who did not feel comfortable with some aspect of the Magisterium, little by little, discovered the via caritatis to continue exposing their research with great academic rigor in the spaces created ad hoc for that purpose, but without pretentiously challenging the See of Peter and/or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. May God grant that, through our current controversies and disagreements, that those in “non-progressive” sectors who feel concerned by the contemporary Magisterium, will learn to accept the educational path to which Pope Francis providentially introduces us with the same openness and simplicity.

This is important, not only in view of the present controversies, which will eventually pass, but also in view of the pontificates of the future. A constitutive dimension of the Catholic faith consists in seeing in each pope the providential gesture with which God takes care of his Church. How easy it is to try to correct the pope in this or that! How hard it is to allow oneself to be corrected and educated by him! The latter is only possible when one recognizes that one’s own ideas, one’s own convictions, need to be helped, purified, nuanced or corrected by another who will make one grow. The word “authority” comes precisely from the Latin verb “augere,” which means “to grow.” May God grant that by rediscovering the “authority” of the Magisterium of the Pope, as a service to our limitations and miseries, we can all grow and learn to walk together, faithful to Christ, through Mary, in the Church, and always with the pope.


[1] Second Vatican Council, Constitution Lumen Gentium, n. 23.

[2] Cf. Francis, Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evengelium, art. 69.

[3] For an introduction to the problems of political theologies, see: M. Borghesi, Critica della teologia politica. Da Agostino a Peterson: la fine dell’era costantiniana, Marietti, Roma 2013; By the same author: El desafío Francisco: del neoconservadurismo al ‘hospital de campaña’, Encuentro, Madrid 2022.

[4] Among the abundant literature, see as an introduction: E. Bueno de la Fuente, Eclesiología, BAC, Madrid 1998; S. Pié-Ninot, Eclesiología. La sacramentalidad de la comunidad cristiana, Sígueme, Salamanca 2007; by the same author: La Teología fundamental, Secretariado Trinitario, Salamanca 2001.

[5] Cf. Pope John Paul II, Sources of Renewal, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980.

[6] St. John XXIII, Opening address to the Second Vatican Council, October 11, 1962.

[7] For an introduction to “Catholic fundamentalism,” see: E. Poulat, Intégrisme et catholicisme intégral, Casterman, Paris 1969; Cf. G. Sale, La Civiltà Cattolica nella crisi modernista (1900-1907) fra intransigentismo politico e integralismo dottrinale, Jaca Book, Milano 2001; J. M. Laboa, Integrismo e intolerancia en la Iglesia, PPC, Madrid 2019.

[8] St. John XXIII, op.cit.

[9] Second Vatican Council, Constitution Lumen Gentium, n. 25. Source: https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html

[10] Card. J. Ratzinger, Instruction Donum Veritatis, n. 14.

[11] Ibid., n. 17.

[12] Ibid., n. 18.

[13] Ibid., n. 19.

[14] Ibid., n. 24.

[15] Cf. Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Reactions to Fiducia Supplicans,” January 4, 2023.

[16] J. Ratzinger, Instruction Donum Veritatis, n. 27.

[17] Ibid., n. 30.

[18] H. U. von Balthasar, “El Papa hoy,” in La vocación de Pedro, Ixtus, n. 47, 2004, p. 129.

[19] Cf. R. Guerra Lopez, “Reapprehending Unity,” in The Vocation of Peter, Ixtus, n. 47, 2004, p.p. 98-106.

[20] J. Ratzinger, Instruction Donum Veritatis, n. 40.

Image: Vatican News

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Rodrigo Guerra López is the secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.

Originally from Mexico City, he graduated in philosophy from the Free Popular University of the State of Puebla, Mexico; he was then awarded a higher degree in university humanism from the Ibero-American University, Mexico, and a doctorate in philosophy from the International Academy of Philosophy of the Principality of Liechtenstein.

He has held the role of academic coordinator of the John Paul II Pontifical Institute in Mexico City and has served as professor of metaphysics, bioethics, and philosophy of law at the PanAmerican University, Mexico. In 2013 he held the Karol Wojtyla Memorial Lectures at the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland.

From 2004 to 2007 he directed the Observatorio Socio Pastoral of the Latin American Episcopal Council. In 2008 he founded the Centro de Investigación Social Avanzada (CISAV), of which he is professor-researcher of the Division of Philosophy and member of the Consejo de Gobierno.

He is a member of the theological commission of the Latin American Episcopal Council and of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and is the author of numerous publications in the field of anthropology, bioethics, and social philosophy.

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