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Bishop Daniel Fernandez Torres of Arecibo, Puerto RicoDiocese of Arecibo

ARECIBO, Puerto Rico (LifeSiteNews) – Bishop Daniel Fernández Torres, the recently dismissed bishop of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, repeatedly reached out to the Vatican before his removal, asking for a chance to defend himself – but never got one.

Correspondence reported on last week by The Pillar sheds new light on the controversial ousting of Bishop Fernández Torres. After learning of the request for his resignation late last year, the popular Puerto Rican prelate wrote several letters to the Vatican, and one directly to Pope Francis, contesting the decision, The Pillar reported. And though the Holy See announced his dismissal in March, he still hasn’t even received a decree formally removing him from his post.

In a December 2021 letter to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Bishop Fernández Torres expressed shock at the resignation request, which he criticized as lacking “any formality” and said that he doubted had come from the pope himself.

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“I request the delivery in writing of what has been verbally and generally requested of me, with the reasons for it, in case false information has reached the Holy See that leads to a decision of such magnitude,” the Arecibo bishop said. “I am greatly surprised that this request, carried out without keeping any formality and that lacks true justice, could come directly from the pope.”

He stressed to Ouellet that the Vatican had not granted him a formal process or allowed him to refute allegations that he had breached communion with fellow bishops in Puerto Rico and shown “disobedience” to Pope Francis, according to The Pillar.

Bishop Fernández Torres’ stance on COVID-19 vaccination, he noted, was apparently “the touchstone that sets off all this controversy.”

In an August statement, the bishop strongly defended the right to turn down the jabs, insisting that “it is possible for a faithful Catholic to have conscientious objection to the alleged mandatory nature of the Covid-19 vaccine.” The letter encouraged priests to sign parishioners’ exemption letters or otherwise refer them to the diocese.

He then declined to sign a letter issued the following week by the Puerto Rican episcopal conference announcing a vaccine mandate for priests and employees and segregation at Mass based on COVID jab status. The letter echoed Pope Francis’ assertion that Catholics have a “moral duty” to get jabbed.

Archbishop Ghaleb Moussa Abdalla Bader, the apostolic delegate for Puerto Rico, demanded Bishop Fernández Torres’s resignation after he refused to sign the letter, Catholic news site ACI Prensa reported.

Writing to Cardinal Ouellet, Bishop Fernández Torres said that he released his statement on the shots due to a need for a “letter of pastoral accompaniment to those who, in a genuine conflict of conscience, came to be listened to and treated with mercy.”

His position reflected those of prelates around the world and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has emphasized that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.”

But the bishop’s stance on conscience rights still led to his ousting, according to ACI Prensa, as did his initial reluctance to send his seminarians to an interdiocesan seminary in Puerto Rico approved by the Vatican 2020. In his letter to Ouellet, Bishop Fernández Torres explicitly offered to transfer his seminarians, who had been training in Spain, to the new seminary, “if it is the express wish of the Holy See.”

“In fact, I know that other bishops also have seminarians outside of the island,” he told Ouellet.

He additionally informed the cardinal that he maintained good relations with the rest of the Puerto Rican bishops, and that on the “very few occasions” in which he publicly differed from them, he did so “giving explanations about my reasons for it. For example, when I have opposed what I consider to be using episcopal ministry to advance political agendas.”

‘Falsely accused’

The Vatican first sought Bishop Fernández Torres’ resignation in October, but he adamantly refused to resign until Pope Francis ultimately “relieved” him of his diocese in March without even an explanation. 

Assenting to the pope’s request would have violated his conscience, the bishop told Ouellet.

“Offering my resignation would be the same as declaring myself guilty of something of which I am consciously innocent, and would imply becoming an accomplice in a way of proceeding that is foreign to the Church,” he said.

“That I have been … disobedient to the pope is a totally false statement,” he continued. “However, in an unacceptable way, I am told to submit my resignation under the pretext that failure to do so would be taken as evidence of the disobedience to which I am falsely accused.”

The aggrieved bishop wrote directly to Pope Francis in another letter in January 2022, seeking to “clear up any doubts or distorted information that may have reached you and express my desire to continue guiding in serenity the beloved portion of the people that the Lord has entrusted to me for more than 11 years.”

“Since the first request for resignation, I have requested that the reasons for such a decision be presented to me in writing, but I have never received them,” Bishop Fernández Torres said. “Only some generic things have been verbally and very informally mentioned to me, which I totally deny as they have been presented, and which in no way constitute serious causes to request the resignation of a bishop from his legitimate see.”

Though the pope summoned him for a meeting in Rome, the Puerto Rican prelate said that he could not make the trip due to COVID-19 and his obligation to his elderly parents, then 94 and 86 years old, respectively.

“I appreciate your willingness to receive me personally and I regret not being able to go to Rome at this time, but I trust in good judgment and I hope to be able to explain myself about the indications that may have disturbed your most lofty ministry, either in writing or before an apostolic visitor who can guarantee the due process,” he wrote.

Sources close to Bishop Fernández Torres, The Pillar related, “say he has not yet received a decree formally removing him, leaving open the canonical question of his actual status. It is not yet clear whether the bishop has scheduled any meeting with Pope Francis.”

There had been “no obvious reason for intervention, no notable local scandal, and no indications of malfeasance,” according to The Pillar.