By David Martin
In an interview with Catholic World Report (CWR) in December 2016, Cardinal Raymond Burke, archbishop and patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, said that if a pope were to "formally profess heresy he would cease, by that act, to be the Pope."
The cardinal was reiterating Church teaching, as expressed by famed canonist Franz Wernz in his Ius Canonicum: "In sum, it needs to be said clearly that a [publicly] heretical Roman Pontiff loses his power upon the very fact." Burke stressed that he was "not saying that Pope Francis is in heresy," but was simply pointing out that it "could happen" that a pope could formally profess heresy.
Formal heresy occurs when a baptized member of the Church, having sufficient knowledge and having given sufficient reflection, obstinately denies an infallible article of faith. Canon law defines formal heresy as "the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith." (1983 Canon 751) Canonical tradition recognizes that "a given pope can fall into personal heresy and that he might even promote such heresy publicly."
An example of formal heresy would be the adamant denial of the historicity of the Resurrection or the Virgin Birth, or the assertion that Catholic priests are not vested with the power to forgive sins, as was alleged by Martin Luther.
Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetita appears to contain such heresy. Paragraph 297 states: "No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves."
According to Francis, unrepentant sinners of any kind, be they rapists, thieves, pedophiles, killers, abortionists, thugs, Mafia members, or apostates, will never be condemned eternally to the fires of hell.
This clearly contradicts the Church's dogmatic teaching on divine justice. Benedict XII declared in his Dogmatic Constitution Benedictus Deus: "The souls of those who die in a personal grievous sin descend immediately into hell, where they will be tormented by the pains of hell." Dz 531. Cf. Dz 429, 464, 693, 835.
Unfortunately, these torments are eternal. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) teaches that "the reprobate" will receive "perpetual punishment with the devil." Dz 429. Cf. Dz 40, 835, 840. The Athanasian Creed likewise teaches that "they that have done good shall go into life everlasting, and they that have done evil into everlasting fire." Holy Writ makes it clear that the torments of the dammed "shall ascend up forever and ever." (Apoc. 14:11)
If Francis had asserted his denial in the context of one of his "plane ride" interviews or at the local cafe, it could perhaps be argued that the heresy was material, and not formal, but given the fact that he said this in the context of an authoritative papal document, and very emphatically at that—after serious reflection and full consent—it appears to leave no question as to the nature of the heresy.
Francis’ rationale for denying eternal punishment is that it is "not the logic of the Gospel." Let us turn then to the Gospel to see the verdict which Christ himself will declare to the negligent upon His Second Coming in Majesty: "Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me not to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave me not to drink... And these shall go into everlasting punishment." (Matthew 25:41,42,46)
Again the Gospel says: "If thy hand, or thy foot scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee. It is better for thee to go into life maimed or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into everlasting fire." (Matthew 18:8)
There has been much controversy in recent months over the four cardinals in request of clarification of Francis' position on granting Communion to those living in adultery, but maybe they should seek clarification as to whether or not Pope Francis really denies the reality of eternal punishment. Because as it reads, his statement in Amoris Laetita 297 constitutes a radical break from what the popes and saints of the past 2000 years have taught concerning punishment and hell.
This is not to mention the ongoing contempt Francis has shown for Apostolic tradition, even dubbing "idolatry" strict adherence to this tradition against the tide of change. Should the pope continue in dubia of Church tradition, the faithful have no recourse but to resist his errors, in keeping with the Papal Bull Cum Ex Apostolatus (1559) which states that in the case of a bishop or pope that might fall into "some heresy," it is always the right and duty of the faithful to resist and repudiate their errors.
Even so, as Cardinal Burke says, members of the College of Cardinals would have to be the ones to declare the pope is in formal heresy, as it is not the place of the laity to do this. Burke said there is a process within the Church for dealing with such a situation.
In the meantime, it could very well be that the man sitting on the Throne of Peter has already lost his Petrine powers through his fall to heresy. The declaration of the cardinals simply makes official what already is the case, it doesn't establish the fact.
So while concerned cardinals are engaged in dispute over the hot-button issue of granting Communion to civilly remarried adulterers, it might behoove them to diverge a bit and take the magnifying glass to paragraph 97 of Amoris Laetita, and to consider what this could mean for the Church. According to Cardinal Burke, such inquiry would reflect a true love of the Papacy and the Church.
Concerning his own dubia over Pope Francis' unwillingness to clarify his position on Communion to adulterers, Burke said: "I have absolute respect for the Petrine office. If I didn’t care about him [Francis] and his exercise of the Petrine office, I would just remain silent and let everything go as it is. But because in conscience I believe he has an obligation to clarify these matters for the Church, I made it known to him, not just on this occasion, but on other occasions. The publication of the dubia was done with complete respect for his office. I am not the enemy of the Pope."