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Where Francis’ Statesmanship Trumps Burke’s Doubt

The touchstone of the Petrine office is unity. Above all other things Peter’s successor is the rock upon which the Church is built. The gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church because, thanks to the Holy Spirit, the pope as the visible head shall remain faithful to her invisible head, Jesus Christ. Popes can be weak. Popes can also be immoral. But above all they cannot fail to keep the Church—as much of the Church as possible—united.

Unity is a tricky thing. How exactly is it measured? While we can point to teachings and practices that place someone outside the bounds of the Church, heterodoxy and heteropraxy don’t always lead to separation. Take the liturgical upheavals of the 60s and 70s. I heard stories of priests celebrating masses with pizza and Coke. I saw the remnants of women aspiring to be priests through monthly homilies at my campus ministry. Though extreme, these are among many anecdotes and examples that show so-called Catholics practicing and acting in ways that violate the church’s law.

Yet, curiously enough, none of the pizza-mass priests were formally expelled from the Church. Rather, it was traditionalists, the Lefebvrites, who found themselves on the outside looking in. They were branded separatists. They were the ones whose unity with the Church was ruptured. Ultimately, I’m not certain we got it right. But the observation is worth noting for effect: Today you rarely hear of pizza-celebrating priests. But the extraordinary form has found a secure home in the Church for the foreseeable future.

Could it be that schism and separation, rather than being salutary for schismatics, has the effect of simply galvanizing the exiled? That is, had the pizza-mass priests been expelled in the 70s and 80s, might we today see separatist churches devolving toward some sort of non-liturgical protestant sect? It’s too curious a phenomenon to ignore, one that suggests the best way to deal with heterodoxy and heteropraxy is simply to let it die a slow, natural death within the safe harbor of the Church.

In that light, Holy Father Francis’ flirtation with communion for the divorce and remarried might make sense under his duty to the Petrine office.

Don’t mistake, I am saying this as a casual observer, not one studied or stooped in curial and episcopal politics. But it seems we have two competing claims. On the one hand, the teaching of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage and the consequence that has for sacramental admittance for the divorce and remarried. On the other hand, a group of prelates (mainly German) who seem intent to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion. The former is an unchanging position; the latter is heterodox.

So Francis has concluded, better to keep the dissenters within the walls of the Church than risk, half a millennium later, another schism out of Germany. The judgment is one of a statesman. It is a risky and hard decision. But the reality is that in the long-run the Church outlives the lineage of any heresy that crops up within her. The Holy Father knows that the house always wins.

This leaves the likes of Cardinal Burke on the outside looking in. He, too, like Francis wants unity for the Church, but he believes the ultimate move against heterodoxy is expulsion, if there is no amendment. If the lesson of the 60s and 70s is any guide, though, Francis is making the right move. He is marginalizing Cardinal Burke by ignoring his dubia and keeping the heterodox at arm’s length. He is guaranteeing that Cardinal Burke’s vision for an orthodox and faithful Church lives on and that the German bishops’ quest for change dies a slow, natural, but ultimately unfruitful death. The disagreement between Francis and Burke is not one of vision but one of strategy. This, of course, forces us to ask:

What if Cardinal Burke and Pope Francis are really on the same side?


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Andy

    It’s an interesting point, but I just don’t see divorce and remarriage dying a slow death. It has accelerated, and this is not just a change in the liturgy we are talking about. It’s a more serious issue, isn’t it?
    Also just a layman without all the answers here.

    • For sure. There’s a reason we (used to) make Catholic high school students learn all the historic heresies by name and describe them because simply put, they never die. The Church will endure. And Cardinal Burke et al. are absolutely right to pound the podium for clarity of doctrinal expression. We, the faithful, need this teaching. My humble point is that there are larger issues in play and there may very well be not one “simple” or “ideal” path. It’s a matter of several paths each with significant downside and risk.

  • tom kaye

    We also learned in high school that the end never justifies the means. Additionally we also learned that any action or omission, not necessarily sinful in itself, that is likely to induce another to do something morally wrong is called scandal. Direct scandal, also called diabolical, has the deliberate intention to induce another to sin.

    “Pope Francis, answer the Cardinals please!”

  • Mary J. Nelson

    I’ve had this hope myself; I am, however, inclined to not label as “statesmanship” certain comments of Pope Francis that seem to be insults/judgments directed against those Cardinals who have asked for clarification.

  • Greg Herr

    Really well articulated. ‘On the one hand…On the other hand…’

    Two hands organically connected to the same Body.

  • tom kaye

    Another point that interests me is why won’t the chief catechist of the Catholic Church, the Pope, just clarify this matter once and for all. Back in my high school days if I had a question, I’d raise my hand, ask my prof the question and get my answer. The four cardinals have raised their hands. Why won’t the Pope just answer them?

  • tom kaye

    Heterodoxy and heteropraxy . . . within the safe harbor of the Church? Really?

    • Obviously not in teaching, rubrics, or doctrine. But yet, it’s found.

  • Steve Jalsevac

    This is a silly article. How is Francis pursuing unity by insulting, slamming, firing, removing and berating so many faithful Catholics, both clerical and lay? Does the writer read and follow the daily, never ending travesties perpetrated by Francis that could fill a large book by now?

  • OakesSpalding

    This is quite simply one of the most inane posts I have ever read on Francis and Amoris Laetitia (which says a lot), unless of course it’s a parody. Is it a parody?

  • Stephen Peterson

    Pure speculation, which is its intent, I imagine. But can we truely say that, if the Pizza-Mass priests had been expelled, they would have flourished? That laity would have flocked to them?

    Look up the example of Fr Peter Kennedy, a priest from South Brisbane, who was removed from ministry because of his heterodox practices. He had a flourishing community at the time of his removal, most of whom followed him into “exile”. Now, they are evaporating, and are unlikely to survive the death of his personality cult.

    Let’s face it, most dissenting priests are empowered as personality cults. Remove the personality, and the cult fizzles away.

  • Traveler

    It’s a nice theory. Let’s hope it works.