Cardinal Burke’s theological can of worms


Cardinal Raymond Burke’s remarks at a recent conference in Rome, Anthony Egan says, open up the ongoing tensions in the Church over teaching authority, the primacy of the papacy and ultimately our understanding of truth. Burke made headlines when he claimed that disobeying the pope might be a necessary way forward.

Cardinal Raymond Burke’s comments on 7 April at a conference in Rome (reported in Spotlight Africa 9 April) has potentially opened up a can of theological worms. While no doubt motivated by disapproval of the place given to conscience in dealing with communion for divorced and remarried Catholics by Amoris Laetitia, by concern for Pope Francis’ theological emphases, and to his practice and style of leadership, Burke’s remarks open up the ongoing tensions in the Church over teaching authority, the primacy of the papacy and ultimately our understanding of truth.

The fundamental problem is epistemology, a philosophical concept that asks: how do we know what we know? How we approach this is important: as a sceptic or as a Christian thinker rooted in one or two approaches, namely the classical or the historical. A classical epistemology holds that truth, the fullness of truth, exists, that it is unchanging and unchangeable and that the Church has it. A historical epistemology holds that there is truth, indeed fullness of truth, and that that fullness develops over time.

A sceptic’s epistemology would simply dismiss everything Burke (and for that matter Pope Francis, bishops and theologians) said as unverifiable and therefore nonsense. Indeed, a sceptic would see clearly the tension between affirming simultaneously the pope’s power or teaching authority on one hand and then subjecting the pope to the limitation of natural and divine law. Given that for the sceptic Christian natural and divine law are themselves interpretations of a ‘reality’ that cannot be verified independent of the claims of the Church, and have indeed been presented as truth without empirical foundation, the statements – whether by Cardinal Burke or Pope Francis, or any believer – are meaningless.

Committed believers may dismiss such a sceptical epistemology as inadequate and argue that faith in God, revelation, divine and natural law is justifiable using a variety of reasoned moves, which I shall not go into here. However, it is more difficult to brush over the contradictory nature of the statements a sceptic may highlight about what Burke reportedly said.

Epistemology based on Christian faith commitment, while accepting the truths of papal primacy, teaching authority and doctrine, must respond in a way that critically assesses the claims made by Burke and his colleagues.

The classicist approach – which based on the report seems to be the underlying or at least dominant epistemology Burke seems to be using – is I think problematic. Under this system Scripture and Tradition clearly define papal power or authority. Similarly it is limited by eternal and immutable natural and divine law, the knowledge of which, one assumes, each pope from Peter has – and is limited by it. The truths of the Catholic faith can’t substantially change, and no true pope can change them. But what then of cases where claims have changed, or been expanded to such an extent that a pope’s predecessors could not have imagined the change? Is authority limited by a knowledge not revealed by divine or natural? Or is the extent of said revelation conditioned by circumstances beyond the office of the See of Peter?

To put it more simply, it seems that a strongly classicist approach is challenged by church history. While there is certainly consistency and continuity (and thus grounds for a kind of ‘classical’ foundation) there is also change – particularly in the ‘lived’ experience and theological interpretation of scripture, tradition, understanding of sacraments and papal primacy. This, for a Christian historical epistemology, is not seen as a denial of doctrine, revelation, natural or divine law but as an evolution – a development of understanding these things in the light of changing historical and other circumstances.

The New Testament, particularly the Gospels, evolved from an oral tradition. Over the first few centuries some texts were excluded and others included, based on the lived faith experience of the Christian community, into what we call the Canon. Similarly, reflection on the experience of the risen Christ, the Holy Spirit and understanding of God the Father evolved into faith statements that reflected the consensus, the Creeds. These defined what is was to be Christian (as opposed to Gnostic, Manichean, Jewish or pagan) and no-one could call themselves Christian and deny what they said. That said, they (and particularly the Scriptures) were human formulations under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (i.e. inspired) yet also imbued with cultural, scientific and philosophical worldviews of the time. This makes it imperative that the truth be interpreted always in the light of changing historical circumstances, scientific and other knowledge, taking into account the point that such development can never deny or negate their fundamental truth.

There is a hierarchy of truths – at the top the Creeds, then decisions and teachings of universal Councils of the Church and infallibly defined doctrines of popes speaking ex cathedra, then papal encyclicals and other documents, statements of bishops and episcopal conferences, leading down to opinions of theologians. Though all are important, not all are equally binding; nor need a theological formulation be bound by the way it’s phrased. Moreover there are always practical issues – particularly moral questions – wherein while underlying truths in general endure (e.g. it is wrong to exploit others) their application may indeed be developed, reinterpreted or even changed. Thus: while usury is by definition wrong, within the limits of not exploiting others, interest can – and is – charged on a loan. Historically, if the Church had not changed its position on ‘usury’ the modern economy either would not have happened – or, more likely, the Church would have fragmented with merchants leaving it, possibly creating a kind of ‘reformation’ before it happened.

Similarly, this recognition – of the human limit of knowledge, of the situatedness of knowledge, of the way knowledge itself develops – can be applied to our understanding of the natural and divine law. While the law remains constant and consistent, full knowledge for human beings is impossible. While scripture and doctrine gives us a constant and consistent basis in the divine and natural law, full knowledge for anyone this side of eternity is impossible – it would make such a person a god, which we would rightly regard as idolatrous.

Furthermore the historical evidence overwhelmingly shows us shifts and changes – developments – in the life and practice of the Church. While evidence suggests and broad theological consensus (including many non-Catholics) defends the notion of Petrine/papal primacy, how this primacy was exercised – from how the Bishop of Rome was elected, through his relationship with other bishops and his particular teaching authority, to the clearly limited definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I to the re-affirmed principle of collegiality (‘with Peter and never without him’) – has evolved.

What has this lengthy, but also necessarily telescoped, excursus on the history of Christian theology and practice to do with Cardinal Burke and Pope Francis? It illustrates, I think, the fundamental epistemological split between Burke and Francis, and by extension their allies in the Catholic Church. If I read them correctly Burke has basically a classical view, Francis has a historical view. There is no evidence to suggest that either rejects the historic Creeds, Scripture and Tradition, natural and divine law, papal primacy or even perhaps collegiality.

Where they differ is how they interpret them.

Assuming I am correct (based on his statement and previous statements, assuming they are correctly reported) Burke has classical leanings which lead him to more ‘conservative’ views of authority and change in the Church. This leads to a certain view of truth: This is the truth. It is unchangeable. Any attempts to develop and evolve such truth in the light of historical, sociological, cultural or other circumstances is tantamount to introducing relativism into the church and a complete undermining of faith.

In contrast, making the same assumptions as I have about Burke, Pope Francis has more historical leanings. This does not make him a ‘liberal’, nor a relativist. He is also a ‘conservative’, seeking to preserve and defend the fundamental truths of faith while acknowledging that there is both a hierarchy of truth within the faith itself and that truths develop in the light of changing circumstances. He has perhaps accepted, in short, the view attributed to Pope John XXIII that ‘history is the great teacher’.

He is also a collegialist in the Vatican II mode – ‘with Peter but never without him’ – as the recent Synod on the Family illustrated: consultation with the faithful, open dialogue between bishops, followed by a post-synodal apostolic exhortation that reflected both the complexity of the views of the meeting and his own characteristic stamp. That the part of it on divorced and remarried people retrieved a medieval understanding of the primacy of conscience, rather than the approach that emphasises conforming conscience steadfastly to official teachings, is less Francis’ alignment of himself with ‘liberal’ moral theologians than a recognition of the complexity of the problem and the creative use of Catholic tradition.

The significance of the conference in Rome a few days ago goes far beyond its contents or its reputed origins at the Synod, however. It is not so much about Pope Francis’ orthodoxy or leadership but about how the Church sees itself: an ideologically pure ‘perfect society’ where all truth is absolute truth, or a pilgrim community building on the foundational truths and trying to make its way in the world.

The former, which I think in some form Burke and his friends endorse, offers the attraction of certainty and conformity, a kind of bastion against modernity and postmodernity. Sometimes this may at its worst entail the denial of evidence that contradicts its vision of truth.  It is particularly attractive to those in authoritarian societies (where survival may entail ‘out-Stalinizing Stalin’) or societies still rooted in patriarchal and monarchical cultures. While such societies exist this model may thrive. When they collapse or democratise, historical evidence points to the Church becoming the ‘collateral damage’ of such a fall.

The latter model, perhaps closer to Pope Francis and his supporters, is by its nature more diverse, messy even, subject even to cultural fads which the Church must approach with caution and discernment. Confronted with evidence that challenges received beliefs, it struggles with discerning essential truths from cultural and historical accretions. From historical evidence, the church of this kind becomes almost inevitably a ‘minority’, stripped of pomp and circumstance, but actively engaging in the free market of ideas that marks liberal, secular democracies at its best. But it is also a more open church, engaging with people of goodwill on matters of common concern while building up a deep spirituality that goes beyond a group identity. In the mid-1960s Karl Rahner saw this as the church of the future. In many countries it is the church of our present.

In short Burke’s address on 7 April may well be an opening salvo in a battle over the future of the church. What the outcome may be if this is the case no-one knows.

Ironically, of course, if Pope Francis had been the kind of pope Burke would like there would have been no Rome address. The Cardinal and his friends would not have dared.

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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    Cardinal Burke’s theological can of worms

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