29 August 2022

Priest Addresses Bishop Burbidge: "Not Every Papal Act Is Guided by the Holy Spirit"

The author takes Bishop Burbidge to task over his argument that the only two responses to his draconian decree are anger and obedience.

From Rorate Cæli

Bishop Burbidge, referencing his spiritual fatherhood, offered a respectful challenge in his podcast of August 10th. While I am not one of his priests, his challenge is public, and many of the documents to which it refers are for the universal Church. I would like to take up the challenge.

It regards the way a man receives an undesirable order from a superior. The case at hand refers to his own decree severely limiting the Latin Mass in his own diocese along with the directives of the Holy See regarding this same Mass. He proposes two roads one might follow: that of angry bitterness, or that of obedience as an opportunity to grow in holiness. His challenge is to choose between these two roads.

But are these the only available roads? Certainly, one must choose between anger and peace—those are mutually exclusive—and one must choose between obedience and disobedience—so are those—but must one choose between anger and obedience? There is no real division between them. The combination of two sets of opposites gives rise not to two, but to four different roads: bitter obedience, peaceful obedience, bitter disobedience, and peaceful disobedience. While Bishop Burbidge proposes that road number two is what characterizes a good Catholic, I will argue that road number four is in fact the Catholic option in this case. The choice rests on what a Catholic is. What is a Catholic?

Bishop Burbidge paints a picture:

As I said, from the beginning, we will show fidelity and loyalty to the Holy Father and to his directives. That’s who we are as Catholics. That’s what I promised when I accepted to be a Bishop. And so that was always the key.

And in obeying an undesirable order, his picture is this,

I’m trusting that the Lord is at work in his Church, that the Holy Spirit’s guiding its Church…. I trust that he is acting always through his Church. His spirit is guiding us.

In these statements, the Bishop does not distinguish between the living Holy Father and the authoritative teachings of all the Holy Fathers over the ages. Nor does the bishop make any distinction between the Holy Spirit guiding “the Church” and guiding “this particular act of the living Holy Father.” Was it the Holy Spirit that made McCarrick a Cardinal or did he simply allow a pope to err? Distinctions are important.

For centuries, Protestants have been accusing Catholics of thinking (or at least acting) as if the Pope is God. Not a vicar, not subject to a higher authority, but God. Bishop Burbidge’s painting proves that their accusation is not altogether unfounded. There are some who identify as Catholics who do indeed act and speak this way.

But the answer to the Protestant charge is given by another bishop, St. Francis de Sales, who spent his life fighting the Protestants. He writes that “we do not say that the Pope cannot err in his private opinions, as did John XXII, or be altogether a heretic…” And in St. Robert Bellarmine, who teaches that there are times to resist the pope and not obey him.[1] St. Thomas teaches that there can be a sinful obedience.[2] It is important to focus on this fact: obedience can be sinful. We are told by the perennial Magisterium that these men are true teachers of the Catholic Church, they are trustworthy. But they do not teach that every act of the pope is guided by the Holy Spirit and that obedience to every act of the pope is “who we are as Catholics.”

But if there is an obedience that is sinful and an obedience that is virtuous, how can one distinguish between them? The key to doing so cannot be what Bishop Burbidge claims: undiscerning obedience to the living pope, for that’s the very question at hand. The key must lay elsewhere.

If we return to Bishops Burbidge’s picture, we may find the key. If his words, “Holy Father,” mean the authoritative teachings of all the Holy Fathers throughout the ages, then his first statement would be true. And if he means by “the Church” not “the living pope” but rather, quite simply, “the Church,” then his second statement would be correct as well. But the key in obeying is to make a reasonable judgment that the commands of the living authority are really in conformity with the commands of the previous popes, the Church, and God.

I will push this point further. What is under question is not whether fidelity and loyalty are due to the Pope. What is under question is whether Pope Francis and his helpers are being loyal and faithful to the Popes and to the Church. And there are grave reasons to think the answer is no.

Changing the Catechism on the death penalty, approving the Buenos Aires bishops’ interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, the Pachamama event, the Abu Dhabi statement, sacrilegious communion for promoters of abortion, the “western grandmother” and the sacred circle of spirits, promoting a new ecclesiology for China, refusing to answer the dubia, refusing to meet with the dubia cardinals, refusal to meet with Cardinal Zen, arbitrarily removing bishops… these are not small matters. These offer us grave reasons for doubting whether Pope Francis is obeying Christ and doubting whether he even intends to do so.

In every act of virtuous obedience, there must be a minimal judgment of the subordinate that the superior’s command is consonant with the commands of Christ. When there are reasons to doubt, obedience becomes rash, not wise; sinful, not virtuous. When Pope Francis unites himself to the priest of western grandma in order to be united to the sacred circle of spirits (look at that word: united) yet forbids the ancient Roman Rite for the very reason that it is “divisive” (look again at the kind of unity the Pope is proposing), then a grave reason for obeying Christ rather than Pope Francis is present. To obey without facing this difficulty is not “who we are as Catholics” but rather “what the Protestants accuse us of being as Catholics.”

There are many bishops throughout the world who have chosen to ignore Traditiones Custodes and +Roche’s answers to the dubia. They have acted as wise and Catholic men. Bishop Burbidge has chosen to write to Rome and to follow its every directive. While he proposes that we imitate him in following this road of peaceful obedience, he gives us no account of the many reasons to think that this Pope is leading us astray. He ignores them. But lacking this account, one must rather follow the road of many other bishops: peaceful disobedience. This is obedience to Christ, who commands us to be simple as doves, but also wise as serpents.

Thankfully, Bishop Burbidge can change course. A few private phone calls to his priests and a choice to not enforce his decree will recover what has, for now, been lost. Alternatively, he could give us solid answers to show that Pope Francis is not really departing from the faith. Our obedience to the pope is not always and everywhere obedience to Christ. Prudence is needed.


[1] De Romano Pontifice, Book II, Chap. 29: “Just as it is licit to resist the Pontiff who attacks the body, so also is it licit to resist him who attacks souls or destroys the civil order or above all, tries to destroy the Church. I say that it is licit to resist him by not doing what he orders and by impeding the execution of his will.”

[2] IIa-IIae Q104 a5.

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