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The Holy Father: necessary reformer, apostate – or heretic?

By Michael Winterbottom

Recently, much has been said and written about the Holy Father’s attempts to modernise and adapt Church teaching to bring it more into line with modern views. At the heart of these reforms is the papal encyclical, Amoris Laetitia.

While in no way a comprehensive reform document, the encyclical has discussed the key issue of Communion for re-married people, while other papal pronouncements have questioned Church teaching on same-sex relations.

The result of these interventions has been to put a very large papal cat among a huge flock of conservative pigeons. Dissenters to Francis’ view have challenged papal authority itself, with claims of heresy and apostasy bandied about for good measure.

Chief among the conservative pigeons has been American Cardinal Raymond Burke. At a conference in Kentucky earlier this month, Cardinal Burke told his audience that Catholics needed to distinguish between the teaching of Francis the man and Francis the pope.

The cardinal recalled that one of the ‘secrets’ or predictions to emerge from the apparitions of Our Lady of Fátima to three Portuguese peasant children 100 years ago concerned ‘widespread apostasy in the Church and the failure of the Church’s shepherds to correct it’.

Cardinal Burke, who in 2014 was removed from the presidency of the Vatican’s most important tribunal to the largely ceremonial role of patron of the Order of Malta, said that there were currently “many troubling manifestations of confusion, division and error in the Church”.

In what can only be taken as a criticism of Pope Francis’s leadership, the cardinal told the conference on Church teaching in Louisville: “In a diabolical way, the confusion and error which has led human culture in the way of death and destruction has also entered into the Church, so that she draws near to the culture without seeming to know her own identity and mission, without seeming to have the clarity and the courage to announce the gospel.”

It was therefore necessary, he went on, for Catholics to distinguish between the pope’s off-the-cuff remarks and the authority of the Church to establish its own teachings.

“It is simply wrong and harmful to the Church to receive every declaration of the Holy Father as papal teaching.”

At the eye of the storm is the pope’s 2016 Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (the Joy of Love), with Cardinal Burke and his supporters finding much that they disagreed with but declaring that, though the document did not provide sufficient evidence to suggest that the pope had fallen personally into heresy, there were 11 statements in the text that, in their eyes, did constitute heresy.

“When it comes to the document itself, there is no doubt that it constitutes a grave danger to Catholic faith and morals,” they concluded.

However, Cardinal Burke and his followers find themselves with some uncomfortable bedfellows once they start down the road of Church teaching.

The extremist fringes of the Church hold that at least the last four pontiffs were impostors. One need look no further than the website www.traditioninaction.org which claims that a third fragment of the secrets of Fátima related to the risk that the true faith would not be preserved in Rome. The site quotes the late Cardinal Mario Luigi Ciappi as saying: “In the third secret it is foretold, among other things, that the great apostasy in the Church will begin at the top.”

The website also publishes a text it attributes to Sr Lucia, one of the seers of Fatima, which refers to a fake Holy Father with a ‘devilish gaze.’ Then, to further prove the point, it publishes 12 photographic close-ups of the pope’s eyes.

Riccardo Cascioli, a conservative Catholic journalist who organised a conference of secular theologians last April, called on the pope to clarify the more contentious elements of Amoris Laetitia. He said: “There is a risk of personalising things around the figure of the pope and not dealing with the real issues.”

Mr Cascioli, who edits two Catholic publications, said he was worried that the pope’s changes were leading towards a Protestant-style Church, with lax discipline and decentralised power.

“The Catholic Church has never been like that,” he said. “Simple Catholics are disoriented because they see that what they were taught no longer applies. It’s a dramatic moment, with at least two Churches confronting one another across a worrying rift.”

He said that the problem was not so much with Pope Francis as with the
Vatican chain of command, which was implementing radical policies that had emerged in the 1970s but had previously been kept in check by the hierarchy.

The crucial battle was over the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Mr Cascioli added. “If Christ is not present, then everything collapses. That’s why the situation is so grave.”

In a recent interview Cardinal Burke was asked about the prospect of schism within the Church. He replied by stating his opposition to schism: “People talk about a de facto schism. I am absolutely in opposition to any kind of formal schism” – but then tellingly went on to say “people can, however, be living in a schismatic situation if the teaching of Christ has been abandoned,”.

“The more appropriate word would be the one Our Lady used in her Message of Fatima: apostasy. There can be apostasy within the Church and this, in fact, is what is going on.

“In connection with the apostasy, Our Lady also referred to the failure of pastors to bring the Church to unity.”

It has, however, been pointed out that it is Burke and the other dubious cardinals who are sowing the seeds of disunity. The propositions on which Amoris Laetitia are built were passed overwhelmingly by the Synod of
Bishops.

Catholic journalist Michael Sean Winters points out that those who attack Pope Francis’ theology are unduly fond of the phrase, ‘constant teaching of the Church’ which is also frequently invoked by those who reject Amoris Laetitia – and Cardinal Burke is chief among them.

“Of course, he does not invoke it when discussing Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on procreation which introduced a development in Church teaching, one of which Burke approves, but which was not ‘the constant teaching of the Church’ at all.

“Further, the Church’s teaching on what does and does not constitute a valid marriage has most definitely developed through the centuries.”

In addition, the other lung by which the apostolic Church breathes, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, has always held to a different discipline regarding remarriage than we in the West. To introduce a word like ‘apostasy’ into this conversation is a great insult to our Orthodox brothers and sisters”, wrote Mr Winters in a recent National Catholic Reporter article.

The pope is indubitably hugely popular throughout the world with both Catholics and non-Catholics alike but from the start of his pontificate he has struggled against fierce opposition from the Vatican establishment as he attempts to reform the Holy Roman Church into a body with a elevance to the 21st century.

The establishment is primarily against changing the style and position of the Church from a western base to one that is truly global in outlook. Add to that division such potentially toxic issues as marriage and divorce, the family and same-sex relations, and you have an explosive mix.

It is a deep divide because it is about the future of the Church itself, a future that Francis is determined will include a more pastoral Church, a Church with a curia that serves the Church universal and a Church that will delegate at least some decisions to the bishops and local Churches around the globe. It will be a Church that empowers priests and bishops to make the decisions about allowing divorcees communion.

And that, for the traditionalists, is the thin end of the wedge.

Picture: US Cardinal Raymond L. Burke with Pope Francis during a general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Photo: Paul Haring.

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OTHER NEWS

Bishop encourages viewers to participate in daily Mass on RTÉ

The Bishop of Raphoe has encouraged viewers to participate in daily Mass broadcast by RTÉ. His call came as recent figures showed that daily Mass broadcast by RTÉ had an average television audience of 34,600. The broadcast is a response to the Covid-19 related...