The irrevocable duties of Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church

Los deberes irrenunciables de los cardenales de la Santa Iglesia Romana

In his intervention at the Lepanto Foundation on December 5, 2016, Cardinal Raymond Burke said: “There is a very heavy burden on a cardinal’s shoulders. We are the Pope’s Senate and his primary counsellors and must, above all, serve the Pope, by telling him the truth. Submitting questions, as we have done to the Pope, is in the Church’s tradition, specifically to  avoid divisions and confusion. We did this with the highest respect for the Petrine Office, without lacking reverence to the person of the Pope. There are many questions, but the five main questions we have posed must, of necessity, have a response for the salvation of souls. We pray every day for a response, faithful to Tradition, in the uninterrupted apostolic line that takes us back to Our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

With these words Cardinal Burke brought to mind the importance of the mission of cardinals, the highest in the Catholic Church, after that of the Supreme Pontiff. They are in fact the Pope’s foremost counsellors and collaborators in the governing of the Universal Church.  Their institution is very ancient, seeing that already under the pontificate of Sylvester I (314-335) we find the terms diaconi cardinales.  It seems that we owe the definition of the Sacred College as “ Senate of the Church” to St. Peter Damian, acknowledged by the 1917 Code of Canon Law (can. 230).  The Sacred College of Cardinals has a juridical character which attributes to it the triple nature of coadjutor body, substitute body and electoral body of the Supreme Pontiff.

We must not commit the error of elevating the role of cardinals from being counsellors to the Pope to that of “co-decision-makers”  Even if he leans on counsel and assistance from his cardinals, the Pope never loses his plenitudo potestatis. The cardinals  participate in his power only in the exercise thereof, within the limits defined by the Pontiff himself. The Cardinals never have deliberative powers regarding the Pope, but only advisory ones. If the pontiff should avail himself of assistance from the College of Cardinals, even if not obliged to do so,  for their part, the cardinals have the moral duty to counsel the Pontiff, submit questions to him and admonish him, independent of the Pope’s reception to their words.  The presentation by the four Cardinals (Brandmueller, Burke, Caffarra and Meisner) of some dubia to the Pope and Cardinal Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, asking them to clarify “the grave disorientation and great confusion” relating to the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia, enters perfectly within the duties of cardinals and cannot be the object of any censure.

As the canonist Edward Peters, referendary to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, affirmed,  that the four cardinals “[made] text-book use of their rights under Canon 212 § 3 to pose doctrinal and disciplinary questions that urgently need addressing in our day,” Then, if the Holy Father should omit doing so, the cardinals collectively will address him with a form of fraternal correction, in the spirit of admonition made by St. Paul to  the Apostle Peter at Antioch (Gal. 2,11).

The canonist then concludes by saying:

“How anyone can conclude, then, based on the facts at hand, that the four cardinals are at risk for deprivation of their office, escapes me. No one, least of all the four cardinals in question, challenges the special authority that a pope enjoys over the Church (1983 CIC 331) nor do they harbor any illusions that a pope could be forced to answer the questions they posed. My hunch is that four cardinals, while they would welcome a papal reply, are probably content with having formally preserved these vital questions for a day when a direct answer might be forthcoming—although they might yet exercise their own Episcopal office as teachers of the faith (1983 CIC 375) and propose answers on their own authority. For that, these men are, I think, prepared to accept personal ridicule and to suffer misunderstanding and misrepresentation of their actions and motives.”

The dignity of a cardinal is not purely honorary, but involves grave responsibilities. Cardinals have privileges because first of all they have duties.  The honours given to them derive precisely from the burden of responsibilities that weighs on their shoulders. Among these responsibilities there is that of fraternally correcting the Pope when he commits an error in the governing of the Church, as happened in 1813, when Pius VII signed the ill-fated Treaty of Fontainbleau with Napoleon, or in 1934 when the Cardinal Dean, Gennaro Granito di Belmonte, admonished Pius XI , on behalf of the Sacred College, for the rash use he made of the Holy See’s finances. The Pope is infallible only under determined circumstances and his acts of government or Magisterium can contain errors that any one of the faithful may point out, with even greater reason if he is invested with the office of  principal counsellor to the Supreme Pontiff.

Among the medieval canonists who dealt with the College of Cardinals, one who excels is Enrico da Susa, also called Ostiene (since he was the Cardinal Bishop of Ostia) an author who was the object of a recent study by Don Jürgen Jamin, entitled, The Cooperation of Cardinals in Pontifical Decisions, ratione fidei. The Thought of Enrico da Susa (Ostiene))(Marcianum Press, Venezia 2015). Professor Jamin, recalls that Enrico da Susa, while commenting on the Pontifical Decrees, considered the hypothesis of a Pope who falls into heresy.  Professor Jamin recalls in particular Ostiene’s commenting of these word relating to the Pope, “Nec deficiat fides eius”.  According to the Cardinal Bishop of Ostia: “The faith of Peter is not exclusively his “faith” meant as a personal act, but is the faith of the entire Church of which he is the spokesman and the Prince of the Apostles. Christ prays therefore, for the faith of the entire Church in persona tantum petri, since it is the faith of the Church, professed by Peter, which never fails et propterea ecclesia non presumitur posse errare” (op. cit. p. 223).

Ostiene’s thought matches that of all the great medieval canonists. The greatest scholar of these authors, Cardinal Alfonso Maria Stickler, points out that “ the prerogative of infallibility of office does not impede the Pope , as an individual, from sin and thus become personally heretical (…). In the case of an obstinate and public profession of certain heresy, since it is condemned by the Church, the Pope becomes “minor quolibet catholico” (a common phrase of canonists) and ceases to be pope (…). This fact of a  heretic Pope does not touch then Pontifical infallibility since it does not signify impeccability or inerrancy in the person of the Pontiff, [or]inerrancy in establishing forcefully from his office a truth of the faith or an immutable principle of Christian life (…).  The canonists knew very well how to distinguish between the person of the Pope and his office. If then they declared the Pope dethroned, when certainly and obstinately heretical, they admit implicitly that from this personal fact not only is the infallibility of the office not compromised, but that it is somewhat defended and affirmed: any ‘papal’ decision whatever against a truth already decided is automatically rendered impossible” (A. M. Stickler, Sulle origini dell’infallibilità papale, “Rivista Storica della Chiesa in Italia” , 28 (1974), pp. 586-587).

The cardinals who elect the Pope do not have the authority to depose him, but may ascertain his renunciation of the pontificate, in the case of voluntary demission or of manifest and persistent heresy.  In the tragic times of history, they must serve the Church, even until the shedding of blood, as the colour red indicates in the garments they wear and the formula at the imposition of the biretta “red as sign of the dignity of the Cardinalate, signifying that you must be ready to act with fortitude, even unto the shedding of blood, for the increase in the Christian Faith, for the peace and tranquility  of the People of God and for the freedom and diffusion of Holy Mother Church.”

For this we join the prayers of Cardinal Burke, in asking Pope Francis to respond to the dubia “faithful to Tradition, in the uninterrupted Apostolic line which takes us back to Our Lord Jesus Christ.”