A Model of Duty

Archbishop Burke’s move to Rome

After it was announced in late June that St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke had been appointed to a new position in Rome as the head of the Vatican’s Supreme Court, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter began receiving calls from “both sides of the Atlantic.” The callers, he recounted on his NCR blog, essentially wanted to know: “Was this a case of what the Italians call promuovere per rimuovere… promoting someone in order to get rid of him?”

John Allen considers the question difficult to answer though “reasonable,” given Burke’s “pugnacious” record in St. Louis. But is it reasonable? Let’s hope not.

The question implies that Burke posed a large problem for the American Church, a suggestion that looks ludicrous next to its real problems, such as the astronomical abuse settlements that derelict bishops continue to pay out.

There are bishops in the American Church who deserve to be sidelined; Archbishop Burke is manifestly not one of them. In a time of demoralizing ambivalence, he held fast to the teachings of the Church admirably, sending shafts of light down corridors long darkened by dissent and scandal. If that’s a problem, the American Church needs more of them.

His tenure was not so much pugnacious as dutiful and guileless, which came as a shock to a media that had grown accustomed to temporizing and slippery bishops. In the past, American bishops made news by deviating from Church teaching; Burke made news by simply following it.

He was dubbed a “controversial” bishop, which is the American media’s back-handed compliment for a Church figure who turns out to be a believing Catholic. The truth is that Burke’s four and half years in St. Louis represent a model of conscientious duty that bishops throughout America would do well to emulate.

Perhaps most heartening to a laity depressed by seeing “conservative” bishops grow more wobbly over time is that Burke only grew stronger. To those who wondered what a well-governed diocese looked like, his provided a reliable picture. To those who longed for a bishop with the courage to stare down a mau-mauing media and celebrity culture, he emerged as an unflinching one.

Where other bishops let dust gather on their copy of canon law, he opened his up and applied it in season and out. Sniping liberal clerics thought this “not pastoral,” but Burke ignored such glib criticism, grasping that nothing is more harmful to souls than shepherds who don’t govern and teach faithfully. Canon law, he reminded Catholics, exists for the protection of souls. Suspending it is a measure of the absence, not presence, of pastoral concern.

Self-appointed experts on “pastoral” Catholicism never seem to preside over large flocks or produce new pastors. But Burke did. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, the St. Louis archdiocese ordained nine priests in May of this year, “the largest St. Louis ordination class in 25 years and one of the largest in the US.” It added that the “student body at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary is now on track to enroll 120 students next year, which would double the size of the seminary population from a decade ago.”

Burke’s consistent defense of Church teaching and discipline explains this success.

His leadership not only strengthened the Church locally but nationally. He single-handedly elevated the debate over pro-abortion Catholic politicians. His precise understanding of canon law shook up the stale platitudes of those who preferred to leave the matter vague and unresolved. 

In an article published in the Periodica de Re Canonica, an international canon law journal, he took issue with the stance adopted in 2004 by the US bishops’ conference, which held that individual bishops could approach the question of administering Communion to pro-abortion politicians in different ways. “[T]he question regarding the objective state of Catholic politicians who knowingly and willingly hold opinions contrary to the natural moral law would hardly seem to change from place to place,” Burke wrote, noting also that canon law obliges individual priests, not just bishops, to protect the Eucharist from scandal and sacrilege.

These points moved the debate from the more comfortable focus on the duties of individual communicants to a long overdue look at the duties of priests and bishops, and Burke received considerable grief for making them. The article was just a minority view, said dismissive colleagues.

But how can they say that now, in light of his new assignment as head of the Vatican Supreme Court? Would Pope Benedict have named him to that post if he thought that he was wrong?

“Every pro-choice Catholic Democrat politician should be very nervous,” the Jesuit Thomas Reese said to the Associated Press. “If he gets that view articulated strongly in Rome, he could become the voice for having that position for the universal Church.”

If so, we can be confident that Burke’s departure, while an immediate loss to American Catholics, may prove a great gain for them over time.

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