Action Alert!

Driven by frustration, could some cardinals go too far? A caution

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 17, 2016

Our Catholic World News service has reported on Cardinal Burke’s statement that a group of Catholic prelates may address a “formal act of correction” to Pope Francis. According to Burke, this could be made necessary by the refusal of Pope Francis to correct the confusion about the Church’s teaching on marriage which has been caused by his personal encouragement of dubious interpretations of some unclear elements in his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. Unfortunately, in an interview with Edward Pentin in the National Catholic Register, Cardinal Burke may have inadvertently fostered some confusion of his own.

Burke is a very “traditional” cardinal, but I am not aware that he has ever spoken either unwisely or erroneously about the relationship of Sacred Tradition to the Magisterium of the Church. I very much hope that he will not permit himself to be driven by frustrating circumstances to go too far in this matter now. But there are two points in the interview which could easily lead readers to a false understanding of that relationship.

Fraternal Correction

The first potential problem arises from this statement by Cardinal Burke:

There is, in the Tradition of the Church, the practice of correction of the Roman Pontiff. It is something that is clearly quite rare. But if there is no response to these questions, then I would say that it would be a question of taking a formal act of correction of a serious error.

This could be misleading because there is absolutely no mechanism, in Sacred Tradition or anywhere else, by which other ecclesiastical persons can correct the errors of a pope in a way that sets things right in the absence of the pope’s consent. The only recourse anyone in the Church has against the sins and errors of a pope is the recourse of fraternal correction.

If this is what Cardinal Burke means, then all is well unless we mistake his point. Burke is right in calling such correction rare, but it has certainly been necessary at times. In fact, the first instance was St. Paul’s face-to-face rebuke of St. Peter for his improper alignment with the Jewish party as against the gentiles, recounted in the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. But fraternal correction depends for its effect on the person in question taking the correction to heart. There is no juridical possibility in the Church for any official correction of a pope, such that the position of the pope’s critics becomes definitive or take precedence over what the pope himself has said or done.

The last question and answer in the interview suggests that Cardinal Burke has not slipped into any error on this issue, but he could have answered far more clearly:

Pentin’s question: “If the Pope were to teach grave error or heresy, which lawful authority can declare this and what would be the consequences?”
Burke’s answer: “It is the duty in such cases, and historically it has happened, of cardinals and bishops to make clear that the Pope is teaching error and to ask him to correct it.”

The only problem with this answer is that it does not adequately parse the question. It would have been far better if Cardinal Burke had first clarified the double misunderstanding the question appears to imply. Burke could, and probably should, have begun by making two critical points:

  1. We are not talking about Magisterial teaching of grave error (or heresy) by the Pope. That is impossible. The Holy Spirit protects the Church against that. This is a key factor in the very constitution of the Church.
  2. Because of this Divine protection, it is not necessary that there be a “lawful authority” that can correct the pope, and in fact there is none. But in matters of serious confusion, or of personal errors which foster bad pastoral care, or of ecclesiastical administration for dubious ends, or even of particular sins, fraternal correction can be very important.

With these two points clearly in mind, Burke’s actual answer is right on target. But without emphasizing these points, considering how the question was phrased, I am concerned that some readers might misunderstand the issue.

Tradition and the Magisterium

The second potential opportunity for a false understanding appears in the second-last question and answer, reproduced below:

Pentin’s question: “In a conflict between ecclesial authority and the Sacred Tradition of the Church, which one is binding on the believer and who has the authority to determine this?”
Burke’s answer: “What’s binding is the Tradition. Ecclesial authority exists only in service of the Tradition. I think of that passage of St. Paul in the [Letter to the] Galatians (1:8), that if ‘even an angel should preach unto you any Gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema’.”

Well, yes and no. It is quite true that Tradition (big “T”) is one of the two sources of Divine Revelation, and in this sense ecclesial authority exists only in service of Tradition. But in fact we have no certain way of knowing what is part of Tradition (big “T”) and what is only human tradition (small “t”) apart from the Magisterium of the Church—that is, the teaching authority of the Pope. The reference in the question to “ecclesial authority” is dangerously ambiguous, because it could be taken to refer to the Magisterium, which cannot conflict with Tradition, but rather properly delineates it.

It is a grave error to elevate one’s attachment to certain traditions over the Pope’s authority to determine what is and is not part of Sacred Tradition. In matters of dispute, what is “binding on the believer” is not the believer’s own traditional preferences, or even the believer’s own reading of Tradition, but the determination of the Magisterium as to whether some doctrine or practice is actually part of Sacred Tradition, and therefore part of what has been Divinely revealed.

I very emphatically applaud Cardinal Burke and all those prelates who seek conscientiously to correct Pope Francis’ tendency to confuse things, and who are willing to expose any tendencies on the part of the Pope to personally promote ideas and strategies he seems unable to teach officially (quite possibly owing to the protection of the Holy Spirit). God knows that those Catholics who actually accept all that the Church teaches are suffering a great trial under this Pope.

But if we fall into errors about the Holy Spirit’s protection of the Church, if we begin to see the precise nature of the Church’s divine protection as somehow inadequate, if we manufacture new theories about what is essential to the Church’s survival, and if we begin to think our favorite cardinals can settle our concerns about Pope Francis through anything more than fraternal correction—well, then, we will have swept the house clean only to admit seven demons where only one had lived before. There is a very famous error in the history of the Church which reflects exactly this impulse. It is called Conciliarism. We must pray, and pray seriously, to be saved from falling into such a state as that.

The Church is often subjected to faulty leadership, and sometimes even to the promotion of bad ideas by the pope himself, insofar as he is not exercising his official teaching authority. We must cope with such deficiencies as best we may. But we have from the Holy Spirit all the protection that is absolutely necessary, a protection not against confusion or hardship, but against the Church’s destruction. We must beware of allowing our frustration to cause us to grasp at straws. There are many things we can do to help our brothers and sisters in Christ, but we already have the one indispensable protection—the one protection that we cannot do without if we are to believe that Christ is with the Catholic Church until the end of time:

No pope, however bad he may be, and no matter how foolishly or erroneously he speaks in his ordinary activities, will ever use his supreme Petrine authority to expressly teach any error of faith or morals to the whole Church. In other words, the Holy Spirit will never permit any pope to propose an error in faith or morals in a Magisterial teaching that the whole Church is bound to obey.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 19, 2016 1:47 PM ET USA

    You are placing the burden on C. Burke, but the proper object of responsibility for his responses lies with the interviewer. Rather than parsing Burke's answers, why not instead parse the questions? If Pentin is representing the NCR, then his questions should be probative rather than provocative or even argumentative. For example, is it out of ignorance or malice that Pentin frames his questions in such an imprecise or even Protestant manner? Ecclesial authority is exercised according to degree.

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Nov. 18, 2016 5:22 PM ET USA

    Now that the era of political correctness is passing away, instead of having to treat each marital mess as a separate case to be decided uniquely with no hurt feelings, the Church may need to borrow a page from the Marines in regard to discipline. WE didn't join you, YOU joined US. Mother of the Church, pray for us!

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 18, 2016 9:03 AM ET USA

    To Jason C.: I have written a good deal about the errors of Pope Francis, though I think it wise to give him the benefit of every doubt. This article clearly takes Cardinal Burke's premise as its own—that Pope Francis has fostered doctrinal confusion and has steadfastly refused to offer clarifications, even when asked. But I also found the interview potentially misleading, in ways that could harm a concerned Catholic's faith, for the reasons stated. It is a poor Catholic writer who is very quick to condemn the errors his readers abhor, but chooses to retain their good will by ignoring the sorts of errors they are less likely to recognize.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Nov. 18, 2016 7:51 AM ET USA

    Speaking of frustration, something that often "frustrates" me is this site's editorial concerns: don't focus on Pope Francis, instead worry about someone who has--per the article--never been wrong. There should be no fear in stating outright that Pope Francis is a disaster, and that (1) identifying and (2) correcting his daily blunders are part of the Christian's duty. Any Christian who's fulfilling those duties Should be praised. Thank the Lord for Cardinal Burke and the three others.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 17, 2016 8:57 PM ET USA

    "Heretical popes? The essence of Catholicism is that there be none. It is also its essence that, if necessary, the issue be faced squarely and judged fairly."- Fr. James Schall, Nov. 11 2016, The Catholic Thing. Really like that final sentence. Two things on Cardinal Burke: 1. He cites the supreme law of the Church- salvation of souls. 2. He refers to settled dogma. This we can, and we must, know. We are on a collision course as unsettling as it is undesired. Ours is not the reason why.