Cardinal Burke: "It is impossible for the Church to change her teaching on marriage"

Source: FSSPX News

On the eve of the synod on the family (October 4-25, 2015), several works are being released that are clearly opposed to the novelties that the progressivist prelates, following Cardinal Walter Kasper's example, hope to introduce.

We will give reports on these publications as they appear, pointing out the answers they offer to the different criticisms of the Church's doctrine on marriage and the family. With the kind permission of Artège editions, we present to our readers today a few pages from the book Un Cardinal au cœur de l'Église (A Cardinal in the Heart of the Church), published on September 17, in which Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, Patronus of the Order of Malta, answers the questions of Guillaume d'Alançon, episcopal delegate for family and life in the diocese of Bayonne.

The answers of the American prelate, Cardinal Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signature, are especially interesting at this time when Pope Francis just significantly simplified the procedure for nullity of marriage with the Motu proprios Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus and Mitis et misericors Iesus on September 8, 2015.

The purpose of mercy is conversion to the truth

Speaking of the "pastoral exceptions" that the progressivists try to multiply in the name of a mercy that has been cut off from the truth on the indissolubility of marriage, Cardinal Burke gave a very clear answer.

G. d'A. - Many faithful now have had divorces while remaining attached to the Church. Do you think it is possible to articulate calmly the relation between doctrine and pastoral care, mercy and truth, without falling into caricatures and dialectics.

Cardinal Burke - Yes, in certain discussions an opposition has been introduced between mercy and truth, discipline and truth. This contrast is artificial and false. For there to be true mercy, it must be founded on the truth. At the same time, we can never say that the doctrine remains when the discipline is contradictory, for example when someone says: "I maintain the indissolubility of marriage, but in certain cases, people who have separated from their legitimate spouse and remarried can be granted Eucharistic communion."

How can someone bound by a marriage that has failed live with another person without committing adultery or fornication? It is impossible. So we must know the individual situations, and be merciful with the people in them, but invite those in this situation to convert, to set things right according to Christ's law.

The purpose of mercy is conversion, and conversion is always a conversion to the truth. Lastly, there is never a contradiction between doctrine and discipline, since it is the former that animates the latter. I see another aspect to this problem: the sufferings of the children, the victims of divorced couples. Pastors must do their utmost to help these young people in their faith. It is not by lightening the value of their parents' sacramental marriage that we can help these young people answer their vocation.

The example of fidelity given by a spouse or both spouses despite the separation often bears fruit on the following generation. By honoring the truth of the sacrament of marriage, not only does one give glory to God, the source of all good, but one comforts and consoles the young who have suffered from their parents' disputes.

Many children of separated couples, one of whose parents at least remained faithful to the grace of the sacrament of marriage, have later entered themselves into a Christian marriage or a consecrated vocation. Suffering is then transformed into joy, for the children, but also for the parents. (...)

G d'A. - Could the Church change her doctrine on this matter? If a pope wanted to, could he?

Cardinal Burke - No, it is impossible for the Church to change her teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. The Church, the Spouse of Christ, obeys His words in chapter 19 of St. Matthew's gospel, that express the nature of marriage very clearly. No one denies that these are the very words of Christ, and judging from the apostles' answer, the weight of these words for those who are called to conjugal life is very clear.

In his teaching on marriage, Christ points out that He is exposing the truth on marriage as it was from the very beginning, as God willed it from the creation of man and woman. In other words, the indissolubility of marriage is a question of natural law, the law that God inscribed in the heart of every man. The Holy Father, as successor of St. Peter in his pastoral charge of the universal Church, is the first Christian to be bound to obey Christ's word. (p. 130-132)

A judgment in keeping with the truth and the law

It is worthwhile to recall what Cardinal Burke said a year ago in the book he co-wrote with four other cardinals, Remaining in the Truth of Christ (Ignatius Press, 2014), on "The Canonical Nullity of the Marriage Process as the Search for the Truth."

He insisted upon the need for a procedure conducted with great care in order to find the truth in a matter that engages the eternal salvation of those involved.

I recall the image used by the professor of canonical processes at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Father Ignacio Gordon, S.J., during the years of my study. He observed that the canonical process with its various elements is like a key whose teeth must match the winding contours of the lock of human nature, and only when all the teeth are cut correctly can the key open the door to truth and justice. It is particularly surprising that today, despite so many proclamations of the rights of the individual person, one finds a lack of attention to the carefully developed judicial procedures through which the rights of all parties, in a matter pertaining to their very salvation, are carefully safeguarded and promoted. I refer to the right to a judgment, in accord with the truth, about the alleged nullity of their marriage. In this regard, I am especially concerned that in such a delicate and important matter it is not infrequently suggested that the careful judicial process be replaced by a rapid administrative process. (p. 210)

And he demonstrates the relation between truth and charity:

One of the hallmarks of any tribunal should be the objectivity or impartiality that necessarily marks the search for the truth. Such objectivity should be especially evident in the tribunals of the Church that must take particular care not only to be impartial but also to appear to be so. The correct observance of procedural norms is an important means of guaranteeing the actual and evident impartiality of the tribunal, which can be undermined in many ways, some more subtle than others.


The discipline of the judicial process is not only not hostile to a truly pastoral or spiritual approach to an alleged nullity of marriage, but it safeguards and promotes the fundamental and irreplaceable justice without which it is impossible to show pastoral charity. (p. 213)

The canonical process of declaration of nullity of marriage by its respect for the right to a judgment in accord with the truth is, therefore, a necessary element of the pastoral charity to be shown to those who allege the nullity of marriage consent. (p. 214)

The college of judges or the single judge has no power to dissolve a valid marriage, but only to search for the truth about a particular marriage and declare authoritatively either that, with moral certitude, the truth of the nullity of the marriage has been established or proven (constat de nullitate) or that such moral certitude has not been reached (non constat de nullitate). It should be noted that, since the bond of marriage rightly enjoys the favor of the law, there is no need to prove the validity of a marriage; it is enough to declare that the alleged nullity has not been reached. (...)

In the annual address to the Roman Rota of Pope Pius XII in 1944 (...), [he] reminds us that 'in a matrimonial trial, the one end is a judgment in accordance with truth and law, which in a suit for the declaration of nullity, is concerned with the alleged nonexistence of the matrimonial bond', and that all those who participate in the canonical process have this unity of purpose, carried out according to the proper nature of their respective functions. He also reminds us that this unified judicial activity is fundamentally pastoral, that is, directed to the same end that unifies the action of the whole Church, namely, the salvation of souls." (p. 217-219)

The necessity of a double confirming sentence

In the same study on The Canonical Nullity of the Marriage Process as the Search for the Truth, Cardinal Burke answered the objection that it is not necessary to obtain a double confirming sentence for a declaration of nullity of marriage. Unfortunately, the recent decisions of Pope Francis have suppressed the need for this double confirming sentence.

In his article, the American prelate showed all the canonical and especially spiritual risks that such a decision incurs upon the judgments that will be pronounced from now on, unless the Synod can abrogate this reform, as historian Roberto de Mattei requested in Correspondance Européenne on September 17. Under the title: Can One Discuss the Pope's Governmental Acts? he wrote:

Francis' Motu proprio, which is to this day his most revolutionary governmental act, will not enter into effect until December 8, 2015. Is it illegitimate to request that the Synod discuss this matrimonial reform and that a group of zelanti cardinals ask for its abrogation?

In the discussions surrounding the upcoming session of the Synod of Bishops, a frequently raised question pertains to the necessity of a double conforming decision for the execution of a declaration of nullity of marriage, that is, a second decision on the merits of the case. There is a sense among some in the Church that the decision has already been taken to eliminate the obligation of a double conforming decision as one of the elements of the so-called burdensome juridicism in the current process of nullity of marriage. Many have asserted that, if the process is done well in the first instance, there is no need of an obligatory review in the second instance.


First of all, I observe that, if the process is done well in the first instance, the process to arrive at a double agreeing decision, with the decree of ratification, will not take too long. By done well I mean that the case was well instructed and discussed, the acts are complete and well-ordered, and the sentence demonstrates the objective basis for the decision, indicating in a clear but prudent manner by what path the judge or judges, on the basis of the law and the facts of the case, reached moral certitude that the nullity of marriage had been proven. What is more, good judges, conscious of the fundamental importance of the marriage union for the life of the Church and of society in general, and of the normal challenges in reaching a just decision in a cause of nullity of marriage, are grateful that their judgment will be examined by other judges in a second instance.

From the practical point of view, the fact of the obligatory review in the second instance is an incentive to do one’s best. Without the second instance, there is a risk of carelessness in the treatment of causes. This was tragically evident during the period in which the so-called American Procedural Norms were in effect for the ecclesiastical tribunals in the United States of America. From July 1971 to November 1983, the obligatory double conforming sentence was in reality eliminated in the United States of America by means of a faculty given to the conference of bishops to dispense from the same in ‘those exceptional cases where in the judgment of the defender of the bond and his Ordinary appeal against an affirmative decision would clearly be superfluous’. By all accounts, in practice the only exceptional cases were those in which an appeal was not considered superfluous. Furthermore, I have never come across any indication that the conference of bishops ever denied a single request for dispensation out of the hundreds of thousands received. “In the course of those twelve years, when the Apostolic Signatura had occasion to review some of those same cases, it could not understand how the defender of the bond and his Ordinary could have considered an appeal superfluous, much less how the conference of bishops could have granted the requested dispensation. In the common and popular perception, and not without reason, the process began to be called ‘Catholic divorce’. 

Even after this extraordinary situation was finally ended when the 1983 Code of Canon Law took effect, the poor quality of many first instance sentences examined by the Signatura, together with the evident lack of any serious review on the part of some appellate tribunals, demonstrated the grave damage done to the process of declaration of nullity of marriage by the effective omission of a second instance during those years.

From the rich experience of the Apostolic Signatura, which is obviously not limited to that of the United States of America, the necessity of a double conforming decision for an adequate process for the declaration of nullity of marriage is shown without any shadow of a doubt. By means of the study of the annual reports of the tribunals and the examination of definitive sentences of the tribunals of first instance, the wisdom and the importance of the requirement of the double conforming sentence is more than evident. “

The experience of the Apostolic Signatura is the singular font of knowledge of how the administration of justice is carried out in the universal Church as it is incarnated in the particular Churches. If there is to be any simplification of the process of nullity of marriage, it will necessarily be studied in the light of the service of the Apostolic Signatura to the individual Churches.” (pp. 236-239 )

Note that the special commission created by the pope in August 2014 to reform the process of declaration of nullity could scarcely have benefited from the vast experience of Cardinal Burke at the head of the Apostolic Signature, since he was removed from his charge of prefect on November 8 of the same year.

St. Pius X, a True Reformer

The readers of FSSPX.News, a site of the Society of St. Pius X, will be interested in hearing what Cardinal Burke had to say about Pope Pius X's work in the last part of his interview with G. d'Alançon.

G d'A. - In other words, you are telling us to "restore all things in Christ", according to the beautiful motto of St. Pius X, the hundredth anniversary of whose death we celebrated in 2014.

Cardinal Burke - He was a great pope...

G d'A. - What does the figure of St. Pius X say to you a hundred years after his death? Is he obsolete? 

Cardinal Burke - In my eyes, he was a great reformer in continuity. He reformed many aspects of the life of the Church to make her more faithful to Tradition. One of his first acts was a motu proprio on sacred music.

He also had the intuition that as soon as a child can recognize the Body of Christ in the Host, he is able to make his First Communion, which led him to revise the discipline on this particular point. He reformed canon law with genius, without forgetting the Roman Curia that he rendered more efficient. We still refer to Sapienti consilio today.

And he was a great catechist. He reformed the catechism and wrote what we now call the Catechism of St. Pius X. On Sundays, he taught the people of God in the Cortile San Damaso. People came from afar to hear him. He wrote abundantly on Sacred Scripture to encourage the faithful to read it. He also confronted the heresies and aberrations of modernism.

Today, theologians say he was not a great theologian. But when I read his texts on modernism, I see that he understood many things, because a great many of the errors he identified are still here today. In sum, one could say he was a beautiful figure of a pastor of souls, pastor animarum. When you read his writings, his advice, everything is aimed at the care of souls.

Editor's Note:

The subtitles and bold print were added by FSSPX.News. Refer to the printed works to benefit from the many footnotes included in Cardinal Burke's remarks.
Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, Un Cardinal au Cœur de l'Église (A Cardinal in the Heart of the Church), interview with Guillaume d'Alançon, Artège, 2015, 184 p. 17,50€
Remaining in the Truth of Christ - Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church. Ignatius Press.