His Eminence, Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, spoke recently with Thinking with the Church, hosted by Chris Altieri, who is also a regular contributor to Catholic World Report.
Cardinal Burke responds to questions regarding the interpretation and reception of the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. He has frankly critical words for the Bishops of Malta, who issued Criteria for the implementation of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia in January of last year. Their Criteria include two paragraphs – 9 and 10 – which say that persons in irregular unions may discern that continence is impossible for them, and that a person having made such a determination under the guidance of a pastor, “with an informed and enlightened conscience,” being at peace with God, “cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.” Cardinal Burke calls this implementation of the document, “[S]imply contrary to what the Church has always taught and practiced.”
Though the Bishops of Malta (and others sustaining a more latitudinous reading of Amoris laetitia) cite the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation copiously, Cardinal Burke maintains that the problems he sees in the various applications of the document are not simply reducible to the interpretative difficulties. He is also outspoken in his high regard for the teaching mission of the Petrine Office. “It is not a question of being ‘pro-’ Pope Francis or ‘contra-’ Pope Francis,” Burke says. “It is,” rather, “a question of defending the Catholic faith, and that means defending the Office of Peter to which the Pope has succeeded.”
He says the climate in which our counsels in the Church are being given and taken has become politicized. “What frightens me a great deal about the present situation of the Church is what I would call a politicization of Church life and of Church doctrine.” He goes on to say, “[T]o defend what the Church has constantly taught and practiced can never be seen as some kind of political action against the ‘other’ political movement.”
Cardinal Burke urges Catholics on all sides of the controversy to assume the best in their interlocutors, and strongly rejects the idea that he is any part of an opposition movement, still less a schismatic one. “I will never abandon the Catholic Church, because it is the Church founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, who established Peter as the Head of the Apostolic College, as the principle of the unity of the Church throughout the world – and once we have no longer have faith in our Lord’s abiding presence in the Church, also through the Petrine Office, we cease to be Catholic, and we enter into that whole world of unending divisions among Christians.”
The podcast edition can be found here. A transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity, can be found below.
Cardinal Burke: The situation continues to be cause of a great deal of concern, because there is a confusion, which is growing – I would say, almost exponentially in the Church – regarding fundamental truths, especially the truth about the Sacrament of Marriage and the truth about the Holy Eucharist and the worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist.
I hear it frequently. Recently I received a communication from a man I had never met, who was living in an irregular matrimonial union, who was told by a priest in confession that the priest now had from Pope Francis the faculty to declare a marriage null in the Sacrament of [Confession], and therefore to permit the man in question to receive the Sacraments. The man wrote to me saying that initially he was very happy with what the priest said, but that every time he received Holy Communion, his conscience wouldn’t give him any rest. Therefore, he wrote to me, asking whether it is true that priests now have the faculty to declare a marriage null in the Sacrament of Confession. I responded to him, of course in a kind way, saying that no priest, not even the Pope himself, has the faculty to declare a marriage null in the Sacrament of Confession, that his conscience was bothering him rightly, and that he should follow his conscience. I suggested that he should contact a good and wise priest to help him to address his situation.
This is not an isolated case. I know very well that these kinds of practices and others are going on, which are attacking the Church at her very foundation, namely, the family – the domestic Church, the first place in which the Church comes to life. It has to be a source of the deepest concern for all of us to restore the right understanding of [the Sacrament of] Marriage as a grace given to those who enter marriage to live faithful, indissoluble and procreative love for one another. Therefore, it remains as critical as ever to respond to the serious doubts, which have been raised in people’s minds by Amoris laetitia, to make clear the constant teaching and practice of the Church, which in fact cannot change and will not change, so that people’s lives can be set on the firm foundation of the life of Christ in us, the life of Christ with us in the Church. In that way, family life will be strengthened and the whole life of society will be strengthened.
So, the issue only becomes more critical, and it only becomes more urgent that all of us address ourselves to it in the most effective way possible for us.
Chris Altieri: How did we get here? I mean to say: a post-Synodal Exhortation is a post-Synodal Exhortation. It is not per se a teaching document. A Pope may use [one] to teach something, but Pope Francis tells us he is not teaching anything new in the document, and we believe him. It is also not a governing instrument of any kind. It does not change the law it does not pretend to. So, where is the confusion coming from?
Cardinal Burke: The confusion has its roots in a long-time opposition to Christ’s teaching about marriage, [and] the Church’s teaching about the sanctity of the Holy Eucharist.
There has always been a certain element in the Church, which has rebelled against the Church’s teaching, and in recent times we saw it in very evident ways: For instance, in the whole debate with regard to artificial contraception which took place in the Sixties; but also this issue with regard to irregular matrimonial unions, cohabitation outside of marriage; it is all an effect, really, of secular society, in which there has been in our time a relentless attack upon the sanctity of marriage. We see it now in a perfectly horrible manifestation in this so-called gender theory. So, we should not be surprised that these issues were raised again, even as they were raised at the time of the last  Synod on the Family, to which Pope St. John Paul II responded so well, setting forth – as a post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation should – not some new teaching, but setting forth what the Church has always taught and practiced for the sake of strengthening the life of the Church and therefore addressing the greatest needs of society. St. John Paul II gave [us] that kind of document with Familiaris consortio.
The only thing we can do in terms of Amoris laetitia is to read it in the perspective of the constant teaching and practice of the Church, and that means that there cannot be what some have called a revolution in the Catholic Church: The Church now accepting that people who are divorced and whose marriages have not been declared null are able to enter into a so-called “second marriage”; revolution, too, in terms of the Church’s constant teaching that the conjugal act rightly takes place only within marriage, in other words, cohabitation outside of marriage is always and everywhere evil. That is the only way we can interpret the document, and that is the way we have to interpret the document. We are Roman Catholics. Christ is alive for us in the constant teaching of the Church, and we must never go away from Him, from the way in which He teaches us and governs us in the Church.
Altieri: One might suggest that – even granted, as we ought to, that we read Amoris with the constant teaching of the Church as presupposed and controlling our understanding of the document – that Familiaris consortio quite a famously put a sort of “Petrine seal” on what was already a fairly diffuse pastoral practice, which was – remoto scandalo – to admit people who were in irregular situations to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and [the Sacrament of] Holy Communion, when they were properly disposed to receive [it], and insofar as they were committed to living continently, to practicing continence in their putative unions. What is different with Amoris laetitia that creates the concern and the confusion – or is it not necessarily with Amoris laetitia, but with its implementation?
Cardinal Burke: Well, on the one hand it is an interpretative problem. On the other hand, it certainly is a problem of application.
The interpretative difficulty is that the document seems to suggest that there are cases apart from the case which you have just mentioned, which is the only possible case in which two people who are living together in what appears to be a marital union could receive the sacraments: Namely, they live together because, for some reason or another, they are unable to separate, but they live not as husband and wife, but as “brother and sister”, observing continence. So that is an interpretive problem, and that has to be clarified. Thus far, at least in some of those who claim to be interpreting Amoris laetitia correctly, there would be other instances. I suppose it was expressed in a way that may be helpful in understanding this problem of interpretation when, during the first session of the most recent Synod of Bishops on the family, in which I took part, one prominent Cardinal said that marriage is an ideal, but we cannot hold people to the ideal. The truth of the matter is marriage is not an ideal. It is a reality. It is a gift of Divine grace to live in the love of the Holy Trinity in a faithful indissoluble life-giving love, and therefore we are held – those who enter into marriage, those who confer the Sacrament of Marriage on each other – are held to live in fidelity to that grace, even to an heroic degree.
In fact, over my years of priestly life and as a bishop and most recently during this whole crisis of the interpretation of the work of the first session of the Synod, I have met numerous Catholics who are divorced, and who are living now in fidelity to their marriage. That is, they have not attempted a second marriage – so to speak – but see their calling now to remain faithful to the marriage which they contracted and to pray for the salvation of their spouse who has either left them or whom they left, as their principal duty. The Sacrament of Marriage exists first and foremost for the salvation of the partners, and so, when one enters the Sacrament of Marriage, [one’s] first and greatest duty is to pray and work for the salvation of the partner, of the marriage partner.
So that is a real difficulty with regard to the interpretation itself of the text, but then the applications are also a grave difficulty, and we have applications like that set forth by the Bishops of Malta, which are simply contrary to what the Church has always taught and practiced. This cannot be true. I often say we need to invoke more frequently the fundamental principle of logic: the principle of non-contradiction; that a thing cannot be and not be in the same respect at the same time. We cannot have it that marriage is indissoluble and at the same time [that] someone who is bound in marriage is permitted in the Church to enter a so-called second union. That is just a contradiction.
Altieri: There are people who have been heard and who have found their way to significant public airing of their opinions on this question, who have attempted, anyway, to make the Holy Father himself either a willing or an unwilling participant in this. I would like you to have the chance to speak to that.
Cardinal Burke: To me, the question is always a question of the Church’s constant teaching.
To address your question, I must first make a preliminary observation. What frightens me a great deal about the present situation of the Church is what I would call a politicization of Church life and of Church doctrine. This is easily done by the secular media but it is also being aided and abetted in the present time by certain Church leaders and theologians and other commentators. This is not a question of being in favor of the “Francis Revolution”, as it is popularly called. It is not a question of being “pro-” Pope Francis or “contra-” Pope Francis. It is a question of defending the Catholic faith, and that means defending the Office of Peter to which the Pope has succeeded. And so, to defend what the Church has constantly taught and practiced can never be seen as some kind of political action against the “other” political movement, as it is called – the “Revolution” in the Church – and can never be seen as being contrary to the Papal office.
In fact, the greatest service that any one of us can give to the Holy Father is to speak the truth of the faith, and this then assists him in being what the Second Vatican Council rightly calls the principle of the unity of all the bishops and of the Church itself.
There is just no other way to view it, and I find it first of all ridiculous, but secondly very harmful, that people who simply present the Church’s teaching to the best of their ability are accused of being against the Holy Father or are accused of being divisive in the Church – even to the point of being accused of leading a schismatic movement in the Church. These are techniques that are used to advance certain agendas, and we ought not to be intimidated by them or to be led [in]to silence by them. Rather, we should be encouraged even as Our Lord Himself encourages us, to speak the truth and to give witness to it in our daily lives.
Altieri: Your Eminence, just to set the record straight on this point: There are people who have suggested that you are yourself a dissenter – voices that have suggested you are leaning toward schismatic tendencies, if not open schism. No one in a place of responsibility in the Church has suggested that, but I know that people’s faith is being challenged. So, I would like you to have the chance to address that.
Cardinal Burke: Yes, it is a source of anguish for me to hear this – people suggesting that I would lead a schism.
What is also a source of anguish for me is to see good Catholics, and in particular converts to the Catholic faith, whose faith is being tremendously tested by the present situation of the Church, and who even experience temptations to seek Christ outside of the Catholic Church, in the sense that they are tempted to think that the Church herself has defected from the Apostolic Faith. We can understand why this is a great difficulty for converts, who have come to the Catholic Church because she has down the centuries – notwithstanding many trials and tribulations even within the Church – remained faithful – clearly with the help of Divine grace – to the Apostolic Tradition.
To respond directly to the question, as I have in the past: I will never be part of any schism, even if I should be punished within the Church for what I in good conscience am trying to do to teach the Catholic faith and to defend it as I am obliged to do, first of all as a Christian but even more so as a Bishop and a Cardinal of the Church. I will never abandon the Catholic Church, because it is the Church founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, who established Peter as the Head of the Apostolic College, as the principle of the unity [of] the Church throughout the world – and once we have no longer have faith in our Lord’s abiding presence in the Church, also through the Petrine Office, we cease to be Catholic, and we enter into that whole world of unending divisions among Christians.
Therefore, I would simply urge fellow Catholics – even as I am trying to do myself – to respond to the situation by fidelity to what the Church has always taught and practiced – and that is not a mystery to us: it is contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, for instance – and remaining faithful in that way we will also remain one with Peter; because one Pope does not teach differently from another Pope. All Popes are successors to St. Peter. They are guardians and promoters of the Apostolic Tradition, and therefore, if we remain faithful to what the Church has always taught and practiced, we also then will remain faithful to St. Peter: Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia. It is a difficult situation, but in a certain sense it is quite simple: We are Roman Catholics; we know what the Roman Catholic faith is, and we must adhere to it and defend it, even if it means – as it has meant for many of our forebears – martyrdom, or a kind of “white martyrdom” – of ridicule, of accusation of being an enemy of the Church.
Whatever may be involved for us, in the end all that can really matter is that we remain faithful to Christ and to what He is teaching us in the Church.
Altieri: To put a bow on our conversation today: There is a narrative of opposition that certainly sells a lot of soap: Sometimes [the proponents of this narrative] will place yourself together with the co-signatories of the Dubia at the head of this “resistance movement”; it is a nice story if you were making a Hollywood pitch, I suppose. Does it correspond to reality?
Cardinal Burke: No. I can tell you that – I do not say this in praise of myself or of the other three Cardinals, two of whom Our Lord has called to Himself: Cardinal Meisner and Cardinal Caffarra – but we never had any other goal in mind other than to be authentic teachers of the faith. We were responding to – we are, we continue to respond – Cardinal Brandmüller and myself – to what is our principal responsibility as Bishops and as Cardinals: To teach the faith. We are not leading any kind of movement. We have never tried to form any kind of movement. We have simply tried our best to defend Christ and His teaching in the Church.
I remain very much inspired by Cardinal Caffarra and Cardinal Meisner, and I am very much in communication with Cardinal Brandmüller, and I can assure you that that is the sum and substance. The secular world wants to interpret what we have done with all kinds of worldly motives and so forth. I can assure you that, also through prayer and sacrifice, we have tried to purify ourselves of anything that would be other than devoted love of Christ and of His Church.