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Cardinal Burke on Papal Idolatry: Part II

by Christopher A. Ferrara
August 23, 2017

My last column discussed a recent talk by Cardinal Burke in which he drew a distinction between “the words of the man who is Pope and the words of the Pope as Vicar of Christ on earth.” I contrasted this distinction with the observation of Father Aidan Nichols, respecting the crisis provoked by Amoris Laetitia, 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.”

But if a Pope should utter some false teaching “as a public doctor,” does he do so, strictly speaking, as the Vicar of Christ on earth? Here Cardinal Burke’s distinction merits further discussion. In the complete original text of the Cardinal’s intervention, which I have reviewed, he made the further observation that “it is absurd to think that Pope Francis can teach something which is not in accord with what his predecessors, for example Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Saint John Paul II, have solemnly taught.”

A superficial reading of that assertion might lead one to think the Cardinal has erred, given the historical examples, few though they are, of Popes who uttered some kind of theological error, such as John XXII (r. 1316-1334), mentioned in my last column, or Honorius I (r. 625-638), who was actually condemned and anathematized posthumously as an aider and abettor of heresy by both an ecumenical council and his own successor, Leo II.  

As I noted in my previous column on this subject, the Cardinal’s distinction between the capacities of the person who occupies the papal office does not excuse the Pope’s responsibility for the consequences of promulgating personal theological views at variance with the perennial Magisterium. The consequences can be disastrous, as Catholics in the pews do not observe the distinction the Cardinal draws.

Nevertheless, it seems obvious to me that the Cardinal was referring not to “teaching” as a mere verbal utterance that happens to come from a Pope in oral or written form, but rather “teaching” as the formal presentation of Catholic doctrine clearly binding on the Church — not mere opinion, commentary, suggestion or speculation, such as we see with Laudato si’, which is filled with such extraneous material.

Consider once again the example of John XXII, who preached repeatedly the error that the souls of the blessed departed, even after Purgatory, will not enjoy the Beatific Vision until the Day of Judgment, when they will finally be admitted into the fullness of eternal communion with God. Further, John XXII published a treatise supporting his novel opinion.  He certainly appeared to be speaking as the Vicar of Christ.  But when one examines the details of the affair, one sees that it fits precisely within Cardinal Burke’s distinction between the Pope acting as Vicar of Christ and the body of the Pope as a private person with his own personal views. In the exhaustive historical account by Father Victor Francis O’Daniel, O.P. discussed here, we read the following:

“[Pope John maintained] that he had preached simply as a private theologian, not as Head of the Church, defining a doctrine to be accepted as of faith; that, consequently, his opinion, being given as that of a private doctor, was subject to the judgment and decision of the Church to be approved or condemned, as it may be found true or false; that, furthermore, the question was open to discussion, and every theologian was free to accept and to advocate whichever side of the controversy he should judge to be the true one. He did not, therefore, give any ex cathedra decision binding the consciences of the faithful…”

Note well: John XXII admitted what was already obvious from the very content of his false preaching: that it was nothing more than his errant opinion as “a private theologian.” It did not become such only because he admitted it was such, but rather because that is what it was on its face, being something the Church had never taught before.

Now, Francis may not be willing to admit expressly what John XXII felt constrained to admit when his error was met with furious opposition throughout Christendom: i.e., that he was merely expressing his personal views, which are debatable and subject to correction. Pope Francis may even be so misguided as to think that absolutely everything he speaks or writes is binding on the faithful merely by the fact of his having said or written it, no matter what the context or content of the utterance.

But, in my view, that does not alter the reality of the distinction Cardinal Burke has drawn: the Vicar of Christ acting precisely as Vicar of Christ cannot teach error, for the same reason that the authentic Magisterium as the authentic Magisterium cannot contain error. There is no “magisterium of the pope” but only the Magisterium of the Church. The concepts of “error” and “Magisterium” are mutually exclusive. Thus, I do not see how a Catholic could reasonably say “the Magisterium has erred” regarding some errant statement by a particular Pope. And if the Magisterium has not erred when a particular Pope errs, how can we sensibly say the Vicar of Christ has erred as opposed to the Pope in his personal capacity?

So, it seems clear enough that the Vicar of Christ, acting as such, cannot impart erroneous personal views under the label “Magisterium” simply by refusing to admit that they are his personal views. If it were otherwise, then we would have to say that, with the advent of Pope Francis, the Vicar of Christ has spent the past four years uttering all manner of false or dubious opinions, as documented here.

Therefore, is it not at least reasonably arguable that it really would be absurd to say that the currently reigning Vicar of Christ as such has contradicted all his predecessor Vicars of Christ? If there is a contradiction, it is between a Pope speaking as a private theologian and the preceding Vicars of Christ teaching as Christ’s vicars. When the Pope abuses his power by passing off personal views as if they were the Magisterium, Cardinal Burke argues, he is not doing so, strictly speaking, as the Vicar of Christ, even if his abuse of power has terrible consequences for which such a wayward Pope is responsible.

The distinction proposed by Cardinal Burke is, he notes, found in the reasoning of theologians in the Middle Ages:

“In the Middle Ages, the Church spoke of the two bodies of the Pope: the body of the man and the body of the Vicar of Christ. In fact, the traditional Papal vesture, especially the red mozzetta with the stole depicting the Apostles Saint Peter and Paul, visibly represents the true body of the Pope when he is setting forth the teaching of the Church.”

Tellingly, when Francis first appeared on the balcony of Saint Peter’s after his election, even the resolutely “normalist” Vatican Insider admits that “As Marini placed the mozzetta on Francis, the Pope simply said: ‘I would prefer you didn’t.’” 

Make of it what you will. But clearly, we have a Pope who, perhaps instinctively or even under the negative restraint of the Holy Ghost, shuns that degree of formality or language of command in his pronouncements which would indicate a true intention, as Vicar of Christ, to bind the Church to his novel opinions.

In conclusion, it seems reasonable to argue — and surely there is room for debate — that the novelties of Pope Francis cannot, strictly speaking, be attributed to the Vicar of Christ as opposed to the person of the man who now occupies the papal office. If there were no such distinction then one would have to say that every utterance of Francis is an utterance of the Vicar of Christ on earth, so long as he does not expressly state “this is only my opinion.” That truly would lead to absurdities, and thus an erosion of faith among many in the Pope as Christ’s Vicar.