In an interview published this week at Catholic World Report, Cardinal Burke (who gave the Interview on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception) sounds like he’s feeling a bit feisty. Referencing a statement he made in 2004 about “always getting into trouble” after confronting pro-abortion Catholic presidential candidate John Kerry on the issue of receiving communion, the interviewer asked if this was still the case. Burke responded,”I suppose that’s true, but I trust it’s good trouble.”
The interviewer then cut to the chase:
CWR: When was last time a Pope was rebuked?
Cardinal Burke: As far as I know, and I’m not an expert in this, it was John XXII. He was corrected for a wrong teaching he had on the beatific vision.
CWR: And who did that?
Cardinal Burke: There was a bishop involved and some Dominican Friars…
CWR: Is there a Scriptural basis for rebuking a pope?
Cardinal Burke: The classic Scriptural basis is St. Paul’s rebuking of Peter [in Galatians 2:11ff] for his accommodation of the Judaizers in the early Christian Church. Saint Paul confronted Peter to his face because he would be requiring things of the Gentile Christians that are not inherent to the Christian faith. And Peter actually agreed with that, but when he was with the Judaizers he would feign the other position and so Paul corrected him, as he said, to his face.
CWR: Why do you think Amoris Laetitia chapter 8 is so ambiguous?
Cardinal Burke: The reason for its ambiguity, it seems to me, is to give latitude to a practice which has never been admitted in the Church, namely the practice of permitting people who are living publicly in grave sin to receive the Sacraments.
After discussing the origins of the dubia and the moral duty he and the others who wrote to Francis felt to dispel the confusion and refer to the Church’s ancient practices when dealing with complex moral situations, the conversation turned back to those prelates who are resisting the errors of the exhortation:
CWR: Are there others, besides the four cardinals who submitted the dubia to Pope Francise, who support what you’re saying?
Cardinal Burke: Yes.
CWR: And they’re not speaking out because…?
Cardinal Burke: For various reasons, one of which is the way the media takes these things and distorts them making it seem that anyone who raises a question about Amoris Laetitia is disobedient to the Pope or an enemy of the Pope and so forth. So they…
CWR They’re keeping their heads down.
Cardinal Burke: Yes, I suppose.
CWR: One prelate has accused you and your fellow cardinals of being in heresy. How do you respond to that?
Cardinal Burke: How can you be in heresy by asking honest questions? It’s just irrational to accuse us of heresy. We’re asking fundamental questions based upon the constant tradition of the Church’s moral teaching. So I don’t think there’s any question that by doing that we’ve done something heretical.
CWR: Some critics say you are implicitly accusing the Pope of heresy.
Cardinal Burke: No, that’s not what we have implied at all. We have simply asked him, as the Supreme Pastor of the Church, to clarify these five points that are confused; these five, very serious and fundamental points. We’re not accusing him of heresy, but just asking him to answer these questions for us as the Supreme Pastor of the Church.
Some have taken his last point — that they are not accusing the pope of heresy — to mean that Burke and his collaborators in the dubia are softpedaling their approach to Francis. But I would counter that Burke is a very precise speaker, and that he is being technically accurate when he says this. They are not accusing Francis of heresy — yet. This is why it is imperative that he answer the questions. It would clarify the matter of whether he is, or is not, a heretic, and whether he needs to be corrected in the manner of Pope John XXII, mentioned by Burke above.
There is evidence for my interpretation in the following section of the interview:
CWR: Bishop Athanasius Schneider, O.R.C., the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Mary in Astana, Kazakhstan and titular bishop of Celerina, who has written an open letter of support for the four cardinals and their dubia, has also said that the Church is in a de facto schism. Do you agree with that?
Cardinal Burke: There is a very serious division in the Church which has to be mended because it has to do with, as I said before, fundamental dogmatic and moral teaching. And if it’s not clarified soon, it could develop into a formal schism.
CWR: Some people are saying that the pope could separate himself from communion with the Church. Can the pope legitimately be declared in schism or heresy?
Cardinal Burke: If a Pope would formally profess heresy he would cease, by that act, to be the Pope. It’s automatic. And so, that could happen.
CWR: That could happen.
Cardinal Burke: Yes.
CWR: That’s a scary thought.
Cardinal Burke: It is a scary thought, and I hope we won’t be witnessing that at any time soon.
As they say in the movies, “That’s not a threat, it’s a promise.” It’s not up to Cardinal Burke, Bishop Schneider, or the rest of the faithful alliance of prelates whether or not the pope would lose his office through the profession of heresy. It’s merely a fact. One cannot simultaneously be a formal heretic and a pope.
For Cardinal Burke to be able to answer these questions so openly and without nuance or equivocation means, I would venture to say, that he has already thought this all the way through and sees the path forward. How it will be received and what the consequences will be is not something with which he is concerning himself. Burke made his position on the matter clear last year, both when he said he would resist the pope if it came to it, and when he described the unfortunate situation that defending the “truth of the faith” has placed him in:
“If this means that cardinals will be opposed to cardinals, then we simply have to accept the fact that…that that’s the situation which we find ourselves. Certainly for my part, I don’t look for this kind of conflict, but…if in defending the truth of the faith I end up in a disagreement or a conflict with another cardinal what has to be primary to me is the truth of the faith and to, as a teacher of the faith, as a pastor of souls, to defend that truth.”
Asked about what would happen if the pope were found to be a heretic, Burke was forthright, again indicating that he has thought this through to the logical conclusion:
CWR: Back to this question about the Pope committing heresy. What happens then, if the Pope commits heresy and is no longer Pope? Is there a new conclave? Who’s in charge of the Church? Or do we just not even want to go there to start figuring that stuff out?
Cardinal Burke: There is already in place the discipline to be followed when the Pope ceases from his office, even as happened when Pope Benedict XVI abdicated his office. The Church continued to be governed in the interim between the effective date of his abdication and the inauguration of the papal ministry of Pope Francis.
CWR: Who is competent to declare him to be in heresy?
Cardinal Burke: It would have to be members of the College of Cardinals.
CWR: Just to clarify again, are you saying that Pope Francis is in heresy or is close to it?
Cardinal Burke: No, I am not saying that Pope Francis is in heresy. I have never said that. Neither have I stated that he is close to being in heresy.
CWR: Doesn’t the Holy Spirit protect us from such a danger?
Cardinal Burke: The Holy Spirit inhabits the Church. The Holy Spirit is always watching over, inspiring and strengthening the Church. But the members of the Church and, in a pre-eminent way, the hierarchy must cooperate with the promptings of the Holy Spirit. It is one thing for the Holy Spirit to be present with us, but it is another thing for us to be obedient to the Holy Spirit.
The import of this interview is…staggering. It’s clear, serene, forceful, and completely unflinching. His Eminence does not say more than he should about the matter at its current stage, nor does he say less. There is a process, and he is following it to the letter, as should be unsurprising from a man with his understanding of ecclesiastical law.
Canon law, of course, does not make provisions for such cases. On that matter, Pete Balkinski of LifeSiteNews references American canonist Dr. Edward Peters on the legal questions before Burke, et. al.:
According to Peters, who holds the Edmund Cdl. Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, canonical tradition has dealt with the possibility of a pope falling into personal heresy and promoting such heresy publicly and what should be done if this happens.
Peters notes that while it is true that, as Canon 1404 states, “The First See is judged by no one,” thus making it impossible for anyone to remove an erring pope from his office, this does not mean that a pope in error retains his office.
Peters quotes an interpretation of Canon 1404 by famous American canon lawyer Lawrence Wrenn to make the point.
“Canon 1404 is not a statement of personal impeccability or inerrancy of the Holy Father. Should, indeed, the pope fall into heresy, it is understood that he would lose his office. To fall from Peter’s faith is to fall from his chair,” writes Wrenn in the 2001 New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law.
Peters writes that the “crucial question” from a canonist’s perspective is “who would determine whether a given pope has fallen into heresy,” a question he says that canon law is silent about, but not canonical tradition.
Peters finds the canonical tradition expressed by Franz Wernz — a famed canonist who was elected as the Superior General of the Jesuit order in 1906 — who considered the impact of personal heresy on the part of a pope in his work Ius Canonicum.
After laying out various positions dealing with a heretical pope and showing their deficiencies, Wernz speculates that while no one on earth can remove power from a pope since there is no higher office than “Roman Pontiff” that is capable of passing such judgment, nevertheless, a general council could determine that a pope had committed heresy, and in doing so, had effectually cut himself off from the true vine, thereby forfeiting his office.
Writes Wernz in his work published posthumously in 1928: “In sum, it needs to be said clearly that a [publicly] heretical Roman Pontiff loses his power upon the very fact. Meanwhile a declaratory criminal sentence, although it is merely declaratory, should not be disregarded, for it brings it about, not that a pope is ‘judged’ to be a heretic, but rather, that he is shown to have been found heretical, that is, a general council declares the fact of the crime by which a pope has separated himself from the Church and has lost his rank.”
After quoting Wernz, Peters comments: “I know of no author coming after Wernz who disputes this analysis.”
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a front row seat to history in the making. Keep praying. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children.