Slandering Cardinal Burke: The Synod on the Family 2015

Mark Silk is a guy who evidently fancies himself as knowing something about Catholicism. And journalism. But neither of these things is in particular evidence in his most recent piece for Religion News Service.

On Tuesday evening, a few hours after the Vatican announced Pope Francis’ streamlining of the Catholic marriage annulment procedure, Cardinal Raymond Burke, whom the pope demoted last year as head of the church’s highest court, attacked what the pope did.

But Burke did not so much as mention the pope. Speaking at ultra-conservative Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, he gave prepared remarks designed to dissuade next month’s Synod of Bishops from doing what Francis had already done.

“Ultra-conservative Franciscan University,” huh? Yeah. It’s super scary there. Bunch of straight-laced do-gooders who just ooze rigorist pre-conciliarism! I just got done praising the school for valuing academic freedom enough to have conversations that lie outside their normal comfort zone, which could be characterized as solidly post-conciliar charismatic Catholicism. Do they adhere to Magisterium? You betcha. That’s why they get to be called “Catholic.” That does not in any way signify “ultra-conservatism.”

But Silk is a man on a mission, and he isn’t going to let facts get in the way of a good thrashing of his ideological enemies. So he then — get this — POSTS THE VIDEO of the event, which shows no such thinghappening. That’s how confident he is in his fantasy. He continues:

For his part, Burke began by declaring that the Synod cannot decide such matters, which would involve amending canon law. “The Synod of Bishops has no authority to change doctrine and discipline,” he said. He then proceeded to dump on both recommendations, saying they effectively violated the church’s doctrinal obligation to determine that a given marriage is truly a “nullity.” The whole enterprise, he claims, reveals the dangers of “sentimentalism” and “a false compassion,” reflecting a “post-canonical antinomianism” that has afflicted the church since the end of the Second Vatican Council. Whew.

Now, you might ask, why did Burke go ahead with his speech when, as even the folks in Steubenville cannot have failed to notice, the pope had just, on his own authority, promulgated new canon law (here and here) incorporating both recommendations. As they say, Roma locuta est, causa finita est (“Rome has spoken, the case is closed”).

Pontiffs have been laying down canon law on their own say-so since the 11th century, so Burke, traditionalist that he is, can hardly claim that Pope Francis has no warrant for doing likewise. But as the Washington Post reported Monday, he went so far as to declare in a recent television interview that the pope “does not have the power to change teaching [or]doctrine.”

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the cardinal believes this pope has acted beyond his authority in changing the annulment procedure as he has. It’s also hard to avoid the thought that, as the pope proceeds to change what the church teaches, some traditionalists will abandon ship, and go into schism.

First of all, Cardinal Burke’s right. Anyone with even the most basic theological knowledge understands that doctrine may develop, but it may not be contradicted. Not even the pope has the authority to upend thedepositum fidei, which is why the goings on at the Synod — under the appearance that they have the Holy Father’s stamp of approval — are causing such consternation among Catholics.

But Cardinal Burke is confronting principles, not persons — with the notable exception of Cardinal Kasper. And the principles he is confronting are entirely valid targets. If Silk wishes to infer that the pope also holds these positions, he’s free to do so. But he may not assume that Burke agrees with him, and then use it to attack him. Not honestly. Not fairly.

Secondly, I was there, and I know for a fact that Burke’s talk didn’t address the new Motu Proprio letters at all. He used his pre-written speech, and the moderator asked the audience not to ask questions about them because there simply hadn’t been time to digest them. For his part, His Eminence had just spent three hours that morning celebrating a Pontifical High Mass after a very long week travelling all the way to the US from Asia. I’m not even sure he had the chance to read the letters, much less analyze them.  So why did he go ahead with the talk? Because it was true, and nothing a pope could say or do is capable of changing that.

Thirdly, Silk finishes with a backhand, impugning those who hold to the Church’s — and Christ’s — teaching on the Sixth Commandment. He says we’re the one who will “abandon ship, and go into schism.”

Sorry, Mark. Can’t happen. Not going to happen. Burke’s on rock-solid doctrinal ground. St. Athanasius tread here before him, as did St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Thomas More, and St. John Fisher – among others. Holding fast to Christ cannot turn you into a schismatic.

Declaring that your particular Church in your particular country, however, is “not a subsidiary of Rome,” though? That’s what the German bishops did, and that’s textbook schism. You might want to refresh your memory on these issues, Mark, and take aim at them. (May I suggest taking the Catholicism 101 class they offer at Steubenville?)

What this amounts to is an attack that is absolutely breathtaking in either its dishonesty, or the inability of its author to grasp the Catholic religion, or both. This is, strangely, the phenomenon of Papal Positivism writ large, only this time coming from someone who, one suspects after reading a few of his columns, wouldn’t have been so sanguine about it when it was Pope Benedict issuing Summorum Pontificum. But he seems, like those Muslims who also do not believe in the True Faith, to accept the theological principle of abrogation, which holds that it is chronology, not precedent, which makes this or that doctrine more authoritative. See, for example, his post from two summers ago, in which he accuses Cardinal Dolan, of all people, of “dissing” the papacy. Citing Dolan’s assertion that the pope’s job is to “hand on, with its full purity and integrity, the teaching of the Church” and his contention that “He [the pope]can’t make it up, can’t change it”, Silk retorts:

Now that’s a pretty good description of the papal state of affairs 1,000 years ago, but beginning with the reform papacy of the 11th century, it all changed. Between Gregory VII and Innocent III, popes took it upon themselves to become the legislators of Christendom, and they never surrendered the claim to possess such plenitude of power.

Thus, in 1950, the year of Dolan’s birth, Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of the Virgin to be a dogma of the Church, in the one and so far only formal exercise of papal infallibility. By saying that John Paul II had “definitively…closed the door to women priests,” Francis was himself pointing to the fact that popes determine church law.

Of course, over the centuries there have been Catholics who wished it were otherwise. And what with all the excitement Francis has generated among progressives, there’s doubtless some fear in conservative circles that he will make changes in church law that they won’t like. You’d almost think that Dolan, who’s always flown with the right wing, was substituting church doctrine with wishful thinking.

Fairweather über-ultramontanism is such weak sauce. It only ever applies when it’s your guy, not the other guy’s guy. But it doesn’t matter what anybody thinks, a pope can’t just make it up as he goes along. He doesn’t get to say something fundamentally opposed to something his predecessor said on matters of faith and morals and continue being called pope.

But as we all already knew, Dolan’s not “right wing,” and as we now know, Mark Silk isn’t a serious thinker about Catholicism. What we’re left with on the part of the latter is either malicious ignorance or willful slander against a Cardinal who will tell you, if you care to ask him, that he’s never uttered a word of criticism against the pope. (And believe me, I sometimes wish he would!)

Since Silk is listed as a founding editor of Religion News Service, and is clearly still involved in its operation, I’d recommend a certain amount of skepticism if you encounter their articles in the future.

As for Cardinal Burke and Steubenville? Silk owes them both an apology.


Correction: in the original post, it was erroneously asserted that “Mark Silk isn’t a serious Catholic thinker” and there was mention of “the inability of its author to grasp his own religion.” Silk is actually Jewish, though he comments often about Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. The sentences in question has been amended, and several other small clarifying revisions have been made. 


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