Considering the seriousness of the questions put to him by the cardinals, Pope Francis' decision not to respond is incomprehensible. The cardinals have cautioned the Holy Father that consequences will follow his refusal of their dubia. Cardinal Burke explained in his interview with Edward Pentin that the Pope's lack of response may trigger a formal act of correction. Pentin asked, "What happens if the Holy Father does not respond to your act of justice and charity and fails to give the clarification of the Church’s teaching that you hope to achieve?" To which Cardinal Burke replied,
Then we would have to address that situation. There is, in the Tradition of the Church, the practice of correction of the Roman Pontiff. It is something that is clearly quite rare. But if there is no response to these questions, then I would say that it would be a question of taking a formal act of correction of a serious error. ...
Pentin asked a follow-up question, "If the Pope were to teach grave error or heresy, which lawful authority can declare this and what would be the consequences?"
Cardinal Burke rightly points out that instigating a formal act of correction of a serious error by a Roman Pontiff is rare. In fact we have to look to the 14th century and the Church's response to a serious error promulgated by Pope John XXII.
The Church Corrected the Serious Error of Pope John XXII
Pope John XXII's serious error was in the area of eschatology, not moral theology, and in particular he proposed his own idea that after death the righteous soul did not immediately enjoy the reward of the Beatific Vision. Instead, he favored the novel idea that the soul waited until the resurrection of the body, and the final, universal judgment to enjoy the Beatific Vision of God. Pope John XXII's speculative proposition is against the established and continuous teaching of the Church, as now expressed in the Catechism of the Church as follows:
Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately, or immediate and everlasting damnation. (CCC 1022)
Eight years into his pontificate, disturbing rumours began to circulate in Europe's universities and throughout the Church that Pope John XXII was "favoring" a serious error contrary to the teaching of the Church. By November 1331 these rumors transformed into alarm following John XXII's delivery of three homilies proposing that his new teaching was supported by a "reading" of Scripture and the Church Fathers. The Catholic world outside of the papal court of Avignon was profoundly and deeply disturbed by the news that the Head of the Church was proposing a teaching contrary to magisterial teaching. However, the pope's novel ideas found favor among some within his court who sought the Holy Father's patronage and preferment.
Faced with growing protests from clergy throughout Christendom, Pope John XXII sought to defend his innovation in two ways: He claimed it was not his own teaching but the teaching of Scripture and the Church Fathers, and he asserted that it was only his private opinion as a theologian, and not taught in his role as Head of the Church. The pope further claimed that the question was open to discussion and every clergyman was free to accept or reject whichever side of the controversy he judged as true.
However, the Holy Father's actions belied his words. Pope John XXII's treatment of supporters and opponents showed his preference for those who upheld his "new" teaching. Supporters received honors and preferment, while those who opposed Pope John XXII, either informally or formally, experienced papal disfavour, and even punishment. He also sought to disseminate his erroneous teaching by commanding that copies of his sermons were distributed to his supporters.
But the more Pope John XXII and his supporters sought to promulgate his error, the greater the uproar and resistance from the Church beyond the papal court. King Phillip VI of France and the Dominican faculty of the university of Paris were Pope John XXII's most implacable opponents, despite the Holy Father's personal rebukes and imposition of "yes" men. As Fr. Victor Francis O'Daniel, O.P. put it, "Neither fear of feeling the weight of papal displeasure, nor hope of reward, had any influence ... when there was question of an error against Catholic faith."
Determined to meet the challenge of Pope John XXII's error head on, King Philip VI called a meeting of the theological faculty of the University of Paris. On December 19, 1333 a commission of 23 masters of theology assembled under the presidency of the Dominican patriarch of Jerusalem, Peter de la Palud, and in the presence of the kings of France and Navarre, and many bishops, priests, and lay faithful. They unanimously declared their firm belief in established and continual Catholic teaching on the righteous soul’s immediate reward of the Beatific Vision on death and individual judgement.
The commission drew up a profession of faith which they signed, and submitted to Pope John XXII. The profession of faith was accompanied with a letter to the Holy Father which was polite and respectful, but also expressed clearly and firmly the result of their deliberations. They reminded Pope John XXII that he had declared that he had spoken as an individual theologian, not as Head of the Church infallibly defining a doctrine. They also expressed the hope that the Holy Father would give his apostolic sanction to their decision.
Following his receipt of the signed profession of faith and letter Pope John XXII immediately convoked a consistory in January 1334 during which he displayed openness and tolerance towards those who opposed him, and repeated his assertion that he had never intended to dogmatically settle the question, but rather that he had sought an open discussion. He also sent letters admonishing those supporters that the King of France judged had overstepped the mark in their zeal to promote his "new" teaching, and he released from prison those opponents investigated by the Inquisition. Later in the year, sensing his death was imminent, John XXII retracted the serious error he had preached or had caused others to preach or teach that was not "in perfect conformity with Catholic belief."
Blessed Cardinal Schuster OSB (Cardinal and Archbishop of Milan, d. 1954) wrote the following assessment of this formal correction of the serious error of Pope John XXII:
John XXII has the gravest responsibilities before the tribunal of history ... since he offered the entire Church, the humiliating spectacle of the princes, clergy and universities steering the Pontiff onto the right path of Catholic theological tradition, and placing him in the very difficult situation of having to contradict himself.
Originally published at EWTN Great Britain.