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Cardinal Burke: The Pope Is Not an Idol

by Christopher A. Ferrara
August 22, 2017

In my column of August 18, I discussed a truly historic address by the renowned theologian, Father Aidan Nichols, wherein he suggested that, in view of the crisis provoked by Amoris Laetitia, a new canonical procedure may be needed to deal with a doctrinally errant Pope. In the course of that address, Fr. Nichols stated that “it is not the position of the Roman Catholic Church that a pope is incapable of leading people astray by false teaching as a public doctor…. He may be the supreme appeal judge of Christendom…but that does not make him immune to perpetrating doctrinal howlers.”

While the Pope is obviously not immune from error in his every utterance, as the historic example of John XXII demonstrates, when the Pope exceeds the strict limits of papal infallibility by offering what are in essence his erroneous personal theological opinions, as John XXII did, are those opinions, strictly speaking, the teaching of the Vicar of Christ as such?

In answer to this question, I think it is worth considering the view of Cardinal Raymond Burke, expressed during a recent Catholic conference in Kentucky, reported by Life Site News. Cardinal Raymond Burke enunciated a crucial distinction regarding the papacy that has been lost in the post-conciliar confusion: the distinction between the “words of the man who is Pope and the words of the Pope as Vicar of Christ on earth.”

Applying this distinction to the — one must say it — calamitous papacy we now witness, Cardinal Burke explained to his audience that “Pope Francis has chosen to speak often in his first body, the body of the man who is Pope. In fact, even in documents which, in the past, have represented more solemn teaching, he states clearly that he is not offering magisterial teaching but his own thinking” — a clear reference to the disastrous Amoris Laetitia (AL).

The Cardinal warned against the danger posed by those who “want to make [the Pope’s] every statement somehow part of the Magisterium. To do so is contrary to reason and to what the Church has always understood. It is simply wrong and harmful to the Church to receive every declaration of the Holy Father as an expression of papal teaching or magisterium.”   The faithful must not, the Cardinal cautioned, succumb to what would amount to a most uncatholic “idolatry of the papacy.”

That said, however, it must also be said that a Pope is not excused from the consequences of his errant opinions merely because, objectively speaking, they do not and cannot bind the Church. Catholics in the pew by and large are oblivious to the distinction the Cardinal is drawing. If the Pope says X, they simply assume it is genuine papal teaching without regard to its form, context or continuity with the teaching of all prior Popes. This is especially true where, in the case of Francis, what the Pope says is deemed agreeable to the itching ears of nominal Catholics who reject the infallible teaching of the Church on such matters as divorce and remarriage. Indeed, the world’s unending applause for “the Francis revolution” demonstrates the disastrous consequences of papal opinions masquerading as the authentic Magisterium.

Nevertheless, the Cardinal’s distinction between the Vicar of Christ and the person of the Pope is essential to avoiding a situation in which, when the person of the Pope utters something contrary to the constant teaching of the Vicars of Christ, those who know what the Church really teaches “would easily lose respect for the Papacy or be led to think that, if we do not agree with the personal opinions of the man who is Roman Pontiff, then we must break communion with the Church…” Such people would conclude that if “the Church” can “change her mind” so easily, she must not be the true Church of Christ after all.

In my book diagnosing the current crisis in the Church, I note that the great theologian of the Council of Trent, Melchior Cano, made precisely the same point as Cardinal Burke does: “Peter has no need of our lies or flattery. Those who blindly and indiscriminately defend every decision of the supreme Pontiff are the very ones who do most to undermine the authority of the Holy See — they destroy instead of strengthening its foundations.”

Now if only Francis would publicly acknowledge the vital distinction between his every utterance on the one hand and, on the other, the authentic (that is, constant and unbroken) teaching of the Vicars of Christ on matters of faith and morals. Sad to say, however, it appears he argues for precisely the error identified by Cardinal Burke. As he declared in an interview published by the ultra-progressive Jesuit magazine America: “I’m constantly making statements, giving homilies. That’s magisterium. That’s what I think, not what the media say that I think. Check it out; it’s very clear.”

With all due respect, “what I think” and what the Magisterium teaches are not one and the same. Nor is “very clear” a fair description of AL, Laudato si’ (filled with blatant opinions on such matters as CO2 omissions, the use of air-conditioning and environmental regulations) and Evangelli gaudium, wherein Francis clearly expounds his personal “vison,” hopes and “dreams.” Not to mention innumerable other expressions of what Francis thinks. The mere fact that a Pope’s personal views happen to appear within the four corners of a published document does not make them utterances of the Vicar of Christ. The Vicar of Christ is not concerned with atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide nor does Christ’s Vicar, acting precisely as such, have “dreams” of “transforming everything” in the Church as Evangelli Gaudium (par. 27) muses.

Again, however, the consequences of the abuse of papal authority by presenting mere opinions as if they were authentic Church teaching cannot be overlooked, whether or not the Pope is strictly speaking as the Vicar of Christ. Paradoxically enough, therefore, respect for the office that Francis occupies impels the believing Catholic to reject the notion that whatever he thinks, even if it appears in a formal document, “is magisterium.” To accept that notion would indeed be to destroy rather than strengthen the foundations of the papacy. And that is precisely what the Adversary would have us do as he wages his “final battle” against the Church: destroy the papacy’s foundations by turning the Pope into an inerrant oracle whose every opinion would be binding on the faithful, leading to a shipwreck of the Faith.