Matthew Cullinan Hoffman
December 1, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) — Jeffrey Mirus, the founder of CatholicCulture.org, is concerned that Cardinal Raymond Burke might have confused the faithful by stating his intention to possibly make a “formal correction” of Pope Francis if Burke does not receive a response to several queries or dubia he and three other cardinals submitted to Francis regarding questionable affirmations in his recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
However, it is Mirus who’s more likely to confuse the faithful with his own ambiguous language and apparently exaggerated notions regarding papal authority and infallibility.
In a recent article in response to Cardinal Burke’s statements, Mirus expresses concern that Burke might cause “confusion” and urges “caution” regarding his stated intentions to correct the pope. According to Mirus, Cardinal Burke’s reference to a “formal correction” could lead people to think that the cardinals have a formal, juridical authority over the pope, who therefore is subject to their judgments. This would place the cardinals above the pope, a reversal of the authority structure of the Holy See and one that is inconsistent with the Catholic Church’s divine constitution.
Mirus is right to note that no one has the right to make a juridically-binding judgment of the pope’s official magisterial acts because, as the Code of Canon Law (c. 1404) states, “The First See is judged by no one” and acts of the Papal Magisterium are legally acts of the Holy See itself. Moreover, the following canon, in paragraph 2, specifies that “a judge cannot review an act or instrument confirmed specifically (in forma specifica) by the Roman Pontiff without his prior mandate.” This would seem to apply to apostolic exhortations approved in a specific way by the pope himself, like Amoris Laetitia.
Mirus also rightly recognizes that a cardinal might carry out a personal, “fraternal” correction of the pope if he is personally misbehaving or straying from his apostolic mandate. He notes that St. Paul did as much to the first pope, St. Peter, when the latter was showing an undue favor to those Christians who wanted to require gentile converts to be circumcised. However, he is concerned that Burke might regard his “correction” as legally binding and authoritative. “There is no juridical possibility in the Church for any official correction of a pope, such that the position of the pope’s critics becomes definitive or take precedence over what the pope himself has said or done,” Mirus writes.
It’s not clear what Cardinal Burke precisely meant by “formal” and perhaps he could have been clearer, although it seems doubtful that he means anything more than a statement written in precise and formal language. However, Mirus takes his critique of Burke’s words further than this, and falls into his own ambiguous language that could mislead readers regarding the authority of papal acts and the infallibility of the pope.
Impossible for the Papal Magisterium to err?
Commenting on Burke’s response to the possibility of correcting a pope if he “were to teach grave error or heresy,” Mirus writes that “Magisterial teaching of grave error (or heresy)” is “impossible.”
“The Holy Spirit protects the Church against that,” Mirus continues. “This is a key factor in the very constitution of the Church. Because of this Divine protection, it is not necessary that there be a ‘lawful authority’ that can correct the pope, and in fact there is none. But in matters of serious confusion, or of personal errors which foster bad pastoral care, or of ecclesiastical administration for dubious ends, or even of particular sins, fraternal correction can be very important.”
Even stronger sentiments regarding the Magisterium of Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia in particular have been expressed recently by two high-ranking prelates in the Church: retired Bishop Frangiskos Papamanolis, who is currently the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Greece, and Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago. Papamanolis has written a letter to the four cardinals accusing them of “heresy” because Amoris Laetitia represents the “supreme magisterial authority” of a pope. Cupich assured reporters in a recent press scrum that Amoris Laetitia is part of the Magisterium and commented that those who have a problem with it need “conversion.”
Here Burke’s critics fall into what is at best a misleading generalization regarding the Papal Magisterium, that is, the authoritative teachings of the popes expressed in encyclical letters and other official documents. While it is true that one category of such papal magisterial acts is divinely protected from error by way of the charism of papal infallibility, the other, more common category has no such guarantee, and in fact may contain error. This understanding of the Papal Magisterium is affirmed virtually universally by theologians.
Papal magisterial acts are divided by theologians into two kinds: the “extraordinary” magisterium and the “ordinary and merely authentic” magisterium. In an act of the Extraordinary Magisterium, the pope teaches the faithful in a way that defines a dogma and makes it into a law of faith, such that stubbornly or pertinaciously rejecting it makes one guilty of heresy and places one outside of the body of the Church. According to the First Vatican Council, such acts by the popes are protected by a divine charism of infallibility, and are therefore incapable of error.
Acts of the Extraordinary Papal Magisterium are quite rare. Theologians are only in general agreement regarding two instances of its use in the last 200 years: the solemn definitions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Popes Pius IX and Pius XII, respectively. For a magisterial act by a pope to meet the requirement of infallibility, it must indicate in clear language that a dogmatic definition is intended, or else it is not binding as a law of faith and it lacks the protection of infallibility.
Acts of the Ordinary Papal Magisterium are much more common and constitute the vast majority of papal magisterial documents. Such acts of instruction by the popes truly fall under their magisterial authority and are understood as obligating the faithful in a certain way, but the statements they contain are not regarded as creating new solemn definitions of dogma, and therefore do not enjoy the charism of infallibility, except insofar as they repeat dogmatic teachings that are already defined.
Popes exercise what theologians call their “merely authentic” ordinary magisterium when they wish to apply existing doctrine to certain specific cases or circumstances, or to offer prudential guidance on particular points of theology. Such guidance is normally binding on the faithful in accordance with the natural duty of obedience to one’s lawful superiors, but is not divinely protected by the charism of papal infallibility. The faithful are not required to give the assent of faith to such doctrines but have an obligation to conform their “mind and will” to them as non-infallible directives. This is the teaching given at Vatican II in its Constitution on the Church, paragraph 25, which was based on a well-developed consensus by theologians in the decades prior to the council, who regarded this lesser assent as being “conditional” and prudential, rather than an absolute certitude of their truth.
However, given that such acts are authoritative but don’t enjoy the charism of infallibility, can they possibly be wrong? If they can be wrong, what are the faithful to do if a pope seems to teach an error, perhaps by contradicting previous magisterial acts and even Catholic dogma in an act of his ordinary and merely authentic magisterium? Theologians addressed this question in ecclesiastically-approved and widely-used manuals before the Second Vatican Council and generally agreed on the answer to the first question. Their response was yes, the merely authentic ordinary magisterium of the popes can in fact be wrong.
The most prominent theology manuals and texts, such as those of Tanquerey, Billot, and the most eminent Sacrae Theologiae Summa of the Spanish Jesuits, all agreed that the charism of papal infallibility only attached to solemn definitions by popes classified as part of the Extraordinary Papal Magisterium, and that acts of the merely authentic Ordinary Papal Magisterium, including those found in encyclicals, were fallible, that is, subject to error. Such errors, given the general protection given by God to the Church’s divine mission, were seen as unlikely but nonetheless possible. There was no middle term between fallibility and infallibility. Non-infallible, quite simply, meant fallible, subject to error. In this there was no dispute.
According to theologians, the nature of the document and the mode of expression used therein would indicate if a solemn, infallible definition were intended. Among the kinds of documents that are not regarded as offering solemn definitions are “exhortations.” Amoris Laetitia is styled as an “apostolic exhortation.” In fact, the character and style of Amoris Laetitia is so vague that Cardinal Burke regards the document as not even qualifying as a part of the Papal Magisterium.
The duty of cardinals to correct the pope
Assuming, though, that Amoris Laetitia constitutes a part of the Papal Magisterium (as some theologians hold), what of the duty of giving “religious submission of mind and will” to such papal acts? Traditional dogmatic theology manuals agree that such an obligation certainly applies in “ordinary” circumstances (in the words of Tanquerey), and was seen as required by the virtues of prudence and obedience. However, in “extraordinary” cases of apparent error, a concerned member of the faithful could question the decision and express his concerns to the competent authority privately, so as to avoid public scandal.
What if a clear error is not publicly corrected despite the attempt to privately express one’s doubts? While most theologians didn’t consider such a case, at least four authorities (Straub, Shultes, Choupin, and Diekamp), allowed private dissent, while the Sacrae Theologiae Summa held that in such a case the questionable doctrine should be held as at least to be “credible” (probabilis) until it was corrected by the authorities. It seems that the first of these two courses has been taken by Cardinals Müller, Sarah, and others who have publicly held that Catholic doctrine is clearly opposed to allowing divorced and invalidly remarried Catholics to receive communion. They appear to have entered into what theologians called a silentium obsequiosum, an obedient silence, regarding their dissent.
However, other theologians have examined the possibility that a pope might endanger the faith by his misbehavior and therefore merit a public rebuke. The most important of these was St. Thomas Aquinas, who is seen by Vatican II as the principal guide to Catholic seminarians. St. Thomas teaches in his Summa Theologiae (II-II, q. 33, a. 4) that normally a subject should rebuke his prelate in private, but adds, “It must be observed, however, if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly. Hence Paul, who was Peter’s subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith.”
Thomas is referring to St. Paul’s account in his Letter to the Galatians , chapter 2, of his rebuke of St. Peter when he appeared to be supporting a group in the Church that favored erroneous doctrines. “But when Cephas (Peter) was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed,” St. Paul writes.
The eminent theologian Thomas Cajetan, Aquinas’ principal commentator, uses even stronger language, holding that “princes” of the Church (a term commonly applied to cardinals) are “required” to publicly rebuke the pope if they are scandalizing the faithful:
Wherefore by censuring Peter on account of the danger to the salvation of believers, and not tolerating such a small (yet scandalous) sin, Paul taught others about how bravely they must act in denouncing sins of their prelates that scandalize the Church and bring others to damnation by their example. And princes, both of the Church and of the world, are required to do this when the Pope scandalizes the Church and, having been respectfully warned in a private way, does not come to his senses. For it is probable that he will have fear of princes who are openly censuring him, even if he disdains the salvation of his subjects; and if he himself is not made good, at least he won’t scandalize others. For those who are able to do this [rebuke of the Pope] have a much greater obligation to act than they have to rescue those who are being led to corporeal death.
Cardinals Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner have all taken the route of privately submitting their concerns to Pope Francis in the form of five dubia or questions about the pope’s intentions according to certain passages of Amoris Laetitia. However, the pope hasn’t answered. Cardinal Burke says he is now considering the possibility of following the counsel of Aquinas, Cajetan, Suarez, and others, who speak of a public correction of the pope.
Finally, Mirus leaves us a very reasonable warning in his article, but one that seems more applicable to his own understanding of the infallibility of the Papal Magisterium than to anything Cardinal Burke has said: “If we fall into errors about the Holy Spirit’s protection of the Church, if we begin to see the precise nature of the Church’s divine protection as somehow inadequate, if we manufacture new theories about what is essential to the Church’s survival . . . we will have swept the house clean only to admit seven demons where only one had lived before.”
It is my hope that Mirus and others who criticize Cardinal Burke will heed these words, and not attribute an infallibility to ordinary papal magisterial acts that simply doesn’t exist. The result could be even greater confusion for the faithful once the error is corrected. They could erroneously conclude the Church’s infallibility has been compromised, which it clearly, in this case, has not.