Yet another conference headlined by American Cardinal Raymond Burke and Kazakhstan Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider was held in Rome on April 7. With the succinct title, Catholic Church: Where are you heading? Only a blind man can deny that there is great confusion in the Church, the presenters spoke on topics related to the limits of papal authority and potential courses of action that Catholics might use to try to repair the damage supposedly inflicted on the Church by Pope Francis.

It was covered by a number of news outlets, and the conclusion of the article by John Allen and Claire Giangravé in Crux caught my attention in particular. Referring to the address given by Bishop Schneider, it said,

“Schneider then invoked a supposed oath that many traditionalist Catholics believe newly elected popes took for centuries, up to Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1963. In the form in which it’s usually cited, its first article is: ‘I vow to change nothing of the received Tradition, and nothing thereof I have found before me guarded by my God-pleasing predecessors, to encroach upon, to alter, or to permit any innovation therein.’

Many Church historians, however, regard the oath as myth, saying there’s no evidence it was ever administered or incorporated into papal coronation ceremonies.

Nevertheless, Schneider said, ‘I think it’s urgent to revive this formula of papal swearing-in in our days,’ triggering another round of strong applause and cries of Bravo! Bravo!

The reference can be found in context in the fourth paragraph of his full address here. You can also read the entire text of the alleged vow, which he prefaces by saying, “The following oath that Popes for more than a millennium have made at the beginning of their apostolic ministry is impressive and extremely timely.” The LifeSiteNews article adds the following, which doesn’t appear in the official text: “It is urgent that this papal oath be reinstituted in our times, Schneider added.”

In my interactions with radical traditionalists and reading of their literature, I have come across claims about this oath many times, and I am also aware of the overwhelming evidence that this oath was never taken by newly elected popes, much less for centuries leading up to 1963. Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara took up a question about the oath in 2012 for Zenit, and citing several sources, including a well-researched Wikipedia article about the same subject, concluded:

“I think that it is safe to affirm that in all probability this oath has never been taken by any pope.

As mentioned in the previous article, this oath is presented by some small groups as evidence in support of the claim that the See of Peter has been vacant for more than 50 years or so depending on which recent pope is not to their liking.

The oath seems to be always presented in an alleged English translation and not the original Latin. At least one traditionalist source honestly admits that it doesn’t know where to find the original text.

The sources I checked to examine the rite of papal coronation, where nary a trace of a coronation oath is to be found, were all earlier than the Second Vatican Council. One was an article from an American review published in 1878.”

Even in the outside chance that the oath actually was used at one time during the papal coronation ceremony, it was still irresponsible of Bishop Schneider to cite it as factual during his address, knowing that its veracity is disputed. One might rightly conclude that despite his great intelligence and academic background, that he is a poor researcher or has difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction.


Another prominent prelate lionized by critics of the Holy Father also recently put forth a specious urban legend as factual in an address to an audience made up primarily of Traditionalists. Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship, in his opening address to Sacra Liturgia Milan, on July 6, 2017, said the following:

Mother Teresa refrained from touching the transubstantiated Body of Christ. Rather, she adored him. She contemplated him silently. She knelt protractedly and prostrated herself before Jesus in the Eucharist. And she received him, like a little child who is humbly nourished by his God.

She was saddened and pained to see Christians receive Holy Communion in their hands. Here are her own words: “Wherever I go in the whole world, the thing that makes me the saddest is watching people receive Communion in the hand.” This comes from a Good Friday homily preached in 1989 by Fr George Rutler in the Church of St Agnes in New York City. When Mother Teresa was asked by Fr Rutler “What do you think is worst problem in the world today?” without pausing a second she gave this same reply. She stated that to her knowledge all of her Sisters receive Holy Communion only on the tongue.

Now, it is indeed possible that Fr. Rutler originally interpreted Mother’s words this way when he preached on Good Friday in 1989. But he has been working for the greater part of the last 28 years to correct this story, at the urgent request of St. Teresa herself. Writing in Crisis in 2016, Rutler recounts the series of events that led to this false story becoming widespread:

She told me once after Mass that the “saddest thing in the world” was to watch people receiving the Blessed Sacrament irreverently. She motioned with her hands but she was speaking of the inward disposition of the soul and not the physical manner of Communion, whether in the hand or on the tongue. I mentioned this in a broadcast talk that was widely interpreted as Mother’s disapproval of Communion in the hand. This distressed her since the bishops had conceded both forms. She always received on the tongue and I have a photograph of me giving her Communion with the late Cardinal Mayer in Rome—he administering the Host and I with the Precious Blood as she often received both species. It may be that Communion on the tongue better avoids profanation especially in urban churches where there are many anonymous people who might abuse the Sacrament. But Mother did not want to be invoked in polemics. No sentimentalist, she ordered me to write a correction for a newspaper that had reported that she opposed Communion in the hand. I told her that I would “pray and then write” to which she replied like a Marine sergeant: “No! We need this right away! I pray! You write!” I transcribe the exclamation points I heard in her voice. I have lost count of the number of times I have explained this, and not a few have ignored and even resented what I wrote at Mother’s behest. I hope this puts the matter to rest. I doubt it will. Well-intentioned people can be their own worst enemies and not all sons and daughters want to hear what their Mother says.

The Mother Teresa Center of San Ysidro, California also refutes this story.

Why, then, did Cardinal Sarah speak about it as if it was true? In this case, as with Bishop Schneider’s statements about the dubious papal coronation oath, I do not believe that Cardinal Sarah was trying to spread a falsehood or to deceive. I assume that both believe the stories are true.

But even if it was an honest mistake, the implications are quite dangerous for the Church. Where are these men receiving their information? These “urban legends” are spread by some of the most extreme and aggressive traditionalist sources, and with an agenda. Repeating these stories is indicative of someone who has uncritically bought into radical traditionalist propaganda, someone who does not check facts, and (dare I say it) someone who has very little respect for the reforms of the Church in the last 60 years.

Indeed, additional signs are present. In February of this year, it was revealed that Cardinal Sarah had written an introduction to a book in which he said, referring to communion in the hand, “The most insidious diabolical attack consists in trying to extinguish faith in the Eucharist, sowing errors and favouring an unsuitable manner of receiving it.” He once again refers to the urban legend, albeit in a slightly modified form:

Mother Teresa refrained from touching the transubstantiated Body of Christ. Instead, she adored him and contemplated him silently, she remained at length on her knees and prostrated herself before Jesus in the Eucharist. Moreover, she received Holy Communion in her mouth, like a little child who has humbly allowed herself to be fed by her God.

The saint was saddened and pained when she saw Christians receiving Holy Communion in their hands. In addition, she said that as far as she knew, all of her sisters received Communion only on the tongue.

Personally, I have received communion on the tongue since childhood, but if the Church permits two forms of reception, that is to be respected. Certainly the prefect of the CDW should not refer to one of the approved forms in the context of “the most insidious diabolical attack.” Regardless of the history of how communion in the hand was allowed, it was approved by the highest authority in the Church and should never be condemned in such a way. To use a story that has been refuted by both the primary and secondary sources to promote one’s views is (at the very least) irresponsible, but will also lead to the further dissemination of a false story.


Perhaps no prelate active in the Church has aligned himself with as many conspiracy theories, pseudo-histories, and urban legends as Cardinal Raymond Burke. While he’s relayed a number of false stories regarding the history and the authority of the papacy (some that I may explore in a future piece), he seems to have a particular focus on conspiracy theories surrounding the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima.

As many of my readers know, the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to three poor children in Portugal in 1917 are approved private revelations in the Catholic Church. Next month, my colleague Pedro Gabriel, a native of Portugal, will share his own reflections on this apparition and devotion, and his writing will be consistent with what has been approved and sanctioned by Church authorities.

Unfortunately, this authentic and official apparition has been hijacked and distorted by conspiracy theorists, many of whom are radical traditionalists. The most prominent leader in what became a movement was the late Fr. Nicholas Gruner, a suspended priest originally from Canada who ran the Fatima Center in New Jersey. He and his followers campaigned for the Consecration of Russia to the the Immaculate Heart of Mary by the pope (as requested by Mary in one of the apparitions), as well as for the revelation of the contents of the so-called “Third Secret” of Fatima.

The Church’s position is that the consecration was successfully carried out in 1984 and the contents of the third secret were revealed in 2000 by St John Paul II. Yet even after these actions were carried out by the pope and affirmed by Sr. Lucia (the lone surviving Fatima visionary), Gruner and his followers refused to accept the consecration as legitimate or the third secret as revealed in its entirety. Up until his sudden death in 2015, Gruner continued to campaign for the consecration to be done using what he believed was the correct formula, and for the “full” third secret (which he believed to predict dark days for the Church and apostasy in the hierarchy) to be released.

The use of the word “apostasy” — especially when applied to the highest levels of the Church — is particularly relevant in this discussion of Cardinal Burke. While the term appears often in the claims and writings of the Fatima conspiracy theorists, the word appears neither in the Church-approved messages of Fatima or in any of the subsequent elocutions or statements by Sr. Lucia. The idea of an apostate pope is employed specifically by those who have bought into the conspiracy theories about the third secret. Indeed, the approved third secret speaks of the pope himself enduring the persecutions that the Church will face in the future, along with the faithful, not abandoning the Church.

In his August 2017 interview with the conservative Catholic publication The Wanderer, Burke had this to say about the third secret:

“People talk about a de facto schism. I am absolutely in opposition to any kind of formal schism — a schism can never be correct. People can, however, be living in a schismatic situation if the teaching of Christ has been abandoned. The more appropriate word would be the one Our Lady used in her Message of Fatima: apostasy. There can be apostasy within the Church and this, in fact, is what is going on. In connection with the apostasy, Our Lady also referred to the failure of pastors to bring the Church to unity.

If the approved messages of Fatima don’t contain this word, then to what message of Fatima is he referring? Taking this further, at the 100-year anniversary celebration of Fatima, held in October 2017 in Texas, Burke delivered an hour-long keynote address on the topic of apostasy. It’s not quite what one usually has in mind when one celebrates the 100-year anniversary of a miraculous event, and one wonders about his motivations.

Does Cardinal Burke believe the Church or Fr. Gruner on the truth about the third secret? Well, he’s certainly open to the possibility that the last three popes have been lying, and that we are all victims of a coverup. In an address on May 19, 2017, he said the following:

“I now return to the third part of the Secret or Message of Fatima. Without entering into a discussion regarding whether the third part of the Secret has been fully revealed, it seems clear from the most respected studies of the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima, that it has to do with the diabolical forces unleashed upon the world in our time and entering into the very life of the Church which lead souls away from the truth of the faith and, therefore, from the Divine Love flowing from the glorious pierced Heart of Jesus.”

Note that he also mentions “diabolical forces … entering into the very life of the Church.” Another reference to the apostasy that is never mentioned in any approved Fatima message.

And on the consecration of Russia?

In the same speech, Cardinal Burke made the following plea:

“But, today, once again, we hear the call of Our Lady of Fatima to consecrate Russia to her Immaculate Heart, in accord with her explicit instruction. The requested consecration is at once a recognition of the importance which Russia continues to have in God’s plan for peace and a sign of profound love for our brothers and sisters in Russia.”

This is a call that he’s repeated many times since then, despite the fact that the Vatican has affirmed the 1984 consecration. Once again, he’s implicated the last three popes and Sister Lucia in a conspiracy theory that opposes the Church’s stance. (Well, unless you believe that the real Sister Lucia was abducted and replaced with a body double in 1960. No word on Cardinal Burke’s opinion on that.)


I don’t bring up these examples to ridicule these prelates. I am bringing this to your attention so that you are aware that all three of these men have uncritically bought into falsehoods and have failed to properly fact-check the rumors they’ve heard or the stories they’ve been fed. What else are they telling us that isn’t credible?

Conspiracy theories and false rumors such as these are the lifeblood of radical traditionalism and sedevacantism. Anyone who has spent 10 minutes on some of the web pages that espouse these views will quickly come across other conspiracy theories and lies, such as the claim that St. John XXIII’s election was rigged by the KGB, Freemasons controlled the second Vatican Council, or the holocaust didn’t really happen.

I am not saying that these prelates have bought into other traditionalist conspiracy theories, but surely some of their advisers have. Rather than looking to the true Magisterium of the Catholic Church, the teachings of the popes, and the official documents from the Vatican, they’ve adopted a shadow magisterium that often contradicts the promises Christ gave the Church: indefectibility and protection from the Holy Spirit, the primacy of the pope, and the assurance that the gates of hell will not prevail God’s Holy Church.

These prelates have, at least in the instances noted above, bought into propaganda that is generally put forth by the fringes of the traditionalist community. As with their criticisms of Francis’ papacy and the direction of the Church, these stories instill anger, fear, and doubt among those who believe them.

My advice:

  • Don’t take the claims of these three prelates at their word, at least until they retract these false  statements, rectify the damage they’ve done, and promise to be more diligent in the future.
  • Do your research. If a prelate or commentator makes a historical claim that seems unlikely or makes you afraid or angry, look it up and confirm whether it is true.
  • Learn to discern credible sources from less reliable ones. Official news publications with strict editorial standards and official sites such as those from bishops’ conferences and the Vatican are usually much more reliable than personal websites or blogs (even this one!)
  • Trust in God’s promises for His Church, and be not afraid!


UPDATE 6/11/18: Fatima scholar Kevin Symonds has written a blog post critical of the following assertion in this essay:

“The use of the word “apostasy” — especially when applied to the highest levels of the Church — is particularly relevant in this discussion of Cardinal Burke. While the term appears often in the claims and writings of the Fatima conspiracy theorists, the word appears neither in the Church-approved messages of Fatima or in any of the subsequent elocutions or statements by Sr. Lucia.” 

He writes:

“This seems to be correct. The word “apostasy” is not used either by Our Lady in 1917 or in subsequent statements from Sr. Lúcia (at least in her published writings). Lewis stops there, but does the word “apostasy” have to be used to describe the reality within the message of Fátima? Just as the word “Trinity” is not found in Holy Scripture, it does speak of the Trinity in fact. Are there, then, any indications that might demonstrate (directly or indirectly) apostasy within the message of Fátima?

In fact, there are.”

Symonds goes on to discuss how apostasy is a relevant theme in legitimate and orthodox exegesis of the Fatima message, and I am not one to quarrel with someone who has dedicated so much hard work and scholarship into discovering and defending the truth about Fatima, dispelling conspiracy theories and correcting falsehoods about the apparition. I will happily concede this point.

This does not affect the overall thrust of my original post however. I still question Cardinal Burke’s choice of topic for a keynote address at the Fatima celebration. Additionally, the Fatima message does not foretell of an apostasy at the very top of the Church. Finally, this has no impact on Cardinal Burke’s repeated demands for the Consecration of Russia.


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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.

Urban Legends and Conspiracy Theories: A Hallmark of Papal Critics
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