Why Are Burke & Chaput Now Calling for Less Papal Power?

Is Pope Francis’ desire for a more merciful and decentralized church being realized by the very church leaders most opposed to him? Debates over Amoris Laetitia, the pope’s exhortation on family life, seem to suggest just such a reality.

In order to understand how this dynamic might be working, it is first important to lay out a few news items.  I will then explain just what I and others think might be happening at this moment in the Church, and the possible impact for LGBT issues.

Raymond Cardinal Leo Burke visits the Oratory of Ss. Gregory and Augustine to celebrate Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament followed by a Reception. As Archbishop of St Louis, Cardinal Burke canonically established the Oratory on the first Sunday of Adve

Cardinal Raymond Burke, singing a new church into being

This week, Cardinal Raymond Burke threatened a “formal act of correction” against Pope Francis if the pope would not reply to a letter sent to him by Burke and three other cardinals, reported the Catholic Herald.

The four prelates– Cardinals Carlo Caffarra, Walter Brandmüller, Joachim Meisner, and Burke–submitted five “dubia,” or theological yes/no questions about Amoris Laetitia, but Pope Francis has declined to offer a response. Burke defended the cardinals’ defiant action, telling the Catholic Herald:

” ‘There is, in the tradition of the Church, the practice of correction of the Roman Pontiff. It is something that is clearly quite rare. But if there is no response to these questions, then I would say that it would be a question of taking a formal act of correction of a serious error.’ “

Burke proceeded to say that if ecclesial authority is in conflict with Tradition, it is the latter which is binding. If the pope is in error or heretical, Burke continued, the hierarchy would have not only the option but a duty to correct the pope whose primary purpose is unity. The idea of the pope as an “innovator, who is leading a revolution in the Church” is improper, he claims.

Cardinal Burke, formerly archbishop of St. Louis and then head of the Apostolic Signatura at the Vatican, was demoted by Francis to be chaplain of the Knights of Malta. The two had a private meeting last week following Burke’s laudatory comments for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.

Elsewhere, as yesterday’s post noted, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops did not formally discuss Amoris Laetitia during its fall plenary this week. Cardinal-designate Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican’s new Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life urged the country’s bishops to collectively address the exhortation, and he even rebuked a handful of bishops who had issued their own, mostly restrictive, pastoral guidelines based on Amoris Laetitia.


Archbishop Charles Chaput

Farrell specifically addressed guidelines put forth this summer by Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput. These guidelines, among other sanctions, ban people in same-gender marriages from parish ministries and seek to deny Communion to certain Catholics. In response to Farrell’s remarks, which Chaput described as “puzzling,” the archbishop told Catholic News Agency:

” ‘I wonder if Cardinal-designate Farrell actually read and understood the Philadelphia guidelines he seems to be questioning. The guidelines have a clear emphasis on mercy and compassion.”

Besides the Burke and Chaput discussions, conversations, and even quite heated debates, about Amoris Laetitia are happening worldwide.

In Germany, according to the National Catholic Reporter, the bishops have been divided on whether to admit to Communion persons who are divorced and remarried. During their fall meeting, the bishops discussed the exhortation, and pastoral guidelines are expected in the coming months.

In Argentina, it was reported in September that Pope Francis had signed off on pastoral guidelines created by the bishops there, saying their document was “very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia [which concerns people in irregular situations].”

In Rome, the Vatican’s official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano has published essays defending Amoris Laetitia against conservative critics in the church. And Farrell has been very clear that the exhortation and surrounding conversations are “the Holy Spirit speaking” and, per the National Catholic Reporter that the document is “faithful to the doctrine and to the teaching of the church.”

At one level, all of these debates impact LGBT people and their families because the specifics of pastoral guidelines and the new openness to accompanying all people that is intended by Pope Francis can have very real consequences, positive and negative.

But on a deeper level, there are ecclesiological implications of the Amoris Laetitia debate, begun when the pope first called the Synod on the Family and led the church universal into that process. It is ironic that Cardinal Burke is claiming bishops have a right and duty to correct the pope or that Archbishop Chaput is defending the power of local ordinaries to act pastorally in their contexts when they have so often defended a legalist, centralized, even authoritarian understanding of church.

Even more ironically, their protests display episcopal collegiality and ecclesial decentralization that they have traditionally staunchly resisted.  This collegial and decentralized perspective is favored by Pope Francis and, in fact, called for by Vatican II. So, for bishops conferences to be debating and even ignoring a papal document is, in a sense, progress. For bishops to understand they have a certain co-responsibility for the church, and that the papacy exists within the college of bishops is progress, too.  It is odd, though, that those who have so strongly resisted such practices are now promoting them.

Movement towards a church that, to quote the pope, is “home for all” will benefit LGBT equality. It is good when church ministers have greater autonomy to respond to their contexts and the specific needs of their people. It is good when the coercive powers of the pope and the Vatican are lessened in favor of broader power sharing. It is good when theology is messy and pastoral responses are not entirely clear. This is the chaos in which the Spirit works and from which a renewed church that practices inclusion and abides by justice comes forth.

So what do you think: are these bishops helping the church move to being a home for all? Could it be that Cardinal Burke, Archbishop Chaput, and their confreres who are so forcefully and publicly resisting Pope Francis are actually, if unwittingly, helping to  advance the pope’s agenda for the church? Or are their efforts hindering Pope Francis and/or the cause of equality?

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 18, 2016

19 replies
  1. Vincenzo
    Vincenzo says:

    “There is, in the tradition of the Church, the practice of correction of the Roman Pontiff. It is something that is clearly quite rare. But if there is no response to these questions, then I would say that it would be a question of taking a formal act of correction of a serious error.”

    Where was the correction of Ratzinger’s serious error in defining the gay orientation as objective disorder and gay love-relationships as intrinsically evil? Ratzinger’s 1986 “teachings” were the very apotheosis of “innovative” heresy.

    • Kathleen
      Kathleen says:

      Hi Vincenzo. Is it too late to file the correction? Can’t anybody in Church help to get the 1986 “error” corrected? Some of the Bishops treat the document as though it is gospel and they evangelize with it. These and other cruel teachings that keep people away from the love of God are evil, yes evil. No words of mercy and compassion can cover up or hide the spiritual and emotional lashings caused by Ratzingers uncorrected written document of 1986 on the pastoral care of homosexual persons. If the leadership under Pope Francis does not correct the misguided ignorance of ’86 to which the new officials for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops seem to adhere, I fear the way becomes darker.

  2. miriamtf
    miriamtf says:

    Are Burke and Chaput cafeteria Catholics? We all should be cafeteria or buffet Catholics in some sense as we grow in our own spirit and serve our neighbors. Burke began his episcopacy in the diocese of my residence and he has a strong following here. That following drew highly conservative priests from around the world to serve here under Burke. I was on board with him at the time. Much more recently, I have found the peace and strength to pursue my mtf tg life to some degree, but it has cost me participation in parish life, besides losing my wife and some children. I attend Mass elsewhere, sometimes in a different diocese. Very sad. Very unpastoral. God guide and bless the successor of Simon Peter, the bishops of the world, and you all. Thank you.

    • Loretta
      Loretta says:

      I am so sorry for these tremendous losses, MiriamTF, particularly your children. A little prayer sent your way. Thank for your witness.

  3. Thomas
    Thomas says:

    These American bishops and cardinals who chafe at the Pope’s direction are guilty of contorting their roles. The USCCB has become too political and aligns itself with reactionary thinking. The shrinking Catholic attendance in European churches, and now, increasingly sparse attendance in American churches, tells the story. No one is listening anymore. What the Pope says is better received by ordinary Catholics. It makes sense, seems kind ( for the most part) and is compassionate . The USCCB is focused on power and influence, and worst of all, ego.

  4. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    I think these guys are getting a taste of their own medicine, e.g., the pope won’t respond to their letter and concerns. Hello. Welcome to our world.

    • Kathleen
      Kathleen says:

      Sitting here drinking morning coffee, I had to chuckle over your comment Loretta. Our church of no response. Been there…more times than one!

  5. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    It sounds like the hierarchy has taken on the task of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic – again. Once they lost the birth control war and then spent a few decades hiding the abuse of children in their care they need to realize they owe a generation of penance by living among their sheep, not parading before them like medieval royalty.

    I have decided Burke and cohort have gone over the edge in their dress up world. Burke fell into the dream that his kit is reality – the cardinal/emperor really isn’t wearing any clothes.

    Bob, I really like the idea of a buffet Catholicism. It is a rich offering of everything one could need offered freely. Take and be saved. A cafeteria says I select or reject certain items, but with a buffet it is all there to make me better. It sounds like Christ to me.

  6. Albertus
    Albertus says:

    Of course Tradition is above the Pope: the Pope is the keepr of Holy Tradition, which is equal to the Deposit of Faith as it is formulated in teh Crreds and in the New testament, and celebrated in the Mass and Sacraments. But nothing inAmoris Laetitia has to do with that Holy Tradition, but only with ”traidtions'[‘with a small ”t”. Cardinal Burke should know this distincition!

    • Khruschev
      Khruschev says:

      Albertus, I have heard this argument before – it is similar to one I heard from a theologian recently, that (at least with respect to Burke et al’s Dubia #1) that communion for the divorced and civilly remarried is a question of “discipline” not dogma.

      But is that so? Is not the Eucharist “the very source of Christian marriage,” the actual expression of the “Christ’s covenant of love with the Church, sealed with His blood on the Cross” as expressed by John Paul II (Familiaris Consortio n. 57)? If yes, then is this not an issue of faith rather than of discipline, or, in your parlance tradition with a samll “t”?

      With respect to the issue of Penance and Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, how could it ever make sense to allow such couples the sacraments when those sacraments are also withheld from those whose only marriage is a civil one? Or are you proposing that that also be dispensed with?

  7. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    Burke’s praise of Donald Trump are revelatory. He maintains Trump will defend human life from conception and will uphold Christian values. The real question is whether he will uphold human life beyond conception and through all life stages. That involves a whole range of actions that are in contradiction to his statements and the policies of those he is appointing to his administration.

    As far as upholding Christian values is concerned – since when are xenophobia, the assault of women, the banning of immigrants and Muslims, an attack on LGBTQ people, fraud, lies, narcissism, greed, attacks on physically disabled people, etc., Christian values? They are anything but.

    What Burke seems to really like is leaders who are despotic – whether in the Church or without. And the type of despots he likes, are those who restrict freedoms, and impose the types of controls that he himself likes to see.

    I would also suggest that the fixation on abortion and sexual morality that Burke espouses, have blinded him to the real values espoused by the Jesus of the Gospels. Abortions were done in Jesus’ day. Roman soldiers had same sex relationships. And women were demeaned. Yet apparently he either said nothing about abortion or same sex relationships, or the Gospel writers didn’t consider such teachings to be crucial to the Christian message. And according to the Gospel accounts, Jesus treated women with equality, in a way that shocked even his own disciples.

    That is not to say that abortion and sexual relationships are not issues that require moral consideration. But it means that they were not issues that were central to the life and message of Jesus. But the treatment of the poor, the sick, the discarded, and women were. Those are not the concerns of Trump. And apparently not the concerns of Cardinal Burke either.

  8. amagjuka
    amagjuka says:

    These men remind me of the GOP. They declared President “illegitimate.” These bishops consider Pope Francis “illegitimate.” That is the danger of ideologues and authoritarians in power positions.

  9. DJR
    DJR says:

    Pope Francis will not live forever. There is nothing he can do, short of defining dogma… absolutely nothing… that cannot be undone in the next pontificate. There are numerous historical precedents for this in Church history.

    The cardinals who have presented the dubia have done the Church a great service by making their concerns public, as the discussion cannot now be avoided. There is no evidence that they are going to back down. The laity, too, have been empowered, as witnessed by numerous public statements from prominent Catholics.

    And it would be a miscalculation of the highest order to think that there are only four cardinals involved. It is well known that nearly the entire episcopate of Poland, as well as numerous African prelates, share the exact same sentiments.

    Many Byzantine Rite Catholic prelates, who represent millions of Catholics, also are on board with “the 4.”

    I know for a fact that mine is.

    I heard from his own mouth, in a public sermon no less, that there are “enemies” within the Catholic Church, and he was not talking about people like Cardinal Burke.

    And he’s a Yank, and quite young.

    • Khruschev
      Khruschev says:

      Sorry, but that makes no sense to me. Let’s presume for the sake of argument that I want the Church’s discipline and practice on these matters to be precisely the same as what you want.

      The four cardinals stated position, in their “dubia” correspondence, is one of seeking clarity from Pope Francis – that “the way out of situations like this is recourse to the Holy Father, asking the Apostolic See to resolve those doubts, which are the cause of disorientation and confusion.” They also explicitly “profess that the Petrine ministry is the ministry of unity, and that to Peter, to the Pope, belongs the service of confirming in the faith.” They also pledge openly that their purpose is “to help the Pope to prevent divisions and conflicts in the Church, asking him to dispel all ambiguity.”

      In order to provide context, they also say explicitly:

      “We hope that no one will choose to interpret the matter according to a
      “progressive/conservative” paradigm. That would be completely off the mark. We are deeply
      concerned about the true good of souls, the supreme law of the Church, and not about
      promoting any form of politics in the Church.

      We hope that no one will judge us unjustly, as adversaries of the Holy Father and people
      devoid of mercy. What we have done and are doing derives from the deep collegial affection
      that unites us to the Pope, and from an impassioned concern for the good of the faithful.”

      Robert Burns, himself17, and Wilhelm Wonka, despite your stated desire that the four cardinals “leave and form their own church,” their expressed desire is for prevention of division, for a unified Church. When their expressed desire is for unity, and their appeal is to the Holy Father himself, why would you want them to leave – before the questions are resolved?

      Remember, the Holy Father could answer them in a way that provides clarity (to everyone) and that answer could be the opposite of what they may expect or hope for. The doubts would then be resolved, and perhaps not to their liking. But at that point they would have received the clarification that they requested, and be obliged to obey the Holy Father’s answer – because his answer would become de facto part of the Ordinary Universal Magisterium. If they pursued “correction” after that, rather than clarification, then there could be an issue of schism, heresy or apostacy for them to answer for. Wouldn’t that be a preferred outcome from your point of view?

      As it stands, with no clarification from the Holy Father, we have the Bishop of San Diego doing one thing, granting Confession and Communion to the divorced and civilly remarried who continue to live “more uxuorio” (similar to the “directive” of the Bishops of Buenos Aires) and yet the Bishop of Phoenix and many, many, many other dioceses throughout the U.S. and the world explicitly refusing to do likewise, because they precisely believe that chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia says no such thing and does not alter John Paul II’s clear teaching in Familiaris Consortio n. 84.

      Herein is one point of confusion and division that already exists. The four cardinals did not create the confusion, and, in technical terms, neither did Pope Francis within the text of Amoris Laetitia. Rather, the confusion has arisen because of diverging interpretations by certain Bishops of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia.

      Wouldn’t you rather that this confusion be resolved by the Holy Father in favor of the Bishop of San Diego’s point of view, in a clear way (and in a formal written response to the four cardinals), so that the four cardinals (and all those who side with them) will then be effectively placing themselves outside the Church in the event that they continue in any formal opposition after that point?

      If that is what you really want, then you should, in theory, be standing with the four cardinals in wanting a definitive answer to the “dubia” questions from the Holy Father, assuming that you also desire a unified Church.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] 2.0 has reported on the Vatican-level debate between four cardinals, led by Cardinal Raymond Burke, and Pope Francis about the doctrinal […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *