Ross Douthat had a fascinating interview this past weekend in the New York Times with Cardinal Raymond Burke, a leader in conservative American Catholicism who has been consistently pushed toward the margins of church life under Pope Francis. At the risk of quoting him too much, I’m going to run several excerpts here and just let the Cardinal speak for himself.

On whether or not his views have changed under the Franciscan papacy:

I haven’t changed. I’m still teaching the same things I always taught and they’re not my ideas. But now suddenly this is perceived as being contrary to the Roman pontiff. And I think here what’s entered in is a very political view of the papacy, where the pope is some kind of absolute monarch who can do whatever he wants. That has never been the case in the church. The pope is not a revolutionary, elected to change the church’s teaching.


Douthat: But isn’t the decision of when to exercise authority inherent in the pope’s authority itself? Why isn’t it within his power to tolerate local experiments?

Burke: He really doesn’t have a choice in the matter if it’s a question of something contrary to the church’s teaching. The teaching has always been that the pope has the fullness of power necessary to defend the faith and to promote it. So he can’t say, “This form of power gives me the authority to not defend the faith and to not promote it.”

Douthat: If Francis asked you to cease publishing criticisms of him, would you?

Burke: Not if I felt it was a question of the truth. If he said to me, you’re stating lies, you’re attacking the office of the Roman pontiff, then that I would cease. But I don’t. I try not to tell lies. And I’ve never attacked the office.

Douthat himself noted that the Cardinal’s words seem to veer toward a more radical form of traditional Catholicism, specifically sedevacantism, a view which holds that the current pope is not the legitimate pope because of the institutional church’s abandonment of the true faith.

But this implies that, in effect, the pope could lead a schism, even though schism by definition involves breaking with the pope. This is an idea that several conservative Catholic theologians have brought up recently; it does not become more persuasive with elaboration. And Burke himself acknowledges as much: It would be a “total contradiction” with no precedent or explanation in church law.

The pull of such ideas, though, explains why you need only take a step beyond Burke’s position to end up as a kind of de facto sedevacantist, a believer that the pope is not really the pope — or, alternatively, that the church is so corrupted and compromised by modernity that the pope might technically still be pope but his authority doesn’t matter anymore. This is the flavor of a lot of very-online traditionalism, and it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t (eventually) lead many of its adherents to a separation from the larger church, joining the traditionalist quasi-exile pioneered after Vatican II by the Society of Saint Pius X.

In many respects, the arguments being made here by Burke (and the questions they raise as described by Douthat) remind me of a piece written several years ago by my friend J. D. Flynn. In explaining why a bishop can give binding commands regarding the Lenten fast but not over communion for divorced Catholics, Flynn cited St. Pope John Paul II and made a distinction between ecclesiastical law and divine law.

For example, practices regarding matters of Lenten fasting fall under ecclesiastical law and are left to the discretion of a bishop such that the same act could be sinful for a Catholic in one diocese and a means of grace for a Catholic in a neighboring diocese. This is the church exercising its authority.

However, when turning to matters of divine law, which relates to the clearly revealed law of God, the church does not have authority to alter the teaching. The teaching is fixed. The church submits:

In Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II expresses the idea this way: Catholics in illicit sexual relationships “are unable to be admitted [to Communion] from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.” The pope doesn’t say that they may not be admitted to Holy Communion, he says that they cannot. It is not a question of whether the Church should grant permission. The Church simply has no authority to do so.

Thus we come to the fault line that has opened up under the Franciscan papacy: Faced with a liberalizing pope, conservatives in the church are arguing that there is an objectively discernible body of divinely revealed teachings over which the church has no authority and which it is literally unable to alter.

Oddly enough, the relationship between “divine law” and ecclesial authority articulated by these conservatives in the American church is, to my eyes, strikingly similar to the relationship between Scripture and ecclesial authority as defined by the Reformation.1

This is not to say that either Cardinal Burke or J. D. are themselves arguing for Protestantism. Protestant theology encompasses much more than its stance on the nature of ecclesial authority, though it is worth noting that this vision of ecclesial authority is the foundation of everything that follows in Protestant thought.

Rather, I am arguing that the current maneuverings amongst conservative Catholics bear a striking resemblance to Protestantism precisely because they are confronting the same problem that vexed the first Protestants: What do you do when the institutional church seems to be endorsing views that contradict what you understand orthodoxy to be? Not only that, they are addressing the problem with a strikingly similar answer: You appeal to a divine law that is able to be discerned independent of the authority of the papacy and which is binding for everyone, including bishops. Thus the much cited problem of private judgment is merely a fact to be confronted and navigated rather than an inherent theological problem from which we must be rescued.

Certainly, the remaining content of traditionalist Catholic theology and later developments in Protestant thought will differ sharply. Indeed, to whatever extent the traditionalists continue to maintain that some body of church teaching is the divine law that is binding for the church they will affirm a significantly different body of authoritative teaching than that affirmed by Protestants.

But these differences, while significant, are smaller than the divide that would open between the papal maximalists of both conservative and progressive stripes and whatever label you wish to give the traditionalist dissenters. It is too far to say the latter would be Protestant, but they would, at minimum, have consented to the defining doctrine that resides at the heart of the Reformation cause.

With that move made, the remaining divide left behind between non-maximalist traditionalist Catholics and Protestants would be relatively minor in comparison—the principle of Protestantism would have already been conceded. What happens after that is impossible to say, of course, as historic Protestantism has been no more immune to theological drift than has Catholicism. But the nature of the debate will have changed.

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  1. There might be a kind of positive and negative framing of the relationship where the traditionalist Catholics see the church as being able to speak authoritatively beyond Scripture provided what she speaks conforms with divine law whereas the Protestants take a more negative approach and say the church has no authority beyond what is plainly stated in Scripture. But in both cases you end up with a body of teaching that cannot be altered by the church and which constrains the church in its teaching ministry.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).


  1. Hello Jake, it is Cardinal “Raymond” Burke, not Cardinal Francis Burke. – Bryan


    1. Yes, someone else also pointed this out. Thanks for catching it!


  2. I highly recommend the following article:

    Basically, Catholic apologetics since the Counter-Reformation works like this. 1) Use skepticism 2) Have Rome be the rescue from skepticism 3) Don’t notice that 1) is equally devastating to Rome


  3. I don’t follow the logical leap. Indulgences were ecclesiastical. What is being protested is the divine (defending it against) which is being ignored or contradicted by the Jesuit sitting on the throne of St. Peter.


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