Cardinal Burke: Papal Authority Derives From Obedience to Christ

In a speech at a conference in Rome addressing confusion in the Church, the American cardinal outlined the limits of papal power, and pays to tribute to Cardinal Joachim Meisner who ‘tirelessly’ presented Christ’s teaching.

Cardinal Raymond Burke speaking at Rome conference on confusion in the Church and the limits of papal authority, April 7, 2018.
Cardinal Raymond Burke speaking at Rome conference on confusion in the Church and the limits of papal authority, April 7, 2018. (photo: Edward Pentin photo)

Cardinal Raymond Burke has stressed that popes must safeguard and promote Church unity, and that if a Roman Pontiff fails to act in conformity with Divine Revelation, Sacred Scripture and Tradition, such actions “must be rejected by the faithful.”  

In a talk given today in Rome on the current state of doctrinal confusion in the Church, the patron of the Order of Malta warned that any expression of doctrine or practice by a Roman Pontiff must be an “authentic exercise” of the Petrine ministry.

He explained in a speech on The limits of papal authority in the doctrine of the Church that plenitudo potestatis — the fullness of power given to a pope — does not mean that a pope’s authority is “magical, but derives from his obedience to the Lord.”

The canonist and prefect emeritus of the Apostolic Signatura made the comments in light of growing concern that Pope Francis is leading the Church in a totalitarian and even lawless direction, not in continuity with the Church’s teaching and Tradition. The cardinal, however, did not specifically mention the Holy Father during his talk.

Drawing on the teaching of 13th century canonist Cardinal Enrico da Susa (‘Hostiensis’) and the writings of English Professor John A. Watt, the American cardinal focused primarily on a pope’s absoluta potestas (absolute power) which, he said, is different from that defined by Machiavelli or totalitarian dictators in that it is used to “remedy defects” in existing law arising from “non-compliance” or because existing law was “inadequate to meet particular circumstances.”

He added the “fullness of power” does not mean authority over the Church’s Magisterium, but rather as a “necessity” of governance “in full fidelity” to the Church’s Magisterium.  As such, Cardinal Burke continued, it is only to be used “with great caution” and as a power for “building, not for destruction.”

The Pope’s absoluta potestas, the cardinal added, is given by “Christ himself” and so can “only be exercised in obedience to Christ.” A pope could dispense with the law or interpret it, he said,  but only so that it helps the law to serve its “proper purpose, never to subvert it.”

He pointed out that any act of a pope considered “heretical or sinful” or that could “favor heresy or sin, undermined the foundations of society and was therefore null and void.”

It was well understood, the cardinal explained, that the fullness of power given to a pope did not allow him to “act against the Apostolic Faith” but was a power he should use “sparingly and with the greatest prudence.”

Quoting Watt, the cardinal said the exercise of plenitudo potestatis was meant to serve souls and the unity of the Church, not the personal interests of individuals. “If the Pope acted in this way sine causa [without cause] or arbitrarily, he would put his salvation at risk.”

Cardinal Burke, one of the four cardinals to sign the dubia asking the Pope to clarify parts of his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitiacriticized Pope Francis earlier this week for “refusing to clarify” the Church’s doctrine and discipline and for “increasing confusion” on the “most fundamental and important issues.” In an interview with the Italian daily La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, Cardinal Burke singled out reports that Francis allegedly told Italian atheist Eugenio Scalfari that hell did not exist. Such remarks, Cardinal Burke said, “were a profound scandal,” “went beyond what is tolerable,” and the Vatican’s response was “highly inadequate.”

In his speech on Saturday, Cardinal Burke went on to explained how abuses of the fullness of power could be corrected. Hostiensis made it clear the Pope should be “warned of the error of his actions, even publicly” and that the College of Cardinals “should act as a de facto check against papal error.” But Hostiensis did not offer a “binding remedy,” the cardinal added. Instead, he argued that if, according to a well formed conscience, a member of the faithful believes a papal act of exercising the fullness of power is “sinful” then “the Pope must be disobeyed out of duty and the consequences of that disobedience suffered with Christian patience.”

Seeing as, according to canon law, the Pope cannot be judged, the cardinal explained that the correction of a pope would take the form of two phases, based on Christ’s teaching in Matt. 18:15-17 of how to issue a fraternal correction and canonical tradition. This would therefore mean directly correcting the Roman Pontiff of the “presumed error,” and then if he continued to err, making a “public declaration.”

Cardinal Burke referred to Canon 212 which, although advocating Christian obedience, also says the faithful have the “right and duty” to make their concerns about the good of the Church known to clergy.

He also drew on a 1996 symposium held by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on “The Primacy of the Successor of Peter" which stressed that the ministry of the Roman Pontiff is a service of unity with each particular Church, making it “substantially different” to secular government. The Roman Pontiff carries out his office as a service that is “in obedience to Christ,” the CDF document said, in this sense, as servus servorum (servant of the servants). 

“The Successor of Peter is the rock that, against arbitrariness and conformism, guarantees a rigorous fidelity to the Word of God,” Cardinal Burke said. “The fullness of the power of the Roman Pontiff can only be rightly understood and exercised as obedience to the grace of Christ, Head and Shepherd of the flock of every time and in every place.”

Referring to various canons, the cardinals said the Pope must exercise his power “in communion with the whole Church” and “respect the deposit of faith,” but he cannot “act in contrast with the faith.” He must “respect each and all of the Sacraments, cannot suppress or add anything that goes against the substance of the Sacraments” and finally must share the exercise of “full and supreme power” with the College of Bishops.

He also said it is “important to note” that the fullness of power of the Roman Pontiff is “not merely honorary but substantial” in that it involves the “universal responsibility of safeguarding the rule of faith (regula fidei) and the rule of law (regula iuris).” He also stressed that according to canon law, although the Pope has supreme power even higher than an ecumenical council, this power is not exercised when he “acts as a private person or simple member of the faithful.”

Re-emphasizing the extent and reach of papal power — which includes the ability to define doctrines and condemn errors, to promulgate and repeal laws, to act as judge in all matters of faith, to decree and impose penalties, to appoint and remove pastors if necessary —  the cardinal said that “since this power comes from God Himself, it is limited by natural law and divine law.”

“Therefore, any expression of doctrine or practice that is not in conformity with Divine Revelation, contained in the Sacred Scriptures and in the Tradition of the Church, cannot be an authentic exercise of the Apostolic or Petrine ministry and must be rejected by the faithful,” Cardinal Burke said. 

He quoted St. Paul letter to the Galatians: “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!”

He closed with words of Gratian in his Decretals, the 12th century canonical text, which stated:

“Let no mortal being have the audacity to reprimand a Pope on account of his faults, for he whose duty it is to judge all other men cannot be judged by anybody, unless he should be called to task for having deviated from the faith.”


Tribute to Cardinal Meisner

Cardinal Burke said a few words at the beginning of his talk to honor the memory of Cardinal Joachim Meisner, one of the four “dubia cardinals” who died last year.

He said the archbishop emeritus of Cologne, Germany, was “completely united” with the other three cardinals and considered it his “first duty” to “tirelessly present the teaching of Christ.”

He remembered in particular comments Cardinal Meisner made after listening to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s present his proposal in 2014 on how some remarried divorcees not living in sexual continence could receive Holy Communion. “All this will end in a schism,” Cardinal Meisner predicted, and Cardinal Burke recalled how Meisner then did “everything possible to defend Christ’s word on marriage.”

But although “clearly and deeply concerned about the present state of the Church,” he also remembered how Cardinal Meisner “did not fail to express all his trust in the Lord, who will not fail to sustain His Mystical Body in the truth of faith.”