Speaking Saturday in Rome, Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke said that the pope is the highest authority in the Church, but because his power is derived from the divine law, the faithful are obligated to reject his teaching if it falls outside that divine law.  

“According to the Holy Scriptures and the Sacred Tradition, the Successor of St. Peter enjoys a power that is universal, ordinary and immediate on all the faithful,” Burke said at a conference on confusion within the Church, held in Rome April 7.

“Since this power comes from God himself, it is limited by natural law and by divine law,” he continued, “which are the expressions of the eternal and immutable truth and goodness that come from God, are fully revealed in Christ and have been transmitted in the Church uninterruptedly.”

“Therefore, any expression of doctrine or practice that is not in conformity with the Divine Revelation, contained in the Holy Scriptures and in the Tradition of the Church, cannot constitute an authentic exercise of the Apostolic or Petrine ministry and must be rejected by the faithful.”

Burke spoke alongside Cardinal Walter Brandmueller, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, philosopher Marcello Pera, professors Renzo Puccetti and Valerio Gigliotti, and journalist Francesca Romana Poleggi.

The conference, which was put on partly to honor the last wishes of the late Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, archbishop emeritus of Bolona, was titled: "Church, where are you going?"

The subtitle, “Only the blind would deny there is confusion in the Church,” was taken from one of Caffara's last interviews before his death on Sept. 6, 2017.

Topics at the conference included questions about the Church’s doctrine on matters of sexual morality; the issue of conscience and the concept of “discernment;” and the limits of papal authority and infallibility, which the Church teaches is applicable only in cases of certain public statements on faith and morals.

Cardinal Burke presented a lengthy speech outlining both what papal power is and what its limits are. He also discussed what he believes to be the role of the bishops and the faithful when the pope is thought to have stepped outside these bounds.

Burke explained that while it is both the pope and the bishops who share in the care of the universal Church, it is only the pope who “exercises the fullness of power, so that the unity of the universal Church may be effectively safeguarded and promoted.”

“It is clear that the fullness of power has been given by Christ himself and not by any human authority or popular constitution, and that, therefore, it can only be exercised in obedience to Christ,” he continued.

He argued that from the beginning of the Church, this idea of the “fullness of power” has been well-defined and that it was well understood that it did not allow certain actions to be performed by the Roman Pontiff.

“For example,” Burke stated, “[the pope] could not act against the Apostolic Faith. Moreover, for the good of the good order of the Church, it was a power to be used sparingly and with the greatest prudence.”

Asking how we should correct the pope if he does overstep the limits of his power, Burke pointed to two steps, which he called “a brief and preliminary answer, based on natural law, on the Gospels and on the canonical tradition.”

First, he said, “the correction of the presumed error or abandonment of his duty should be addressed directly to the Roman Pontiff; and then, if he continued to err or not answer, a public declaration should be made.”

“The Roman Pontiff is — like all the faithful — subject to the Word of God, to the Catholic faith and is the guarantor of the obedience of the Church and, in this sense, servus servorum [servant of the servants].”

He noted that he believes devout Catholics must always teach and defend the fullness of power that Christ gave to “His Vicar on earth.” But at the same time, they must teach and defend the power “within the teaching of the Church and the defense of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.”

Cardinal Joseph Zen, a bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, was not present, but sent a brief video message recorded in February 2018, stating that though he was not able to travel to the conference, he was there with his prayers and with his heart.

Zen, who has spoken out strongly against a possible forthcoming agreement between the Holy See and the Chinese government, said that the Church is a great family, and that at the center of the family is the Holy See, which is very important.

He noted how Pope Francis likes to emphasize the importance of the peripheries, but said that “in this moment, our periphery, China… is in much difficulty, great difficulty,” and that “many voices from this periphery do not arrive at the center [of the Church.]”

“We have a great desire to have more communication between the center and the periphery,” he continued, “because if one wants to help the Church in China, one should know [the country]” and not only statistics or what can be read in books.

“At the moment, we are afraid that at the center they do not bring a decision that will truly help to grow the Church. This is the worry of many,” he stated.