Part XXVI: Cardinal Burke: The Center Will Not Hold

Cardinal Burke
The Center Will Not Hold

It would seem an unquestionable fact that Cardinal Burke is the most influential leader in the resistance to the “moral gradualism” set in motion throughout the Church by Pope Francis and his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The traditional/orthodox Catholic world now seems to hang upon his every word and action.

It began slowly. Many traditional Catholics were deeply disappointed by Cardinal Burke’s initial response to Amoris Laetitia. In his statement issued in early April, 2016, it was his position that Amoris Laetitia needed to be interpreted in terms of Catholic tradition, while it was of course the position of many traditional Catholic media commentators that it in fact directly contradicted the traditional doctrinal and practical tradition of the Church. In his initial response, Cardinal Burke stated:

The secular media and even some Catholic media are describing the recently issued post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, “Love in the Family,” as a revolution in the Church, as a radical departure from the teaching and practice of the Church, up to now, regarding marriage and the family.

Such a view of the document is both a source of wonder and confusion to the faithful and potentially a source of scandal, not only for the faithful but for others of goodwill who look to Christ and his Church to teach and reflect in practice the truth regarding marriage and its fruit, family life, the first cell of the life of the Church and of every society”.

It matters little whether we interpret the words “some Catholic media” to apply to militantly liberal or traditional Catholic media venues. The fact is that both rightly saw Amoris Laetitia as being a “revolution” and “radical departure” from traditional Catholic teaching, and thus both had to fall under Cardinal Burkes deprecatory categorization of them as causing “wonder and confusion” for the faithful. Quite rightly, therefore, many traditional Catholics felt somewhat betrayed by Cardinal Burke’s assessment.

It is, however, Cardinal Burke himself who has done the most since last April to keep this “scandal”, with all its “wonder and confusion”, alive not only in the minds and hearts of the Catholic faithful, but also in the eyes of the world.

On September 19, 2016, four Cardinals (Walter Branmuller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffara, and Joachim Meisner) sent a letter to Pope Francis, along with five “Dubia” (“doubts” or “questions”) in reference to the teaching of the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, and requesting that these Dubia be answered and clarified by the Pope himself.

The letter went unanswered, and thus, on November 14, these Cardinals published both the Letter and Dubia, along with a Foreword, and also an Explanatory Note which further elaborated on the five Dubia, to the general public. This composite of documents they titled Seeking Clarity. A Plea to Untie the Knots in “Amoris Laetitia”.

One day later, on November 15, in an interview with Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register, Cardinal Burke emphatically agreed with Mr. Pentin that some of the teachings of Amoris Laetitia, “go against the law of non-contradiction” in respect to moral doctrine and the state of soul necessary to receive the sacraments, and that if there is no response (from Pope Francis) to these questions, “I would say that it would be a question of taking a formal act of correction of a serious error”, and that “It is the duty in such cases, and historically it has happened, of cardinals and bishops to make clear that the Pope is teaching error and to ask him to correct it.”

Further, in an interview with Catholic Action for Faith and Family, Cardinal Burke flatly stated his opinion that Amoris Laetitia was not magisterial because it “contains serious ambiguities” [which, if they “go against the law of non-contradiction”, are obviously heretical) that “confuse people and can lead them into error and grave sin.” He further stated that “we [the four Cardinals] are hoping to make this a discussion for all Catholics, especially our fellow bishops.”

Cardinal Burke, in other words, has contradicted his own original position that Amoris Laetitia could be interpreted in line with Tradition, and has placed himself in the forefront of those who propose that its teachings entail a “radical departure” from tradition. He cannot any longer maintain the posture that he and the other Cardinals are only seeking “clarification”. Having publicly stated that Amoris Laetitia contains teachings which “go against the law of non-contradiction” in regard to traditional moral doctrine, he is necessarily identifying these teachings as heretical. Further, in declaring that “we are hoping to make this a discussion for all Catholics, especially our fellow bishops”, he shows that he is committed to taking what he formerly labeled as “potentially a form of scandal” to the highest level of public awareness where it will indeed create the most “wonder and confusion” among the faithful. And, obviously, he plans to use the public media to do so.

But he has now gone much further.

In a December 19 interview with LifeSiteNews, and in response to the question as to what a “formal correction would look like”, and when such an action would take place, Cardinal Burke replied:

Well the dubia have to have a response because they have to do with the very foundations of the moral life and of the Church’s constant teaching with regard to good and evil, with regard to various sacred realities like marriage and Holy Communion and so forth. What format it would take is very simple; namely it would be direct, even as the dubia are, only in this case there would no longer be raising questions, but confronting the confusing statements in Amoris Laetitia with what has been the Church’s constant teaching and practice, and thereby correcting Amoris Laetitia. It’s an old institute in the Church, the correction of the pope. This has not happened in recent centuries, but there are examples and it’s carried out with the absolute respect for the office of the Successor of Saint Peter, in fact, the correction of the pope is actually a way of safeguarding that office and its exercise. When will it take place? Now of course we are in the last days, days of strong grace, before the Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord, and then we have the Octave of the Solemnity and the celebrations at the beginning of the New Year – the whole mystery of Our Lord’s Birth and His Epiphany – so it would probably take place sometime after that.”

But far more significant are his words to be found in an exclusive interview published the same day, December 19, in Catholic World Report, and dealing specifically with Amoris Laetitia and the Letter of the Four Cardinals to Pope Francis containing the five Dubia. Cardinal Burke here says things which are bound to not only cause confusion, but also send people over the edge into sedevacantism and other excesses. The following exchanges are excerpted from that interview:

CWR: Some people are saying that the pope could separate himself from communion with the Church. Can the pope legitimately be declared in schism or heresy?

Cardinal Burke: If a Pope would formally profess heresy he would cease, by that act, to be the Pope. It’s automatic. And so, that could happen.

CWR: That could happen.

Cardinal Burke: Yes.

And a little further on in the interview:

CWR: Back to this question about the Pope committing heresy. What happens then, if the Pope commits heresy and is no longer Pope? Is there a new conclave? Who’s in charge of the Church? Or do we just not even want to go there to start figuring that stuff out?

Cardinal Burke: There is already in place the discipline to be followed when the Pope ceases from his office, even as happened when Pope Benedict XVI abdicated his office. The Church continued to be governed in the interim between the effective date of his abdication and the inauguration of the papal ministry of Pope Francis.

CWR: Who is competent to declare him to be in heresy?

Cardinal Burke: It would have to be members of the College of Cardinals.

CWR: Just to clarify again, are you saying that Pope Francis is in heresy or is close to it?

Cardinal Burke: No, I am not saying that Pope Francis is in heresy. I have never said that. Neither have I stated that he is close to being in heresy.

First of all, it is virtually impossible to believe that Cardinal Burke is not saying that Pope Francis is at least “close to heresy “(despite the fact that he has never actually said it). You cannot say that a particular teaching contradicts Catholic doctrine without at the same time thoroughly coloring that teaching with the charge of being objectively heretical.

Secondly, Cardinal Burke in the above interview (devoted almost exclusively to an examination of the “contradictory” teachings of Amoris Laetitia) allows himself to be drawn into a rather detailed discussion concerning the possibility of a heretical Pope, the mechanics by which he would thus cease to be Pope, and who would be qualified to declare such things. And he gives very specific answers. It is therefore impossible to believe that Cardinal Burke does not consider Pope Francis to be at least “close to heresy”. And certainly a great majority of the faithful would consider his very public words and actions during the past one and one-half months to be almost certain evidence that this is indeed his position.

All of this of course leads to the edge of a precipice which hovers over a situation in which the Church would descend into virtual total chaos. But Cardinal Burke does not stop short at the edge of this precipice. In what seems to be almost a nonchalant manner (how else are we to describe the following enormously grave statement made in an interview), he steps off the edge:

CWR: Who is competent to declare him to be in heresy?

Cardinal Burke: It would have to be members of the College of Cardinals.

Unlike the Papacy and the office of Bishop, the College of Cardinals is not of Divine institution. Throughout history, many Cardinals have not been bishops or even priests. There are actually three classes of Cardinals – Cardinal-bishops, Cardinal-priests, and Cardinal-deacons. Any unique authority a Cardinal might possess at any given point in history stems solely from the juridical authority of the Pope. The office has a long and complicated history of development, and Cardinals did not become the exclusive electors of the Pope until 1059. Current Papal legislation states that only Cardinals under the age of 80 may participate in the election of a new Pope. No Cardinal, or group of Cardinals, however, have ever been given the authority to declare that a Pope is a heretic, and that he has consequently been deposed from his Office.

What Cardinal Burke has proposed is therefore an objective heresy. It is somewhat similar to what is called the Conciliarist heresy – the false doctrine that a General Council is empowered to judge and declare a Pope deposed – a pernicious heresy which has been a recurring evil ever since the Council of Constance. It is in fact the Council of Constance which most Conciliarists attempt to subvert in order to promote their agenda. The folly of such an effort has been fully exposed in my article The Religion of Abandonment: Sedevacantism and the Heresy of Conciliarism.

In his marvelous encyclical On The Unity of the Church (Satis Cognitum), Pope Leo XIII quotes Saint Jerome concerning the relations which exist between the Pope and the bishops (and of course Cardinals) “according to the divine constitution of the Church”:

The safety of the Church depends on the dignity of the chief priest, to whom if an extraordinary and supreme power is not given, there are as many schisms to be expected in the Church as there are priests.”

And he concludes this same paragraph (#14) with the following:

He alone was designated as the foundation of the Church. To him He gave the power of binding and loosing; to him alone was given the power of feeding. On the other hand, whatever authority and office the Apostles received, they received in conjunction with Peter. ‘If the divine benignity willed anything to be in common between him and the other princes, whatever He did not deny to the others He gave only through him. So that whereas Peter alone received many things, He conferred nothing on any of the rest without Peter participating in it.” (S. Leo M. sermo iv., cap.2).

In other words a Pope can only lose the Papacy through his own willful participation in that loss, which simply means that he must freely resign. Anything else would entail violation of the Divine Constitution of the Church, necessarily resulting in massive chaos and anarchy within the Church. The “safety of the Church” would be shattered.

The ensuing crisis would make the Great Western Schism, which indeed did produce chaos and decay in every facet of the life of the Church and Christian civilization, look like child’s-play. The divisions now existing within the College of Cardinals are not, as was the case at the time of the Great Western Schism, concerned with the relatively simple issue of two or three Papal claimants, but rather concern the very lifeblood of the Church – her doctrine. Cardinal Burke, in his interview with Catholic World Report, stated, “If a Pope would formally profess heresy he would cease, by that act, to be the Pope”. It is certainly a matter of faith that the Pope, in accord with Christ’s promises, could not formally change the infallible magisterium, and Pope Francis has quite specifically said that he believes in all of Catholic doctrine. So what would constitute “formal” heresy on the part of Pope Francis? Is an interview with Anthony Spadaro sufficient? Are errors or “ambiguities” to be found in an Apostolic Constitution or Encyclical grounds for such automatic loss of the Papacy? It is absolutely absurd to believe that the Cardinals could ever agree on declaring the Pope to be in formal heresy. They would not even be able to agree about what constitutes “formal” heresy.

Very likely, a great many do not even believe in the legitimacy of the charge of heresy, since they now possess an evolutionary view of man’s spiritual growth which allows for no such black/white distinctions. The formal charge of heresy would be to them a “Medieval thing”, not suitable to our modern ecumenical understanding. After all, if the Pope can be a heretic, so also must be Lutherans or the Eastern Orthodox. And how many Cardinals are ready to go there!

If we add to these considerations the fact that approximately 40% of the 120 Cardinals eligible to vote in a Conclave have been personally elevated to that position by Pope Francis, and that there has been very little doctrinal backbone evident in those elevated to this position before his pontificate, Cardinal Burke’s proposal for rectifying this crisis is indeed a chimera. .

Most important, the designation of someone is a “formal heretic” has always required much more than just teaching objective error. It requires pertinaciousness and contumaciousness – in other words, persistent and willful disobedience in the face of correction from superior authority within the Church. How can this be possible in respect of the Pope if, as Canon Law states: “The First See is judged by no one” (canon 1404), and if the Pope is subject to no human superior authority within the Church? It has been claimed that the deposition of a Pope would not require judgment of him being a heretic, but only a “declaration” of the fact that he is a formal heretic and therefore that he has “automatically” lost the Papacy. Such sophistry totally ignores the conditions, other than objective error, which must be present in order for there to be that culpability present which merits the judgment that someone has lost the Catholic Faith. In other words, declaration demands judgment, and there is no one within the Church who possesses the authority from God to judge the Pope.

Finally, as I have already pointed out, why should it be the Cardinals who have the right to judge a Pope? – why not a General Council of all the Bishops? Why not opt for the real old-fashioned heresy of Conciliarism? At least with a General Counsel you have some sort of participation in the Church’s charism of Infallibility. Of course, such participation is entirely dependent upon the Pope’s ratification, but at least there is something there that might serve to disguise insufficiency in this regard. On the other hand, with the College of Cardinals, and any claim they might put forward as to their right and authority to judge heresy on the part of a Pope, or declare his deposition, there is only an embarrassing nakedness.

Of one thing we may be virtually certain. Cardinal Burke’s words, even if they are not followed by the enormously self-destructive course of action which he has suggested, will be an inspiration for many towards sedevacantism. After over 50 years of relative obscurity, the Sedevacantists are now able to finally say that “one of them” has finally admitted the licitness of the basic principles of their own position: namely, that a Pope can lose the faith, be declared a heretic, and be judged to have done so by his inferiors. At this point we have descended from a divinely-instituted monarchy to aristocracy (Cardinals or Bishops, as it may be), and the total chaos of Democracy is just around the corner. We best look forward and ask ourselves now: “On that day, how will we stand against the winds that will blow out of Hell?”

I would suggest, therefore, that we have only two recourses in the present crisis. The first is prayer for the direct intervention of God and His efficacious grace. The second is simply taking refuge in Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart and speaking the Word of Truth, and be fully willing to suffer whatever crosses may ensue as a result of such witness. Let us not presume to violate the Divine Constitution of the Church in order to end the pain which is the fruit of our own prostitution to the world, and which has merited this chastisement from God. Let us walk the narrow road of the Cross.

I offer the following two articles as being complementary to this article:

What Really Is At Stake: The Letter of Four Cardinals to Pope Francis Concerning Amoris Laetitia to be found here:

The Antichrist, and the Papacy of Pope Francis, linked here:

– James Larson