Cardinal Burke

Cardinal Burke [Part I]: The Pope Is Not an Idol

by Christopher A. Ferrara
August 22, 2017

In my column of August 18, I discussed a truly historic address by the renowned theologian, Father Aidan Nichols, wherein he suggested that, in view of the crisis provoked by Amoris Laetitia, a new canonical procedure may be needed to deal with a doctrinally errant Pope. In the course of that address, Fr. Nichols stated that “it is not the position of the Roman Catholic Church that a pope is incapable of leading people astray by false teaching as a public doctor…. He may be the supreme appeal judge of Christendom…but that does not make him immune to perpetrating doctrinal howlers.”

While the Pope is obviously not immune from error in his every utterance, as the historic example of John XXII demonstrates, when the Pope exceeds the strict limits of papal infallibility by offering what are in essence his erroneous personal theological opinions, as John XXII did, are those opinions, strictly speaking, the teaching of the Vicar of Christ as such?

In answer to this question, I think it is worth considering the view of Cardinal Raymond Burke, expressed during a recent Catholic conference in Kentucky, reported by Life Site News. Cardinal Raymond Burke enunciated a crucial distinction regarding the papacy that has been lost in the post-conciliar confusion: the distinction between the “words of the man who is Pope and the words of the Pope as Vicar of Christ on earth.”

Applying this distinction to the — one must say it — calamitous papacy we now witness, Cardinal Burke explained to his audience that “Pope Francis has chosen to speak often in his first body, the body of the man who is Pope. In fact, even in documents which, in the past, have represented more solemn teaching, he states clearly that he is not offering magisterial teaching but his own thinking” — a clear reference to the disastrous Amoris Laetitia (AL).

The Cardinal warned against the danger posed by those who “want to make [the Pope’s] every statement somehow part of the Magisterium. To do so is contrary to reason and to what the Church has always understood. It is simply wrong and harmful to the Church to receive every declaration of the Holy Father as an expression of papal teaching or magisterium.” The faithful must not, the Cardinal cautioned, succumb to what would amount to a most uncatholic “idolatry of the papacy.”

That said, however, it must also be said that a Pope is not excused from the consequences of his errant opinions merely because, objectively speaking, they do not and cannot bind the Church. Catholics in the pew by and large are oblivious to the distinction the Cardinal is drawing. If the Pope says X, they simply assume it is genuine papal teaching without regard to its form, context or continuity with the teaching of all prior Popes. This is especially true where, in the case of Francis, what the Pope says is deemed agreeable to the itching ears of nominal Catholics who reject the infallible teaching of the Church on such matters as divorce and remarriage. Indeed, the world’s unending applause for “the Francis revolution” demonstrates the disastrous consequences of papal opinions masquerading as the authentic Magisterium.

Nevertheless, the Cardinal’s distinction between the Vicar of Christ and the person of the Pope is essential to avoiding a situation in which, when the person of the Pope utters something contrary to the constant teaching of the Vicars of Christ, those who know what the Church really teaches “would easily lose respect for the Papacy or be led to think that, if we do not agree with the personal opinions of the man who is Roman Pontiff, then we must break communion with the Church…” Such people would conclude that if “the Church” can “change her mind” so easily, she must not be the true Church of Christ after all.

In my book diagnosing the current crisis in the Church, I note that the great theologian of the Council of Trent, Melchior Cano, made precisely the same point as Cardinal Burke does: “Peter has no need of our lies or flattery. Those who blindly and indiscriminately defend every decision of the supreme Pontiff are the very ones who do most to undermine the authority of the Holy See — they destroy instead of strengthening its foundations.”

Now if only Francis would publicly acknowledge the vital distinction between his every utterance on the one hand and, on the other, the authentic (that is, constant and unbroken) teaching of the Vicars of Christ on matters of faith and morals. Sad to say, however, it appears he argues for precisely the error identified by Cardinal Burke. As he declared in an interview published by the ultra-progressive Jesuit magazine America: “I’m constantly making statements, giving homilies. That’s magisterium. That’s what I think, not what the media say that I think. Check it out; it’s very clear.”

With all due respect, “what I think” and what the Magisterium teaches are not one and the same. Nor is “very clear” a fair description of AL, Laudato si’ (filled with blatant opinions on such matters as CO2 omissions, the use of air-conditioning and environmental regulations) and Evangelli gaudium, wherein Francis clearly expounds his personal “vison,” hopes and “dreams.” Not to mention innumerable other expressions of what Francis thinks. The mere fact that a Pope’s personal views happen to appear within the four corners of a published document does not make them utterances of the Vicar of Christ. The Vicar of Christ is not concerned with atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide nor does Christ’s Vicar, acting precisely as such, have “dreams” of “transforming everything” in the Church as Evangelli Gaudium (par. 27) muses.

Again, however, the consequences of the abuse of papal authority by presenting mere opinions as if they were authentic Church teaching cannot be overlooked, whether or not the Pope is strictly speaking as the Vicar of Christ. Paradoxically enough, therefore, respect for the office that Francis occupies impels the believing Catholic to reject the notion that whatever he thinks, even if it appears in a formal document, “is magisterium.” To accept that notion would indeed be to destroy rather than strengthen the foundations of the papacy. And that is precisely what the Adversary would have us do as he wages his “final battle” against the Church: destroy the papacy’s foundations by turning the Pope into an inerrant oracle whose every opinion would be binding on the faithful, leading to a shipwreck of the Faith.

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2 comments on “Cardinal Burke

  1. Cardinal Burke [Part II] on Papal Idolatry

    by Christopher A. Ferrara
    August 23, 2017

    My last column discussed a recent talk by Cardinal Burke in which he drew a distinction between “the words of the man who is Pope and the words of the Pope as Vicar of Christ on earth.” I contrasted this distinction with the observation of Father Aidan Nichols, respecting the crisis provoked by Amoris Laetitia, that “it is not the position of the Roman Catholic Church that a pope is incapable of leading people astray by false teaching as a public doctor…. He may be the supreme appeal judge of Christendom…but that does not make him immune to perpetrating doctrinal howlers.”

    But if a Pope should utter some false teaching “as a public doctor,” does he do so, strictly speaking, as the Vicar of Christ on earth? Here Cardinal Burke’s distinction merits further discussion. In the complete original text of the Cardinal’s intervention, which I have reviewed, he made the further observation that “it is absurd to think that Pope Francis can teach something which is not in accord with what his predecessors, for example Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Saint John Paul II, have solemnly taught.”

    A superficial reading of that assertion might lead one to think the Cardinal has erred, given the historical examples, few though they are, of Popes who uttered some kind of theological error, such as John XXII (r. 1316-1334), mentioned in my last column, or Honorius I (r. 625-638), who was actually condemned and anathematized posthumously as an aider and abettor of heresy by both an ecumenical council and his own successor, Leo II.

    As I noted in my previous column on this subject, the Cardinal’s distinction between the capacities of the person who occupies the papal office does not excuse the Pope’s responsibility for the consequences of promulgating personal theological views at variance with the perennial Magisterium. The consequences can be disastrous, as Catholics in the pews do not observe the distinction the Cardinal draws.

    Nevertheless, it seems obvious to me that the Cardinal was referring not to “teaching” as a mere verbal utterance that happens to come from a Pope in oral or written form, but rather “teaching” as the formal presentation of Catholic doctrine clearly binding on the Church — not mere opinion, commentary, suggestion or speculation, such as we see with Laudato si’, which is filled with such extraneous material.

    Consider once again the example of John XXII, who preached repeatedly the error that the souls of the blessed departed, even after Purgatory, will not enjoy the Beatific Vision until the Day of Judgment, when they will finally be admitted into the fullness of eternal communion with God. Further, John XXII published a treatise supporting his novel opinion. He certainly appeared to be speaking as the Vicar of Christ. But when one examines the details of the affair, one sees that it fits precisely within Cardinal Burke’s distinction between the Pope acting as Vicar of Christ and the body of the Pope as a private person with his own personal views. In the exhaustive historical account by Father Victor Francis O’Daniel, O.P. discussed here, we read the following:

    “[Pope John maintained] that he had preached simply as a private theologian, not as Head of the Church, defining a doctrine to be accepted as of faith; that, consequently, his opinion, being given as that of a private doctor, was subject to the judgment and decision of the Church to be approved or condemned, as it may be found true or false; that, furthermore, the question was open to discussion, and every theologian was free to accept and to advocate whichever side of the controversy he should judge to be the true one. He did not, therefore, give any ex cathedra decision binding the consciences of the faithful…”

    Note well: John XXII admitted what was already obvious from the very content of his false preaching: that it was nothing more than his errant opinion as “a private theologian.” It did not become such only because he admitted it was such, but rather because that is what it was on its face, being something the Church had never taught before.

    Now, Francis may not be willing to admit expressly what John XXII felt constrained to admit when his error was met with furious opposition throughout Christendom: i.e., that he was merely expressing his personal views, which are debatable and subject to correction. Pope Francis may even be so misguided as to think that absolutely everything he speaks or writes is binding on the faithful merely by the fact of his having said or written it, no matter what the context or content of the utterance.

    But, in my view, that does not alter the reality of the distinction Cardinal Burke has drawn: the Vicar of Christ acting precisely as Vicar of Christ cannot teach error, for the same reason that the authentic Magisterium as the authentic Magisterium cannot contain error. There is no “magisterium of the pope” but only the Magisterium of the Church. The concepts of “error” and “Magisterium” are mutually exclusive. Thus, I do not see how a Catholic could reasonably say “the Magisterium has erred” regarding some errant statement by a particular Pope. And if the Magisterium has not erred when a particular Pope errs, how can we sensibly say the Vicar of Christ has erred as opposed to the Pope in his personal capacity?

    So, it seems clear enough that the Vicar of Christ, acting as such, cannot impart erroneous personal views under the label “Magisterium” simply by refusing to admit that they are his personal views. If it were otherwise, then we would have to say that, with the advent of Pope Francis, the Vicar of Christ has spent the past four years uttering all manner of false or dubious opinions, as documented here.

    Therefore, is it not at least reasonably arguable that it really would be absurd to say that the currently reigning Vicar of Christ as such has contradicted all his predecessor Vicars of Christ? If there is a contradiction, it is between a Pope speaking as a private theologian and the preceding Vicars of Christ teaching as Christ’s vicars. When the Pope abuses his power by passing off personal views as if they were the Magisterium, Cardinal Burke argues, he is not doing so, strictly speaking, as the Vicar of Christ, even if his abuse of power has terrible consequences for which such a wayward Pope is responsible.

    The distinction proposed by Cardinal Burke is, he notes, found in the reasoning of theologians in the Middle Ages:

    “In the Middle Ages, the Church spoke of the two bodies of the Pope: the body of the man and the body of the Vicar of Christ. In fact, the traditional Papal vesture, especially the red mozzetta with the stole depicting the Apostles Saint Peter and Paul, visibly represents the true body of the Pope when he is setting forth the teaching of the Church.”

    Tellingly, when Francis first appeared on the balcony of Saint Peter’s after his election, even the resolutely “normalist” Vatican Insider admits that “As Marini placed the mozzetta on Francis, the Pope simply said: ‘I would prefer you didn’t.’”

    Make of it what you will. But clearly, we have a Pope who, perhaps instinctively or even under the negative restraint of the Holy Ghost, shuns that degree of formality or language of command in his pronouncements which would indicate a true intention, as Vicar of Christ, to bind the Church to his novel opinions.

    In conclusion, it seems reasonable to argue — and surely there is room for debate — that the novelties of Pope Francis cannot, strictly speaking, be attributed to the Vicar of Christ as opposed to the person of the man who now occupies the papal office. If there were no such distinction then one would have to say that every utterance of Francis is an utterance of the Vicar of Christ on earth, so long as he does not expressly state “this is only my opinion.” That truly would lead to absurdities, and thus an erosion of faith among many in the Pope as Christ’s Vicar.

  2. Cardinal Burke on the Pope: Part III (Conclusion): Formal Correction Coming Soon?

    by Christopher A. Ferrara
    August 25, 2017

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    Removing the papal stole before speaking. Is Francis trying to tell us something?

    In my previous two columns, I discussed the distinction drawn by Cardinal Raymond Burke, rooted in the thinking of medieval canonists, between the person of the Pope and the papal office of Vicar of Christ, exercised as such. While the Pope as a human person may have erring opinions, and may even be so bold as to express those opinions to the world, as did Pope John XXII regarding the Beatific Vision in the 14th century and as Francis does today, an erring opinion cannot belong to the authentic Magisterium, which is the teaching office of the Holy Catholic Church, not the magisterium of a particular Pope who is free to depart from the personal magisterium of other Popes in ordinary pronouncements and documents short of infallible definitions of dogma.

    In other words, there is no such thing as a “fallible ordinary Magisterium.” What the Church has always taught by way of her “ordinary Magisterium” is no less infallible than dogmatic definitions of the “extraordinary Magisterium,” which, after all, are only the culmination of the constant, infallible teaching of the ordinary Magisterium down through the centuries (e.g., the dogma of the Assumption merely proclaims what the Church had always believed since the time of the Apostles).

    Thus, when paragraph 25 of the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium (LG) speaks of the “religious submission of mind and will … to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra,” it is not referring to every utterance by a Pope but rather to exercises of the teaching office of the Vicar of Christ by which he clearly intends to bind the entire Church. Nor is it self-evident that any particular papal document in ordinary course belongs to the “authentic Magisterium” for the sole reason that a Pope has issued it. As even LG makes clear, whether a given document belongs to the binding and authentic ordinary Magisterium depends upon an examination of “the character of the documents” as well as the Pope’s “manner of speaking.”

    Both Francis’ manner of speaking and the rambling, ambiguous, discursive and distinctly opinion-laden character of even his major documents (Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si’ and Amoris Laetitia) do not evidence any clear intention to compel belief in some particular “new” doctrine of the Church. Moreover, even if such an intention were expressed, it would be void and of no effect, for as Vatican I (infallibly) declared in rejecting the notion that a Pope can announce new doctrines:

    “For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by His revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by His assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.”

    That is precisely Cardinal Burke’s point. And it is also the point on which Father Gruner insisted in the many conversations I had with him on the novelties of the post-conciliar epoch: a novel doctrine is not part of the “authentic Magisterium” (LG) because the Church has never taught it, and if the Church has never taught a novel doctrine it cannot be a true doctrine. And if it is not true doctrine, it can only be the mere opinion of the Pope who uttered it, speaking in his personal capacity.

    Here it seems to me most telling that Pope Francis seems averse to wearing the papal stole, a symbol of the Roman Pontiff’s authority, and that he wears the same pectoral cross he wore as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, rather than the gold cross of the Roman Pontiff. As America magazine observed of Francis’ first appearance on the balcony of Saint Peter’s:

    “That Francis chose not to wear the … gold embroidered papal stole… went unnoticed to most, but to those who understood the language of ecclesiastical garments, this was a shout. Moreover, instead of the gold pectoral cross, Francis emerged wearing the silver cross he had worn as bishop of Buenos Aires. He donned the stole for the papal blessing, then promptly removed it.”

    Most curious. Why promptly remove the stole after having donned it to give a papal blessing? If this were merely some sort of prideful aversion to “finery,” why wear it even to administer the blessing? What was Francis trying to tell us with this abrupt doffing gesture? Or was it the Holy Ghost prompting him to remove the symbol of the Vicar of Christ before saying things inappropriate to the office?

    Having said all this, however, the fact remains that Pope Francis has provoked disastrous confusion and division by attempting to insert into the life of the Church what amounts to his personal theology, practiced as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, through ambiguous pronouncements and winks and nods to those who are doing what he would like to see. Thus, whether or not Francis has acted in his official capacity as Vicar of Christ, his errant opinions must be corrected because they are causing grave harm to the Church.

    In the second part of his interview with the Wanderer, Cardinal Burke does indeed indicate that, notwithstanding a distinction between the person and the office of the Pope, he will issue the promised formal correction of the errors of Amoris Laetitia:

    “Q. Setting aside the question of timing, please explain how the process for the execution of a ‘formal correction’ would proceed should a response to the five dubia not be forthcoming? How is a formal correction officially submitted, how is it addressed within the Church’s hierarchal structure, etc.?

    “A. … It seems to me that the essence of the correction is quite simple. On the one hand, one sets forth the clear teaching of the Church; on the other hand, what is actually being taught by the Roman Pontiff is stated. If there is a contradiction, the Roman Pontiff is called to conform his own teaching in obedience to Christ and the Magisterium of the Church.

    “The question is asked, ‘How would this be done?’ It is done very simply by a formal declaration to which the Holy Father would be obliged to respond. Cardinals Brandmüller, Caffarra, Meisner, and I used an ancient institution in the Church of proposing dubia to the Pope.

    “…. Pope Francis has chosen not to respond to the five dubia, so it is now necessary simply to state what the Church teaches about marriage, the family, acts that are intrinsically evil, and so forth. These are the points that are not clear in the current teachings of the Roman Pontiff; therefore, this situation must be corrected. The correction would then direct itself principally to those doctrinal points….

    “…. The Pope is the principle of unity of the bishops and all the faithful. However, the Church is being torn asunder right now by confusion and division. The Holy Father must be called on to exercise his office to put an end to this.

    “So then, the next step would be a formal declaration stating the clear teachings of the Church as set forth in the dubia. Furthermore, it would be stated that these truths of the Faith are not being clearly set forth by the Roman Pontiff….”

    Clearly, the Cardinal knows he has a duty to the Church and to souls to make the promised public correction. Let us hope and pray that he does his duty to confront a situation he himself has so rightly linked to the failure to consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

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