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Cardinals Burke and Brandmüller on Schism, Papal Authority, and the Sensus Fidei

At today’s conference in Rome on the state of the Catholic Church – “Catholic Church, where are you going?” – Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, one of the four dubia cardinals, made some stunning remarks about his cherished dubia colleague, Cardinal Joachim Meisner who died last summer. Burke now reveals that, after listening to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s speech on marriage at the Consistory in February of 2014 — the very talk that started the entire process of the opening the door for Holy Communion for the “remarried” at the synods and through eventual publication of Amoris Laetitia in motion — Meisner told him that he foresaw dire consequences for where things were heading. In his conference talk today, Burke related the conversation he had with the late German cardinal*:

After the inaugural address of Cardinal Walter Kasper during the Extraordinary Consistory of February 2014, while we were leaving the Synod hall, he [Cardinal Meisner] came up to me and expressed all of his concern about the false direction in which [Kasper’s] address would lead the Church if there was not an adequate and swift correction. He further added, “All this will end in a schism.” From that moment on, he did everything possible to defend the word of Christ on marriage. [emphasis added]

Cardinal Burke spoke these words at the beginning of his talk since he wanted to honor both Cardinal Meisner and Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, the two of the four dubia cardinals who died without ever receiving a response to their concerns from the pope. Burke praised Cardinal Meisner’s strong stand by saying “He was, from the beginning of the good battle on, there to defend and promote the fundamental truths on marriage and the family, and completely united to Cardinal Caffarra, to Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, and to me.” “As a true pastor of the Lord’s flock,” Burke added, “he thought that his first duty was the untiring presentation of the teaching of Christ in the Church.” While Cardinal Meisner himself was “clearly and profoundly concerned for the actual state of the Church, he did not omit to express his complete faith in the Lord who will not fail to sustain His Mystical Body in the truth of the faith.”

Since in this way the four dubia cardinals were today again once more united – if not in body, then in spirit – let us present here the touching words of Cardinal Burke about both of his deceased colleagues:

Today, honoring the memory of the great Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, we also honor — as I am certain Cardinal Caffarra would have wanted us to do — the memory of Cardinal Joachim Meisner, who, together with Cardinal Caffarra, according to the words of Saint Paul, fought the good fight of faith, finished the course of his episcopal mission for the good of innumerable souls, and, with fidelity and generosity, conserved the faith. Requiescat in pace!

In the following, we shall present a few important thoughts as they were expressed today both by Cardinal Burke and by Cardinal Walter Brandmüller. Later, we hope to provide a more comprehensive report on the conference. While Cardinal Burke spoke more on the limits of papal power, Cardinal Brandmüller himself dwelt on the matter of the sensus fidei and the role of the lay faithful in the defense of the Faith.

Since some of Cardinal Burke’s own talk overlapped with things he had just said in his recent interview, we shall concentrate only on a few words.

Cardinal Burke – who is himself a canon lawyer and the former head of the Apostolic Signatura – makes in his talk a review of the canonical tradition and the teaching of the First Vatican Council on papal primacy, always emphasizing that the power of the pope must be for the good of souls and in union with the Sacred Tradition. At the end he first quotes the Letter to the Galatians where St. Paul says “even if an angel from heaven should preach to you another Gospel, let him be anathema,” and then also the canon lawyer Gratian, who said that the Pope cannot be judged by anyone – unless of course he deviates from the faith.

Cardinal Burke expressed his hope that his talk “can help you to understand the necessity of, and at the same time the great prudence, which must take place in the exercise of the fullness of power of the Roman Pontiff, in order to safeguard and promote the good of the Universal Church.” He continued, saying:

According to Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, the successor of Saint Peter enjoys a power which is universal, ordinary, and immediate over all of the faithful. He is the supreme judge of the faithful, and there is no higher human authority over him, not even that of an ecumenical council. To the Pope belongs the power and authority to define doctrines and condemn errors, to promulgate and abrogate laws, to act as judge in all matters of faith and morals, to decree and impose punishments, to name and, if necessary, to remove pastors. Because such power comes from God himself, it is limited by natural law and by divine law, which are expressions of the truth and of the eternal and immutable goodness which come from God, are fully revealed in Christ and have been uninterruptedly transmitted in the Church. Therefore, any expression of doctrine or praxis which is not in conformity with Divine Revelation, contained in the Sacred Scriptures and in the Tradition of the Church, cannot be considered an authentic exercise of the Apostolic or Petrine ministry and ought to be refuted by the faithful. As Saint Paul declared: “I am amazed that you are so quickly forsaking the one who called you by the grace of Christ for a different gospel (not that there is another). But there are some who are disturbing you and wish to pervert the Gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than the one that we preached to you, let that one be accursed!” (Galatians 1: 6-8)

As Cardinal Burke points out, we as Catholics “must always teach and defend the fullness of power which Christ wanted to confer upon His Vicar on earth.” Yet, we sometimes “must teach and defend that power within the [realm of the] teaching of the Church.” Cardinal Burke ends his talk with words from the Decretal of Gratian:

“No mortal should have the audacity to reproach a pope because of his faults, because he who has the right to judge all men cannot be judged by anyone, unless he must be called to order for having deviated from the faith; all the faithful pray insistently for his perpetual position, inasmuch as they consider that his salvation more greatly depends on his safety [from any deviation from the faith]” (Decretum Magistri Gratiani. Concordia Discordantium Canonum, 1a, dist. 40, c. 6, Si papa; Item ex gestis Bonifacii Martyris). [emphasis added]

While Cardinal Burke thus insists in his talk that we attentively consider the limits of papal authority – just as he had earlier discussed the concept of explicit and of implicit apostasy – Cardinal Walter Brandmüller discussed in his talk today the question of the role of the lay faithful in the preservation of the Catholic Faith.

With reference to Cardinal John Henry Newman, Brandmüller presents his thesis “in the face of a deeply shaking crisis of Faith.” With Newman, Brandmüller points to the Arian crisis of the 4th century where “the bishops mostly failed,” not being thereby able to present a unified witness, and even contradicting one another. In the words of Cardinal Newman, “the Divine Tradition as entrusted to the infallible Church was much more proclaimed and preserved by the faithful than by the episcopacy.” Here, the Dogma of the Divinity of Christ was “much more defended by the ‘Ecclesia docta‘ than by the ‘Ecclesia docens,’” according to Newman. The lay faithful thus then remained “loyal to their baptismal grace.”

As Brandmüller explains, such a sensus fidei as shown in the 4th century, can become visible either in the rejection of error, as well as in the witness to the truth. He shows that both Pope Pius IX and Pius XII had consulted the faithful before proclaiming a Marian dogma, both in 1854 and in 1950, respectively. Brandmüller speaks here beautifully of the “witness of Faith of the laymen” as well as of “the living convictions of Faith” of the faithful.

Cardinal Brandmüller – a Church historian and the former President of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences – insists in his talk that the sensus fidei may not be interpreted as a form of plebicite. Reintroducing here the much-neglected reality and indispensability of Grace, the German cardinal also refers to the “corpus mysticum of the Risen and Glorified Christ” in which all the faithful are united in a “supernatural organism.” “Here, of course there are valid laws other than sociological, political laws – it is the reality of Grace that comes into sight.” Thus, explains Brandmüller, the faithful receive, through Baptism, “sanctifying grace, which is a supernatural, ontological reality which thus makes men holy, just, and pleasing to God.” The three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity have thus been infused into our hearts. Thus, says Brandmüller: “The way and manner in which the divine virtue of Faith becomes effective is, next to other factors, the sensus fidei of the faithful.” Being in the state of Grace and thus receiving these Divine Gifts, the lay faithful can receive “a deepening understanding of revealed truth.”

Cardinal Brandmüller presents to us beautifully the sensus fidei as a “kind of spiritual immune system which induces the faithful to recognize and reject instinctively all error.” As he explains

Upon this same sensus fidei is also based – next to the Divine Promise – the passive infallibility of the Church, that is to say, the certainty that the Church as a whole can never fall into an error of Faith.

Moreover, the German prelate makes clear that this sensus fidei is not necessarily to be found in the majority of Catholics. Thus, while there could be a mass witness for the Faith, there could also very well be a mass apostasy. The sensus fidei is not necessarily that which is being presented in the public as the opinion of Catholics, as the International Theological Commission has rightly stated in 2014. Often, however, the “truth of the Faith” is being preserved “in the hearts of the faithful,” according to that 2014 document, as quoted by Brandmüller. To maintain that sensus fidei, explains the Vatican document, “holiness is required. To be holy means, in essence … to be baptized and to live the Faith in the power of the Holy Ghost.” (As a side note: the document also uses the important concept of a “supernatural instinct” in this regard.)

In conclusion, Cardinal Brandmüller points to the fact that such faithful not only have the “right of free speech” in the Church, based on “the sense of Faith and love,” but also that they – according to their knowledge, responsibility, and prominent positions – “sometimes even have the duty to communicate [their opinion] to their spiritual shepherds when it is about the well-being of the Church.”

As prominent examples of such expressions of opinion, the German prelate here mentions, among others, the participation of hundreds of thousands at pro-life marches in the world, the Filial Appeal to Pope Francis regarding Amoris Laetitia as signed by nearly one million Catholics, as well as the Filial Correction as signed “by more than 200 esteemed scholars in the world.”

He therefore concludes: “It would be time for the Magisterium to pay appropriate attention to this witness of Faith.”


*Translations from Cardinal Burke’s Italian speech were kindly provided by Giuseppe Pellegrino; the author herself made the translation from Cardinal Brandmüller’s German text

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