VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis has chosen to lead the Vatican’s new merged Department of Education and Culture a Portuguese poet close to Francis’s thinking, but who has also been criticized for sympathizing with heterodox approaches to the homosexuality and allied himself with a radical feminist Benedictine nun who promotes abortion and same-sex “marriage”.
Cardinal José Tolentino Calaça de Mendonça, 56, from the Portuguese island of Madeira, was appointed on September 26 to head the Dicastery for Culture and Education, a new curial department that brings together the former Congregation for Catholic Education and the Pontifical Council for Culture. . The two dicasteries were merged under the new apostolic constitution of the Roman Curia, Evangelium Predicate (preach the gospel).
According to the constitution, as prefect, Cardinal Mendonça will have the task of working with bishops around the world to promote the teaching of the Catholic religion in schools and ensuring that “the integrity of the Catholic faith is safeguarded in doctrinal teaching”. It will also be responsible for developing “the fundamental principles of education concerning schools, Catholic and ecclesiastical institutes of higher education and research”.
As of 2020, Catholic universities number about 1,500 worldwide, while Catholic schools total about 200,000 serving 62.2 million students.
Cardinal Mendonça will also be responsible for promoting the Church in the world of culture, showing a “preference for dialogue as an indispensable tool for true encounter” so that “cultures are ever more open to the Gospel, that the Christian faith towards their.” The dicastery “also promotes dialogue with those who do not profess any religion but ‘seek an encounter with the truth of God'”.
The Portuguese prelate replaces Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi and Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, both 79 years old. They headed the former Departments of Culture and Education respectively.
Born in Funchal, Madeira, in 1965, and the youngest of five children, José Tolentino de Mendonça spent his first 10 years in then Portuguese-ruled Angola, where his father was a fisherman. During this time he saw a man killed in cold blood. “It’s something I still think about today, it was the first time I was scared,” he said in a 2015 interview. “There were armed groups. We lived on the run on a boat far from land for several days.
But above all he has good memories of his stay in Africa, which he left in 1975 with his parents and siblings to settle in Funchal. Once there, Mendonça quickly embarked on a spiritual path and was eager to enter the seminary, but his parents thought he was too young. He went on to earn a licentiate in theology from the Catholic University of Portugal in Lisbon in 1989 and was ordained the following year for his home diocese of Funchal.
At this time, Father Mendonça had long been a voracious reader and literature enthusiast. In 1990, he published his first collection of poems, Os Dias Contados (The numbered days). After ordination he taught at the seminary and two years later earned a master’s degree in biblical studies at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.
From 1992 to 2018, Father Mendonça held many positions, including parish priest in his native diocese, rector of the Pontifical Portuguese College in Rome in 2001-2002, and chaplain, lecturer and eventually vice-rector of his alma mater in Lisbon.
From 2010 he was rector of the Capela do Rato, a private chapel in Lisbon known before his arrival to accommodate homosexuals and other marginal groups. In the early 2010s, he undertook research at the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice in New York.
In 2011, after seven years as the first director of a body promoting dialogue between the Church and wider culture for the Portuguese episcopal conference, the cardinal came to the attention of Benedict XVI who appointed consultor of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
But it was only during the current pontificate that he became more widely known as he quickly rose through the ecclesiastical ranks.
Pope Francis has chosen Father Mendonça to preach at the Lenten Spiritual Exercises for the Roman Curia in 2018, and four months later appointed him Archivist and Librarian of the Holy Roman Church, raising him to the rank of bishop. A little over a year later, in October 2019, Francis appointed him a cardinal and has since appointed him a member of the dicasteries for bishops, evangelization and the causes of saints.
The reasons for Cardinal Mendonça’s meteoric rise are most likely due to an ecclesial outlook similar to that of Pope Francis, as well as his love of education and willingness to engage with the outside world.
He said in the past interviews that he attaches great importance to the creativity of the class and that he prefers to live “in this kind of periphery which is the world of culture”. If he’s “too immersed in the church world,” he said in the 2015 interview, “I feel like a fish out of water.
In the same interview, he said he believed “theology needs the world,” which is why he is “very interested” in how modern culture uses the Bible.
“I’m very interested in what Bruce Springsteen does with the Bible, what [Andrei] Tarkovsky’s cinema or popular culture does that,” he said. The relationship between Christianity and culture is at the heart of his many writings, which have won him numerous literary prizes and awards. He also strongly believes that Francis brings disgruntled Catholics back to the Church.
But Cardinal Mendonça also seems to have supported the expression of a certain number of positions contrary to the teaching of the Church. These include statements he made in a positive preface to a 2013 book titled A teologia feminista na história (Feminist theology in history) by the Catalan Benedictine nun Maria Teresa Forcades i Vila. A nun who has long promoted acceptance of homosexuality in the Church, Sister Maria Teresa also opposes legislation banning abortion, says all women should carry the morning after pill in their purseand supports the ordination of women.
In his preface, Cardinal Mendonça underlined how much the apostolate of Sister Maria Teresa must be taken as a model to “liberate” Christianity from the dogmatic bonds of the past and the present.
“Teresa Forcades i Vila is a name that, for many reasons, is worth keeping,” he wrote before congratulating her for “having courageously noted the contradictions and sought interpretation alternatives that support a break in meaning and civilization”. He added that “the main thing” to recognize is that Jesus “neither codified nor regulated; Jesus lived, that is, he constructed a relational ethic.
Sr. Maria Teresa, who has spoken out in favor of a “queer revolution” in the Church, joined forces with Father Mendonça again in 2016 when she spoke at the launch of his new book, Towards a Spirituality of the Sentits (Through a spirituality of feelings). The Register asked the Cardinal on Sept. 29 if he regretted bonding so closely with Sister Forcades, but he had not responded as of this publication.
“I do not judge”
Other comments from Cardinal Mendonça have also raised concerns that the prelate is lenient in teaching that the Church’s position that active homosexual lifestyles are contrary to God’s plan for sexuality. These include those made in the same 2015 interview in which he was asked how he found the post of chaplain at Capela do Rato, where he worked with gay people.
“Very natural,” he replied. “I don’t choose the people I have to walk with. As I do not choose, I do not judge. The attitude of the Church must be one of acceptance, of normal accompaniment of what people live and are.
Cardinal Mendonça said in the 2015 interview that for his generation, the Second Vatican Council “is the normal way of looking at the Church, the world” and that he did not think Francis’ pontificate was more contested than his predecessors. What was new, he said, was to see a pope challenged by a “more conservative wing” and by some “important names, even cardinals, who in some respects are willing to put traditionalism above above tradition”.
“Tradition has always been the recognition that Peter was the guarantor of unity, of communion,” he added. “Today, it seems, in certain positions, that we almost want to try to dismiss the Pope, a symbolic dismissal. But these are special cases,” he said. “And looking at Pope Francis, it’s very interesting to see how he handles this whole situation. He leads with a good sense of humor. And when a pastor guides us with humor, I think we are well taken care of.
In other interview in 2016 he compared the community of Capela do Rato to what Francis described as a “field hospital”, saying he felt that there, where “many people” had been “touched by the testimony of the Pope Francis and were ready to retrace their own relational journey with Christianity.
“Whether it is remarried Christians, those hurt by the experience of marital breakdown, or the reality of new [irregular] families or homosexual people, the Church must find a space to listen,” he said.
Change of direction ?
The former Congregation for Catholic Education has in the past been clear in its opposition to homosexual activity, including issuing a instruction in 2005 prohibiting homosexuals with “deep tendencies” from entering the seminary. In 2019, he also strongly expressed aagainst gender ideology in Catholic schools.
But more recently, it has aligned itself with the secular approach of international bodies such as the United Nations, including founding the Global Compact on Education, an initiative of the Holy See “to create a global change of mentality through education” so that education “become a creator of fraternity, peace and justice”. In January, the Vatican congregation published a document entitled “The identity of the Catholic school for a culture of dialoguewho put forward the Global Compact on Education as a way to respond to the “epochal change” context that the document says is underway.
In a speech Reviving the initiative last year, Pope Francis said he hoped the pact would “rekindle our dedication” to “more open and inclusive education, including patient listening, constructive dialogue and better mutual understanding.” .
“[We] want to be defenders of the identity and dignity of each individual and teach young people to accept everyone without discrimination,” continued Francis. “For this reason, education commits us to accepting people as they are, not as we want them to be, without judging or condemning anyone.”