Cardinal Burke: “No, I am not saying that Pope Francis is in heresy.”

In an interview with CWR, Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke discusses the current controversy over "Amoris Laetitia’ and the questions he submitted with three other bishops to Pope Francis.

Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke was made a bishop by Pope John Paul II in 1994. In 2010 he was named a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI and soon thereafter become Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. In 2014 Pope Francis removed Cardinal Burke from his position as Prefect and named him chaplain to the Order of Malta. During the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, held in Rome in October 2014, Cardinal Burke strongly criticized the mid-term report (Relatio post disceptationem), stating that it “lacks a solid foundation in the Sacred Scriptures and the Magisterium” and that it “gives the impression of inventing a totally new … revolutionary, teaching on marriage and the family.” He added that he thought a statement of clarification from Pope Francis “is long overdue.”

More recently, in September of this year, Cardinal Burke and three other cardinals—Carlo Caffarra, Walter Brandmüller and Joachim Meisner—sent a request for clarification to Pope Francis regarding sections of chapter 8 of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The letter stated, in part, that “we the undersigned, but also many Bishops and Priests, have received numerous requests from the faithful of various social strata on the correct interpretation to give to Chapter VIII of the Exhortation” and asked the Holy Father “as supreme Teacher of the faith, called by the Risen One to confirm his brothers in the faith, to resolve the uncertainties and bring clarity…” 

In a November 15, 2016 interview with Edward Pentin of National Catholic Register, Cardinal Burke explained that the “five critical points” in the dubia submitted to Pope Francis “have to do with irreformable moral principles” and that if there was “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.”

Catholic World Report recently spoke with Cardinal Raymond Burke on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8th) at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin, which he founded while serving as Bishop of La Crosse from 1994 to 2003.

CWR: In early 2004, when then-Massachusetts Senator John Kerry was running for President and you were just beginning your ministry as Archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri, you said Kerry should be refused Communion because of his pro-abortion stance. You also said you’re always getting into trouble. Are you still getting yourself into trouble? 

Cardinal Burke: I suppose that’s true, but I trust it’s good trouble.

CWR: When was last time a Pope was rebuked?

Cardinal Burke: As far as I know, and I’m not an expert in this, it was John XXII. He was corrected for a wrong teaching he had on the beatific vision. 

CWR: And who did that?

Cardinal Burke: There was a bishop involved and some Dominican Friars…

CWR: Is there a Scriptural basis for rebuking a pope?

Cardinal Burke: The classic Scriptural basis is St. Paul’s rebuking of Peter [in Galatians 2:11ff] for his accommodation of the Judaizers in the early Christian Church. Saint Paul confronted Peter to his face because he would be requiring things of the Gentile Christians that are not inherent to the Christian faith. And Peter actually agreed with that, but when he was with the Judaizers he would feign the other position and so Paul corrected him, as he said, to his face.

CWR: Why do you think Amoris Laetitia chapter 8 is so ambiguous?

Cardinal Burke: 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: It seems that you have, in some ways, become the champion of Canon 915, thinking back to the controversy over Kerry and even before him to some politicians in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where you were bishop from 1994 to 2003. [Editor’s note: Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Lawstates: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” For more background see Dr. Edward Peter’s page about the Canon.)

Cardinal Burke: And that’s certainly a very good thing of which to be the champion.

CWR: What was the initial reason for you to submit the dubia to Pope Francis?

Cardinal Burke: Some of us had raised these questions to Pope Francis in the correspondence before this because of their gravity. But then there is also the growing confusion in the Church, in many quarters and parts of the Church, and the plea from both priests and laity, that the cardinals, who are the chief advisors to the Pope, needed to fulfill their responsibility by seeking clarification about some matters which are, as long as they remained in doubt, a source of great confusion and eventual spiritual harm in the church.

CWR: There’s a lot of talk that Amoris Laetitia is deliberately ambiguous and that’s because the divorced and remarried already find themselves in rather ambiguous situations. How do you respond to that?

Cardinal Burke: For those who are divorced and remarried, or I should say divorced and living in an irregular matrimonial union, if they truly understand the Catholic faith, the solution to that is not some confused approach, but the solution is to know the truth about the marriage to which one is bound, and once one knows that truth to live in accord with it. That is the only approach that can bring the faithful who find themselves in such a situation peace both with God and within the Church. This isn’t new; these situations have existed throughout the Church’s history. There are always complex aspects to the situation, but the only way to address them is by acknowledging and living the truth.

CWR: Why isn’t the truly pastoral situation just to allow them to receive Communion?

Cardinal Burke: Because it doesn’t respect the truth, and there can’t be any possible truly pastoral situation that doesn’t honor the truth taught by Christ Himself in the Gospel. So that if I’m bound to someone in a marriage and I’m living in a marital way with someone else, in adultery, pastoral care should be directed to helping me free myself from the sin of adultery. It’s no help to me whatsoever and a positive harm to me to tell me, “That’s all right, go ahead, and you can live that way and still receive the Sacraments.”

CWR: If a couple—where at least one has had been previously married and there was no declaration of nullity granted for the previous bond—came to you and said, “Look, we’ve been married for 20 years. We’re in a stable relationship, we’ve got four children together and they’re living good lives. We go to church every Sunday and the children are in Catholic schools. Why should we be denied Communion, never mind Confession?” what would you say to them?

Cardinal Burke: Because one or the other of them is bound to a prior marriage and therefore they’re not free to enter another marriage or live in a marital way with another party. If they, for some reason, for example, raising children or some other valid reason, need to continue to live under the same roof, then they are called obviously to live chastely and that is as brother and sister.

CWR: Are there others, besides the four cardinals who submitted the dubia to Pope Francise, who support what you’re saying?

Cardinal Burke: Yes.

CWR: And they’re not speaking out because…?

Cardinal Burke: For various reasons, one of which is the way the media takes these things and distorts them making it seem that anyone who raises a question about Amoris Laetitia is disobedient to the Pope or an enemy of the Pope and so forth. So they…

CWR They’re keeping their heads down.

Cardinal Burke: Yes, I suppose.

CWR: One prelate has accused you and your fellow cardinals of being in heresy. How do you respond to that?

Cardinal Burke: How can you be in heresy by asking honest questions? It’s just irrational to accuse us of heresy. We’re asking fundamental questions based upon the constant tradition of the Church’s moral teaching. So I don’t think there’s any question that by doing that we’ve done something heretical.

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

Cardinal Burke: 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; these five, very serious and fundamental points. We’re not accusing him of heresy, but just asking him to answer these questions for us as the Supreme Pastor of the Church.

CWR: In raising these questions you’ve been accused implicitly by the Pope and explicitly by others of legalism, of being Pharisees and Sadducees. [Smiles, chuckles] You smile because you get this all the time. Why is this not legalism?

Cardinal Burke: Simply because 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. That’s why He Himself said that He didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it [Matt 5:17].

CWR: Bishop Athanasius Schneider, O.R.C., the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Mary in Astana, Kazakhstan and titular bishop of Celerina, who has written an open letter of support for the four cardinals and their dubia, has also said that the Church is in a de facto schism. Do you agree with that?

Cardinal Burke: 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?

Cardinal Burke: If a Pope would formally profess heresy he would cease, by that act, to be the Pope. It’s automatic. And so, that could happen.

CWR: That could happen.

Cardinal Burke: Yes.

CWR: That’s a scary thought.

Cardinal Burke: It is a scary thought, and I hope we won’t be witnessing that at any time soon.

CWR: In hindsight, with all of the controversy that has surrounded this, should you have kept these concerns to yourself and just waited for His Holiness to answer your dubia?

Cardinal Burke: No, not at all, because the faithful and priests and bishops have the right to have these questions answered. It was our duty as cardinals, when the Pope made it clear that he would not respond to them, to make them public so that the priests and the lay faithful who had these same doubts might know that their doubts are legitimate and that they deserve a response.

CWR: Some consider you to be an enemy of Pope Francis. How do you see yourself in relation to him?

Cardinal Burke: I am a Cardinal of the Church, and one of the Pope’s principal co-workers. I have absolute respect for the Petrine office. If I didn’t care about him and his exercise of the Petrine office, I would just remain silent and let everything go as it is. But because in conscience I believe he has an obligation to clarify these matters for the Church, I made it known to him, not just on this occasion, but on other occasions. The publication of the dubia was done with complete respect for his office. I am not the enemy of the Pope.

CWR: Back to this question about the Pope committing heresy. What happens then, if the Pope commits heresy and is no longer Pope? Is there a new conclave? Who’s in charge of the Church? Or do we just not even want to go there to start figuring that stuff out?

Cardinal Burke: There is already in place the discipline to be followed when the Pope ceases from his office, even as happened when Pope Benedict XVI abdicated his office. The Church continued to be governed in the interim between the effective date of his abdication and the inauguration of the papal ministry of Pope Francis.

CWR: Who is competent to declare him to be in heresy?

Cardinal Burke: It would have to be members of the College of Cardinals.

CWR: Just to clarify again, are you saying that Pope Francis is in heresy or is close to it?

Cardinal Burke: No, I am not saying that Pope Francis is in heresy. I have never said that. Neither have I stated that he is close to being in heresy. 

CWR: Doesn’t the Holy Spirit protect us from such a danger?

Cardinal Burke: The Holy Spirit inhabits the Church. The Holy Spirit is always watching over, inspiring and strengthening the Church. But the members of the Church and, in a pre-eminent way, the hierarchy must cooperate with the promptings of the Holy Spirit. It is one thing for the Holy Spirit to be present with us, but it is another thing for us to be obedient to the Holy Spirit.

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