Monday, July 17, 2023

Tucho Fernández's "Essentialist" View of Scripture

"There are biblical texts that should not be interpreted in a 'material' way, I don't want to say 'literal'. The Church has long understood the need for a hermeneutic that interprets them in their historical context. This does not mean that they lose their content, but that they should not be taken completely literally. Otherwise, we would have to obey St. Paul's command for women to cover their heads, for example." (Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, July 15, 2023)

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

[July 17, 2023] It is, of course, true that the Sacred Scriputres need to be interpreted in context, with attention to the literary genre being employed and the intention of the sacred writers. This is nothing new; St. Augustine says as much, and so affirms the entire Catholic tradition. And this is emphatically not what "Tucho" Fernández is suggesting in his now infamous July 15 statements to the journalist Ale Villegas, as reported by Rorate Caeli (here are the English and Spanish translations of his comments).

The traditional Catholic interpretive hermeneutic of the Bible is that the literal interpretation is the primary sense of Scripture, and what the literal intepretation is depends upon what the sacred author intended to say. In other words, the Evangelists intended to write historic, eye-witness accounts of the life and sayings of Jesus, ergo we interpret the Gospels as historic, eye-witness accounts. The Psalms were composed as religious poetry, ergo we interpret them as poetry. Revelation (along with parts of Daniel and other Old Testament books) were meant to convey apocalyptic messages, and ergo we interpret them according to the principles of symbolism common to apocalyptic literature. 1 Kings or 2 Samuel were intended to be historical chronicles of Israel's history, and so we interpret them as history.  St. Paul's epistle to the Romans is a doctrinal work, and so is interpreted as a theological treatise. And—of course—all read in light of the Church's tradition. You get the idea.

Tucho, however, takes a drastically different approach. 

Archbishop Fernández's above comments were given in response to Ali Villegas's question on whether biblical condemnations of homosexuality were being interpreted correctly by traditional Catholics. Fernández responds that we must read these passages "in their historical context," which means that they ought not be taken "completely literally," but nevertheless they do not "lose their content." How can the content of a passage be preserved when we dismiss their literal interpretation?

Fernández is employing a method of biblical interpretation called "essentializing," which consists in disregarding the specific texts and teachings of the Scriptures in order to dig down to the "essentials," getting the basic "gist" of the biblical text without getting hung up on the particulars. The essential heart of a biblical text is the fundamental message God wants us to take away; the particulars are how that message is understood across various cultural contexts and historical epochs.

For example, suppose we have a passage like 1 Cor. 6:9, which says that homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. Very problematic by today's standards! Fortunately, we can "essentialize" this passage by saying that homosexuality in St. Paul's time was emblematic of unbridled lust. When St. Paul condemns things like fornication and homosexuality, what he is really "getting at" is that we should not treat persons as objects. Particular attitudes towards homosexuality might change through history, but this "essential" point remains. Earlier historical ages viewed homosexuality as disordered and homosexual sex as a serious sin. Today, our historical context tells us that homosexual activity is acceptable, and that homosexual inclinations are not disordered, but merely one of a plethora of acceptable sexual choices. Current social mores make a literal reading of 1 Cor. 6:9 embarassingly outdated. Fortunately, we can retain the message of 1 Cor. 6:9 by understanding that its "essential" message is that we need to not use persons as objects of lust. So long as we retain this core message, we can reject the particular details of the verse as manifestations of a different historical epoch that no longer apply. This is what Fernández means when he says a passage can retain the value of its content despite the abandonment of the literal interpretation; what we take from the passage is entirely subject to historical considerations. (Whether homosexual acts are always, in fact, lustful acts of objectification is beside the pointas the men of Tucho's school are unanimous in asserting that such relations can be occasions of true love and authentic self-giving, so we have to understand it within their framework).

You will notice that this approach ignores all the exegetical particulars about the verse. It does not ask what literary genre 1 Corinthians is, nor what St. Paul intends to teach. It does not ask how this passage fits into the Church's larger moral framework. It does not dig into the Greek meaning of the words, nor examine how the Church Fathers interpreted the passage, nor what the great commentators and manualists said. It does not consider the textual history of the verse by comparing ancient manuscripts. There is no attempt to wrestle with the precise meaning of the text, as you see in pre-modern interpreters. None of that matters; it can all be handily dispensed with once we have distilled the passage down to its main point.

This is, of course, just a variation of process theology, the theological approach that emphasizes "event," "occurrence," or "becoming" over substance and being. And it absolutely eviscerates any concept of an objective divine revelation. According to this approach, revelation is something mankind continually discovers through the historical process. The only thing constant from age to age are  essential core principles, which are sufficiently vague so as to permit their particular interpretations to change from age to age. Our understanding of the Gospel once allowed capital punishment in prior centuries but forbids it today. The social kingship of Christ is insisted upon in one era and eschewed the next. And homosexual acts, once condemned by the Gospel, can now be affirmed. In these examples, the “essential" principle behind each is the vague concept of "respecting human dignity," the meaning of which we must continually rediscover and refine every generation. The idea of divine revelation as a "deposit" which must be handed on intact as a sacred trust is thus abandoned. 

We can see now why it is so fitting that Pope Francis directed Fernández to de-emphasize defense of orthodoxy in favor of "theological reflection in dialogue with the world and science,” to “concentrate on the essentials.” It is an approach suited to Tucho's preference for "encounter" over truth. For example, in 2014, Tucho complained to Vatican correspondent Paolo Rodari about tying the Gospel too closely to non-negotiable ethical principles. He argued that—

“Some have even claimed that all Church teachings depend and are based on non negotiable principles. This certainly is heresy! To claim that Jesus Christ, his resurrection, fraternal love and all that the Gospel teaches us depends on ethical principles is a distortion of Christianity.” ("Pope's Theologian Discusses the Distortion of Non-Negotiable Principles," La Stampa, Mar. 3, 2014).

Fernández specifically condemns attempts of the Church to proclaim the Gospel by using "dated philosophical arguments" and "natural-law related questions," which he said inhibit the effective proclamation of the Gospel (ibid).

What we can expect from Tucho Fernández is a devolution of dogma down to very basic "essential" principles which, while good, are not uniquely Christian and too vague to deduce any doctrinal guidance from. In the same interview quoted above with Paolo Rodari, Tucho said that the essential non-negotiable principles at the heart of the Church's "ideological battles" boil down to extremely generic ethical norms:

"...if we look at each case [of an ideological battle] individually, there are other aspects that are not negotiable: loving one’s neighbour, seeking justice for the oppressed, being honest in business dealings.”

are the essential non-negotiables behind the Gospel message, not any "dated philosophical arguments" or "natural-law" related matters. 

A final word about "essentializing": this method is not confined to today's liberals like Tucho. One can also find it in the writings of "conservatives" of the Communio school, like Henri de Lubac and Robert Barron; Von Balthasar built his entire theology upon this hermeneutic approach. Joseph Ratzinger, too, made use of essentializing, even while recognizing its dangers. In an essay on the first chapters of Genesis, Ratzinger described essentializing in the following terms:

One answer was already worked out some time ago, as the scientific view of the world was gradually crystallizing; many of you probably came across it in your religious instruction. It says that the Bible is not a natural science textbook, nor does it intend to be such. It is a religious book, and consequently one cannot obtain information about the natural sciences from it. One cannot get from it a scientific explanation of how the world arose; one can only glean religious experience from it. Anything else is an image and a way of describing things whose aim is to make profound realities graspable to human beings. One must distinguish between the form of portrayal and the content that is portrayed. The form would have been chosen from what was understandable at the time—from the images which surrounded the people who lived then, which they used in speaking and in thinking, and thanks to which they were able to understand the greater realities. And only the reality that shines through these images would be what was intended and what was truly enduring...(In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of the Creation and Fall, pg. 8).

Ratzinger says that this hermeneutic enables us to "only glean religious experience" from the Bible; "anything else is an image." A disappointing approach to the Bible indeed! We never pierce the heavens to grasp God's objective revelation. All we can ever touch is our own human experience. Ratzinger is keenly aware of the dangers of this approach, not merely to the import of any given text, but to the credibility of theology itself. In a remarkable statement, Ratzinger goes on to say:

I believe that this view is correct, but it is not enough. For when we are told that we have to distinguish between the images themselves and what those images mean, then we can ask in turn: Why wasn’t that said earlier? Evidently it must have been taught differently at one time or else Galileo would never have been put on trial. And so the suspicion grows that ultimately perhaps this way of viewing things is only a trick of the church and of theologians who have run out of solutions but do not want to admit it, and now they are looking for something to hide behind. And on the whole the impression is given that the history of Christianity in the last four hundred years has been a constant rearguard action as the assertions of the faith and of theology have been dismantled piece by piece. People have, it is true, always found tricks as a way of getting out of difficulties. But there is an almost ineluctable fear that we will gradually end up in emptiness and that the time will come when there will be nothing left to defend and hide behind, that the whole landscape of Scripture and of the faith will be overrun by a kind of “reason” that will no longer be able to take any of this seriously. 

Along with this there is another disquieting consideration. For one can ask: If theologians or even the church can shift the boundaries here between image and intention, between what lies buried in the past and what is of enduring value, why can they not do so elsewhere – as, for instance with respect to Jesus’ miracles? And if there, why not also with respect to what is absolutely central—the cross and the resurrection of the Lord?...As far as theological views of this sort are concerned, finally, quite a number of people have the abiding impression that the church’s faith is like a jellyfish: no one can get a grip on it and it has no firm center. It is on the many halfhearted interpretations of the biblical Word that can be found everywhere that a sickly Christianity takes its stand—a Christianity that is no longer true to itself and that consequently cannot radiate encouragement and enthusiasm. It gives, instead, the impression of being an organization that keeps on talking although it has nothing else to say because twisted words are not convincing and are only concerned to hide their emptiness (In the Beginning, pp. 8–9).

These candid observations by Ratzinger aptly describe the theological approach of men like Víctor Manuel Fernández and today's Church in general, "an organization that keeps on talking although it has nothing else to say."  Incredibly, despite this assessment, Ratzinger himself would utilize the same approach on mutliple occasions (such as original sin, ecumenism, and transubstantiation), but that is a matter. Those who would like to know more should read James Larson's essay "The Point of Departure" on Ratzinger's propensity for this sort of thing.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

It goes without saying that the appointment of Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández as Prefect of the DDF is a cause for grave concern, not merely because he is heterodox on this or that point, but because the very concept of a depositum fidei that must be handed on intact is compromised by his progress theology. That the new head of the dicastery charged with defending this deposit seemingly denies any objective deposit that exists outside "historical context" is a sign of the disorientation that continues to afflict us as we weep by the waters of Babylon.


Anonymous said...

I try not to read what this man says, just like I try to avoid any words of Pope Francis- whom I notice so skews the words and readings to a strange interpretation- I understand why he was dealt with trepidation from one of his local superiors, yet the worst of fears happened when he was named cardinal and became pope as a dreaded and feared result.

I can say, I believe they are trying to please the younger generation whom I am sure Pope Francis filled in the Vatican - I can just sense this from reading some of the Vatican tweets in past years.

It’s a fearful rendering, this appointment. The fact he writes in verse is also a bad connotation for me.

Anonymous said...

Additionally it saddens me that if he is the antichrist, which I believe might be possible- he is of Latin American descent and what also distresses me is that he is born the same year as me.

Anonymous said...

What if the trouble with Thomistic moral theology (Thomistic, not "traditional," as that ignores or deprecates at least 800 years of the pre-scholastics) were that Thomistic moral theology is WAY less dependent on the sacraments than it should be, and WAY too dependent on Greek metaphysics?

For the morbidly curious, here is a link apropos to the original post, which within it contains links to a lot more. Fernandez exploits real theological weaknesses for his own ends; that does not make those weaknesses any less real.

"Sex Questions"

English Catholic said...

This has been the approach taken to usury for centuries. Many conservative Catholics will tell you that lending at full-recourse interest is now ok, because the context has changed (ignoring the fact that usury, if it's evil at all, is evil in its essence); and then they get upset when liberals say exactly the same thing about contraception or homosexuality. The seventh commandment was relativized into nothingness before the sixth was.

Juan said...

"the literal interpretation is the primary sense of Scripture, and what the literal intepretation is depends upon what the sacred author intended to say."

You may call the literal interpretation "the primary sense of Scripture", but it is definitely not necessarily the God-intended sense of Scripture. The proof is Psalm 137:9:

"How blessed will be the one who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rock."

It is clear that any claim that the sense intended by the human author here is an allegorical one would be pure intellectual dishonesty. What the human author intended to say here is exactly what he said. Now, if for you that is also what God intends to say to us Christians, then you have a real problem.

Boniface said...


I think you are confusing the literal sense with what God wishes us to do with a passage.

In the literal sense, it is undoubtedly true that the Israelite author is wishing blessing upon those who kill the children of Babylon. This may be hyperbole, I grant, but still, that is the literal meaning.

It does not follow, however, that this is what God intends me to take from this passage today. Following Augustine and the allegorical interpretation, this passage is about rooting out vices from our souls by dashing them on the rock of Christ. That's the allegorical meaning. But the fact that this is the meaning God wants me to take away from it does not negate that there it has a literal sense. The allegorical sense is built upon the literal sense in that without that literal image there would be nothing to allegorize.

There are many passages in the Old Testament that no longer have an applicable literal meaning: the commands to kill a lamb and smear its blood on the door posts, for example. These directives were literal, but no longer applicable and not what God intends to say to us today, as you put it. But that in no way negates the fact that this is still the literal meaning and that other meanings rest upon the literal.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Life is to short and to much fun to waste time with these clowns.

Don't veer to the right
Don't take a louie
Keep the Faith
Stick with Douay

And read Cornelius a Lapide and Patristic Commentary

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dang. I wrote too both times

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

"For example, suppose we have a passage like 1 Cor. 6:9, which says that homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of heaven."

No, it says sodomites won't inherit the kingdom of heaven.

Precisely as the following item says "thieves" and not "cleptomaniacs" ... it's acts, not predispositions, that constitute mortal sins.

Just to remind that:
* for psychologists (who invented the word) "homosexual" means a disposition or "orientation" (and previously a paraphilia)
* those guys can use the word without any actual reference to the act of sodomy actually occurring or even being prepared for.

Boniface said...


I think everyone understands that the sin of homosexuality consists in the act of sodomy, not in the mere inclination. Nevertheless, I don't need to qualify it by saying "sodomite" or "active homosexual." *Activity* is presumed when you say homosexual; you qualify it if they are not (by saying "chaste homosexual" or whatever). Just like when I say "heterosexual" we all assume I am speaking of a person who is (or will) eventually act on this inclination; nobody says "heterosexual" when they mean "celibate heterosexual." You are correct that the passage is literally translated sodomite, but we don't need to specify everytime we use the word "homosexual." We all know it's the act that is the sin.

Anonymous said...


I am reading the book from Tan publishers of prophesies of the catholic church written by Y. Congar (spelling not accurate)

And behold, the book writes that the Anti.C. is prophesied to be born in the year 1962. (!)

Anonymous said...


The author of the catholic proohesy book is Yves Dupont -not- Y. Congar