Yes, this is a serious question, and I don’t ask it lightly.
Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke just stated his love for and fidelity to Pope Francis—so how can one even suggest he thinks Francis is a false pope?
I am not engaging in idle speculation, neither do I intend an attack on Cardinal Burke. But the evidence strongly suggests that Cardinal Burke strongly doubts the legitimacy of Francis’s papacy. Indeed, my sincere hope and prayer is that I am wrong, and that the cardinal will clarify the situation by publicly affirming his loyalty to Pope Francis and stating his religious submission of intellect and will to the magisterial teachings of the Holy Father.
Sadly, such a clarification seems unlikely in light of Burke’s most recent public statement, written with Kazakhstan Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider and released today in the National Catholic Register.
First, some background.
Since early in this papacy, Cardinal Burke has made several alarming and deeply concerning public statements about Pope Francis’s teachings and the office of the papacy. In late 2014, Religion News Service reported on an interview that the cardinal gave to a Spanish news outlet. He said, in a clear allusion to Pope Francis,
Many have expressed their concerns to me. At this very critical moment, there is a strong sense that the church is like a ship without a rudder … Now, it is more important than ever to examine our faith, have a healthy spiritual leader and give powerful witness to the faith.
In 2015, months prior to the second Synod on the Family, and more than a year before Amoris Laetitia was promulgated, Burke granted an interview to a French outlet. He made a few statements that gave no deference to the pope on matters of faith and morals. The English translation of the interview provides the following exchange:
-[Interviewer:] In a somewhat provocative way, can we say that the true guardian of doctrine is you, and not pope Francis?
-[Burke, in Italian:] [Smiles, shakes his head] We must, let us leave aside the matter of the Pope. In our faith, it is the truth of doctrine that guides us.
-[Interviewer:] If Pope Francis insists on this path, what will you do?
-[Burke, in Italian:] I will resist. I cannot do anything else. There is no doubt that this is a difficult time, this is clear, this is clear.
In this interview, Cardinal Burke foreshadowed his future resistance to Pope Francis and his Magisterial teachings, a resistance that has led to the deception of many committed, sincere Catholics who are now convinced Pope Francis is a heretic who is destroying the Church.
Catholic author Stephen Walford addressed this problem directly in a June 2017 open letter to the four dubia Cardinals, including Burke:
You may or may not be aware that there is a growing section of traditionalists and even some conservative Catholics who see you as the standard bearers for the rejection of this papacy. I know from experience that some of it is deeply troubling. The abuse from many, including those who run websites and Traditionalist blogs aimed at the Holy Father and those who are loyal to him, is nothing short of satanic. You are their role models and that is an intolerable situation.
In the two years since, Cardinal Burke’s words have continued to lead many Catholics to resist Pope Francis and have struck a blow to the unity of the Church. Burke’s name is cited frequently as a role model and inspiration to numerous American Catholic media figures, including EWTN host Raymond Arroyo, writers Taylor Marshall and Eric Sammons, and Catholic Answers apologist Steve Ray. He’s traveled the world and spoken out against the teachings of the pope, while couching his criticism in language like “clarification” and “I mean no disrespect.”
On at least five occasions, Cardinal Burke has rejected the magisterial nature of official papal teaching (in one case, pre-emptively dismissing a hypothetical official teaching of the Magisterium):
- Cardinal Burke has rejected the official teaching of Pope Francis in the new Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis Communio concerning the possibility that a pope can raise the final synodal document to the level of ordinary magisterium, if the pope chooses. (We covered the Episcopalis Communio here.)
The whole apostolic constitution on the Synod is problematic. … This idea that either the Pope on his own or the Synod together with the Pope can create some new Magisterium [i.e. a new teaching of the ordinary Magisterium], is simply false.
The Synod is a consultative body, to help the Pope to see how best to present the Church’s teaching in time. It’s not able to create ordinary Magisterium.
As a canon lawyer, Cardinal Burke must certainly be aware that an apostolic constitution is necessarily official magisterial teaching; in fact, it has the highest level of legal authority of any document issued by the Holy See. For Cardinal Burke to dismiss an apostolic constitution’s teaching as “false” is therefore astonishing.
- In late 2013, Cardinal Burke openly denied the magisterial status of Francis’s first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. He said in an interview (link to full episode here),
I would have to have the text in front of me, but it seems to me that the Holy Father made a very clear statement at the beginning that these are a number of reflections that he’s making, that he doesn’t intend them to be part of the papal magisterium.
- Cardinal Burke has rejected the Magisterial nature of Amoris Laetitia in its entirety.
The only key to the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is the constant teaching of the Church and her discipline that safeguards and fosters this teaching. Pope Francis makes clear, from the beginning, that the post-synodal apostolic exhortation is not an act of the magisterium.
He has asserted this more than once.
The Holy Father says himself – in the document – that he’s not presenting the Magisterium – it’s a kind of reflection.
Over the course of the Exhortation, current and concrete problems are dealt with: the family in today’s world, the education of children, marriage preparation, families in difficulty, and so on; these are treated with a hermeneutic that comes from the whole document which is the magisterial hermeneutic of the Church, always in continuity (without ruptures), yet always maturing.
- Cardinal Burke has rejected the Magisterial nature of the guidelines of the Buenos Aires bishops on Amoris Laetitia, which were explicitly promulgated as authentic Magisterium by Pope Francis. He recently reaffirmed this rejection in his August 2019 interview with Patrick Coffin. In January 2017 (albeit prior to Francis’s magisterial promulgation of the guidelines being made public) he told the Remnant:
What he wrote in that letter simply means that this is his personal understanding of the matter. But that letter hardly could be considered an exercise of the papal magisterium. And so, it’s a painful situation in which to be involved but we simply have to press forward to clarify the matter.
- Cardinal Burke has rejected Francis’s teaching on the death penalty as “personal opinion.” I have already written a detailed account of this rejection, including audio and transcripts from an event where the cardinal told catechists that Francis’s revision to the Catechism on the death penalty had no authority that they should not teach it.
While each of these contradictions between Cardinal Burke and the Magisterial teachings of the Church is troubling, what separates Cardinal Burke from an ordinary Catholic who dissents from one or more magisterial teachings is Burke’s insistence that he is the one teaching the authentic Catholic teaching. He continually shows no deference to Pope Francis’s teaching authority or the ordinary Magisterium. In fact, he seems to reject the notion that Francis’s official teachings are magisterial at all.
Why does Cardinal Burke seem to reject everything that Francis officially promulgates as magisterial teaching? Why doesn’t he show any deference to the possibility that Francis, as the Vicar of Christ, might know a thing or two about the Magisterium? Why does Cardinal Burke appear to suggest that nothing that Pope Francis has officially taught to the Church in his role as Supreme Pontiff binds the faithful to religious submission of intellect and will?
Is it possible that Cardinal Burke doubts the validity of the papacy of Pope Francis?
Although I’ve had suspicions about what Cardinal Burke believes about Francis’s papacy since late 2016, I didn’t think it was proper to raise the issue publicly until recently. This changed when Cardinal Burke participated in an open discussion about Francis’s legitimacy in a podcast interview with former Catholic Answers Live radio host Patrick Coffin, he crossed a dangerous line that could potentially lead the faithful into error and confusion. See Scott Eric Alt’s piece summarizing key parts of the interview and providing a partial transcript.
On Where Peter Is, we’ve spoken in the past about sedevacantists — traditionalists who believe that every pope following Pius XII (from 1958-present) was a heretic and thus an antipope. They reject the second Vatican Council as well. Today, there is a new breed of Catholics who recognize the legitimacy of the popes through Benedict XVI but reject Pope Francis.
There are three basic schools of thought on this phenomenon, the first of which has been nicknamed “Benevacantism.” The first two theories were openly discussed by Burke and Coffin (and summarized by Alt in his post), the third was only hinted at. The three theories are:
- Pope Benedict’s resignation was invalid; he is still pope. (Advocates: Bp. Rene Gracida, Antonio Socci, Msgr. Nicola Bux.)
- The conclave that elected Pope Francis was invalid or corrupt, thus voiding the election of Pope Francis. (Advocates: While I am not aware of any prominent figures who have announced explicitly that they believe Francis is not pope based on an invalid conclave, those advancing the possibility include Church Militant and Roberto de Mattei.)
- The resignation of Pope Benedict was valid, as was the election of Pope Francis. But sometime after his election, Pope Francis officially promulgated heresy from the See of Peter, and thereby abdicated his office automatically. (Proponents: the signatories of the Open Letter to the College of Bishops, including Fr. Aidan Nichols, Peter Kwasniewski, Fr. John Hunwicke, and John Rist.)
During his interview with Coffin, Burke makes clear that that he rejects theory 1 (“That simply won’t float,” he says). With theory 2, he’s certainly amenable to the idea, but rules it out for the present (“I don’t think I have at hand the facts”).
The third argument, however, seems to be what Burke is banking on. He and Coffin discuss Amoris Laetitia chapter 8 at length (beginning around the 43-minute mark). Coffin and Burke go back and forth about the dubia, as well as the magisterial status of the Amoris Laetitia Guidelines of the Bishops of the Buenos Aires region (see above). Burke once again asserts that they are not magisterial.
Patrick Coffin presses Burke on this point, however. Coffin asks him (“hypothetically”) that if the pope absolutely confirms the revision to sacramental discipline that is contained in the guidelines, would it “rise to the level of heresy”?
Cardinal Burke’s answer? Yes.
In other words–unless Pope Francis has always intended Amoris Laetitia to be interpreted in line with Cardinal Burke’s view all along–Cardinal Burke believes Pope Francis has formally professed heresy.
Now, there has been a great deal of speculation in the past over whether it was possible for a Catholic Pope to formally teach heresy, as well as what to do in the unfortunate event that he did. St. Robert Bellarmine offered a few speculative theories on the question, but ultimately concluded that such a thing was extremely improbable (I agree with his theory). One of his other theories, however, has been embraced by both sedevacantists and the signatories of the open letter earlier this year. Another proponent of the theory is Cardinal Burke himself.
In a December 2016 interview with Catholic World Report, Burke was asked what might lead to the abdication of a pope:
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?
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.
The clear implication here, as well as the explanation for Cardinal Burke’s rejection of virtually everything that Pope Francis has formally taught, is that he thinks Francis hasn’t taught anything magisterial because he doesn’t believe Francis is pope.
Interestingly, it seems that Burke may believe that this has happened in the past. In an obscure 3-part interview with The Wanderer, Cardinal Burke made the shocking assertion that Pope Honorius had been a heretic, and had been deposed:
The Popes are all to proclaim and be obedient to the one true Catholic Faith. If not, they have been deposed, as in the case of Pope Honorius. So then, this is simply not possible.
This is an astounding and ahistorical claim. Many traditionalists cite the case of Honorius (and the condemnations after his death) as proof that a pope can be a heretic. Many sedevacantists and mainstream Catholics argue that Honorius wasn’t a heretic, but simply failed to uphold the faith against the Pelagian heresy. None, to my knowledge, have argued that Honorius was deposed (or was automatically deposed). A few sedevacantist blogs picked up on Burke’s statement after I tweeted about it, but when I first read the interview, I searched for any other sources who claimed Honorius was deposed and came up empty.
Which brings us to today.
Since the publication of the Coffin interview, I have raised the question of whether Cardinal Burke truly believes that Francis is the pope, both on Twitter and in the comments on Where Peter Is (here and here).
I sent a message to Cardinal Burke himself in late August, asking him for clarification on both this issue and on his rejection of the magisterial nature of Pope Francis’s teaching on the death penalty. In my message, I told him (or whoever reads his messages) to let me know if they needed more time to prepare a response. I later reached out to his spokeswoman twice via Twitter. I have never received a response from Burke or his staff.
When I posted my piece on September 3 about Cardinal Burke’s statements in opposition to the Magisterium on the death penalty, we received the two heaviest-trafficked days in the history of this website. Notable about our website analytics was the influx of traffic from Italy and Vatican City. Clearly this caught someone’s attention.
To those who thought our report on Cardinal Burke’s open dissent from the ordinary Magisterium was noteworthy, the question of whether he upholds the validity of Francis’s election is a much more important issue. A dissident cardinal is one thing, but a cardinal who doubts the legitimacy of the pope indicates a crisis and a grave scandal.
What does this mean, going forward?
I don’t know Cardinal Burke, and I can only speculate about what’s in his heart and what he plans to do.
His plans might be hindered by two things:
- He might be holding out hope that Francis is not actually teaching what he’s teaching. He could be piling all his desires on the hope that Pope Francis really did promulgate his teaching on the death penalty as mere personal opinion, for example. It’s not terribly common for a pope to issue a teaching through official channels, with the words “the Church teaches,” along with a document from the CDF explaining the teaching as “an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium,” and mandating its translation and insertion into every edition of the universal Catechism, but I suppose Cardinal Burke may look at things differently. In other words, he holds on to the flimsy possibility that Francis’s teachings align with his own beliefs, and it’s all been a big misunderstanding.
- Lack of support. Many have noted the relatively small number of prominent clerics and theologians who have openly supported Cardinal Burke’s crusade against Francis’s papacy. Two of the four dubia cardinals have died, and they don’t seem to have many substitutes willing to step into their shoes. Sure, Burke will get a little support from Cardinal Ejik here, some from Cardinal Muller there. Notably, none have signed on to his most provocative public manifestos, however. This, I think, is the main reason his eminence hasn’t issued his long-awaited “Formal Act of Correction.”
After all, going it alone will likely mean the end of his tenure as a cardinal, and risks the possibility of formal excommunication.
That said, if he does plan to do something about it, taking a cue from the “Open Letter,” the next step would be for the “bishops of the world” (or more likely, Cardinal Burke and the 4-6 bishops who have already supported some of these initiatives) to admonish Pope Francis and order him to retract and/or clarify his teachings. Perhaps that’s what today’s document was meant to do.
After Pope Francis ignores this admonition (which he will), the letter implores the “bishops of the world” to officially declare Francis to have deposed himself as pope. They would then call for a new conclave (of one?).
Is this the way it will play out? I don’t know. One imagines that if Cardinal Burke is unable to enlist a significant amount of support, attempting to do this would be quite quixotic.
Regardless of what actions he ultimately takes, it appears that Cardinal Burke has doubts that Francis is currently the valid pope.
While I pray I am wrong, the evidence is too overwhelming to ignore.
Cardinal Burke, here is my plea:
I am concerned, your Eminence, that you are leading many of the faithful to entertain the hypothesis that Francis is not a true pope, and I suspect, based on your statements, that you unfortunately appear to believe this privately yourself.
I pray that I am mistaken on this matter. But the signs are there, and I can’t ignore them. I therefore ask that you please make a public statement affirming your loyalty and obedience to Pope Francis, and stating in no uncertain terms that you (1) do not harbor any doubts about the validity of his papacy, and (2) accept and affirm that which Pope Francis has proposed magisterially, even when not defining it infallibly, in accordance with the Professio Fidei and Lumen Gentium 25.
Your Eminence, the unity of the Church depends on your making such an affirmation, as well as your own personal integrity and perhaps the very salvation of your soul.
The original version of the story included the following text:
Later in the story, he is quoted giving a very strange statement regarding his own role in the teaching of doctrine:
I would like to be a master of the faith, with all my weaknesses, telling a truth that many currently perceive.
This is a particularly odd thing to say, given that the Church teaches that not even the pope is the “master of the faith”; rather, he is its servant. Yet here is a cardinal who is apparently aspiring to be just that.
I also refer to this parenthetically later in this essay:
(does he see himself as “master” of Truth?)
Theologian Robert Fastiggi commented that the word “master” may have been translated incorrectly in the RNS piece. The original Spanish interview (link) uses the word “maestro” which can be translated to either “master” or “teacher.”
I have removed this passage. That said, it is immaterial to my argument.
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.