Collect for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity

Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things: graft in our hearts the love of thy Name; increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Monday, August 21, 2017

A Belated Response to Cardinal Burke

The blind rulers of Logres
nourished the land on a fallacy of rational virtue;
the seals of the saints were broken; the chairs of the Table reeled.

Galahad quickened in the Mercy;
but history began; the Moslem stormed Byzantium;
lost was the glory, lost the power and the kingdom.

Call on the hills to hide us
lest, men said in the City, the lord of charity
ride in the starlight, sole flash of the Emperor’s glory.

—Charles Williams, Taliessin Through Logres, ‘Prelude’

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A friend of mine e-mailed me a piece that made my blood boil, but I think I've calmed down enough to write about it. The piece in question quoted something said by Cardinal Burke in an interview late last year with Catholic World Report:

Cd B: There is a very serious division in the Church which has to be mended because it has to do with, as I said before, fundamental dogmatic and moral teaching. And if it’s not clarified soon, it could develop into a formal schism.

CWR: Some people are saying that the Pope could separate himself from communion with the Church. Can the Pope legitimately be declared in schism or heresy?

Cd B: If a Pope would formally profess heresy he would cease, by that act, to be the Pope. And so, that could happen.

CWR: That’s a scary thought.

Cd B: It is a scary thought, and I hope we won’t be witnessing it any time soon.

Now, at first, being ignorant of canon law, I thought these remarks were implicitly heretical. No, the Pope is not always right in his opinions, even his theological opinions; the charism of infallibility takes effect only when the Pope invokes his full authority as the universal pastor of the Church, and, while he may be expected to be right at other times (given the ordinary graces of the teaching office and the theological training he’ll have received as a priest and a bishop), it isn’t inevitable. But to say that a Pope who, fulfilling the conditions for infallibility,1 taught a heretical doctrine, would thereby cease to be Pope, seemed like a hopelessly circular train of thought, and a direct justification for sedevacantism.2 After all, the ‘point’ of the Vicar of Christ is that he provides an objective locus of unity, which is itself useless unless that unity is anchored in completely trustworthy truth; so if the very locus of unity can’t be trusted to be right, then who judges, and why? And how?

Now, full disclosure, I rather dislike Cardinal Burke, but I’ve no wish to be unfair to him. So I did a little research, and got a better understanding of what it is he was talking about in the first place. The 1917 Code of Canon Law states the following, if I’ve translated it rightly:

Ob tacitam renutiationem ab ipso jure admissam quælibet officia vacant ipso facto et sine ulla declaratione, si clericus:
… A fide catholica defecerit.
By committing a tacit renunciation of the right itself, he vacates any and all offices, by the act itself and without further declaration, if a cleric:
… Publicly abandons the Catholic faith.

The more recent Code of 1983 says substantially the same:

The following are removed from ecclesiastical office by the law itself:
… A person who has publicly defected from the Catholic faith or the communion of the Church.3

Now, it must be pointed out that both of those canons are so worded as to give some latitude in what constitutes public defection from the Church; but if I’ve learnt anything about canon law in my time as a Catholic, which I haven’t, it’s that it is hopelessly confusing and literally everyone has a totally different and fanatically held view of each individual canon. Point is, I’m not going there.

But if I’ve understood the Church’s doctrine of infallibility correctly, and also understood the niceties of canon law correctly,4 then the situation is like this. Once a thesis is declared heretical, then any cleric, including the Pope, who publicly espouses that thesis is ipso facto deprived of his office. Before a thesis has been declared heretical, this does not take effect (as is shown in the cases of Nestorius, who was deposed by the Council of Ephesus, and St Cyprian, whose flawed theology of the sacraments was never afterwards held to invalidate his ordaining clergy); for heresy is primarily a refusal of intellectual obedience to the Church, and if the Church has not yet set something forth for the assent of the faithful, they can hardly be blamed for not assenting to it.5

So, for a Pope to teach a doctrine that has already been condemned would be possible—a horrible scandal, but possible—yet it would not conflict with the dogma of infallibility, unless he invoked his full authority to do it and that invocation of full authority was the occasion of his first publicly espousing the heresy. If that were to happen, then the Catholic doctrine of the papacy (if nothing else) would be conclusively shown to be false. Cardinal Burke isn’t talking about that, I don’t think, but about a Pope teaching heresy without invoking his full authority (which Popes don’t often invoke); this would result in his instantaneously forfeiting his office.

So no, no heresy on Cardinal Burke’s part. However, I do think his assertions about Amoris Lætitia, and the dubia which he and three other Cardinals issued in response to it, are totally meshugah. Quoting from the same interview with His Eminence:

CWR: Why do you think Amoris Lætitia Chapter 8 is so ambiguous?

Cd B: The reason for its ambiguity, it seems to me, is to give latitude to a practice which has never been admitted in the Church, namely the practice of permitting people who are living publicly in grave sin to receive the Sacraments. …

CWR: Some critics say you are implicitly accusing the Pope of heresy.

Cd B: No, that’s not what we have implied at all. We have simply asked him, as the Supreme Pastor of the Church, to clarify these five points that are confused … We are not asking the questions as a merely formal exercise, we’re not asking questions about positive ecclesiastical law, that is, laws that are made by the Church herself. These are questions that have to do with the natural moral law and the fundamental teaching of the Gospel. To be attentive to that teaching is hardly legalism. In fact, it is, as Our Lord Himself taught us, the way of perfection to which we’re called.

I’ve written about this before, when the dubia were first issued, and I stand by the opinion I had at the time: Amoris Lætitia is dealing exactly with the positive law of the Church, and applying the same discipline to the altar rail as it does to the confessional; namely, it’s stating explicitly that objective grave sin, even when it’s public, is not the only thing that determines the state of a person’s soul, and pastoral discernment might determine that the best thing for a given person in that state would be confessing and communing, rather than abstaining from those things. To me, that isn’t all that shocking—not a pastoral concession to be lightly indulged, certainly, but Pope Francis has gone out of his way to say as much, notably in Chapter 8 of Amoris Lætitia.

I earnestly ask that we always recall a teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas: ‘Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects … The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail.’ It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care.

… In no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur … A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves. … I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the good which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, ‘always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street’. … We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel.

I think the Holy Father is perfectly right. Not that he needs my support. But, forgive me, the feel of Cardinal Burke’s remarks—and if he is not shy of saying why he thinks His Holiness was ‘vague,’ I shall not be shy of saying why I feel His Eminence is too particular—is precisely the feel of Pharisaism at its best: intelligent, dutiful, exact, clean … just a little too clean for reality, and just a little too moral for God.

For while we are called to a terrible climax of perfection, that perfection is something more and other than moral virtue, which (I feel) is the only thing that Cardinal Burke’s words suggest he has in mind. Because remember, the Pharisees were not primarily wrong about doctrine or wicked in their conduct; indeed, some, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, became Christians. Their error lay precisely in the fact that they attended to the Torah at the expense of men. But the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Moral virtue itself is important as a means, to be whole as human beings, which is itself a lesser good than the uniting of that human wholeness to the Deity. The perfection to which we are called is the perfection of supernatural Love: the darting, fiery, trans-rational, magnificent thing that we occasionally glimpse in the saints, never in the merely virtuous.

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1The conditions of infallibility are that the Pope (so not somebody else), either by making a formal pronouncement of his own or by convalidating the pronouncement of a council (so not speaking off the cuff or giving a mere opinion), must proclaim a dogma pertaining to faith or morals (so not about astronomy, for example), intending that it should be affirmed by all faithful Catholics (so not only giving judgment on a specific situation). A handy mnemonic is POUT: pontifical, official, universal, theological.
2Sedevacantism, from the Latin sede vacante ‘empty chair,’ is the belief that the current line of Popes are impostors and that the Throne of Peter is in fact unoccupied; most sedevacantists consider Bl Pius XII the last genuine pontiff.
3These are §188.4 in the 1917 Code and §194.1.2 in the 1983. It’s much easier to find the 1917 online in Latin than in English, which is why I was obliged to translate; an English version of the 1983 is on the Vatican’s website. The expression by the law itself means that the effect is immediate, rather than one that has to be enacted by a competent authority as a penalty.
4Of course, canon law, which is not dogma and not the same thing as morals (being, rather, the settled application of morals to Church policy), isn’t infallible. So if canon law were flawed, that wouldn’t be a logical crisis for the Catholic faith, though it would certainly be a practical catastrophe for the Church. A more thorough and expert treatment of the subject can be found here.
5This doesn’t mean that truth doesn’t exist until the Church decrees it, which no sane and self-respecting person could believe. Rather, it means that a person can’t be held responsible to profess a truth of faith until it’s been made clear that it is a truth of faith; it’s substantially the same as what St Paul says in Romans 5-8, that sin is not imputed where there is no law; nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, i.e. the consequences of the realities of sin and error were still there, but before the revealing of the Torah, the responsibility of those who suffered under those realities was a different thing.

1 comment:

  1. I agree.

    One further point: the doctrine of infallibility, while admitting of the possibility of a pope holding an erroneous opinion on a matter of faith or morals, assures it that it is impossible for him to formally teach heresy. The Holy Spirit preserves the Church from it.