August 20, 2017 (Steven O’Reilly) – A potential “correction” of Pope Francis is in the news again. The latest on it comes from the Wanderer’s interview of Cardinal Burke which appears in an article dated August 14, 2017 in the online Catholic paper (here). In the Wanderer interview, Cardinal Burke outlined in broad terms what a formal correction of a pope might look like:
“The process has not been frequently invoked in the Church, and not now for several centuries. There has been the correction of past Holy Fathers on significant points, but not in a doctrinal way. It seems to me that the essence of the correction is quite simple. On the one hand, one sets forth the clear teaching of the Church; on the other hand, what is actually being taught by the Roman Pontiff is stated. If there is a contradiction, the Roman Pontiff is called to conform his own teaching in obedience to Christ and the Magisterium of the Church. The question is asked, “How would this be done?” It is done very simply by a formal declaration to which the Holy Father would be obliged to respond.”
The “why” of a formal correction with respect to Pope Francis is obvious. The Pope’s Amoris Laetitia is ambiguous and confusing on the question of communion for adulterers and requires clarification on various other doctrinal points. Amoris Laetitia has already led to erroneous interpretations that contradict the teaching of previous popes (e.g., bishops of Malta, Germany, Brazil and elsewhere allowing communion for adulterers in at least some instances). The finer points of the who, what, when and where of any formal correction were not addressed in the interview – and appear yet to be determined. However, what Cardinal Burke did say is highly significant. Based on what he said, I will suggest what I think the correction will look like – should we ever see it.
In a recent article Edward Pentin reminds us that Cardinal Brandmuller said any correction of the Pope would first be done in camera caritatis (i.e., in private with the pope). Unfortunately, Pope Francis has not accommodated the once four – now three – Dubia Cardinals. He has simply refused to meet with the cardinals and has ignored their requests for a meeting (see here). There is no reason to expect the Pope will change his avoidance tactics at this point in the game. However, this papal tactic can only delay the inevitable while at the same time weakening the Pope’s position if and when the formal correction finally makes its long-awaited appearance.
I suspect by now the Dubia Cardinals have again requested a papal audience, this time not to seek answers to the dubia, but instead to formally correct the Pope. I just hope by this point other cardinals have signed on to the effort. There have long been suggestions that other cardinals privately support the Dubia Cardinals. Now is the time for good men to stand up and be counted. After all, it would be harder for the Pope to reject 30-40 cardinals who together sought a papal audience to discuss Amoris Laetitia and a correction. Harder, yes. Impossible, no. Yet, dodging such an audience should only stiffen resolve in the Sacred College of Cardinals. That said, it remains an open question how many spines there are in the Sacred College that can be “stiffened.” I do wonder if the secret support for the Dubia Cardinals will evaporate at the critical moment of need, just as it did for Gary Cooper in the movie High Noon.
As to the precise nature of a “formal correction,” one can only speculate. However, speculation may be informed by Cardinal Burke’s interview in the Wanderer where some tidbits suggest what may be coming. In that interview, speaking of a potential formal correction of a pope, the cardinal said (emphasis added):
“The question is asked, “How would this be done?” It is done very simply by a formal declaration to which the Holy Father would be obliged to respond.”
The suggestion that there can be a “formal declaration” to which a pope “would be obliged to respond” is quite remarkable. Thus far, with regard to the dubia, it is clear the Pope has not felt “obliged” or impelled to answer. In view of this, in what sense would the Pope be “obliged to respond” to a formal correction or “formal declaration”? My thoughts on the question are as follows. Cardinal Burke is not speaking of a moral obligation to respond, but rather seems to intend something akin to a legal one, i.e., one where failure to respond properly bears a consequence. What is that consequence? I think Cardinal Burke tells us in the Wanderer interview what he has in mind when he states: “The Popes are all to proclaim and be obedient to the one true Catholic Faith. If not, they have been deposed, as in the case of Pope Honorius.” Thus, it seems quite evident Cardinal Burke is thinking of a potential deposition of a pope, i.e., that a pope might be obliged to respond to a formal declaration in that failure to do so would result in his deposition. How this might be so, I get to below.
As an aside, while what Cardinal Burke says of popes needing “to proclaim and be obedient to the one true Catholic Faith” is true, I am not aware of the “they” he references – i.e., popes who have been actually deposed. For example, I do not believe what he says specifically of Honorius being “deposed” is factually the case. Honorius never resisted the Church while he lived, and he was long since dead – some forty years – by the time he was condemned as a “heretic” by the Sixth Ecumenical Council. The fault of Honorius has been a subject of dispute, i.e., was he truly a monothelite or only one whose negligence “fostered” heresy. It is my view that Pope Honorius was condemned as a “heretic” in the latter sense, i.e., as one who “fostered” or favored heresy through his negligent silence (see Why the Case of Pope Honorius Matters, Mr. Alt).
The above said, while Cardinal Burke might have a different view, I do believe he is on to something with regard to Honorius and how that case might relate to a hypothetical formal correction and deposition of a living pope. Let us consider the following historical ‘thought experiment.’ Remembering Honorius was not condemned until long after he had died, what if he had been confronted by bishops of his day while he still lived? What might we conclude? First, these bishops would have been justified in confronting Honorius. This is evident from the course of Church history (i.e., read what the Sixth Ecumenical Council and Pope Leo II said of Honorius). Second, given Honorius objectively favored heresy, these bishops would have been justified in attempting to “correct” him, i.e., demanding that he affirm the orthodox faith and reject monothelite teachings. Yet, Honorius was condemned because he did not “extinguish the flame of heretical teaching in its first beginning, but fostered it by his negligence” (Pope Leo II, see Catholic Encyclopedia). I have my doubts that ‘fostering heresy by negligence’ or “favoring heresy” alone would be sufficient cause in itself to depose a pope. However, formal heresy – if possible for a pope to fall into – would result in his deposition. While my opinion is a pope cannot fall into formal heresy , I do recognize this position is not a defined dogma. As I wrote in a previous article:
The reader, having bravely come this far in this rebuttal, may be a surprised to hear it–but I agree with Bellarmine. I do not believe a pope could become a public heretic or an occult heretic. The case for this opinion–based on Sacred Scripture, Tradition and past papal teaching–is a strong one in my opinion. Still, even though Bellarmine held this opinion to be probable, he admitted it was not certain. In fact, Bellarmine said that the opposite theological opinion–that a pope could become a public heretic–was the common one. Until the Church definitively adopts the Bellarmine position, the question remains open. St. Paul warns us to be on guard (cf. Galatians 1:8), as does the Catholic Catechism when it speaks of a “religious deception” to come (cf. CC 675). Therefore, as a matter of prudence, one should not hold it to be a definite impossibility that any living or future pope, Francis included, could never fall into heresy–so that one not be deceived in the event. (Pope Francis’ Predecessors come to the defense of his Magisterium? Well – Yes and no, Mr Walford, February 19, 2017)
Thus, whether a pope could fall into formal heresy and be deposed must be considered an open question. In the case of Honorius, the pope seemed to misunderstand the issue at hand (i.e., the nascent monothelite heresy), though he should have and could have dealt with it given adequate diligence on his part. However, what if we press the example? Assume it was an open question as to whether a hypothetical pope intended to write an ambiguous document that – while it defined nothing – lent itself to conflicting orthodox and heterodox interpretations of doctrines and practices. As in the case of the bishops confronting Honorius in our ‘thought experiment,’ it would be justifiable for cardinals and bishops to demand and expect a sufficient answer from the Roman Pontiff that clarified the matter. We might see cardinals presenting the hypothetical pope above with a formal declaration regarding a disputed point (“X”) for which they seek a definitive answer. This formal declaration might say something along the lines of:
“The Catholic faith taught by your predecessors is “X.”
Holy Father, your writings are interpreted by many to affirm “not X.” Is “not X” your meaning?
If you do not within the next 6 months explicitly reject “not X” and affirm “X,” your silence will be interpreted as agreement to the proposition “not X.”
This, in a bare bones format, appears to me to be something of what Cardinal Burke means by a formal declaration which would oblige a pope to respond. A pope would be obliged to respond by the very nature of the question and declaration – and its implication. To refuse or fail to answer – even by silence – would be perilous for a pope where “not X” is a proposition in contradiction to the magisterium of prior popes. Qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit ac potuit (“who is silent seems to agree, where he ought to speak and was able to”). In such a case, it would appear that the Church could rightly interpret silence as a clear sign of a pope’s consent to “not X”, i.e., his formal heresy or apostasy from the Catholic Faith of his predecessors. It seems on the surface a fair conclusion. If this conclusion can be supported by Church history (e.g., perhaps based on precedents from past heresy trials), silence would not save this hypothetical pope. The silent pope of our scenario would be considered ‘self-deposed‘ and the See of Peter vacant at the end of the period given him to respond. I might be missing something, but this seems to me to be the only way a pope could be said to be “obliged to respond.”
If it ever comes to a real-life “formal correction” of Pope Francis, the theologians and canon lawyers will closely examine its text and implications. Unfortunately, the Church divided as it is, I doubt the laity will find any more unanimity among them then with regard to a formal correction than they did with regard to the dubia. While I do not believe the worse case hypothetical (i.e., a formally heretical pope) is possible, I cannot absolutely exclude it as a possibility. What I do believe is, there is a need for a “formal correction” to move forward – and we might all learn together whether Bellarmine, God forbid, was wrong. But whether the formal correction comes or not, the faith of many will be shaken in the months ahead. We have yet to see the worst of this crisis. Let us pray Pope Francis will understand that and then remember the Lord’s words to Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that they faith fail not: and thou being once converted, confirm thy brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).
- I will not go into that argument here in detail, other than to say this is suggested to me by scripture (e.g., Luke 22:31-32), and among other things, seems at least implied in the Formula of Hormisdas and Pope Agatho’s letter to the Emperor and the fathers of the Sixth Ecumenical Council.
Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives near Atlanta with his wife Margaret. He has four children. He has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, set during the time of the Arian crisis. He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com.