On Tuesday, September 24, Edward Pentin’s blog at the National Catholic Register published a joint statement written by Cardinal Raymond Burke and his close ally in the episcopate, Athanasius Schneider, the Auxiliary Bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan. The statement insisted on the two men’s fidelity to the Petrine office and love for the person of Pope Francis. (Mike Lewis touched on the document last week in WPI.) Their statement also makes a number of false claims–or at least claims that sorely need clarification–about both the nature of the Church’s trajectory under Pope Francis and the nature of the pushback against Burke and Schneider’s actions by Catholics who disagree with them. In this piece, I will respond to three significant problematic assertions in their statement.
The first claim that I will address is Burke and Schneider’s classification of the Abu Dhabi document as “a relativization of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.” Burke and Schneider claim that the joint statement released some months ago by Pope Francis and prominent Sunni Muslim cleric Ahmed el-Tayeb “says that God wants in his wisdom equally the diversity of sexes, nations and religions (among which there are religions which practice idolatry and blaspheme Jesus Christ).” They further claim that this constitutes “a relativization of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and of his redemptive work.” Both assertions are dubious, for numerous reasons.
First, you might recall that Bishop Schneider claimed in March that, when he and the other Kazakhstani bishops met with Pope Francis during their ad limina visit, he obtained a clarification that when Francis said that God wills a diversity of religions, he was referencing God’s “permissive” will. Schneider claimed at the time that Pope Francis had confirmed to him that the statement in the Joint Declaration should be interpreted to mean that God allows a diversity of religions to exist through this permissive will. LifeSiteNews, typically no friend to Pope Francis, published the exclusive story. Either Bishop Schneider was mistaken about what Pope Francis told him at the time, or Burke and Schneider are mistaken about what the document means now.
Secondly, the notion of God willing the existence of more than one religion doesn’t relativize the truth of Christianity (or, when looking at it from el-Tayeb’s perspective, Islam). The Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae declared that humanity should be free from political coercion in matters of religion because “all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth” (§2). I’ve argued before for WPI that the existence of a moral obligation to seek religious truth without being coerced implies the existence of a right to progress through various stages of incorrect belief before arriving at Catholic orthodoxy. (For additional perspective from WPI on the Joint Declaration and the diversity of religions, refer to the posts by Pedro Gabriel and Adam Rasmussen on the topic.)
Moreover, Nostra Aetate declared that the Church “regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men” (§2; note that the document isn’t even talking about the Abrahamic monotheisms yet at this stage). Would the Church “regard with sincere reverence” something that God does not will? I suppose Burke and Schneider are free to dispute this since Pope St. John XXIII instructed the Council not to define any of its decisions infallibly, but if so, they should be candid and say that their problem is with Vatican II rather than with Pope Francis.
My second significant concern with the statement is that Cardinal Burke and Bishop Schneider appear to imply that the ordination of married men to the priesthood is a “doctrinal error.”
Burke and Schneider have been vocal about what they see as serious problems with the working document for the upcoming Amazon Synod, which they believe to contain unacceptable concessions to various forms of indigenous paganism. The working document didn’t throw up any obvious indifferentist red flags when I read it. Admittedly, it leans very heavily in favor of inculturation of the faith, which is always (and for good reasons) a controversial topic, but that’s another debate for another time. What caught my attention was this heavily loaded sentence:
We, as brothers in the College of Bishops, speak with respect and love, so that the Holy Father may unequivocally reject the evident doctrinal errors of the Instrumentum Laboris for the coming Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon and not consent to the practical abolition of priestly celibacy in the Latin Church through the approval of the ordination of so-called “viri probati.”
It’s not clear from the statement what Burke and Schneider mean when they use the word “and.” If they simply meant to link two separate clauses, then it can be interpreted in a relatively uncontroversial way: they want Pope Francis to reject the doctrinal errors in the working document, and they also want him to uphold priestly celibacy in the Latin Rite. This is a reasonable pair of requests even if one might disagree with them. Unfortunately, the sentence can also be easily interpreted to mean that they are calling on Pope Francis to reject the doctrinal errors in the working document by upholding priestly celibacy.
The statement doesn’t clearly state, and seems almost to deliberately avoid stating, that priestly celibacy is a matter of discipline, not doctrine. From the way this statement treats the subject, the faithful might be led to think incorrectly that priestly celibacy in the Latin Rite is a matter of doctrine. I have a hard time imagining that Burke and Schneider did this unintentionally. Surely, even if they were at one time unaware both that priestly celibacy wasn’t imposed in the Latin Rite until around the turn of the second millennium and that the Eastern Catholic Churches don’t mandate celibacy for parish priests, somebody would have told them by now, considering that they’ve been weighing in on this subject for the better part of a year? Bishop Schneider has described priestly celibacy as an “apostolic inheritance,” so it may be the case that he, at least, does believe for some reason that priestly celibacy is a doctrine. Aside from the Eastern Churches, is he also unaware of the existence of the Personal Ordinariates, through which hundreds of married former Anglican ministers have been ordained Catholic priests in the Latin Rite? Either Schneider is grossly misinformed about the way the Church as a worldwide body is structured, or he’s suggesting on some lever that he believes the Eastern Catholic churches and the Personal Ordinariates aren’t really Catholic. As a member of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter myself, I can’t say either possibility inspires confidence. For bishops who regularly insist on the need for “clarity,” Burke and Schneider are certainly ambiguous on this topic.
The final error in the statement by Cardinal Burke and Bishop Schneider that I will address is their dismissal of the counterarguments to their claims as “only sentimental arguments or arguments from power.”
A paragraph after lamenting that there is “no more possibility of an honest intellectual and theological debate” in today’s Catholic Church, Burke and Schneider claim that “those who criticize our expressions of concern employ substantially only sentimental arguments or arguments from power.” It is true that many arguments against Burke and Schneider’s “expressions of concern” naturally involve arguments from authority, since Burke and Schneider often challenge papal primacy and the Magisterial and doctrinal authority of the Church’s leadership.
I’d like to set this aside for the moment, though, since the entire document seems to be based on the premise that the Pope’s authority over the Church is much more limited than most Catholics believe. This is an interesting claim and it deserves to be treated at more length than I’m able to do right now; fortunately, it has been addressed at length on this site (for example, here and here). Instead, I’d like to focus on this word “sentimental.”
Pope Benedict once spoke about sentimentalism in contrast to embracing truth and faith:
“Returning to the sources of faith, to prayer, does not mean taking refuge in a vague religious sentimentalism, but rather pausing to contemplate the face of Christ, an indispensable condition for being able to reflect it later in life.”
Suggesting that the arguments used against them are “sentimentalism,” governed by feelings or emotions, is a serious accusation that ignores the many serious theological arguments against their positions. I suspect Burke and Schneider know this. Since this claim uses the word “only,” it is easy to refute it by pointing to one or two examples of arguments against Burke and Schneider that aren’t “sentimental.” Serious Catholic authors such as Stephen Walford and clergymen like Cardinal Ouellet have provided detailed and rigorous theological defenses of Francis’s teachings in Amoris Laetitia. Cardinal Ladaria, acting as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a substantive document explaining the development of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty. These are neither sentimental nor arguments from authority, but theological efforts that refute the substance of the arguments made by Burke and Schneider. Yet Burke and Schneider don’t address them and claim that their arguments have received no response.
Nevertheless, many critics of Burke and Schneider do content themselves with appeals to authority; many do use emotionally loaded language to attack them. The “sentimental arguments” line isn’t so much falsehood as whataboutery. Here is Burke publicly wondering whether Pope Francis’s refusal to answer the notorious dubia contributed to the death of fellow Cardinal Carlo Caffarra. Unlike Burke, I think sentiment can have a place in contexts like this; if Burke and Caffarra were personally close, then Burke has every right to speculate on a friend’s emotional state in his last days, and even to build a theological or political point upon it if he has reason to think that Caffarra would have appreciated it. However, I can’t avoid the conclusion that when Burke and Schneider describe their critics as “sentimental” they are speaking of much less obviously emotive and touchy-feely observations than this one.
Schneider, as an auxiliary bishop in a majority-Muslim country, has flown under the radar in comparison to Cardinal Burke. This has perhaps allowed him to get away with many more troubling statements (Burke seems to be well-exercised in the virtue of prudence, whatever else can be said about him). For example, here is an excerpt from a LifeSiteNews recap of an interview with Schneider in the right-leaning Italian newspaper Il Giornale:
“The phenomenon of so-called ‘immigration’ represents an orchestrated and long-prepared plan by international powers to radically change the Christian and national identities of the European peoples.”
The Church, he said, was being exploited.
“These powers use the Church’s enormous moral potential and her structures to more effectively achieve their anti-Christian and anti-European goal,” he stated.
“To this end they are abusing the true concept of humanism and even the Christian commandment of charity. “
Asked to comment on Italy’s new and very outspokenly Euro-skeptic Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, the bishop said that he did not know Italy’s political situation well, but that he applauded any European government’s attempt to emphasize their nation’s sovereignty and “historical, cultural, and Christian identity” against “a kind of new Soviet Union” with “an unmistakably Masonic ideology”: the European Union.
It’s difficult for me to know where to begin an attempt to establish that this kind of language constitutes emotion-driven scaremongering (I’d say hatemongering too, but I’m willing to accept that that’s more arguable). Instead I’ll provide this link to Exsul familia Nazarethana, Pope Pius XII’s 1954 apostolic constitution, which establishes the existence of a human right to immigrate and even situates this right in Pius XII’s previous teachings. I leave it up to the reader to decide whether he or she thinks Pope Pius or Bishop Schneider is being more “sentimental” about this topic.
I don’t want to conclude that Burke and Schneider are consciously lying and spreading falsehoods. It’s become increasingly obvious that they long ago fell prey to an array of cognitive biases and probably some degree of moral self-licensing, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in the habit of laying out deliberate untruths. However, Winston Churchill’s famous phrase “terminological inexactitude”–itself a euphemism and an evasion, albeit a fluent one–strikes me as an ever-more-apt description of their recent claims and assertions. In that context, this latest statement represents a new low.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.