Douthat: Isn’t that a deep contradiction of how Catholics think about the office of the papacy?
Burke: Of course. Exactly. It’s a total contradiction. And I pray that this wouldn’t happen. And to be honest with you, I don’t know how to address such a situation. As far as I can see, there’s no mechanism in the universal law of the church to deal with such a situation.
“Cardinal Burke: ‘I’m Called the Enemy of the Pope, Which I Am Not’”
Interview with columnist Ross Douthat
New York Times
Critics of Pope Francis often regard those who accept and defend his official teachings as modernist or non-traditional. Their focus is on the content and substance of the teachings, interpreted through the lens of what they call “the constant teaching of the Church.” The deficiency in this approach is that they completely ignore (or outright dismiss) the traditional doctrinal, canonical, and ecclesial structures whereby Church teaching is promulgated, preserved, and protected.
Even those who took these structures for granted during prior papacies–Catholics who fully accept the developments and novel approaches introduced by Francis’s immediate predecessors–view Francis’s official magisterium with suspicion and scorn. Theologians and bishops (not to mention online pundits and Catholic media commentators) who once respected papal primacy according the the Profession of Faith now openly criticize and reject the teachings promulgated by the Holy See. This has had a profoundly harmful effect on the faithful and is causing serious damage to the Church.
Unfortunately for those who have adopted this position, Catholic teaching on the papacy didn’t change spontaneously upon Francis’s election. The Church’s teaching on the papacy didn’t go from “assent to his official teachings” one day to “reject his official teachings” the next. One concise (and accurate) way to explain the position of Where Peter Is on the papacy is:
We apply traditional Catholic teaching on papal primacy to Pope Francis.
More specifically, we believe what the Church officially teaches about the papacy, in light of Scripture and Tradition, and especially as it has been understood and taught since the First Vatican Council in 1870. I have personally done extensive research on what the Magisterium has had to say about the pope’s role in promulgating teaching and discipline and resolving doctrinal disputes, as well as the responsibility of the faithful in response to his teaching.
Virtually every pope since the reign of Pius IX (1846-1878) has contributed extensively to the Church’s understanding of the authority and role of the papacy.
“Wherefore it belongs to the Pope to judge authoritatively what things the sacred oracles contain, as well as what doctrines are in harmony, and what in disagreement, with them; and also, for the same reason, to show forth what things are to be accepted as right, and what to be rejected as worthless; what it is necessary to do and what to avoid doing, in order to attain eternal salvation. For, otherwise, there would be no sure interpreter of the commands of God, nor would there be any safe guide showing man the way he should live.”
“When we love the Pope, there are no discussions regarding what he orders or demands, or up to what point obedience must go, and in what things he is to be obeyed; when we love the Pope, we do not say that he has not spoken clearly enough … we do not limit the field in which he might and must exercise his authority; we do not set above the authority of the Pope that of other persons, however learned, who dissent from the Pope, who, even though learned, are not holy, because whoever is holy cannot dissent from the Pope.”
I could go on with hundreds of these quotes–not to mention the full documents in which they appear–and I’m sure there’s an extensive list somewhere. (Stephen Walford provides more supporting citations here.) This website is bursting with references to many of these authoritative Church teachings.
When challenged to produce a single magisterial teaching since Vatican I that even speculates that it might at some point become necessary for the faithful to resist the official teachings of a pope, the best papal critics can come up with is a fake quote from Pius IX. Alternatively, they concede that we are in a situation that’s completely unprecedented in the entire history of the Church. If they make that concession, they are basically admitting that the Church doesn’t provide the faithful with any guidance on how to act in such circumstances, and that they are really making it up as they go along.
Unfortunately, somehow many Catholics have made up their minds that Pope Francis is a heretic without ever considering whether it’s even possible. And even if it is possible, the Magisterium makes extremely clear that when the pope promulgates a teaching (even non-definitively), the faithful are to submit.
And this brings us back to Cardinal Raymond L. Burke’s interview with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, published November 9, 2019. About halfway through the interview, Douthat asks Burke for his critique of how Pope Francis is handling his office. The cardinal says in his response, “There’s a breakdown of the central teaching authority of the Roman pontiff. The successor of St. Peter exercises an essential office of teaching and discipline, and Pope Francis, in many respects, has refused to exercise that office.”
This statement is ironic on many levels. For one thing, Cardinal Burke has publicly rejected the magisterial nature of no fewer than five official teachings or documents of the Holy See, promulgated by the pope. Additionally, if anyone is benefiting from Francis’s refusal to exercise his authority on matters of discipline, it’s Cardinal Burke. It is evident to most observers that at this point, Burke has very little regard for the clearly-defined doctrinal authority of the pope. You may recall that back in September, I asked whether Burke even believes Francis is a valid pope, because it’s unclear that he’s ever affirmed or expressed approval of a single teaching Francis has put forth.
Historically, high-ranking churchmen who are this open about their dissent have faced canonical sanctions or punishments. Yet Cardinal Burke has retained his red hat, has traveled around the world as a speaker, and has granted many interviews and media appearances. On Pope Francis, he told Douthat, “he’s never reprimanded me or accused me of having inimical thoughts or attitudes toward him.”
It’s impossible to deny that the message he promotes is often directly contrary to that of the papal magisterium, and that he has helped fuel the opposition movement against Pope Francis. He was the closing speaker at a conference in Rome featuring open papal detractors including John-Henry Westen, Roberto de Mattei, Taylor Marshall, Michael Matt, Michael Voris, and Marco Tosatti. These aren’t “esteemed scholars” with “serious concerns” about Francis’s teachings; this is the reactionary, conspiracy-driven fringe of Catholic media. Association with this crowd is a troubling warning sign that Burke’s rejection of Pope Francis’s Magisterium is not simply a matter of debate or disagreement, but an adoption of a worldview that is fundamentally different than that of the pope and the bishops in communion with him.
Additionally, in this exchange, Cardinal Burke makes it clear that he would reject disciplinary action from the pope even if it was imposed on him:
Douthat: If Francis asked you to cease publishing criticisms of him, would you?
Burke: Not if I felt it was a question of the truth. If he said to me, you’re stating lies, you’re attacking the office of the Roman pontiff, then that I would cease. But I don’t. I try not to tell lies. And I’ve never attacked the office.
In an April 2018 address, Cardinal Burke first made such a call for disobedience against the pope:
If, a member of the faithful believes in conscience that a particular exercise of the fullness of power is sinful and cannot bring his conscience to peace in the matter, “the pope must, as a duty, be disobeyed, and the consequences of disobedience be suffered in Christian patience.”
The quote he uses, of course, is not from a magisterial source, but is from a 1963 paper by a canon lawyer named John A Watt.
Finally, the interview quote that begins the piece follows Burke’s assertion that the pope would be in schism if he was to officially promulgate something that Burke believes is contrary to Tradition:
Burke: People say if you don’t accept that, you’ll be in schism — and I maintain that I would not be in schism because the document contains elements that defect from the apostolic tradition. So my point would be the document is schismatic. I’m not.
Douthat: But how can that be possible? You’re effectively implying that the pope would be leading a schism.
For a canon lawyer of Burke’s experience to suggest that the pope could go into schism is absolutely absurd. Canon 751 provides the Church’s definition:
Schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.
While I disagree with Ross Douthat on a number of issues related to Pope Francis–and we have been critical of his book about Pope Francis and his characterization of WPI (here and here)–I have to credit him for pointing out the giant, glaring flaw in Burke’s approach in the column he published in the aftermath of the interview. In the piece, “What Will Happen to Conservative Catholicism,” Douthat recounts Burke’s claim that a pope can go into schism:
Burke himself brought up a hypothetical scenario where Francis endorses a document that includes what the cardinal considers heresy. “People say if you don’t accept that, you’ll be in schism,” Burke said, when “my point would be the document is schismatic. I’m not.”
But this implies that, in effect, the pope could lead a schism, even though schism by definition involves breaking with the pope.
Douthat then goes on to identify the weakness (or fatal flaw) with this line of thinking, which he later describes as “Burke’s tenuous position”:
You need only take a step beyond Burke’s position to end up as a kind of de facto sedevacantist, a believer that the pope is not really the pope — or, alternatively, that the church is so corrupted and compromised by modernity that the pope might technically still be pope but his authority doesn’t matter anymore.
Douthat later discusses what he calls “a conservatism of structure” as a potential solution to the crisis of conservative Catholicism, a view that he correlates with our website. While I disagree with his statement that we believe the pope rules by “fiat,” I don’t mind this description. You might have noted that I use the word “structures” in the opening sentences of this piece.
I believe that this approach to both the papacy and receptivity to the teaching authority of the Magisterium are necessary for the flourishing of the Church. We can’t abandon everything we know about docility to Church teaching and acceptance of the authority of the hierarchy the first time a pope comes along and challenges what we thought we knew. Regardless of how hard it is to accept or how baffling we find this, the pope is visible source of unity in the Church. If he isn’t, nothing is.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.
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 the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.