Former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke on his appointment to the Vatican supreme court and the controversies he leaves behind
Interview by Anita Crane | Catholic World Report | November 2008
On June 27, Pope Benedict XVI named Archbishop Raymond Burke to the office of prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. Before serving as archbishop of St. Louis, Burke served as bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Now as head of the Vatican’s supreme court, he is expected to be elevated to the rank of cardinal.
CWR spoke to him about the appointment and his tenure in St. Louis.
Were you happy about the appointment?
Archbishop Burke: Well, I am always happy to do whatever I am asked to do. And of course, when the Holy Father asks you to do something, it is a great honor. Yes, I am happy to do it. Clearly, it is very difficult to leave my flock here in St. Louis, but I realize that it is God’s will and that he will provide another shepherd for St. Louis.
How many judges are on the Signatura?
Burke: They don’t all sit on each case. Normally, they judge cases in groups of five. The total number of judges is 19, counting me. You always have to have a majority vote for the final decision or definitive sentence in each case.
What kinds of cases does the Apostolic Signatura handle?
Burke: The most common cases are called “administrative contentious cases.” By that I mean that they are cases in which a member of the Church makes a recourse against an administrative decision, claiming that the administrative act has done an injustice to him or her.
For instance, the transfer of a pastor; the pastor may make a recourse claiming that the transfer was not handled in a just way. Or a religious may have some complaint about an act of her or his religious superior and claim that it has affected him or her unjustly—those kinds of cases.
Among your many scholarly articles on canon law was the 2007 treatise entitled “The Discipline Regarding the Denial of Those Obstinately Persevering in Manifest Grave Sin.” Prior to that in 2004, you announced that then-presidential candidate Senator John Kerry would be denied Holy Communion in your archdiocese.
Some say that your statements on canon law regarding denial of the Eucharist to those who are manifestly unworthy “risk politicizing the Eucharist.” What do you say to that?
Burke: It is not a question of politicizing the Eucharist. It is a question of showing the right respect for the Eucharist and also safeguarding individuals from committing sacrilege. And so we have to refuse Holy Communion to public officials who persist in supporting legislation contrary to the natural moral law, after they have been duly admonished.
If I read your article correctly, you place equal responsibility on both parties: the communicant and the minister, whether he is a priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister.
Burke: Yes, that is correct. And it is not a question of my opinion in the matter. Church discipline demands that not only the individual communicant be attentive to respect the Holy Eucharist, but that also the minister of the Holy Eucharist also show respect for the sacredness of the Holy Eucharist—it is the most sacred reality in the Church.
Why do you think that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ documents on worthy reception of the Eucharist only place responsibility on the communicant?
Burke: Because the documents are not complete. They do not report the Church’s discipline in its completeness. The Conference of Bishops did not want to take up what is clearly the discipline of the universal Church, in canon 915, placing the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the minister of Holy Communion to deny Holy Communion to a person who approaches to receive and whom he knows to be persistent in public and grave sin, after having been admonished.
It seems like you are saying that if a known abortion cooperator, such as a lawmaker, approaches the Eucharist, but has not been publicly admonished by his bishop, the minister should not deny him Holy Communion.
Burke: I understand your concern. The discipline of the Church, however, provides that a person who is publicly and gravely sinning be admonished not to approach to receive Holy Communion.
Generally, in my experience, once I admonished, for instance, Catholic legislators who were voting in favor of abortion legislation, they did not presume to approach to receive Holy Communion. The discipline does not open a way to give Holy Communion to those in public and grave sin by failing to admonish them. The bishop and his priests have the gravest obligation to admonish them. If not, they will answer before God.
Some people see you as controversial, to put it lightly.
Burke: Well, that is a creation of the media—the secular media who wanted to discredit the positions I have taken by simply characterizing them as idiosyncratic or as the ideas of a controversial figure. And I have said repeatedly, when people have asked me about various things that I have said and done, “I am a Catholic priest and a bishop, what else did you expect?”
For instance, when the foundation of the local Catholic children’s hospital featured Sheryl Crow as a performer at its annual fundraising dinner, I protested as a member of the board and people tried to construe that as being controversial. Yet she had openly fought for the passage of an amendment to the Missouri state constitution to guarantee the so-called right to clone human life for the purpose of obtaining stem cells, and she is an open proponent of procured abortion.
And my response to that simply is, “What would you expect a priest or bishop to do?”
[In January, Coach Rick Majerus of St. Louis University made a campaign appearance for then-presidential candidate Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Afterwards, on the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s devastating Roe v. Wade decision, Archbishop Burke said Majerus should be disciplined and he recalled the incident.]
Burke: When the head basketball coach of a Catholic university here was openly espousing a position in favor of a “woman’s choice” to have a procured abortion, and other things which are contrary, not only to the Church’s teaching, but also to the natural moral law, I protested.
The media want to discredit me by saying, “Well, you are just a difficult person or you are not pastoral.” It is they who have created the image of me as difficult and unpastoral. It is not the reality.
I am certainly not a perfect priest or bishop, but I do have a pastor’s heart. I think that the St. Louis Catholics who have met me and know me, even if they do not agree with me in every decision, understand that.
Indeed, you have the reputation of a kind and fatherly pastor. For example, there was the “Coming Out of Sodom” story in Celebrate Life, the amazing testimony by a man who suffered same-sex attraction, surrendered to it, and renounced the faith to you as bishop of La Crosse, but who returned to the Church and sacraments with your help. Now that you are leaving the United States, would you please offer some counsel to American Catholics?
Burke: The counsel I would offer is simply that our nation desperately needs Catholics to live their faith with integrity, with enthusiasm, with energy. In so many ways, what the Church teaches addresses the many trials that our nation is facing.
For example, the whole question of respect for human life. So I just urge Catholics to learn their faith more deeply and to give themselves wholeheartedly to living their faith.
In urging Catholics in our nation to know their faith and live it, I would urge especially the invocation and intercession of the Blessed Mother, under her title Our Lady Guadalupe, the Mother of America, the Star of the New Evangelization.
I just had the great joy to dedicate a beautiful shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse—a place of pilgrimage, to which I hope that many people will have the occasion to go and to hear the words of the Blessed Mother to Saint Juan Diego, which are really words to all of us.
What were those words?
Burke: She told him that she wanted a chapel built in which she would manifest to her children of America and to all her children the mercy and love of God. She asked Saint Juan Diego to be her messenger.
In conversations with Juan Diego, she taught him to be her messenger of God’s mercy and love. She taught him that, no matter how poor we may be or how little-gifted we may believe ourselves to be, we are called to give witness to our faith. She taught him that we should have courage because the Mother of God is calling upon us to be her witnesses to divine mercy and divine love.
[Archbishop Burke initiated the cause for Father John Hardon’s canonization. Hardon was a prolific Theologian, teacher, author, Vatican advisor, and spiritual advisor to Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The Church has declared Father Hardon a “servant of God,” the first of three degrees in the canonization process. While this cause is left to the next bishop of St. Louis, Archbishop Burke spoke of his friend.]
Burke: I worked with [Father Hardon] during the last years of his life, in a number of his apostolates, but principally with the Marian Catechist Apostolate.
We introduced it in the Diocese of La Crosse, where I was bishop, and it actually grew from there. Then I helped Father Hardon to spread the apostolate to other parts of the country…
In the years that I knew him, the servant of God was very sick with cancer. But in those years, I like to say, he was always the quintessential Jesuit—he just would not give up the apostolate. The last meeting I had with him was late December in 2000 and he died on December 30 of 2000. His last words to me were, “Bishop, will you continue to work with me?”… I saw that and how he devoted himself to caring for the people most in need in the Church, especially people who had, in some way, been alienated by something that happened to them in the Church.
Anita Crane is a freelance writer and former senior editor of Celebrate Life. This article disappeared from the Catholic World Report website, so I am republishing the text here. According to the editor who hired me, it was a technical snafu.