If cardinals Walter Brandmüller and Raymond Burke had previously concentrated on the specifically doctrinal confusion that followed the release of Amoris Laetitia, it became apparent at a conference last Saturday that their focus has now shifted to questions of Church governance.
Sponsored by the Italian lay association, Amici del Card. Carlo Caffarra, the conference was titled, “Catholic Church, where are you headed? Only a blind man could say there is not deep confusion in the Church” – a close paraphrase of words the late Cardinal Caffarra spoke during the course of an interview with Il Foglio’s Matteo Matzuzzi in January 2017. One purpose of the conference was, in fact, to honour the memory of Cardinal Caffarra, who died last September.
The virtual presence of Cardinal Joseph Zen set the issue of governance in relief. The Bishop-Emeritus of Hong Kong has been at the centre of controversy over the Holy See’s rapprochement with communist China. Cardinal Zen offered remarks – recorded in February – via video message. “We are afraid that at the centre [of the Church, ie in Rome],” said Cardinal Zen, “decisions are not taken that might be truly useful, and that help the true growth of the Church.”
There was also a brief reflection offered by the former president of the Senate of the Republic of Italy, Marcello Pera, a figure sui generis: an atheist philosopher-politician who believes strongly in both the process of laicité and the need for a strong presence of the Church within the public space as the carrier of the Gospel – the Good News of salvation – that is, of the Church as Church and not as a political actor.
Pera told the Catholic Herald he does not think Pope Francis is responsible for the confusion of roles, but that he does not think the Pope has helped to clarify matters, either. “For centuries, even before the Enlightenment, and after the Enlightenment even more, and especially after the Second World War,” Pera said, “secularism, in the name of man’s emancipation, [in the name] of ‘human rights’, makes claims on the Catholic Church – the claim of divorce, the claim of abortion, the claim of euthanasia – that is, on what are the elements of human happiness [according to the secularist position and worldview], before which secularist claims the Church is regressing.”
In the present day, the shift in focus from the proclamation of the Gospel’s message of salvation to a semantics of “liberation” with its inevitable if unintentional political overtones, has created a situation in which, “The Church, which uses the language of [Pope Francis], is more oriented towards the secular world, towards liberation, towards the elimination of injustices and suffering, and less oriented towards the dimension of salvation.”
Cardinal Burke delivered the remark that caught the most attention of journalists covering the event. Quoting the historian of ecclesiastical jurisprudence and expert in medieval canon law at Hull University in Yorkshire, Professor John Watt, in the closing part of his remark, Cardinal Burke said: “If, according to the well-formed conscience, a member of the faithful should hold that a particular act of exercise of the fullness of [papal] power were sinful, and, in consequence, that he is not able to be in peace with his own conscience regarding the question, ‘the Pope must, as a duty, be disobeyed, and the consequences of disobedience be suffered in Christian patience’.”
Significant commentary in the days following the event focused on the apparent irony of a staunch defender of papal teaching authority now apparently invoking the rights of conscience in order to justify – in theory, at least – disobedience to the Roman Pontiff. Much of the confusion over the point will dissolve when one considers that Cardinal Burke was speaking not in a doctrinal, but in a “political” key and register, specifically and explicitly addressing the Pope’s powers of governance over the universal Church.
“[T]he ‘fullness of power’,” ie what the Church, following the Roman tradition of legal science, called plenitudo potestatis, “was not understood as an authority over the very constitution of the Church or over her Magisterium,” Cardinal Burke explained, “but as a necessity for the government of the Church in full fidelity to her constitution and her Magisterium.” The distinction is subtle and technical, but it is there.
To understand where we are in this controversy, it is essential to understand that the thrust of Card. Burke’s remarks was not to justify dissent from Papal teaching authority, but the moral right and legal limits of resistance to certain exercises of papal governing power, both of which are limited by the constitution of the Church and the faith she received from Our Lord.
Discussion was carefully academic. None of the participants identified specific acts of governance to which they were themselves prepared to offer resistance at present. Whether that will remain the case, remains to be seen.