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Cardinal Burke’s Talk On The Limits Of Papal Power

May 2, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


Part 2

(Editor’s Note: Raymond Cardinal Burke gave the address below on April 7 at a conference in Rome called “Catholic Church: Where Are You Heading?” His Eminence gave his talk in memory of Joachim Cardinal Meisner. Given the length of the talk, we are publishing it in two parts; the first part appeared in last week’s issue. Also, we eliminated the footnotes, which can be found in LifeSiteNews’ report of April 13,
(LifeSiteNews is the original publisher of this interview. A number of LifeSite readers had expressed a desire to read Cardinal Burke’s text in full. The cardinal kindly supplied the Italian original and has approved this English translation.)

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To conclude this too brief examination of the development of the notion of the fullness of power from the time of Pope St. Leo the Great, it must be observed that the contribution of the medieval canonists constitutes a deepening of the understanding of the Church’s faith regarding Petrine Primacy. It, in no way, pretended to offer doctrinal novelty. Professor Watt summarizes the matter thus:
“That the concept of ecclesiastical sovereignty expressed by this particular term had been formulated before Hostiensis wrote, is clear from Innocent III’s decretals and the early commentary thereon. Examination of the decretist background to early decretalist work makes it clear that no novelty of doctrinal essence was here involved. The decretals register a crystallization of terminology; sure mark of the maturity of the canonist understanding of the notion in question. The Professio fidei known to the Second Council of Lyons was but a more solemn acceptance of a position held generally much earlier, not least among canonists, expressed now with the help of a term which the canonists had made a technical one.
“In the form adopted at Lyons, plenitudo potestatis represented two things, both of which corresponded exactly to its canonistic history: the principle of jurisdictional primacy as such, in all its judicial, legislative, administrative, and magisterial aspects, and more narrowly, the principle that prelates derived their jurisdiction from the Pope.
“There was, however, a third level of interpretation of the term: the plenitude of power in its purest juristic form. This was the level at which the canonists were most deeply engaged, in that it concerned the practical applications of supreme authority and considered its relationship to law already in being and an ordo iuris already established. In short, a problem of developed legal theory, the concept of the power of the sovereign over law and the juridical order.
“Progress was made with some simple distinctions about the nature of this power. The Pope’s jurisdiction was said to be exercised in a twofold way. There was an exercise which had a recognized and regular place, established by existing law and translated into practice by existing procedures: his ordinary power. There was further his extraordinary power, inhering him personally and alone, by which — manifestation par excellence of sovereign authority — existing law and established procedures might be suspended, abrogated, clarified, supplemented. This was the prerogative power of the Pope supra ius; the plenitude of power seen in its most characteristic juristic form as the right to regulate established legal machinery. Solutus a legibus, the absolute ruler might redispose any of the mechanisms of law. In the doing thereof, the plenitude of power was deployed in its most practical form.
“Once the plenitudo officii had been distinguished from the plenitudo potestatis and the potestas ordinaria from the potestas absoluta (and with these distinctions Hostiensis seems to have made his most individual contribution to the common stock of canonist ideas on papal power), it followed logically that the circumstances in which this power was used extra ordinarium cursum should be examined.”
In fact, the ever-deepening understanding of the fullness of power of the Roman Pontiff during the medieval period has led to the ongoing study of the primacy of Peter and of the power connected with it. Any discussion of the matter would be incomplete without taking into account the essential work accomplished by canonists during the Middle Ages.
The term, fullness of power, was used in the definition of papal primacy at the First Vatican Council. Chapter four of the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, on the Church of Christ, promulgated on July 18, 1870, reads:
“Furthermore, with the approval of the Second Council of Lyon, the Greeks professed that ‘the holy Roman Church possesses the supreme and full primacy and authority over the universal Catholic Church, which she recognizes in truth and humility to have received with fullness of power from the Lord himself in blessed Peter, the prince or head of the apostles, of whom the Roman pontiff is the successor. And, as she is bound above all to defend the truth of the faith, so too, if any questions should arise regarding the faith, they must be decided by her judgment’.”
The dogmatic definition makes it clear that the fullness of power of the Roman Pontiff is necessary if the Apostolic Faith is to be safeguarded and promoted in the universal Church.
Later on in the same chapter of Pastor Aeternus, the Council Fathers declare:
“For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that they might disclose a new doctrine by his revelation, but rather that, with his assistance, they might reverently guard and faithfully explain the revelation or deposit of faith that was handed down through the apostles. Indeed, it was this apostolic doctrine that all the Fathers held and the holy orthodox Doctors reverenced and followed, fully realizing that this See of St. Peter always remains untainted by any error, according to the divine promise of our Lord and Savior made to the prince of his disciples: ‘But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren’ (Luke 22:32).
“Now this charism of truth and of never-failing faith was conferred upon Peter and his successors in this chair in order that they might perform their supreme office for the salvation of all; that by them the whole flock of Christ might be kept away from the poisonous bait of error and be nourished by the food of heavenly doctrine; that, the occasion of schism being removed, the whole Church might be preserved as one and, resting on her foundation, might stand firm against the gates of hell.”
Following the constant understanding of the Church down the centuries, the Council Fathers taught that Petrine Primacy and the corollary fullness of power of the Roman Pontiff, instituted by Christ in His constitution of the Church as His Mystical Body, are directed exclusively to the salvation of souls by the safeguarding and promoting of the solid doctrine and sound discipline, handed down in an unbroken line by means of Apostolic Tradition.
Chapter 22 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council likewise used the term, fullness of power. Describing the relationship of the College of Bishops to the Roman Pontiff, the Council Fathers declare:
“But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is, as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman pontiff has full, supreme, and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power. The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head, the Roman pontiff, and never without this head.
“This power can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman pontiff. For our Lord placed Simon alone as the rock and the bearer of the keys of the Church [cf. Matt. 16:18-19] and made him shepherd of the whole flock; it is evident, however, that the power of binding and loosing, which was given to Peter [Matt. 16:19], was granted also to the college of apostles, joined with its head [cf. Matt. 18:18; 28:16-20].”
The distinct office of the Roman Pontiff with respect to the College of Bishops and indeed to the universal Church is described in the following number of Lumen Gentium with these words: “The Roman pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation for the unity of the multiplicity of both the bishops and the faithful.”
In an earlier part of the same Dogmatic Constitution, the Council Fathers explain:
“This sacred synod, following in the steps of the First Vatican Council, teaches and declares with it that Jesus Christ, the eternal pastor, set up the holy Church by entrusting the apostles with their mission as he himself had been sent by the Father (cf. John 20:21). He willed that their successors, the bishops namely, should be the shepherds in his Church until the end of the world. In order that the episcopate itself, however, might be one and undivided he put Peter at the head of the other apostles, and in him he set up a lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and of communion.”
After the symposium entitled “The Primacy of the Successor of Peter,” organized by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from December 2 to 4 of 1996, the Congregation published certain considerations regarding the subject of the Petrine Office and the power conferred upon it.
Regarding the relationship of the Petrine Office to the office of Bishop, the document declared:
“All Bishops are subjects of the care of all the Churches (sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum) inasmuch as they are members of the Episcopal College which succeeds to the college of the Apostles, of which the extraordinary figure of St. Paul was a member. This universal dimension of their episkopè (oversight) is inseparable from the particular dimension relative to the offices entrusted to them. In the case of the Bishop of Rome — Vicar of Christ in the proper manner of Peter as Head of the College of Bishops — the care of all the Churches acquires a particular force because it is accompanied by full and supreme power in the Church: a truly episcopal power, not only supreme, full and universal, but also immediate, over all, both pastors and other faithful.
“The ministry of the Successor of Peter, therefore, is not a service which reaches each particular Church from outside, but is inscribed in the heart of every particular Church, in which ‘the Church of Christ is truly present and acts,’ and by this carries in itself the opening to the ministry of unity. This interiority of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome to each particular Church is also an expression of the mutual interiority between the universal Church and the particular Church.”
The Petrine Office is therefore in its proper essence and in its exercise different from offices of civil government.
The document of the congregation goes on to explain how the Roman Pontiff carries out his office as a service, that is, in obedience to Christ:
“The Roman Pontiff is — as are all the faithful — submitted to the Word of God, to the Catholic faith and is the guarantee of the obedience of the Church and, in this sense, is the servant of the servants (servus servorum). He does not decide according to his own will, but gives voice to the will of the Lord who speaks to man in the Scriptures lived and interpreted by the Tradition; in other terms, the episkopè of the Primate has the limits which flow from divine law and the inviolable divine constitution of the Church contained in Revelation. The Successor of Peter is the rock who, contrary to arbitrariness and conformism, guarantees a rigorous fidelity to the Word of God: the martyrological character of his Primacy follows from this.”
The fullness of power of the Roman Pontiff cannot be properly understood and exercised except as obedience to the grace of Christ the Head and Shepherd of the flock in every time and place.

Canonical Legislation

The fullness of the power of the Roman Pontiff is expressed in canon 218 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which reads:
“The Roman Pontiff, who is the successor of St. Peter in the primacy, possesses not only a primacy of honor, but supreme and full power of jurisdiction in the entire Church in matters which belong to faith and morals as well as in those which pertain to discipline and the government of the Church throughout the world.
“This power is truly episcopal, ordinary, and immediate over all and each of the churches and over all and each of the pastors and the faithful, and is independent of every human authority.”
What is important to note initially is that the fullness of power is required by the primacy of the Roman Pontiff, which is not merely honorary but substantial, that is, it is required for the fulfillment of the supreme, ordinary, full and universal responsibility of safeguarding the rule of faith (regula fidei) and the rule of law (regula iuris).
Canon 331 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law contains substantially the same legislation. It reads:
“The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.”
The power of the Roman Pontiff is understood from the adjectives which modify it.
It is ordinary because it is stably connected to the office of primacy by Christ Himself. It is part of the ius divinum. It is a divine disposition. It is supreme, that is the highest authority within the hierarchy and not subordinated to any other human power, while it remains always subordinate to Christ alive in the Church through the Tradition guarded and transmitted by the rule of faith and the rule of law. It is full in that it is equipped with all the faculties contained in the sacred power to teach, to sanctify and to govern.
It is thus connected with the exercise of the infallible magisterium and with the authentic non-infallible magisterium (canons 749 § 1, and 752), with legislative and judicial power, and with the moderation of the liturgical life and divine worship of the universal Church.
It is immediate, that is, it may be exercised over the faithful and their pastors wherever and without condition, and it is universal, that is, it extends to the entire ecclesial community, to all the faithful, to the particular Churches and their congregations, and to all of the matters which are subject to the jurisdiction and responsibility of the Church.
What is evident in the canonical legislation is that “the Pope does not exercise the power connected to his office when he acts as a private person or simple member of the faithful.” Evidently, too, given the supreme character of the fullness of power entrusted to the Roman Pontiff, he does not have an absolute power in the contemporary political sense and, therefore, is held to listen to Christ and to His Mystical Body the Church. In the words of the considerations offered by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1998:
“To listen to the voice of the Churches is, in fact, a proper characteristic of the ministry of unity, also a consequence of the unity of the episcopal Body and of the sensus fidei of the entire People of God; and this bond appears substantially endowed with greater force and certainty than juridical instances — a moreover inadmissible hypothesis because of lack of foundation — to which the Roman Pontiff would have to respond. The final and binding responsibility of the Roman Pontiff finds its best guarantee, on the one hand, in its insertion in the Tradition and in fraternal communion and, on the other hand in the assistance of the Holy Spirit Who governs the Church.”
As one canonist comments on the fullness of the power of the Pope:
“Without doubt, the end and the mission of the Church indicate well-articulated limits which are not of easy juridical formulation. But, if we would wish juridical formulations, we could say that these limits are those that the divine law, natural and positive, establishes.
“Above all, the Pope has to exercise his power in communion with the whole Church (c. 333, § 2). Wherefore, these limits stand in relationship with the communion in the faith, in the Sacraments and in ecclesiastical governance (canon 205). The Pope has to respect the deposit of the faith — he holds the authority to express the Credo in a more adequate manner but he cannot act contrary to the faith — he has to respect all and each of the Sacraments — he cannot suppress nor add anything that goes against the substance of the Sacraments — and, finally, he has to respect the ecclesial rule of divine institution (he cannot prescind from the episcopate and has to share with the College of Bishops the exercise of the full and supreme power).”


It is my hope that these reflections which are initial in character and require much further elaboration will help you to understand the necessity and the subtlety of the fullness of the power of the Roman Pontiff for the safeguarding and promoting of the good of the universal Church. According to Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, the Successor to St. Peter has power which is universal, ordinary, and immediate over all the faithful. He is the supreme judge of the faithful, over whom there is no higher human authority, not even an ecumenical council.
To the Pope belongs the power and authority to define doctrines and to condemn errors, to make and repeal laws, to act as judge in all matters of faith and morals, to decree and inflict punishment, to appoint and, if need be, to remove pastors. Because this power is from God Himself, it is limited as such by natural and divine law, which are expressions of the eternal and unchangeable truth and goodness that come from God, are fully revealed in Christ, and have been handed on in the Church throughout time.
Therefore, any expression of doctrine or law or practice that is not in conformity with Divine Revelation, as contained in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Tradition cannot be an authentic exercise of the Apostolic or Petrine ministry and must be rejected by the faithful.
As St. Paul declared: “There are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be anathema.”
As devout Catholics and servants of the Church’s discipline, we must in all things teach and defend the fullness of the power with which Christ has endowed His Vicar on Earth. At the same time, we must teach and defend that power within the teaching and defense of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, as an organic body of divine origin and divine life. I conclude with the words of Gratian in his Decretals:
“Let no mortal being have the audacity to reprimand a Pope on account of his faults, for he whose duty it is to judge all other men cannot be judged by anybody, unless he should be called to task for having deviated from the faith.”
Raymond Leo Cardinal BURKE

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