Recent remarks by Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, captured on audio, prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Burke explicitly rejects the revised teaching on the death penalty in Catechism #2267 and urges catechists not to accept or teach the change that Pope Francis has mandated.
On this site, we have long been tracking the views of those with extremist viewpoints who criticize Pope Francis. We have also noted a more mainstream contingent whose members strongly oppose Francis’s papacy but couch their language in a manner that allows them to argue that they are trying to promote his teaching. I earlier observed this phenomenon with regard to Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. More recently, Cardinal Raymond Burke has likewise attempted to present himself as a supporter of Pope Francis in a recent interview on Fox News where he said:
“They say that I’m the enemy of the pope, and nothing can be further from the truth. I’ve never spoken against Pope Francis or spoken disrespectfully of him.”
Perhaps Burke hasn’t spoken explicitly against Pope Francis’s character or passed judgement on the state of his soul. However, he has explicitly rejected magisterial teachings on faith and morals that Francis has promulgated, has openly mocked them (and has done so in front of an audience), and has referred to them as Francis’s “personal opinion.”
When he became a cardinal, he swore an oath, whereby he pledged to:
“Promise and swear to be faithful henceforth and forever, while I live, to Christ and his Gospel, being constantly obedient to the Holy Roman Apostolic Church, to Blessed Peter in the person of the Supreme Pontiff [name], and of his canonically elected Successors; to maintain communion with the Catholic Church always, in word and deed.”
Sadly, in his comments to this audience, he demonstrates supreme disobedience to Francis, Peter’s successor, who asked, upon promulgation of the revised section of the Catechism, “for it to be translated into various languages and inserted in all the editions of the aforementioned Catechism.”
First, here’s some background.
On July 25, 2019, Cardinal Burke delivered a keynote address to the ninth annual Napa Institute Summer Conference at the Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa, California. According to an article by Dan Morris-Young in the National Catholic Reporter, the title of the address was, “Proclaiming the Truths of the Faith in a Time of Crisis,” and was focused on the document that has come to be known as “The Declaration of Truths.”
The Declaration is a list of 40 statements, signed by Burke and four other bishops on May 31, 2019, that intends to respond to “some of the most common errors in the life of the Church of our time.” The Napa Institute does not seem to have made Burke’s address publicly available in audio or video format (despite posting videos of many of the other speakers and programs at the conference), which must be disappointing for those who were unable to afford the conference’s $2,600 registration fee.
It seems that the Napa Institute may have had good reasons not to post the address publicly, however. The Reporter’s account did not include any direct quotes from Burke on the death penalty, but summarized his statements on the issue in this way:
“Lack of clarity that the church does permit civil authority to exercise capital punishment, a statement that seemed to conflict with Pope Francis‘ recent description of the death penalty as ‘a serious violation of the right to life of every person’ and the US bishops’ move to re-cast the US Catechism on the topic.”
While this is indeed troubling, without direct quotes or a transcript (not to mention an audio or video record), it’s impossible from this to know with certainty whether Burke really does dissent from Pope Francis’s teaching. Likewise, the text of the Declaration on the topic is too ambiguous to determine with certainty that the signatories reject the revised version of #2267. It says:
“28. In accordance with Holy Scripture and the constant tradition of the ordinary and universal Magisterium, the Church did not err in teaching that the civil power may lawfully exercise capital punishment on malefactors where this is truly necessary to preserve the existence or just order of societies (see Gen 9:6; John 19:11; Rom 13:1-7; Innocent III, Professio fidei Waldensibus praescripta; Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, p. III, 5, n. 4; Pius XII, Address to Catholic jurists on December 5, 1954).”
The revised formulation of Catechism #2267, states:
“Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.”
This formulation does not explicitly say that the Church taught error in the past. Indeed, the Catechism explains that the change is a response to an increasing awareness of human dignity and the effectiveness of modern systems of detention. It is clear from both the revised text and the letter issued on the same day by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) that explains the change, that Francis went to great lengths not to suggest that past teaching was doctrinally erroneous. The teaching expresses that it is only in light of more recent developments that the death penalty is now deemed inadmissible by the Church.
Therefore, it’s not possible to determine from this whether Burke and the other signatories openly dissent from the teaching.
But just days prior to the Napa conference, he did speak candidly about his position on the exact same topic, and the audio recordings are readily available on the internet. From July 19 through 21, Cardinal Burke participated in the “Consecration Weekend” for the Marian Catechists, an apostolate he inherited from Fr. John Hardon, which I discussed in my piece last week. Burke gave at least two talks on the Declaration and took part in a lengthy Q&A session.
The audio for all three presentations in their entirety is available at this link. I have transcribed the relevant sections, and have provided them in full below.
(Note: if the audio files are taken down from the Marian Catechists’ website, I have downloaded the files to multiple devices, as have others.)
If you don’t have time to listen to the audio or read the full transcripts, here are some key quotes.
From his second address, on Saturday, July 20, 2019, Cardinal Burke spoke on the declaration’s response to the pope’s teaching on the death penalty, and said:
- “Number 28 declares the truth about capital punishment. This also has been called into question in our time, as if for 2000 years, the Church was in error in its teaching, with regard to capital punishment.”
- “Society has this Right. Pope St. John Paul II rightly pointed out that today, that probably the need for this is less than it had been in the past, as society has other means. We cannot rule out absolutely, that: the necessity of resorting to capital punishment.”
In his Q&A session the next day, Burke went far beyond these common talking points against the revised teaching. He explicitly rejects its Magisterial nature, the pope’s authority on faith and morals, and decries the possibility of any future changes to the Catechism (never mind that John Paul did just that in 1997). He also strategically avoids any mention of paragraphs 2 and 3 of the 1997 teaching, those that demonstrate clearly that JP2 planted the seeds for Francis’s development.
Here are some examples of what he said (key passages are in bold, I used italics when he’s quoting something, anything in [brackets] was added by me):
- Responding to a question about what to do about the revised teaching, he says, “I’ll explain this to you now: you should teach what’s in the Catechism.” (Meaning the 1997 edition, which doesn’t include Pope Francis’s revision.)
- He goes on to say, “Is the change now official teaching? No.”
- “The Pope doesn’t change the teaching of the Church by his personal opinion.”
- Critiquing the new teaching, he says, “‘Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority following a fair trial was long considered’ — The word should be ‘always’ considered.”
- “Consequently, the Church teaches in the light of the gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible.” — This is simply not any language; this doesn’t have any doctrinal import to it. What does it mean to say something isn’t admissible? That is a relative term, either say it’s intrinsically evil, or it’s good. — “Because it is an attack on the inviolability indignity of the person.” — And it’s not. And what’s the citation? What’s the doctrinal citation? A speech of the pope on October 11 2017. [Audience laughter.] My point is this, with all due respect, and I’m not trying to be disrespectful in any way: This is an opinion of Pope Francis as a man.
- “He has this personal opinion about, about capital punishment, but this does not suffice, to change something the church has always held and taught.”
- “Once in a while, a pope would express his personal opinion about something and generally caused a lot of confusion and turmoil. And so, but Pope Francis does this a lot, but you can’t – this, this kind of argumentation that’s given in this text – it simply won’t do it.”
- “Archbishop Fisichella, who says that … he’s heading up a rewriting of the Catechism, we have to be very attentive to that. But what I would advise you to do is to buy a copy of the Catechism as it is now and keep it in a safe place.” [Audience laughter.]
The statements above clearly demonstrate that Cardinal Burke rejects the teaching of Pope Francis on the death penalty in its entirely. He seems to think that a change to the Catholic Catechism, mandated by the pope and accompanied by a document from the CDF (one which declares the change to be, “An authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium”) is simply the personal opinion of the pope “as a man.”
He even advises his audience to buy a copy of the 1997 edition of the Catechism and “keep it in a safe place,” as if doctrinal development, papal authority, and the Living Magisterium are all a big joke.
This dismissal is inexplicable in light of what is expressed in the Profession of Faith, which states:
“I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.”
In the past, Cardinal Burke has cited “ambiguity” and “lack of clarity” in Francis’s teachings as a way to create reasonable doubt about his dissent. He’s a (canon) lawyer, after all, and is skilled at lawyerly language. In the past, he’s also avoided naming Pope Francis when describing his problems with the Holy Father’s teachings. Not in this case, however.
What we have here can be described as a “smoking gun” that indicates that Cardinal Burke openly dissents from magisterial teaching.
Lest we forget, the 1990 CDF instruction Donum Veritatis says this about dissent:
- Dissent has different aspects. In its most radical form, it aims at changing the Church following a model of protest which takes its inspiration from political society. More frequently, it is asserted that the theologian is not bound to adhere to any Magisterial teaching unless it is infallible. Thus a Kind of theological positivism is adopted, according to which, doctrines proposed without exercise of the charism of infallibility are said to have no obligatory character about them, leaving the individual completely at liberty to adhere to them or not. The theologian would accordingly be totally free to raise doubts or reject the non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium particularly in the case of specific moral norms.
I suppose Cardinal Burke’s defense is his absurd claim that the teaching on the death penalty is mere “personal opinion.”
Your Eminence, when the pope mandates a change to the Catechism and approves a CDF document explaining the change as a development from “prior magisterium,” it’s not simply his personal opinion.
It is my hope that Cardinal Burke will be called forth by ecclesiastical authorities so he can be corrected and given a chance to repent of his error and to retract his dissenting statements.
- A PDF of a handout from the conference. On page 6, the worksheet explicitly rejects the clear teaching on the inadmissibility of the death penalty.
- The audio files are available here.
Transcript 1: The Address on July 20
Number 28 declares the truth about capital punishment. This also has been called into question in our time, as if for 2000 years, the Church was in error in its teaching, with regard to capital punishment. In fact, in accordance with the Holy Scripture, and with the constant tradition of the ordinary and universal magisterium, the Church did not err in teaching that the civil power, may lawfully exercise capital punishment on malefactors, where this is truly necessary to preserve the existence or just order of society. This is simply a corollary of the principle of self defense, that even as a person can be justified in taking another person’s life to defend themself – when there’s no other way to defend themselves. So too, society has this right. Pope St. John Paul II rightly pointed out that today that probably the need for this is less than it had been in the past, as society has other means. We we cannot rule out absolutely, that: the necessity of resorting to capital punishment.
Transcript 2: From the Q&A on July 21
[Note: I attempted to transcribe the words of Cardinal Burke as accurately as possible. He often expresses himself in a halting, stuttering way. I indicate these transitions through the use of dashes and hyphens. When he repeated the same word multiple times (“We we we,” “I I I,” etc.), I consolidated them into one word. I also omitted “Um” and “Ah.” I used italics when he’s quoting something, anything in [brackets] was added by me. Otherwise, this should be extremely accurate.]
[Cardinal Burke’s response to question 18]:
The death penalty. I responded to this a little bit yesterday in the “Truths.” I understand that Pope Francis has changed the Catechism teaching on the death penalty. This is not clear and I don’t say this to try to– But I’ll explain explain this to you now: you should teach what’s in the Catechism.
Number two, is the change now official teaching? No. And I’ll explain this to you in a minute. The church had already promulgated an opinion on the death penalty in favor of it with certain conditions in the Catechism. If the Catechism can be changed by him in this way, where does that leave the infallible teaching of the Church before? That’s the whole point.
The Pope doesn’t change the teaching of the Church, by his personal opinion. And then we’ll get this– this question is actually quite well formulated. The basic question is where does this leave a person who wants to teach the truth? You teach what’s in the Catechism and you simply, if someone asks you about about it, I’ll tell you how to respond. This involves four questions in Fr. Hardon’s courses. And I’ve gone over those. Those are found in the basic and advanced courses, 7-31, then 7-32, these questions. And then so if you go in the– you’ll find those in Fr. Hardon’s course.
Now, here’s the new text proposed by Pope Francis for the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority following a fair trial was long considered” — The word should be “always” considered — “an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.”
“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost, even after the commission of very serious crimes.” — and that was never denied by the teaching on capital punishment — with it — It never said that the person no longer had human dignity —
“In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.” – And no one has been able to tell me what that is. [Audience laughter.] – “Lastly, more effective systems of detention,” – this is the reasoning behind this supposed change. — “Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.” — Well, capital punishment never denied any guilty person redemption, the church never assumed that capital punishment was equivalent to eternal damnation. So this is all quite confused. — “Consequently, the Church teaches in the light of the gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible.” — This is simply not any language; this doesn’t have any doctrinal import to it. What does it mean to say something isn’t admissible? That is a relative term, either say it’s intrinsically evil, or it’s good. — “Because it is an attack on the inviolability indignity of the person.” — And it’s not. And what’s the citation? What’s the doctrinal citation? A speech of the pope on October 11 2017. [Audience laughter.] My point is this, with all due respect, and I’m not trying to be disrespectful in any way:
This is an opinion of Pope Francis as a man.
That he – this is not – as pope, he is obliged to his faith – as a teacher of the faith to uphold and to safeguard the constant teaching of the Church. He has this personal opinion about, about capital punishment, but this does not suffice, to change something in the church is always held, and taught.
And so I think I wouldn’t get into discussions with people about it, and so forth, because they might misunderstand you and think you don’t respect the office of the pope.
We have a situation today, I talked about this with you last year, we just haven’t had this before — of a pope who speaks a lot in the first person. In other words, the bulk – in the Middle Ages, they talked about the “two bodies” of the pope: of the body of the man who was the pope, in this case, Jorge Bergoglio, an Argentinian man who has become – and then the Vicar of Christ on Earth. And the Vicar of Christ on earth – the normal – because normal people, everyday people, when the pope speaks, they think he’s speaking as the Vicar of Christ on Earth. And for that reason, in the past, the Pope spoke very seldom, and they always avoided expressing their personal opinions.
Once in a while, a pope would express his personal opinion about something and generally caused a lot of confusion and turmoil. And so, but Pope Francis does this a lot, but you can’t – this, this kind of argumentation that’s given in this text – it simply won’t do it.
It doesn’t show us that the Church’s teaching has changed. And so, myself and the other — Cardinal Pujats and the other bishops who signed the “Declaration” made it very clear that the church has not erred in her teaching in this matter.
[Audience member asks a question that sounds like, “What about the actual printing of this in the new Catechism?”]
There’s nothing as far as I know — the bishops of the United States approved something for the Adult Catechism for the United States I think, or something of that nature, which doesn’t — I mean, certainly, it’s an important document, and so forth.
But I — what we have to be attentive to now: recently, there was an article in America magazine [Note: Link here], which wouldn’t be famous for its orthodoxy. [Audience laughter.] But — by a certain Archbishop Fisichella, who says that he — and he is the president of the Pontifical Council for [Promoting the] New Evangelization — he’s heading up a rewriting of the Catechism, we have to be very attentive to that.
But what I would advise you to do is to buy a copy of the Catechism as it is now and keep it in a safe place. [Audience laughter.] This is going to be the point of reference.
I really — I can’t imagine what this other [inaudible] to be. And it’s all with this confused notion about the development of doctrine.
 Cardinal Burke does not mention the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs – in bold below — of the 1997 formulation of the Catechism’s teaching on the Death Penalty, nor does the worksheet provided by the Marian Catechists. (source: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm)
2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.