|Ecce sacerdos magnus: Cardinal Burke enters St James', Spanish Place, to confer the|
sacrament of Confirmation last November, in a service organised by the Latin Mass Society.
The liberals are telling us that the Communion for the divorced and remarried is now allowed.
The group I will call Skojec's, for want of a better label, is telling us that the Exhortation is a 'disaster' because the liberal reading is a natural one.
What Cardinal Burke and his group are saying is that, if you look carefully at the document, and in particular at the key passages the liberals appeal to, it turns out that it makes no attempt to establish new teaching, or even make formal changes to discipline, for example by changing Canon Law.
As I have just characterised them, the Skojec reading and the Burke reading are not necessarily in conflict. It can be true that, from a logical, theological, and canonical point of view, the Exhortation doesn't make any difference, but also true that it is going to be hard to argue against the liberal contention that it makes a big difference in practice. This is in fact frequently the case with Church documents.
Here is a relevant question, however. My longstanding concern has been with the situation of priests under pressure to give Holy Communion to public sinners, something they cannot in conscience do: a group well represented by the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy. They haven't been skewered, in this Exhortation, in quite the way widely predicted, but liberals are celebrating as if they have been: as if they have been ordered by the Pope to act against their consciences and the tradition of the Church. The question is: is it more helpful to priests in this situation to agree with the liberals that, 'practically speaking', or 'on a natural reading', they have been ordered to do this?
No, it is not helpful, and not for reasons of presentation or politics, but because these priests' subjective moral situation is not changed by any such 'practically speaking', 'natural reading' of the document. On many matters, though not this one, it would be changed by a properly formulated papal command, or a change in Canon Law, but that is not what we have here.
What Skojec is, perhaps, saying, is that we have a situation like King Henry II shouting out, in 1170, 'Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?' Henry wanted his knights to kill St Thomas Becket, but did not want to order them to do so. He wanted to be able to deny doing so; he knew that, even if he'd attempted to put his command into formal language, it would have been legally invalid, since he did not have the legal or moral authority order extrajudical killings. The knights weren't exactly wrong in their interpretation of the King's words; where they were woefully mistaken was in imagining that these words gave them any kind of warrant, legal or moral, to carry out the King's wishes.
In this situation it does not become irrelevant that the King failed to issue a proper decree, or that he did not have the authority to issue such a decree anyway. No: it becomes a matter of supreme importance. What we need to emphasise is that the King's outburst makes no legal or moral difference. This seems to be something Skojec and others have missed.
Supposing the King had issued a decree. Suppose the Pope had changed Canon Law. Then I would have felt the obligation to point out - as I already have hypothetically - that whatever Canon Law said, priests remain bound by Divine and Natural Law on this subject. It may be that Cardinal Burke, the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, and others in this group, would have felt the same. I wonder if that was what Cardinal Sarah had in mind when he said that there were things that the Church in Africa would not accept. Perhaps that's what Cardinal Pell was thinking of when, according to reports, he warned the Holy Father that certain options would lead to schism. At any rate, a lot of people would have felt obliged to go into battle in a whole new way if that had happened. Well, we have avoided that, thanks be to God. Perhaps it was never going to happen; perhaps we were a hair's breadth away from it happening: I don't know. The significance of it not happening is completely lost on the liberals, who have long ago given up on the concepts of Divine and Natural Law, and neither understand nor care about Canon Law. But it is of fundamental importance.
Cardinal Burke and those who think like him don't necessarily have to disagree in substance with what Skojec and others are saying about the tone of the Exhortation, the dangers it contains, the way it is likely to be applied and so on. Skojec and his ilk ought to see, however, that what Burke is doing is necessary and supremely valuable. He is placing the Exhortation, and whatever negative outcomes it may, in practice, cause, into the correct category: not as a schism-causing event, not as a case of a Pope teaching heresy, but as a non-magisterial, non-legislative document which points out, when you get down to line-by-line analysis, that people are often in very complicated situations and should be treated with charity.
There is a very important difference between the position taken up by Cardinal Burke, and those like him, and an extreme Ultramontanist position, the position which says the Pope is always right. One difference is hypothetical: what would have happened if the Exhortation had been different. But there is another very important difference. Cardinal Burke lays great stress on interpreting Church documents in light of the whole tradition of the Church. This is of huge importantance, and it is something the Ultramontanists fail to do. This is frequently going to lead Catholics with a lively sense of tradition to read documents in a different way from others. It doesn't mean that we blind ourselves to the practical implications, the perspectic of the secular media, and so on. What it means is that we don't, like Ultramontanists, feel we have change our entire world-view every time there is a new Pope with a new set of priorities or way of expressing himself. And nor do we have to become sede vacantists.
To reiterate what I've said a few times, Traditional Catholics, or at least those of us trying to engage with the hierarchy, magisterial documents, and the currently 'officially approved' theology, have become very used to this situation. A liberal says to us: the Church now allows Communion in the Hand, and the natural way of reading this is about us being adults, whereas in the past we were treated as children: ergo, the traditional practice is theologically defective. We say: if that were true, it would be a breach with the constant teaching and practice of the Church. Let's look at the relevant documents: well, what do you know, Paul VI explicitly denied the liberal interpretation ('The [traditional] custom does not detract in any way from the personal dignity of those who approach this great sacrament'). The liberal may protest that no-one takes any notice of that, but it is there. But then again, even if Pope Paul had gone mad and condemned the old practice as actually defective, then the weight of the tradition would be enough to show that it was legitimate.
We can go on to infer, from the very fact that we are having this conversation with the liberals, that there is a problem with Communion in the Hand, since it is causing confusion and cutting people off from the wisdom of the Church's tradition. What we can't do is to see the official permission for the new practice as condemning the old one. The new practice may be a mistake, but it is not a case of Rome falling into heresy.
This is not dishonest, and it is not cowardly. We are deeply interested in setting out our case in way which is comprehensible to mainstream Catholic theologians and people in the Roman Curia, and appeals to things they recognise have weight, but we are under no illusions that our views will make us popular. Our approach is, in fact, about looking at facts squarely in the face. These facts include the way the document is going to be understood by liberals and by the media. They also include the precise theological and canonical assertions a document is and is not making, and the light shed on the issues by the Church's whole teaching and tradition. Ignoring any of these facts cripples one's ability to deal rationally and appropriately with the situation.
|Cardinal Burke distributing Holy Communion at the Latin Mass Society's|
annual Requiem in Westminster Cathedral.