07 April 2018, The Tablet

Cardinal Burke: There are times when a Pope must be disobeyed

Cardinal Burke is among those conservatives demanding constraints to pontifical authority.

Cardinal Burke: There are times when a Pope must be disobeyed

For years traditional Catholics have played up their loyalty to the Pope. 

Obedience to the papal magisterium and its teachings, they have declared, is what marks out believers in the Roman Church. This is why they have regarded complaints by progressives in the past about too much papal power as a tiresome problem that should be swept aside with a flick of a crosier. 

Not any more. 

While the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI saw liberal theologians demand that Bishops of Rome govern in a more collaborative fashion, under Pope Francis it is the conservatives demanding constraints to pontifical authority. 

This came to the fore at a conference in Rome today, Saturday 7 April, where Cardinal Raymond Burke, the most prominent critic of this papacy and a leading figure in the Church’s traditionalist wing, gave a long reflection on the topic.  

Collegiality, for so long the buzzword of theologians of a more progressive bent, is now being taken up by the former head of the Church’s supreme court and his supporters.

“The Pope must respect the deposit of faith,” Burke explained at the gathering aimed at clearing up “confusion” in the Church. “He has the authority to express the creed in a more adequate way but he can not act contrary to faith. He must respect each and every one of the sacraments; he can not suppress or add anything that goes against the substance of the sacraments and, finally, he must respect the ecclesial rule of the divine institution (he cannot disregard the episcopate and must share with the College of Bishops the exercise of full and supreme power).”

While Burke explored papal collegial governance, Cardinal Walter Brandmüller gave a reflection on the role lay Catholics have in doctrinal debates, known as the “sensus fidelium” – sense of the faithful – and their “sensus fidei” – their sense of the faith. This is another issue that has long been a concern of reform-minded Catholics who are aware that certain papal teachings, most notably on contraception, have not been accepted or “received” by many ordinary believers. 

Cardinal Walter Brandmüller

Both Cardinals Burke and Brandmüller (above) have publicly challenged this Pope over “Amoris Laetitia”, his family life document which offers a cautious opening to giving communion to divorced and remarried Catholics. He and three others – two of whom have since died – submitted to the Pope a list of questions, known as “dubia”, demanding clarification. Francis has not responded and the cardinal is threatening to issue him with a formal correction. Other traditionalists are furious as what they see as this Pope’s relaxed approach to doctrine, and his apparent questioning of the existence of Hell with an atheist journalist (later queried by the Vatican). Meanwhile, Francis himself has warned against making an “idol” out of the truth, and has repeatedly criticised Catholics who turn faith into ideology.

But today, a packed conference room clapped and cheered Cardinal Burke as he defended his decision to go public with his concerns at an event organised by the “friends of Cardinal Carlo Caffarra”, one of the signatories to the "dubia".

Some have accused the “dubia cardinals” of disloyalty and of damaging church unity for going public with their challenge to the Pope. The 69-year-old, who used to run the Church’s equivalent of a supreme court, hit back, saying that if there is no reply to a private query to the Pope, going public is legitimate. He argued that a precedent was set by St Paul who says in Galatians 2:11 that he spoke to St Peter and “told him face to face that he was wrong”. 

Nevertheless, calling for limits to papal power requires careful arguing from the cardinal and his supporters. A respected Church lawyer, Burke knows that Canon Law gives the Pope “supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely”. Neither can anyone judge him.

Yet, the cardinal says, there are caveats, and judgement can be made if the Pontiff deviates from the Catholic faith and his authority is constrained by “divine law and from the inviolable divine constitution of the Church contained in the Revelation”. 

In practice this means a much broader definition of obedience than we might have heard from Burke in the past. 

The authority of the Roman Pontiff, Burke stressed on Saturday, is not “magical” but comes from the Pope’s “obedience to the Lord” and there are even times where a “Pope must, as a duty, be disobeyed”. For the latter, the cardinal was quoting late medieval historian Professor John Watts who has written about limits to Petrine ministry.  

The cardinal, citing the Oxford professor as his source, says that from the beginning a Pope’s power was “very well defined” and “it was understood that it did not allow certain things to be done by the Roman Pontiff.” 


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Here’s the dilemma. Who decides whether the Pope has strayed beyond Catholic tradition? Is it Cardinal Burke? The signatories to the Dubia? While cardinals, bishops, theologians and lay Catholics can make their case, the “power of the keys” does give the 266th Successor of St Peter ultimate authority. 

The Church learnt this from bitter experience after the period of the Avignon Popes of the 14th century when there were competing claims to the papal throne. As a reaction against it, the theory of “conciliarism” developed by which Church councils were held to have greater powers than the Pope. However, in the end it was decided that the best way to guarantee unity was the institution of the papacy itself. The First Vatican Council (1869-70) condemned conciliarism and made its famous declaration of papal infallibility (only valid in matters of faith and morals). All this shows how debates over papal authority are not exactly new. 

The Second Vatican Council, 1962-65, attempted to balance papal authority with that of a church council resolving that the “power of the keys” is not individual edicts but governance with the bishops. And there was also a much stronger emphasis on the responsibility of lay Catholics in the church.  

Many of the council’s ideas were first posited by English Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-90) who is described as “Father of the Second Vatican Council”. Cardinal Brandmüller based his Saturday address on Newman’s essay “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine”.

Newman argued that there were three pools of authority in the Church: bishops, theologians and people and his argument has been taken up by those arguing or women priests saying that that the “sensus fidelium” has not been tested. 

At the conference today, however, Cardinal Brandmüller, the Emeritus President of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, argued for a narrower and more selective definition of consulting the faithful. This does not, he emphasised, mean asking the people what they think. The Church is not a democracy, and he made clear his scepticism about the worldwide consultations of Catholic laity that have taken place before synods of bishops under this Pope. These can be too easily manipulated, he argued.

He also rejected the idea that the “sense of the faith” is seen in the widespread rejection of Humanae Vitae. But the cardinal said a "sense of the faith" is evident in the pro-life marches and the anti-same sex marriage demonstrations in France. He asked for the “magisterium” to take more notice.  

Critics of this Pope are speaking out with increasing vigour and, ironically, find themselves in the position that more progressive Catholics found themselves in under more recent papacies. 

The difficulty is that criticism or disobedience of the Roman Pontiff, by their own logic of argument, leaves them in an extremely awkward position. Communion with the Pope is a non-negotiable for Catholics. 

As they work out this conundrum the liberals in the Church can offer a simple message to the new papal critics: “Welcome to the club!”

Pic1: Cardinal Raymond Burke, left and Cardinal Walter Brandmüller at the conference. Pic by Christopher Lamb. Pic 2: file pic by Eric Vandeville/ABACAPRESS.COM/PA



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