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Why Cardinal Burke cannot lead a 'loyal opposition'

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 11, 2014

In the quiet little New England town where we live, we’ve just been through an unusually contentious local election. The aftermath has reminded me of an important lesson that I learned years ago.

When the votes were counted in our local contests, one losing candidate issued a gracious statement congratulating the winner, thanking her supporters, and reiterating her devotion to the town. Her supporters, on the other hand, continued to vilify the people who had defeated her. The campaign had been a fraud, they said; the victors were liars and cheats and puppets of vested interests. The result, they wailed, was a defeat for democracy—notwithstanding the fact that it had been affirmed by an overwhelming majority, in an election with a spectacularly high voter turnout.

The discrepancy between the calm statement by the defeated candidate and the fury of her supporters reminded me of my early days in Washington, DC. There I regularly met with legislative aides who earnestly detested their rivals, thinking of them not merely mistaken but as actually evil. Eventually I also began meeting with Congressmen, and was amused to learn that they did not share the intense hatreds of their aides. The legislators themselves would slug it out for hours on the floor of Congress and then, when the session closed, go out for a beer with their ideological opponents. They had learned to separate their political views from their personal emotions, to recognize that civil disagreement is possible, among colleagues and even among friends.

Why do I mention this observation about the political world, on a site dedicated to Catholic affairs? Because I think many Catholics need to learn the same lesson about civil disagreement.

Many of my friends fear that Pope Francis is contemplating changes in Church teaching, or at least changes in Church discipline that would have the effect of undermining Church teaching. I share their concern. But I want to keep it in proper perspective.

As I said a few weeks ago: “If the Pope is contemplating a change in Church teaching on marriage, and insofar as he is contemplating such a change, then faithful Catholics should be vocal in opposing the idea.” Notice the qualifiers in that sentence. If the Pope wants to change Church teaching, I will oppose the idea. But in opposing the idea, I will not oppose the Pope.

Pope Francis has not announced any intention to change Church teaching; on the contrary he has described himself as a loyal son of the Church. Yet in various ways he has shown his support for Cardinal Walter Kasper, who argues that it is possible to change the Church’s discipline without changing doctrine. I disagree. I am firmly convinced that a change in Church discipline, along the lines suggested by Cardinal Kasper, would contradict the clear Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. As long as the debate continues, I plan to argue against the Kasper proposal. If the Pope hopes to enact the Kasper proposal, then, I suppose I will be arguing against the Pope. But I will be doing so out of loyalty, hoping to help him avoid making a mistake.

However, while I plan to make my argument as forcefully as I can, I realize two important points: First, I am not infallible. It is possible that the Pope, with the help of the Synod of Bishops, will find a way to do what I consider impossible: to change discipline without tampering with doctrine. Second, it is also possible that I have misunderstood the Pope’s intentions. He has certainly encouraged a full discussion of the Kasper proposal, but he may not intend to carry it out. I don’t know his plans and I don’t know his motives. I am prepared to render judgment on a particular plan: the Kasper proposal. I am not prepared to render judgment on the Pope.

Sad to say, some of my Catholic acquaintances have already judged Pope Francis, found him guilty of heresy or some equivalent fault, and called for the formation of a “loyal” opposition. Those who take that approach are courting some serious spiritual dangers, as my colleague Jeff Mirus has argued again and again. I fear that they are also exposing a character flaw: the same flaw that I saw years ago in those tempestuous Congressional aides. The tendency to despise those who disagree with one's own ideas, to impute evil motives to them, makes respectful debate less likely, and thereby makes it less likely that one can persuade others to change their views.

Proponents of the “opposition” are inclined to rally around the leadership Cardinal Raymond Burke. But while he has been very blunt about his opposition to certain policy proposals, Cardinal Burke has been equally blunt in saying that “I don’t ever put myself in opposition to the Successor of St. Peter.”

Notice how Cardinal Burke followed up that thought, in his recent interview with Aleteia:

But I think that people who wanted to identify the so-called “reformist agenda” of Pope Francis with all of their favorite ideas of what the Church should do or what the Church should become now try to discredit what I say by attributing it to some personal animosity toward the Holy Father, and that is not right.

So if you have a personal animus toward Pope Francis, don’t count on Cardinal Burke as an ally, much less as your leader. He understands that even the accusation of personal animosity-- to say nothing of the reality-- discredits the arguments of those who seek to uphold Catholic doctrine. He wants to change some of the ideas that have been circulating in Rome in recent months, and he understands that in order to do so, he must help others to recognize the dangers inherent in those ideas. Thus he has argued tirelessly against the Kasper proposal, but he has done so out of loyalty to the Pope. Or so he says himself, in clear simple English. Cardinal Burke has earned the admiration of many Catholics, myself included, because of his candor. If you set him up as the leader of opposition to the Pope, you make him out to be a liar.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Nov. 14, 2014 7:14 PM ET USA

    Many thanks Phil - I do agree with your arguments but at the same time would plead for those whose great anxiety makes it hard to 'see the wood for the trees' God bless............Diane Taylor (NZ)

  • Posted by: filioque - Nov. 14, 2014 6:29 PM ET USA

    Those of us who might be seen as the "loyal opposition" should not accept that characterization. We are the faithful of the Church. It's the party of change to doctrine, so-called "reformers," who are the opposition. Cardinal Burke is merely leading along a line laid down by the Successors of Peter. He is certainly not opposing anyone who is true to that line and so he is not in any "opposition."

  • Posted by: - Nov. 14, 2014 5:35 PM ET USA

    Please don't think that anyone who questions what the HF is doing is also questioning his position/office and his person. While there may be many who have some animosity toward him, there are those who are disturbed by what he says. No one expects him to change doctrine but he can change its interpretation. It is on this that we are weighing in. Clearly, the HF did not like Burke's interpretation.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Nov. 12, 2014 12:24 AM ET USA

    Anybody who thinks Cardinal Burke will lead a new movement away from the Church and the See of Peter is delusional.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 12, 2014 12:15 AM ET USA

    Multiple sources close to the Holy Father (Cardinals Marx and Kasper included) have intimated in no uncertain terms that the the pope is the impetus behind much of what have been the sources of concern both during and after the Synod. This is "unusual" to coin a term used by Cardinal Pell in describing Pope Francis in the context of history. Animosity is not acceptable; accurate reporting and concern in considering the facts is another. One thing is certain for 2015: The story ain't over.

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Nov. 11, 2014 8:01 PM ET USA

    We know Christ warned us that there would be one helluva a battle over HIs Church, when He said that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. That, to me, means that Satan is waging a fierce battle against the Church from within and without. He uses whatever means he has at his disposal, and sowing the seeds of confusion is one of his methods. Our Lord said, "Let your 'yes' mean 'yes' and your 'no' mean 'no.' Anything else is from the Devil." By this Pope's fruits we shall know him.

  • Posted by: Vincit omnia amor - Nov. 11, 2014 6:07 PM ET USA

    You present a good approach for all of us to consider at this time as we take our breath and try to figure out what we just witnessed. Don't know that a Successor to St Peter can change doctrine . . . But he and those he consults may come up with some way to adjust Church discipline w/in established doctrine: BUT, as we know, the path to that unknown place has already caused extraordinary harm to the faith. The "tale of two synods" is not all of the medias doing.