Cardinal Burke and the Doctors of the Law

No doubt, a large segment of readers is already aware of the recent excitement caused by Cardinals Walter Brandmüller, Raymond L. Burke, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner thanks to their laudable attempt to clarify the pastoral and doctrinal confusion surrounding the Holy Father’s post-synodal exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.

In the economic words of the respected Catholic journalist Edward Pentin,

Four cardinals asked Pope Francis five dubia questions, or “doubts,” about the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) in a bid to clear up ambiguities and confusion surrounding the text. On Nov. 14, they went public with their request, after they learned that the Holy Father had decided not to respond to their questions.

While he has chosen not to respond to the dubia, it does appear that the Holy Father is displeased by them, if certain statements he has made are any indication. Besides this, Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, and something of an unofficial papal spokesman, has taken to his Twitter feed to berate the four Cardinals — in which forum also Father James Martin, S.J., said something.

In their own words, Their Eminences interpreted the Holy Father’s “sovereign decision [not to answer the dubia] as an invitation to continue the reflection and the discussion, calmly and with respect,” and took the measure of informing “the entire people of God about our initiative and offering all of the documentation.”

The five dubia all concern matters of the moral magisterium of the Church — doctrinal matters raised by Amoris Laetitia and the discussion surrounding the document. They include only one question about the specific application of Amoris; the other four pertain to fundamental questions of principle in Catholic moral doctrine.

What most interests me here are the doctrinal issues raised by Amoris, and by the dubia, but I would like first to consider what may be at stake.

The “excitement” I referred to in the first paragraph is such that some are openly speaking of a schism emerging from these events. Whether or not an actual schism takes place remains to be seen, but fault lines are certainly forming, as may be illustrated by this example: The newly created Cardinal, His Eminence Kevin Farrell, has publicly criticized Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia for implementing diocesan norms in Philly which interpret Amoris Laetitia in line with tradition — which is to say that Philadelphia’s norms forbid the divorced and civilly “remarried” to receive Holy Communion unless they agree to live as brother and sister, forgoing the conjugal relations proper to married persons. Archbishop Chaput has publicly responded to this criticism by defending his actions, and very firmly. This is not the only example of “battle lines” being drawn on the interpretation of Amoris, but it amply illustrates Cardinal Burke’s claim that the ambiguity that presently exists is harmful to Church unity. Hence the dubia, which all four cardinals see as their pastoral response to a pastoral problem in the Church.

These events are very grave, and have far-reaching implications in the realm of Catholic faith and morals — as well as in the pastoral practice of the clergy and the daily lives of families.

I invite readers to read the five dubia, which I have posted on our site (snipped from Mr. Thomas McKenna’s lengthy posting at What is at stake doctrinally is the proper understanding of conscience, and — of equal importance — the clear Catholic idea of what constitutes a moral act and its integral parts. Let me explain. Traditional Catholic moral theology teaches us that the goodness of a moral act is determined by three elements: object, intention, and circumstances. At least one of these must be good; others may be indifferent; and none may be evil. A defect in any of these renders the act morally evil. Now, many modern moral systems, like “situation ethics,” “fundamental option theory,” or what is often called “gradualism,” emphasize circumstances or intention to the detriment of the object. What the proponents of these new theories deny is the existence of intrinsically sinful acts. In other words, they deny that certain moral objects are always wrong. These errors were condemned by Pope John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor, which is why the Cardinals cited that document in three of the five dubia.

Besides the Church’s teaching concerning the nature of the moral act and conscience, I see other doctrinal issues being raised here — not directly, but indirectly due to the circumstances of the Four Cardinals’ intervention:

First, there is the question of the gradations of magisterial authority. The Holy Father makes a very public, formally promulgated statement that treats of Catholic doctrine (Amoris Laetetia). Don’t we have to believe it? Do we have to accept every such document — or every utterance of the Holy Father — as a definitive statement of Catholic orthodoxy? No. The Church has a clearly articulated set of magisterial gradations to guide theologians in these considerations.

Second, there is the related question of what happens when a statement of the Holy Father, or some other authority in the Church, is in conflict with Tradition. Here, Cardinal Burke has given a good answer in his interview with Edward Pentin:

[Edward Pentin:] In a conflict between ecclesial authority and the Sacred Tradition of the Church, which one is binding on the believer and who has the authority to determine this?

[Cardinal Burke:] What’s binding is the Tradition. Ecclesial authority exists only in service of the Tradition. I think of that passage of St. Paul in the [Letter to the] Galatians (1:8), that if “even an angel should preach unto you any Gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema.”

Third, we have the closely connected question of what happens when the real or apparent meaning of some lower-level magisterial text is — or seems to be — in conflict with Tradition. This is a very complex question that touches on the debates about Vatican II and the post-Conciliar magisterium. My own humble contribution to that effort can be found here.

And now, shifting gears a bit, I must justify the whole title of this piece. It often happens that progressivists like to call traditionalists, “Pharisees” (or “scribes,” or “doctors of the law”) because they maintain a hard moral line on the Church’s irreformable moral teaching. Roberto de Mattei has admirably answered the question “who are the Pharisees and Sadducees of our time?” as a response to these charges, but I would like to offer my own four paragraphs for your consideration.

The doctors of the law were identical to the scribes. They were highly educated Pharisees, and were dedicated to the study of the Mosaic Law within that particular doctrinal milieu. Their studies included not only the Mosaic Law proper, but the seemingly endless rabbinical commentaries on it, and their work was ultimately collated in the Talmud. Their “strictness” was not a fidelity to God’s revelations through Moses and the Prophets of the Old Testament. No, their “strictness” was, rather, a rigid adherence to the rabbinical traditions that were of human origin, and which, in some cases, actually contradicted the Mosaic Law itself. They imposed this hair-splitting and often bizarre casuistry on their fellow Jews, and this merited for them serious words of condemnation from Our Lord.

A good example of this would be Our Lord’s condemnation of the perverted practice — related in Matthew 15 and Mark 7 — of uttering “Corban” over one’s property in order to avoid the demands of the fourth commandment. Our Lord accuses these “scribes and Pharisees” of “Making void the word of God by your own tradition, which you have given forth” (Mark 7:13), accusing them quite directly: “you have made void the commandment of God for your tradition” (Matt. 15:6).

In addition to establishing traditions of men that void God’s word, He accuses them of upholding the minutiae of the Law, while ignoring its most important parts: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you tithe mint, and anise, and cumin, and have left the weightier things of the law; judgment, and mercy, and faith. These things you ought to have done, and not to leave those undone” (Matt. 23:23). Note that He does not accuse them for fidelity to the minutiae, but for neglecting “judgment, and mercy, and faith.”

Jesus shows himself to be a stickler for God’s revelations when He accuses the scribes and Pharisees of undermining Faith. But beyond that, He actually elevates and surpasses the moral code of the Old Law when He notes, for instance, that hatred is a form of murder (Matt. 5:21-22), that internal sins of lust equal adultery (Matt. 5:27-28), that divorce and remarriage is also adultery (Matt. 5:31-32), that the condemnation of swearing is now stricter than it was in the Old Law (Matt. 5:33-37), and that we must do the very difficult thing of loving our enemies (Matt. 5:43-45). The condemnation of divorce and remarriage, first uttered in the Sermon on the Mount, is reiterated in Matt. 19:9.

Jesus was not a Pharisee. And neither are these Four Cardinals for insisting on Jesus Christ’s higher, New-Testament standard regarding what constitutes adultery. This is the standard that the Church has constantly maintained — in sacred spousal fidelity to her Bridegroom.