On Cardinal Burke’s analysis of “Amoris laetitia”

Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, eminent canonist and Curial cardinal, has written a very lengthy comment on Amoris laetitia as an exclusive for the National Catholic Register. It is Cardinal Burke’s opinion that,

The only key to the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is the constant teaching of the Church and her discipline that safeguards and fosters this teaching. Pope Francis makes clear, from the beginning, that the post-synodal apostolic exhortation is not an act of the magisterium (No. 3). The very form of the document confirms the same. It is written as a reflection of the Holy Father on the work of the last two sessions of the Synod of Bishops. For instance, in Chapter Eight, which some wish to interpret as the proposal of a new discipline with obvious implications for the Church’s doctrine, Pope Francis, citing his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, declares:

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 goodness 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” (No. 308).

In other words, the Holy Father is proposing what he personally believes is the will of Christ for His Church, but he does not intend to impose his point of view, nor to condemn those who insist on what he calls “a more rigorous pastoral care.” The personal, that is, non-magisterial, nature of the document is also evident in the fact that the references cited are principally the final report of the 2015 session of the Synod of Bishops, and the addresses and homilies of Pope Francis himself. There is no consistent effort to relate the text, in general, or these citations to the magisterium, the Fathers of the Church and other proven authors.

(Emphasis supplied, but hyperlinks in original.) Cardinal Burke also brings up the example of Paul VI’s 1967 interviews with Jean Guitton, published by Fayard as Dialogues avec Paul VI, as a cautionary example for the faithful:

I remember the discussion which surrounded the publication of the conversations between Blessed Pope Paul VI and Jean Guitton in 1967. The concern was the danger that the faithful would confuse the Pope’s personal reflections with official Church teaching. While the Roman Pontiff has personal reflections which are interesting and can be inspiring, the Church must be ever attentive to point out that their publication is a personal act and not an exercise of the Papal Magisterium. Otherwise, those who do not understand the distinction, or do not want to understand it, will present such reflections and even anecdotal remarks of the Pope as declarations of a change in the Church’s teaching, to the great confusion of the faithful. Such confusion is harmful to the faithful and weakens the witness of the Church as the Body of Christ in the world.

(Emphasis supplied.) But one could just as easily mention any of the other explicitly non-magisterial documents that have emanated from the Vatican since 2013. Recall, for example, that, in Evangelii gaudium, the Holy Father explicitly declined to exercise the papal magisterium in a definitive manner (EG ¶¶ 16–18). And “The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable”, the recent reflection of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, was likewise explicitly non-magisterial (Preface). Certainly, when the Holy Father wishes to issue magisterial, binding documents he knows how to do so—consider, for example, Mitis iudex Dominus Iesus or Fidelis dispensator et prudens and the various statutes of the financial entities—thus one can safely conclude that there is some intent behind his decision here.

It seems to us, therefore, that Cardinal Burke’s conclusion—”the Holy Father is proposing what he personally believes is the will of Christ for His Church, but he does not intend to impose his point of view, nor to condemn those who insist on what he calls ‘a more rigorous pastoral care.'”—is eminently sensible. If one views the exercise of the papal magisterium as a switch, then one could say that the Holy Father went out of his way to leave the switch in the “off” position throughout Amoris laetitia. One cannot say that Cardinal Burke is twisting Amoris laetitia to fit his own ideological preferences. Indeed he is taking the Holy Father at the Holy Father’s own work. Look: the Holy Father himself says that it is non-magisterial (AL ¶3). And, again, the Holy Father says that he is not providing general norms, applicable to all situations, in chapter 8 (AL ¶ 300). Indeed, the Holy Father specifically characterizes chapter 8 as “reflections” (AL ¶309). Thus, Cardinal Burke is doing nothing more than pointing out, calmly and soberly, what the Pope has already said about Amoris laetitia.

Of course, we suppose that some traditionally minded Catholics are going to be disappointed by Cardinal Burke’s analysis. No doubt they wanted to hear him criticize in stringent language the infelicities, ambiguities, and (putative) errors of Amoris laetitia. Indeed, we have seen Twitter today and read various other blogs, so we know that some traditionally minded Catholics are deeply disappointed by Cardinal Burke’s response, going so far as to characterize it as a betrayal of some sort or another. At the very least, the situation represents a cautionary tale to traditionally minded Catholics about deciding that this or that prelate is “our man in Rome” or “on our side.” (This is an error American Catholics habitually make in the political context, treating the Republican Party as “our men in Washington” or “on our side.”) Certainly, liturgical traditionalists have had friends and supporters in Rome over the years, and look what they’ve had to endure.

One of our oldest friends has pointed out that Cardinal Burke, in responding to Amoris laetitia, has shown himself to be far more sympathetic and charitable than anyone, his friends or his foes, usually gives him credit for. Certainly no one imagines that Cardinal Burke was especially pleased by Amoris laetitia; his consistent witness, both at the Extraordinary General Assembly and in the intervening eighteen months, shows that he has a clear sense of the Church’s perennial teaching on this subject. And he is far from ignorant of the pastoral consequences of that teaching, as his moving comments about experiences from his youth and life as a priest show. But, rather than detailing the numerous infelicities, ambiguities, and (putative) errors of Amoris laetitia, to say nothing of any personal disagreements he may have, Cardinal Burke has taken the Holy Father at his word and explained the value and the limitations of the document. Cardinal Burke has engaged in the dialogue the Holy Father says he wants.

For our part, we wonder why anyone would be disappointed or feel betrayed by Cardinal Burke’s analysis. As some commentators have recognized already, Cardinal Burke’s commentary boils down to this: Amoris laetitia did not change anything because it could not change anything, both by the Holy Father’s explicit intention and by its nature. More than that, he explains:

Certain commentators confuse such respect with a supposed obligation to “believe with divine and Catholic faith” (Canon 750, § 1) everything contained in the document. But the Catholic Church, while insisting on the respect owed to the Petrine Office as instituted by Our Lord Himself, has never held that every utterance of the Successor of St. Peter should be received as part of her infallible magisterium.

The Church has historically been sensitive to the erroneous tendency to interpret every word of the pope as binding in conscience, which, of course, is absurd. According to a traditional understanding, the pope has two bodies, the body which is his as an individual member of the faithful and is subject to mortality, and the body which is his as Vicar of Christ on earth which, according to Our Lord’s promise, endures until His return in glory. The first body is his mortal body; the second body is the divine institution of the office of St. Peter and his successors.

(Emphasis supplied.) Recall, for example, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1998 doctrinal commentary on the profession of faith instituted by Ad tuendam Fidem:

The third proposition of the Professio fidei states: “Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act”.

To this paragraph belong all those teachings – on faith and morals – presented as true or at least as sure, even if they have not been defined with a solemn judgement or proposed as definitive by the ordinary and universal MagisteriumSuch teachings are, however, an authentic expression of the ordinary Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff or of the College of Bishops and therefore require religious submission of will and intellect. They are set forth in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of revelation, or to recall the conformity of a teaching with the truths of faith, or lastly to warn against ideas incompatible with those truths or against dangerous opinions that can lead to error.

A proposition contrary to these doctrines can be qualified as erroneous or, in the case of teachings of the prudential order, as rash or dangerous and therefore ‘tuto doceri non potest’.

(Emphasis supplied, but italics in original.) One can very easily see how Amoris laetitia fits—or, in fact, doesn’t fit—into this framework. And it is well worth noting that Ad tuendam Fidem modified canon 750, and, therefore, it could be said that the doctrinal commentary is in pari materia, so to speak, with canon 750. But setting to one side the precise connection, our point is this: Cardinal Burke is correct when he notes that there is no obligation to believe, with “divine and Catholic faith,” propositions that are not functions of the Pope’s “authentic Magisterium,” to say nothing of meditations on discerning subjective culpability in irregular situations. Thus, Cardinal Burke’s point is twofold: (1) Amoris laetitia did not change anything and (2) Amoris laetitia is not necessarily binding on one’s conscience. What, exactly, is so disappointing about that?

And this is perhaps what is so valuable about Cardinal Burke’s insight. One respects the Pope, one loves the Pope, one smiles happily when one passes his picture in the hallway, one remembers him in one’s prayers, but one need not try to square the circles in Amoris laetitia. If one likes the second chapter or the fourth chapter, super-duper. The Holy Father is always at his best when waxing rhapsodical, isn’t he? And if one is scandalized by the eighth chapter, well, one shouldn’t feel compelled to even try to assent to it. The Holy Father certainly has ideas, doesn’t he? One doesn’t have to try to put a brave face on things. Or convince others that this is the greatest catastrophe since the days of Liberius and Damasus. One doesn’t have to do anything.

But if one does want to convince others of something—anything—about Amoris laetitia, what better way to begin than to say, “All of us are free to reach our own conclusions about the Pope’s reflections, and these are the conclusions that we have reached”?