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Cardinal Burke: A Pope who commits formal heresy ‘would cease, by that act, to be the Pope’

Claire Chretien Claire Chretien Follow Claire

December 21, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) – In a new interview, Cardinal Burke said he is not accusing Pope Francis of "heresy" by submitting the five dubia for him to answer. He also explained that if a pope were to "formally profess heresy he would cease, by that act, to be the Pope" and that there is a process within the Church for dealing with such a situation.

"The faithful and priests and bishops have the right to have these questions answered," he said of the dubia. "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."

It "could happen" that a pope would formally profess heresy, but "I hope we won’t be witnessing that at any time soon," Burke told Catholic World Report (CWR). 

"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," said Burke. "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."

IMPORTANT: To respectfully express your support for the 4 cardinals' letter to Pope Francis asking for clarity on Amoris Laetitia, sign the petition. Click here.

Members of the College of Cardinals would have to be the ones to declare the pope in heresy, Burke said. He also said there is precedent for cardinals rebuking a pope. Burke has said that if Pope Francis doesn't respond to the dubia, cardinals could also formally correct him in the way that Pope John XXII was corrected in the Middle Ages when he taught errant notions about the beatific vision. 

The cardinal also explained he and his peers want the pope to clarify whether Amoris Laetitia aligns with Catholic moral teaching precisely because they are loyal to him and care about him, not because they are his "enemies" or dissenters as some critics and even other prelates have suggested.

"How can you be in heresy by asking honest questions?" asked Burke. "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."

"I am a Cardinal of the Church, and one of the Pope’s principal co-workers," said Burke. "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."

Burke stressed that he is "not saying that Pope Francis is in heresy."

"I have never said that," he told CWR. "Neither have I stated that he is close to being in heresy."

Canonist Dr. Ed Peters recently outlined on his blog how ecclesiastical law treats the question of a pope believing or promoting heresy. According to Peters' analysis, the Catholic canonical tradition firmly supports Cardinal Burke's remarks.

Peters finds the canonical tradition expressed by Franz Wernz — a famed canonist who was elected as the Superior General of the Jesuit order in 1906 — who considered the impact of personal heresy on the part of a pope in his work Ius Canonicum.

After laying out various positions dealing with a heretical pope and showing their deficiencies, Wernz speculates that while no one on earth can remove power from a pope since there is no higher office than “Roman Pontiff” that is capable of passing such judgment, nevertheless, a general council could determine that a pope had committed heresy, and in doing so, had effectually cut himself off from the true vine, thereby forfeiting his office.

Wernz wrote in his work published posthumously in 1928: “In sum, it needs to be said clearly that a [publicly] heretical Roman Pontiff loses his power upon the very fact. Meanwhile a declaratory criminal sentence, although it is merely declaratory, should not be disregarded, for it brings it about, not that a pope is ‘judged’ to be a heretic, but rather, that he is shown to have been found heretical, that is, a general council declares the fact of the crime by which a pope has separated himself from the Church and has lost his rank.”

After this quote, Dr. Peters comments: “I know of no author coming after Wernz who disputes this analysis.”

It would be "impossible" and "unthinkable" for a pope to "commit the Church to heresy," Peters wrote, because the Holy Spirit provides "protection" against this.

Canon law defines heresy as "the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth that must be believed by divine and catholic faith," and "canonical tradition yet recognizes (and history suggests) that a given pope could fall into personal heresy and that he might even promote such heresy publicly," Peters explained. "In sum...however remote is the possibility of a pope actually falling into heresy and however difficult it might be to determine whether a pope has so fallen, such a catastrophe, Deus vetet, would result in the loss of papal office."

Read Cardinal Burke's full interview with CWR here.

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