Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the signatories of the so-called “Four Cardinals Letter,” gave an interview to Catholic Action in which he explained the reasons behind the letter and why it was time to take the step of releasing it to the public. I believe this interview is a major step in the direction of an official ecclesiastical action to oppose the errors of Pope Francis.
I had considered asking for permission to reprint the entire interview, but I decided that it would be of greater value to excerpt the sections I found most critical. My comments follow His Eminence’s:
CA: So you are saying that you are publishing a letter that you sent to the Pope privately. This is extraordinary. Isn’t this action objectionable from a Christian point of view? Our Lord said in the Gospel of Matthew (18:15) that if we have a problem with a brother, we are supposed to talk with him privately, one-on-one, not publicly.
In the same portion of Sacred Scripture to which you refer, Our Lord also said that, after addressing a difficulty to a brother, individually and together with others, without it being resolved, then, for the good of the Church the matter is to be presented to the whole Church. This is precisely what we are doing.
There have been many other statements of concern regarding Amoris Laetitia, all of which have not received an official response from the Pope or his representatives. Therefore, in order to look for clarity on these matters, three other Cardinals and I used the formality of presenting fundamental questions directly to the Holy Father and to the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. No response has been given to these questions either. Therefore, in making public our questions or dubia, we are being faithful to Christ’s mandate to first talk with a person privately, then in a small group, and finally, taking the matter to the Church as a whole.
CA: As you say, Amoris Laetitia has been the subject of much discussion, and even criticism. For example, you have famously stated that you believe it is not a Magisterial document. Could you explain how your current questions to the Holy Father relate to these other analyses of the Apostolic Exhortation?
To understand the present publication, we need to consider what has led up to it.
Just after his election, in his first Sunday Angelus message, Pope Francis praised Cardinal Walter Kasper’s understanding of mercy, which is a fundamental theme in Amoris Laetitia. Only a few months later, the Vatican announced an Extraordinary Synod about Marriage and Family for October 2014.
In preparation for the Synod, I, along with four other Cardinals, an Archbishop, and three theologians, published a book, Remaining in the Truth of Christ. As a member of the Synod, I noted that the mid-term report lacked a solid foundation in Sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. Later, I agreed with other Cardinals that there was manipulation in the running of the Synod itself, and in the writing of the final report of the Synod.
Prior to the 2015 Synod, to which I was not invited, eleven Cardinals contributed to a book about marriage and the family. Although I did not contribute to this book, I read it with great interest. Also prior to the 2015 Ordinary Synod on the Family, over 790,000 Catholics signed a “Filial Appeal” to Pope Francis about the future of the family, asking him to say “a clarifying word” to dissipate the “widespread confusion” about Church teaching. Along with other Cardinals, I was a signatory. During the 2015 session of the Synod, thirteen Cardinal-participants signed a letter to the Pope indicating their concern about the manipulation of the process of the Synod.
In April 2016, Pope Francis published Amoris Laetitia as the fruit of the 2014 and 2015 sessions of the Synod of Bishops. In the summer of 2016, forty-five academics, including some prelates, wrote to the Holy Father and to the College of Cardinals, asking the Pope to repudiate a list of erroneous propositions that can be drawn from portions of Amoris Laetitia. This received no public response.
On 29 August, 2016, I joined many bishops, priests, and lay faithful in signing a Declaration of Fidelity to the Church’s Teaching on Marriage and to Her Uninterrupted Discipline. This also has received no public response.
My position is that Amoris Laetitia is not Magisterial because it contains serious ambiguities that confuse people and can lead them into error and grave sin. A document with these defects cannot be part of the Church’s perennial teaching. Because that is the case, the Church needs absolute clarity regarding what Pope Francis is teaching and encouraging.
CA: Some Catholics may be concerned that your current publication is an act of disloyalty.
I, together with the other three Cardinals, are striving to be loyal to the Holy Father by being loyal to Christ above all. By making public our plea for clarity of doctrine and pastoral practice, we are hoping to make this a discussion for all Catholics, especially our fellow bishops. Every baptized person should be concerned about doctrine and moral practices regarding the Holy Eucharist and Holy Matrimony, and about how we are to identify good and evil actions. These matters affect all of us.
Rather than being a matter of disloyalty to the Pope, our action is deeply loyal to everything that the Pope represents and is obliged to defend in his official capacity. Pope Francis has called for candid speech in the Church a number of times, and has asked members of the hierarchy for openness and accountability. We are being candid, with the fullest respect for the office of the Holy Father, and exercising, according to the light of our consciences, the openness and accountability which the Church has the right to expect of us.
This is my duty as a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. I was not created a Cardinal in order to receive an honorary position. Rather, Pope Benedict XVI made me a Cardinal to assist him and his successors in governing the Church and teaching the Faith. All Cardinals have the duty of working closely with the Pope for the good of souls, and this is precisely what I am doing by raising questions of grave importance regarding faith and morals. I would not be fulfilling my duty as a cardinal, and therefore as counselor to the Pope, if I remained silent on an issue of such serious matter.
CA: If I may, I would like to continue this line of thought. It is unclear how your publication is being docile to the Pope’s desire for greater pastoral sensitivity and creativeness in the Church. Hasn’t the Pope indicated his position in a letter to the Argentine Bishops? Other Cardinals have said that the proper way to read Amoris Laetitia is that it allows divorced-and-remarried couples to receive communion in certain circumstances. In that light, one could argue that your document is creating more confusion.
First, a point of clarification. The issue is not about divorced and remarried couples receiving Holy Communion. It is about sexually active but not validly married couples receiving Holy Communion. When a couple obtains a civil divorce and a canonical declaration that they were never validly married, then they are free to marry in the Church and receive Holy Communion, when they are properly disposed to receive. The Kasper proposal is to allow a person to receive Holy Communion when he or she has validly pronounced marriage vows but is no longer living with his or her spouse and now lives with another person with whom he or she is sexually active. In reality, this proposal opens the door for anyone committing any sin to receive Holy Communion without repenting of the sin.
I would also like to point out that only the first of our questions to the Holy Father focuses on Holy Matrimony and the Holy Eucharist. Questions two, three, and four are about fundamental issues regarding the moral life: whether intrinsically evil acts exist, whether a person who habitually commits grave evil is in a state of “grave sin”, and whether a grave sin can ever become a good choice because of circumstances or intentions.
It is true that the Holy Father wrote a letter to the Argentinian Bishops, and that some Cardinals have proposed the interpretations of Amoris Laetitia that you have mentioned. However, the Holy Father himself has not clarified some of the “knotty” issues. It would contradict the Faith if any Catholic, including the Pope, said that a person can receive Holy Communion without repenting of grave sin, or that living in a marital way with someone who is not his or her spouse is not a state of grave sin, or that there is no such thing as an act that is always and everywhere evil and can send a person to perdition. Thus, I join my brother Cardinals in making a plea for an unmistakable clarification from Pope Francis himself. His voice, the voice of the Successor of Saint Peter, can dispel any questions about the issue.
There are always complaints that what the bishops and cardinals are doing is too little or too late. Nevertheless, I think this is an incredibly important development. Recall that the Church moves far more slowly than we are accustomed to in the information age where everything is so nearly instantaneous. Amoris Laetitia was only promulgated in April of this year. We are seven months into the fallout, and the steps being taken here are significant. Don’t let the gentleness of the language fool you.
A few thoughts:
- Cardinal Burke is documenting the obstinacy of Pope Francis in terms of his refusal to address “serious ambiguities that confuse people and can lead them into error and grave sin.” He gave all the same examples I did yesterday, and added the Declaration of Fidelity to the Church’s Teaching on Marriage and to Her Uninterrupted Discipline.
- He is making clear that this request for clarification follows a formal process: “There have been many other statements of concern regarding Amoris Laetitia, all of which have not received an official response from the Pope or his representatives. Therefore, in order to look for clarity on these matters, three other Cardinals and I used the formality of presenting fundamental questions directly to the Holy Father and to the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.”
- He has outlined the history of Amoris Laetitia, has associated Francis directly with Kasper, has re-visted the deeply troubling mid-term relatio from the 2014 synod, has even mentioned his own removal from the synod process itself after 2014.
- He has positioned the adversarial relationship between the four cardinals and Pope Francis in relation to the fixed point of Christ and His teaching. “I, together with the other three Cardinals, are striving to be loyal to the Holy Father by being loyal to Christ above all. ” and “Rather than being a matter of disloyalty to the Pope, our action is deeply loyal to everything that the Pope represents and is obliged to defend in his official capacity.” He is signalling that the pope has a moral duty to defend Church teaching, not to innovate or depart from it.
- He is indicating that he and the other three cardinals are now performing their own duty, “which the Church has the right to expect of us.”
- While some dislike the word “clarification,” Burke and the cardinals (and other bishops) who stand with him are asking Francis to state clearly what he believes. “It would contradict the Faith if any Catholic, including the Pope, said that a person can receive Holy Communion without repenting of grave sin, or that living in a marital way with someone who is not his or her spouse is not a state of grave sin, or that there is no such thing as an act that is always and everywhere evil and can send a person to perdition.” This statement indicates that they know he has contradicted the Faith, and if he does not recant but rather affirms this, then he will officially stand in opposition to the Faith.
I submit to you that these statements are indicative of something momentous. This could well be the prelude to something unprecedented: the challenging of a sitting pope for the crime of manifest, obdurate heresy. Remember that the “manifest and obdurate” parts are necessary to establish. As Michael Davies wrote in his essay, A Heretical Pope?
If, per impossible, a pope became a formal heretic through pertinaciously denying a de fide doctrine, how would the faithful know that he had forfeited his office as he had ceased to be a Catholic? It must be remembered that no one in the Church, including a General Council, has the authority to judge the Popes. Reputable authorities teach that if a pope did pertinaciously deny a truth which must be believed by divine and Catholic faith, after this had been brought to his attention by responsible members of the hierarchy (just as St. Paul reproved St. Peter to his face), a General Council could announce to the Church that the Pope, as a notorious heretic, had ceased to be a Catholic and hence had ceased to be Pope. It is important to note that the Council would neither be judging nor deposing the Pope, since it would not possess the authority for such an act. It would simply be making a declaratory sentence, i.e. declaring to the Church what had already become manifest from the Pope’s own actions. This is the view taken in the classic manual on Canon Law by Father F.X. Wernz, Rector of the Gregorian University and Jesuit General from 1906 to 1914. This work was revised by Father P. Vidal and was last republished in 1952. It states clearly that an heretical Pope is not deposed in virtue of the sentence of the Council, but “the General Council declares the fact of the crime by which the heretical pope has separated himself from the Church and deprived himself of his dignity.“(7) Other authorities believe that such a declaration could come from the College of Cardinals or from a representative group of bishop, while others maintain that such a declaration would not be necessary. What all those who accept the hypothesis of an heretical pope are agreed upon is that for such a pope to forfeit the papacy his heresy would have to be “manifest”, as Saint Robert Bellarmine expressed it, that is notorious and public (notorium et palam divulgata).(8) A notorious offence can be defined as one for which the evidence is so certain that it can in no way be either hidden or excused.(9) A pope who, while not being guilty of formal heresy in the strict sense, has allowed heresy to undermine the Church through compromise, weakness, ambiguous or even gravely imprudent teaching remains Pope, but can be judged by his successors, and condemned as was the case with Honorius I.
Cardinals Burke, Caffara, Brandmüller, and Meisner — along with their other as-yet unnamed supporters among the bishops — are giving Francis a way out. They are bringing “to his attention” as “responsible members of the hierarchy (just as St. Paul reproved St. Peter to his face)” the errors which he has fomented. (Remember, John XXII repented of his error after being confronted.) This is no doubt not only for Francis’ good, but for the good of the countless souls who would be scandalized by any act of public deposition of a pope, and the massive schism that would at last break the Church apart on her many emergent fault lines. If Francis continues to refuse to address this, these Cardinals, along with any other orthodox prelates yet remaining in the Church, will have no choice but to take action. Anything less will destroy their credibility as apostolic successors and shake the faith of countless souls in the indefectibility of the Church.
As one high-ranking member of the clergy confided to me recently, “Francis is an eclipse of the sun of Catholic truth.” It is long past time for the sun to come out again.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher 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. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.