Coat of Arms of the Holy See

Cardinal Burke attacks Pope Francis' annulment reforms

Coat of Arms of the Holy See

Coat of Arms of the Holy See

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.

Here's the set-up. Last June, the Vatican released the working document for the Synod called an Instrumentum Laboris. In it are a couple of sections (114 and 115) dealing with streamlining annulment, including recommendations by some of the participants in last year's Synod that diocesan bishops be permitted to carry out the procedure on their own and that the automatic review process be done away with. There was every reason to suppose that these would be on the table for a vote by the Synod in October.

Instead, Pope Francis took matters into his own hands, not only doing away with the automatic review, for which there was widespread support at last year's Synod, but also allowing local bishops to grant uncontested annulments within 45 days, about which, according to the Instrumentum, there was "no agreement." Francis thereby served notice that he is prepared to make changes in ecclesiastical rules whether or not the upcoming Synod votes for them -- as in, perhaps, permitting a penitential path to Communion for the divorced and remarried.

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.


  1. Cardinal Raymond Cardinal Leo Cardinal Burke is a sore little pipsqueak who thinks he’s in charge. No one every elected him to anything, much less Pope. He was formerly promoted by his, alas, no longer in office patrons: John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He will need to be happy in Malta. He keeps traveling the world looking for sympathy to accompany his self-pity.

  2. The Wisconsin-born cardinal is a professional at simpering and whimpering. He travels the world looking for soft ball pitches that he can hit out of the park in interviews. I know for a fact that he did worse to his underlings in the Diocese of LaCrosse in Wisconsin than Pope Francis ever did to him. Cardinal Ray, get over yourself. You don’t know everything and you are not in charge.

  3. Cdl Burke has failed to learn from his demotion. He does not seem to value the Jesus who cared constantly for the sick, the elderly, the very young, the poor. He seems to see a Jesus who was a security policeman of WWII Central European order.

  4. I married a divorced woman and was immediately excommunicated from the Catholic Church. She eventually had her previous marriage annulled. It took four years to get the annulment from Rome. The pope’s shortening this drawn out procedure is welcomed by many

  5. You don’t have your facts correct, Mark, and your reportage is anything but fair and balanced. Franciscan University is not “ultra-conservative,” it simply holds to what is taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. None of us at the event had any time to process the motu proprios prior to the talk, least of all Burke, who was busy the whole day. All the talks were prepared in advance. At the time of the talk, the motu proprios hadn’t even been translated yet. You make it sound as if Burke attacked the Pope, which he did not do. The major burden of his talk was addressing proposals made by Cardinal Kasper. Burke has every right to share his views on what would be wise in canon law, as he has a great deal of experience in that area.

  6. “The pope had just, on his own authority, promulgated new canon law … incorporating both recommendations.” Is this or is this not true, John B.? I guess “’sentimentalism’ and ‘a false compassion,’ reflecting a ‘post-canonical antinomianism'” have won in the end. And, I guess both the pope and anyone who takes advantage of this change to canon law will go straight to hell when they die. So sad. – See more at:

  7. This essay is incredible. Burke claims that the SYNOD does not have the authority to change Canon Law and expresses his considered judgment that changing law in line with the recommendations would be mistake. The author then manages to take a quotation from the Washington Post item about the Pope and “teaching [or] doctrine” in order to put it altogether into a supposed denial by Burke of the Pope’s authority to change Canon Law, and a prediction of schism.

    Wow. A few missing premises there, I’d say.

    But at least we can remark that Canon Law is neither teaching nor doctrine. It is legislation.

  8. This author so completely misunderstands his subject and and so flatly misconstrues and misreports facts that he is an embarrassment to RNS and to just about every religion writer in the business.

    Pathetic and shameful.

  9. I completely agree with 5, 7 and 8. It’s difficult to believe the author is a professional religion writer or academic as he makes the most elementary mistakes regarding Catholicism–among them, conflating canon law with church teaching/doctrine. Burke (and any informed Catholic–whatever his “politics”) understands the difference. The author of the post does not. The mix of pseudo-supposed-scholarship–“Pontiffs have been laying down canon law on their own say-so since the 11th century” and whoppers of the most basic kind is a wonder to behold. I agree that it is shameful. The author should apologize for misleading his readers and move on from there.

  10. The Church claims to transmit the “message of truth”, the Faith that comes from Christ through the Apostles. So, no, the pope has NO authority to change the Faith. Get it? “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” said the Lord Jesus.

  11. “If you have the law on your side, you pound on the law. If you have the facts, you proud on the facts. If you have neither, you pound on the table.”
    Divorce is a fact, involving half the society. The Church has lost the battle of the facts. Civil authority, in marriage, is now superior to ecclesiastical authority in the Western world, as it is in most matters. The Church has to appeal and persuade in order to survive. What to do?
    As an opponent of Christianity myself, I am encouraged by the hard liners.
    As the expression goes – they are on the wrong side of history.

  12. Don’t believe me just watch- Pope Francis.
    Nothing the Pope is changing has anything to do with what comes from Christ through the Apostles.

  13. It’s interesting that Prof. Silk titles this post with the word “attack.” Did Cardinal Burke really “attack” the annulment reform or just “criticized” it or “expressed his disagreement”?

    When is a statement (or a blog post or comment) an “attack” as opposed to a “criticism” or “disagreement”?

  14. Journalists who are lapdogs for the pope, like Silk, keep trying to elevate Burke as an “important” prelate for the sole purpose of creating a false image of Bergoglio as “liberal.” Burke was always inconsequential. Just as the Establishment GOP is trying to cast off intemperate tea partiers to create an populist image, so the “new” pope is creating a false image as “pastoral” by replacing men like Burke with those more moderate-sounding like himself.

  15. John Bergsma, yes Cadinal Burke attacks Pope Francise and his decisions every time he has opportunity to do it! And I think it’s personal…maybe he wants to be a Pope?

  16. Burke has had a problem with annulments way before the reform proposed by Pope Francis. In the 90’s a man with a Church annulment was prohibited by Bishop Burke (then Bishop of La Crosse) from becoming a priest in his diocese.

    Some bishops see annulments as an unforgivable sin.

  17. Supporting Burke which normally is hard to do:

    And Jesus’ comments about divorce are by rigorous historic testing, authentic. e.g.

    An excerpt;

    “Professor Luedemann [Jesus, 67] notes that the form of the tradition in Mark 10 reflects Roman divorce law, not local Jewish practice. He also observes that “the radical repudiation of divorce by Jesus is attested in both the Q tradition (Matt. 5.32/Luke 16.18) and by Paul in 1 Cor. 7.10-11. It follows that according to all the earliest material Jesus emphasizes the indissolubility of marriage.” On Matt 19:12, Luedemann [Jesus, 209] suggests that the saying about eunuchs is probably an authentic Jesus tradition growing out of his own practice as a single male.”

  18. “The Church has lost the battle of the facts.”

    A battle it has seemingly lost at many points in its history. Slavery of indigenous people had become commonplace in Spanish America but that did not keep Bartolomeo de las Casas and multiple popes from condemning it. Abortion, sexual trafficking and pornography are all very common in America today, but that does not make them any less evil.

    Christ spoke adamantly against abortion in each of the synoptic gospels. Are we going to treat His words as optional? If we are, why bother with any of it at all?

  19. The word abortion appears nowhere in the gospels, or anywhere else in the bible. Jesus may have said something, but he certainly did not speak adamantly against abortion, anymore than he spoke against homosexuality.

    When so-called Christians want to control others, they find a passage that might have something, in a vague, general, sort of a way, to do with the topic at hand.

    Then they just make up stuff.

  20. Mark asks: “Now, you might ask, why did Burke go ahead with his speech?”

    Undoubtedly because the speech wasn’t about the motu proprios or any of the specific provisions within them, which were issued only hours before the speech – thus why he made clear at the outset that he would not be addressing them in the talk or in questions, since….he had not had time to even examine them yet.

    What was the alternative? Perhaps Mark Silk would have been happy if the speech had been cancelled, but then, one senses, one wishes that Cardinal Burke (and everyone else at the symposium) never spoke to anyone in public again.

    Burke has been clear at every turn that the Pope alone possesses the authority to change the law of the Church (at least within the bounds permitted by Church doctrine), and would be the first to insist that the Pope had the right to do so. If he were to criticize their substance . . .he would hardly be the first canonist to criticize code provisions in recent…

  21. Hello Ben,

    The Church is not a sola scriptura creed. It never has been.

    The entire witness of Scripture is intensely and profoundly natalist, from Genesis 16:11 to Luke 1:41 – and it is also clear that children in the womb are just that – children. It is why John the Baptist leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.

    Moreover, condemnations of abortion date back to the Apostles, as evidenced in the Didache (which predates many of the books of the New Testament): “you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten” (Ch. 2). Church teaching has been consistent on this point ever since.

    It’s not about “controlling” anyone. It’s about what is right, and what is evil, and to save souls from destruction by conforming to what the Didache calls the Way of Life. And it’s astounding that *anyone* could actually think that Christ would *ever* sanction abortion. It is the taking of an innocent life, and it is always gravely evil.

  22. Richard,
    “It’s not about “controlling” anyone. It’s about what is right, and what is evil, and to save souls from destruction by conforming to what the Didache calls the Way of Life.”
    My I impose upon you my convictions concerning what is evil and what destroys the soul? Willful misrepresentation is evil. Dishonesty destroys the soul. The Church insists on both. Finally, it is evil for the individual to try to avoid his responsibility to make judgments, by deferring to magical authority-
    and it is cowardly.

  23. You said THIS: Christ spoke adamantly against abortion in each of the synoptic gospels.

    I pointed out that Christ said nothing of the sort in the gospels. You changed the subject to the Didache, rejected in the early church as spurious.

    I never said that Jesus was pro-abortion. Point out to a certain class of so-called Christian that Jesus said not to judge others unless you are free of sin yourself, and you just go and find a passage that supports what you want to do.

    Thank you for not answering my statement. As I said, you just want to make stuff up to support your point of view.

  24. I assume that you do realize that Bartolomeo de las Casas advocated enslaving Africans and bringing them to the New World so there would be no need to enslave the indigenous population.

  25. My last comment was a reply to Richard M’s comment re de las Casas. I assumed that what I replied to would be clearer. My apologies.

  26. “I never said that Jesus was pro-abortion.”

    You absolutely implied it, didn’t you, Ben? Why else ask where Christ spoke against abortion in the Gospels? Your comments are disingenuous, which is a polite term of art.

    Why don’t you tell us straight up what you believe, Ben? Is abortion an intrinsic evil or not? Yes or no?

    I don’t need to make up anything to know what is right and what is wrong. I have the perennial teaching of the Church to guide me on that. You might look it up, Ben. It could do you some good.

    P.S. The only thing the Didache was “rejected” with regards to was possible inclusion in the New Testament. Its authenticity was never in doubt. Try reading something besides the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article on these sorts of things.,

  27. Yes, Bartolomeo did initially advocate for using African slaves instead, unfortunately. But he later retracted that position, and published statements clarifying that in his History of the Indies near the end of his life. He ultimately concluded that enslavement of any peoples was not justified.

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