By Maike Hickson, June 5, 2018
It is a story that reads like a passage from The Dictator Pope: Pope Francis recently accepted the age-related resignation of Héctor Aguer, the Archbishop of La Plata, Argentina — the capital city of the Buenos Aires province — and will replace him with his close confidant and ghostwriter, Archbishop Víctor Manuel “Tucho” Fernández. Not only did the pope accept the resignation of Archbishop Aguer within just a few days of its mandatory submission, he also ordered him, through the nunciature, to immediately leave the diocese and not to remain there for his retirement.
On 2 June, the Vatican announced the pope’s decision on Archbishop Aguer’s replacement. The press statement says:
The Holy Father Francis has accepted the resignation from the pastoral care of the archdiocese of La Plata, Argentina, presented by H.E. Msgr. Héctor Rubén Aguer.
The Pope has appointed as archbishop of La Plata, Argentina, H.E. Msgr. Víctor Manuel Fernández, currently titular archbishop of Tiburnia.
What our readers might not know is that Archbishop Aguer had submitted his resignation only a week previously, on 24 May. According to Elisabetta Piqué, writing for the Argentinian daily La Nación, the fact that the pope accepted Aguer’s resignation so quickly “represents a sign of the change in leadership that lies in wait for the archdiocese.” Piqué notes in particular the expectation that, following Aguer’s departure, the diocese — known for its “conservative positions” and “confrontational style” as well as for being “almost obsessed with issues of sexual morality” will take on “an entirely different and renewing stamp” under its new Archbishop. Piqué reports that Aguer and Bergoglio were auxiliary bishops together in Buenos Aires from 1992 to 1998, and that they were “always ‘friends’” — the quotes around “friends” are in the original — but with “very different styles” and ideas.
Perhaps the most important part of the story comes from a history of conflict between Bergoglio, with his friend Tucho, and the more orthodox elements in the Argentine Church. As Piqué notes, there was the matter of a years-long battle Bergoglio waged against “a conservative Argentine ecclesiastical lobby” when he became Archbishop of Buenos Aires, fighting for his friend, Fernández, to become rector of the Pontifical Universidad Católica Argentina. A lobby of which, Piqué implies — though does not state directly — Aguer was a part. (The reasons for that battle are not insignificant, and we will return to them in a moment.)
If the Archbishop had simply had his resignation accepted at the mandatory age of seventy-five, the story might end there. But there is more at work.
Some of the following information stems from Archbishop Aguer’s own last homily given on 2 June, as well as from a piece published on the well-informed Argentine traditionalist blog, the Wanderer (not to be confused with the American Catholic newspaper of the same name). What is depicted is the rapid and even callous removal of a beloved prelate and pro-life champion who had served his diocese for almost two decades — but who had also been one of Jorge Bergoglio’s most noteworthy conservative opponents within the Argentine episcopacy. From the Wanderer report, we read:
As Bishop Aguer himself explained in his farewell homily [on 2 June] and as other sources confirmed, his resignation was presented [to the Holy Father] when he turned 75 on May 24. Seven days later [on 31 May], he received a call from the Nunciature to receive the pontifical orders: Corpus Christi [on 2 June] was to be his last public liturgy; [La Plata’s Auxiliary] Bishop [Alberto] Bochatey was appointed apostolic administrator; he must leave the archdiocese immediately after the celebration, he can not reside in it as archbishop emeritus, nor may he transfer his own headquarters to his successor. At the end of the Mass, an Orthodox bishop who was present took the microphone and offered to Mons. Aguer his house to stay since, literally, he has nowhere to go (his plans were to retire at the former minor seminary of La Plata).
We have been able to confirm some of these facts independently with another Argentine source. This source, however, adds information about new developments in this case since 2 June, namely that Archbishop Aguer has now been granted a few more days in order to celebrate one last farewell Mass and in order to find a new home for himself. He still will not be granted the role of transferring his diocese into the hands of his successor. Thus, while there is a small mitigation, the fundamental injustice in his case remains the same.
This stern method of operation reveals, in the eyes of the writer of the Wanderer post, an “unveiled revenge and manifestation of the lack not only of Christian but also human virtues, and even of the most elemental chivalry” as it is shown by Pope Francis. The article continues, saying that Mons. Aguer “had a good reputation and he was appreciated by most of the Argentine faithful, as well, because of the clarity with which he said things and because of his courage in defending the Gospel.” Moreover, he was especially clear with regard to the problem of abortion. (See here a CNA report which shows his impressive language and resistance in 2007.) In fact, even his final homily on June 2nd was dedicated in large part to admonishing those considering voting in support of legalization of elective abortion in Argentina later this month. Only at the very end of his sermon did he reveal that the Holy See had informed him this Corpus Christi homily was to be his “farewell” to the people he had served for so long.
The report from the Wanderer continues: “In the midst of the debate over abortion, Aguer’s voice had been particularly clear, and Catholics who are fighting a good battle found true leadership in him.” In a piercing conclusion, the author wonders if this “silver bullet” — removing Archbishop Aguer only to replace him with a direct agent of the Bergoglian “reform” who will undo much of his predecessor’s work — will backfire on Francis himself: “To remove him in such a humiliating way will cause many of those faithful to wind up understanding who Bergoglio really is.”
“Heal Me With Your Mouth — The Art of Kissing” is a book that was authored by the new Archbishop of La Plata, Argentina: Víctor Manuel Fernández in 1995. (An English translation of the text has been made available online here.)
Subsequently, the Wanderer blog presents much about the background of Archbishop Fernández and his personal history in Argentina, based on eyewitness accounts. The author alleges that Fernández is known for being a careerist willing to advance his own position at the expense of his peers. Most importantly, the blog says that Fernández has a large influence over Pope Francis’ teaching, to include his Apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Sandro Magister’s work exposing that several passages of AL are essentially plagiarisms of Fernández’ own earlier writings are referenced on this point.
Not mentioned — but very significant to this story — is the fact that these writings of Fernández that were later transformed, in part, into Amoris Laetitia, were the same ones that got him in trouble with the conservative Argentinian bishops in the first place. As Sandro Magister reported in May of 2016, “they actually gave cause to the Congregation for Catholic Education to block his candidacy for the position of rector of the Universidad Católica Argentina.”
It is with this understanding that one can begin to see why suspicions of revenge are on the lips of some Argentinian Catholics. The cleric who was opposed for his unorthodox positions has not only seen them included in the seminal work of a pope — but has now been promoted and placed by that same pope in the position of one of his most noteworthy opponents.
Also highlighted by the Wanderer is Fernández’ 1995 book, Heal Me With Your Mouth — The Art of Kissing, a text well-known to critics of Fernández. Perhaps even more shockingly, the blog quotes from an article written by Fernández shortly after the papal election of Bergoglio, in which, while seeking to defend the new pope, Fernández uses vulgar phrases such as “let’s not f*** [around]” (“No jodamos”) and “sh**,” saying, for example, that “Bergoglio did not sh** anyone” (“Bergoglio no cagó a nadie”). [We are sorry to have to use such words here, but they are very revealing of the mind and recklessness of this prelate who was made an archbishop only two months after Bergoglio became a pope.] This was Fernández’ attempt at painting a sympathetic portrait of Bergoglio, saying that with him there is now a chance “to bring Christ back into the center of the Church.”
Luis Alvarez Primo, a graduate of the Universidad Católica Argentina and former professor of Political Philosophy, spoke with OnePeterFive about the resignation and replacement of Archbishop Aguer. Primo noted that La Plata is the “second most important diocese in Argentina,” and that it would now be headed up by a man known, not for his intellectual or doctrinal erudition, but rather for the kind of work outlined above. Primo also recalled “the less than fraternal relationship that Bergoglio had with Archbishop Aguer,” and the uses to which Fernández has been employed during the present pontificate, adding the concern that Fernández was appointed to “destroy the very good Catholic episcopal work by Archbisop Héctor Aguer” who was, in Primo’s opinion, “probably the best bishop in Argentina for the last 10 years.”
Primo noted that Aguer “was one of the few bishops who headed a pro-life campaign against abortion at a time when congress in Argentina is about to pass a law repealing all restrictions on abortion.”
He summed up the entire affair as “Another lost Catholic battle in the culture wars.”
Onepeterfive has reached out to both press offices of the Vatican and of the Archdiocese of La Plata, asking for comment. Should we receive an answer, we shall update this post.
Update, 6 June: Since the publication of this article, the Spanish-speaking blog Adelante la Fe has posted its own report on the events in La Plata, confirming our Onepeterfive report. The author of this post, Mario Caponnetto, names 10 June as the date of Archbishop Aguer’s official farewell Mass and 16 June as the date when Archbishop Fernandez will take over the archdiocese. Caponnetto refers to a meeting between Aguer and Fernandez in which these dates have been set.
Update 7 June: We just received another confirmation of our report from a well-informed Argentine source. This source now informs us that the bishop who offered Archbishop Aguer his home to stay was not an Orthodox bishop, but the Syrian Greek-Melkite bishop from La Plata. It was so that Monsignor Aguer had been told by the Nunciature that the Corpus Christi Mass was his farewell Mass, but that was later changed. On Sunday after the Corpus Christi Mass, however, Archbishop Aguer actually had to celebrate his Mass privately, and then the following Monday outside of the archdiocese. On 10 June will be his last Mass in La Plata.
Steve Skojec contributed to this report.