On April 7, 2018, Cardinal Raymond Burke delivered an address to a conference in Rome dedicated to the legacy of the late Cardinal Carlo Caffarra titled, Catholic Church: Where are you heading? The title of Burke’s address was, “The plenitudo potestatis of the Roman Pontiff in service of the unity of the Church.” Plenitudo potestatis means “fullness of power,” a term frequently used by medieval canonists to describe papal power and authority, and canonized in a number of magisterial teachings.

Vatican I anathematized those who denied the Plenitudo potestatis of the pope:

So, then, if anyone says that the Roman pontiff has merely an office of supervision and guidance, and not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole church, and this not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in those which concern the discipline and government of the church dispersed throughout the whole world; or that he has only the principal part, but not the absolute fullness, of this supreme power; or that this power of his is not ordinary and immediate both over all and each of the churches and over all and each of the pastors and faithful: let him be anathema. [3.9]

The council also quoted and affirmed the Profession of Faith that was read aloud by Michael Palaeologus at the Second Council of Lyon:

The holy Roman church possesses the supreme and full primacy and principality over the whole catholic church. She truly and humbly acknowledges that she received this from the Lord himself in blessed Peter, the prince and chief of the apostles, whose successor the Roman pontiff is, together with the fullness of power. And since before all others she has the duty of defending the truth of the faith, so if any questions arise concerning the faith, it is by her judgment that they must be settled.

Additionally, one of the ideas condemned in Pius IX’s 1864 Syllabus of Errors was:

3. Roman pontiffs and ecumenical councils have wandered outside the limits of their powers, have usurped the rights of princes, and have even erred in defining matters of faith and morals. — Damnatio ‘Multiplices inter,’ June 10, 1851.

So we have at least two councils stating clearly that the pope has the “absolute fullness” of power, and the “supreme and full primacy and principality over the whole catholic church,” and one landmark papal document condemning the notion that popes or councils have “wandered outside the limits of their powers,” or “have even erred in defining matters of faith and morals.”

It seems pretty clear-cut, then, what the Church teaches about the pope’s doctrinal and magisterial authority. And the passage from the Syllabus rejects the notion that popes have abused that authority. Setting aside the notion of sinful or ineffective popes, it is quite clear from these teachings that the Church is teaching us to trust the pope in areas of faith and morals, and to obey his disciplinary and prudential decisions.

I write about this for two reasons: the first is that Cardinal Burke delivered an address discussing what he understands to be the limits of the pope’s Fullness of Power, and because in his recent podcast interview with former Catholic Answers radio host Patrick Coffin, he discussed the progress of the canonization cause of the late Fr. John Hardon, SJ, a Servant of God who passed away in the year 2000.

Fr. Hardon was an old-school, staunchly conservative American Jesuit, who was known for his catechetical writings and for travelling the world giving retreats and speaking at conferences on the Catholic faith, morality, and adherence to doctrine. He was open and blunt in the style that today’s Catholic far right says they wish all of our priests and bishops would be.

Hardon was not a traditionalist, at least not in the sense that it’s generally understood today. He embraced Vatican II and the revised liturgy, and was friends with Sts. Paul VI and John Paul II. That said, he was an extremely harsh critic of the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II,” or any attempts to take liberties with doctrine or moral teaching. For example, his criticism of theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar (audio here) is something of a foretaste of Michael Voris’s attacks on Robert Barron’s statements about salvation. He was no fan of creative approaches to theology. He was very Eucharist-centered, and a champion of Eucharistic adoration. His best-known work, The Catholic Catechism, is said to have served as a model for the official, universal Catechism that was promulgated by the Holy See almost two decades later.

My mother and aunt attended one of his retreats in the 1990s, and I remember the experience having a profound effect on both of them. My aunt had just gone through a painful and traumatic divorce, and she told us that during spiritual direction with Fr. Hardon, he promised that he would pray for her every day, from then on. My mother was in awe of the man, and she repeated one anecdote – that Fr. Hardon went to confession every single day – many times in the years that followed.

In the interview with Coffin, Burke explained that while his sainthood cause is ongoing, the next (and lengthy) step requires Hardon’s writings to be analyzed for orthodoxy before the cause can proceed. Cardinal Burke clearly has great admiration and deep affection for Fr. Hardon, and is known as something of a successor to Hardon’s ministry.

Indeed, Cardinal Burke is the spiritual director for one of Hardon’s apostolates, the Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association. He is also the International Director of the Marian Catechist Apostolate and is featured prominently on the website of the Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. Archive and Guild, which promotes his canonization. There are more connections, but you get the idea.

What’s odd about this is that such a devoted spiritual son of Fr. Hardon seems to hold beliefs about the papacy that are explicitly contrary to those of Fr. Hardon.

One of the major points of emphasis of Hardon’s message was the great importance of papal primacy. This is how he defined it in his Catechism (source):


The supreme and full power of jurisdiction possessed by divine right by the Bishop of Rome over the whole Church in matters of faith and in matters pertaining to the discipline and government of the Church spread throughout the world. This power is not merely symbolic but real and truly episcopal; it is ordinary in belonging to the office; it is immediate and not dependent on any other human authority; and it affects each and every church, each and every pastor, and every single one of the faithful.

This is consistent with other statements Hardon said and wrote about the papacy (all of the following quotes were culled from this site (which, remember, is under Burke’s patronage); some spellings and punctuation have been corrected):

  • “Obedience to the Vicar of Christ among all Catholics is the single greatest need in the Catholic Church today.”
  • “How necessary this is; to stress that apart from the See of Peter there is no certainty, no security, and no unity in Christianity.”
  • “How we should beg the dear Lord that Catholics might rally behind the Pope in these difficult times. Nowhere else can we find the certitude of possessing the truth, or the security that we are doing God’s will.”
  • “Since the close of the first century, this has been the final test of whether a person who calls himself a Christian is also Catholic. Every break in Catholic unity has been based on the rejection of the papacy. Correspondingly, every union among Catholics has been based on the acceptance of papal authority.”
  • “There is nothing on earth that is more desperately needed to reunite Christendom than to recognize the Pope as the Vicar of Christ on earth.”
  • “We now know, more clearly than ever before, that not only progress in the spiritual life depends on people’s faith in the supreme authority of the Bishop of Rome. The very survival of Christian spirituality is at stake.”
  • “What assurance do we have that the persons who are honored by the Church as saints are really imitatible as patterns of holiness? In the final analysis, it is the authority of the Bishop of Rome.”
  • “The Bishop of Rome is the teacher of the whole human race, and not only, dear Lord, not only of believers, all of mankind needs to be fed the truth.”
  • “The apostles were subject to the authority of Peter and the successors of the apostles, the bishops of the Catholic Church are subject to the authority of the successor of Peter.”
  • “Out of the marvelous truths taught by Vatican II is the fact that no authority is binding unless it concurs with, is in agreement with, is consistent with, the teaching of the Bishop of Rome.”
  • “The strength and vitality of the Catholic faith depends on our belief in and loyalty to the Bishop of Rome, our faith is only as Catholic as we are obedient, subject in mind, to the teachings of the Bishop of Rome.”
  • “Loyalty to the Pope is one of the hallmarks of fidelity to Christ. So true is this, that we can measure our love for Christ by our love for the Vicar of Christ.”
  • “We ask, but Lord, what are Your commandments? Then we turn to the Bishop of Rome, and there Christ tells us what His commandments are.”
  • “Defend, defend the Roman Pontiff in word and action, to safeguard the true faith in our world.”

I could go on. I haven’t even looked at a few of the documents on the webpage.

Contrast Hardon’s words with those spoken by Cardinal Burke in his address:

“The juxtaposition of the classic words which describe the power of the Pope, such that all things in the Church must be with Peter and under Peter, and the presence of the body of the Pope in a meeting risks a misunderstanding of the authority of the Pope which is not magical but derives from his obedience to Our Lord.

Such magical thinking is also reflected in the docile response of some of the faithful to whatever the Roman Pontiff may say, claiming that, if the Holy Father says something, then we must accept it as papal teaching.”

“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.’”

“Suffice it to say that, as history shows, it is possible that the Roman Pontiff, exercising the fullness of power, can fall either into heresy or into the dereliction of his primary duty to safeguard and promote the unity of faith, worship and practice.”

“Because this power is from God Himself, it is limited as such by natural and divine law, which are expressions of the eternal and unchangeable truth and goodness that come from God, are fully revealed in Christ, and have been handed on in the Church throughout time. Therefore, any expression of doctrine or law or practice that is not in conformity with Divine Revelation, as contained in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Tradition cannot be an authentic exercise of the Apostolic or Petrine ministry and must be rejected by the faithful.”

Cardinal Burke relies on a medieval canonist and a handful of contemporary theologians to support his thesis. The passages from the documents of Vatican I and II don’t support his thesis at all. There’s simply no material in the official, magisterial teachings of the Church that support his hypothesis that the faithful can judge the pope’s teaching to be heretical or doctrinally erroneous. Fr. Hardon knew this.

Burke’s address contains many “workarounds” that try to justify dissent from the teachings on the papacy that Fr. Hardon articulated so clearly. In contrast to his protégé, Fr. Hardon was not in the business of coming up with reasons to reject the authority and primacy of the pope.

I wonder if Burke believes that, in reviewing them for his sainthood cause, Hardon’s writings and statements about papal primacy are orthodox. Does he think they are “magical thinking” and “papolatry” – two phrases he used to describe those who embrace papal supremacy in the way Hardon did? Or will he come up with more workarounds in an attempt to explain away the clear meaning of Hardon’s words?

I pray for Cardinal Burke, and hope that he benefits from the wisdom of Fr. John Hardon. I hope that he stops fanning the flames of rebellion in the Church, and calls on his followers to repent and show fidelity to the Holy Father, and to respect his Plenitudo potestatis.


Image credit: ©2010 – 2011 PBR Photo’s

Cardinal Burke at Saint Francis de Sales for Solemn Te Deum and Benediction





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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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