Cardinal Raymond Burke on Life, Truth, Mother Teresa, Islam, and Cardinal Sarah

Speaking to reporters from Rome about his new book, the American prelate goes on record about Christians and Muslims (they don’t worship the same God) and Cardinal Sarah (“I agree with him completely…").

In a wide-ranging international teleconference call on Monday with media members, Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke spoke in detail about many timely topics. These included the priority of standing up for life in addressing poverty and other social ills, the witness and message of Mother Teresa, essential differences between Christianity and Islam, and the recent controversy over remarks by Cardinal Robert Sarah about liturgical orientation. The occasion of the call was Cardinal Burke’s recent book Hope For the World: To Unite All Things in Christ (Ignatius Press), an interview given to French author Guillaume d’Alançon in 2015, and translated by Michael J. Miller for Ignatius Press.

Since being named a bishop by Pope John Paul II in 1994, Cardinal Burke has become one of the more well-known prelates in the English-speaking world, recognized for his willingness to address controversial topics forthrightly, despite often being criticized. Noted as a canon lawyer, Cardinal Burke was made a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, and then called that same year to Rome to become Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. During the two recent Synods on the Family, Cardinal Burke spoke out often about his concerns, telling CWR during the October 2014 gathering that he thought the Synod’s mid-term report “lacks a solid foundation in the Sacred Scriptures and the Magisterium”, a remark made a month after he was removed from his position as Prefect and named chaplain to the Order of Malta by Pope Francis.

Cardinal Burke, conversing from Rome, told reporters that his new book was motivated by a desire to reflect on his upbringing and how he discerned his vocation as priest, and also “to reflect as a pastor, as a bishop, on certain on certain critical issues of the day”. As such, he noted, the book is a “kind of testimony of faith on my part”, and the hope is that the book, in keeping with its title, will “give hope” to readers.

Asked about an apparent shifting of priorities among American bishops since the beginning of Francis’ pontificate, Cardinal Burke pointed out that while the issues of abortion, poverty, immigration, and global warming all have “moral importance”, the Church’s tradition and philosophical reason both indicate that “the fundamental question has to be the question of human life itself, the respect for the inviolable dignity of human life and of its Creator, of its Source, and the union of a man and a woman in marriage, which according to God’s plan is the place where new human life is welcomed and nurtured.”

He expressed concern that the matter of human life and the issues of abortion, artificial insemination, contraception, and euthanasia are sometimes placed on the same level as “questions regarding immigration and poverty.” The first priority, he emphasized, must be given to proper respect for human life and for the family in order to have “the right orientations in addressing all of the other questions” and challenges faced by people in daily life. It makes no sense, he pointed out, to be concerned with immigration or poverty “if human life itself is not protected in society … The first justice accorded to any human being is to respect life itself, which is received from God…” Cardinal Burke observed there are some who advocate an elimination of certain parts of the population in order to fight poverty, or who adhere to a “contraceptive mentality” in order to pursue a sort of “social engineering” harmful to society and to individuals.

The former Archbishop of St. Louis emphasized that bishops have a responsibility to proclaim the truth of Christ in love within the Church, following the example of Christ himself, knowing the love that will “best serve society is the truth, a truth that respects God’s plan for us from the moment of creation…” When he travels, the cardinal said, he finds that people want to hear “the truth of the faith” from priests, bishops, and cardinals—”they aren’t interested in my personal opinions about things, which won’t save their souls, and I am as aware of that as they are; they look to me to reflect very deeply on the truths of the Faith and their application on society today, and to speak to that truth with love and care for society.” The fundamental mission of Catholics in the world is to be united to Christ and to “give witness to the truth”, a witness that is “very much needed in our time”.

Asked how it was that he, as a young seminarian in the Sixties, avoided falling into the “craziness” of that era, Cardinal Burke credited his parents and his upbringing. He acknowledged he was not unaffected by the “tumultuous” times, especially after arriving in 1968 at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, to study philosophy. He credits the “stable and good” discipline, prayer life, and formation he experienced in minor seminary, which he entered at the age of fourteen. He lamented that so many seminarians, seminary professors, and priests at CUA abandoned their vocations and ministry during that time. But he “simply couldn’t be convinced that this so-called ‘new way’, this ‘new Church'” was a good and right path, as if what he had been taught growing up was now “wrong and needed to be abandoned”. He expressed, however, “great sympathy” for many of those who lost their way, restating that it was a “very tumultuous time and we were young”.

Reflecting on the upcoming canonization of Mother Teresa by Pope Francis on Sunday, September 4th, Cardinal Burke expressed his happiness that the famous nun will be named a saint, saying “she has been an inspiration to me from my years in the seminary when I first came to know her”. One most striking thing about Mother Teresa, he said, was how she focused on one person at a time. Her response to those who wondered how she could deal with all of the challenges faced in her work was that “we can only love one person at a time and so she went out with her sisters and picked up one dying person at a time and took them to the home for the dying”. She would help one mother at a time, one homeless person at a time: “This was the genius of Mother Teresa; Christ was so much alive in her that in facing the most overwhelming situations …  she had the grace to know that ‘I what can do is to address this with the gift that I have, respecting each individual person…”

Mother Teresa can teach us, Cardinal Burke noted, that no matter what we’re doing, the most important thing is that we bring love to those who are in need, “genuine, selfless, pure love—and then everything else we do, beyond that, has its ultimate good effect.” He pointed out how Mother Teresa insisted that the greatest poverty in the world was “the fear of life”, even or especially among nations wealthy in material terms but supporing the practice of abortion. She is a “brilliant teacher to us” in addressing difficulties—complications with a pregnancy, a serious illness, and so forth—on a practical level because she teaches us that “the way to address these issues is with respect for the individual human life and in that way” people will find the true happiness and fulfillment they are seeking.

Since some of the first news stories about Hope For the World focused on its brief remarks on Islam, I asked Cardinal Burke about what he identifies, in the book, as the “greatest danger of our days”: relativism and “loss of a sound metaphysics and, consequently, of a sense of an objective reality”. In such a relativistic culture, how can we go about recovering a sound metaphysic? Cardinal Burke first said he thinks the common response in the West to Islam is “deeply influenced by a relativism of a religious order, with people telling me, ‘Well, we all worship the same God. We all believe in love.'” Such an approach, however, fails to really study and understand what Islam is and what Christianity is in comparison. There is, for Christians, serious metaphysics involved, because “God is the creator of both reason and the giver of revelation, by which he teaches us … is illuminated and we are given a divine grace” so that we can live according to the law inscribed in reality. This, he stated emphatically, is “not true in Islam”. He said that while he has been accused of taking an “extreme” view of Islam, he insisted that “everything I have ever said about Islam is based on my own study of the texts of Islam and also of their commentators.”

The key point, he said, is “I don’t believe it’s true that we worship the same God, because the God of Islam is a governor; in other words, fundamentally, Islam is sharia … and that law, which comes through Allah, must dominate every man eventually.” This law is not founded on love, he added, even if individual Muslims are gentle and kind people. The essential drive in Islam to to govern and control the world, whereas in Christianity, relying on right reason and sound metaphysics and true faith, “we make our contribution to society,” mindful that the Church is not intent on governing and controlling the world. Relativism is a key problem, said Cardinal Burke, because it undermines respect for the truth. Too often there are general statements—”We all believe in the same God” being very common—but “this is not helpful” and if it is not addressed, “it will be the end of Christianity”. Most people do not realize, he added, that there is not a natural law tradition in Islam, nor do Muslims understand conscience as Christians do.

Asked about the positive remarks made about Islam in Vatican II’s Nostra aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, Cardinal Burke distinguished between saying Christians and Muslims acknowledge the same Creator and saying we worship the same God. “How can the God we know, who is fundamentally a God of love as St. John says, be the same God that commands and demands of Muslims to slaughter infidels and to establish their rule by violence?”

One of the most interesting answers from Cardinal Burke came in response to a question about liturgy and the recent remarks by Cardinal Robert Sarah about the need to worship “ad orientem” (facing liturgical East). Celebrating liturgy and worshiping properly is necessary, said Cardinal Burke, to fully appreciate the order of reality and to grasp the truth given to us through and in Christ. After the Council, he said, there was a “tremendously man-centered approach to the sacred liturgy”—not sanctioned by the Council—”to the extent that the idea that this worship offered to God according to God’s commandments was completely lost, and the liturgy became something that we created” and some people claimed there was a need to “experiment” and to make liturgy “interesting”. This blurred the “essential encounter between heaven and earth which is the liturgy, between eternity and time”. One unfortunate result of this confusion, said Cardinal Burke, is that many Catholics stopped coming to Mass, and those who did continue to come were “not being nourished with the truth and were not seeing the sacred liturgy this wonderful mystery of faith, God’s plan of salvation”.

Asked about Cardinal Sarah’s statements, Cardinal Burke flatly stated, “I agree with him completely, and I believe that many of the comments made afterwards are not well-informed and are not fair.” The fundamental point made by Cardinal Sarah about the position of the priest during Mass is that the priest is the head of the congregation; he is acting in persona Christi in offering worship to God—”and so all of us are facing the Lord”. Rather than the priest “turning his back to the people”, he is actually “leading us in worship” to help us lift our minds and hearts to God. He emphasized that nothing in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, “would demand or even suggest that Mass should suddenly be now celebrated with the priest facing the people”. This change, he said, is something that was “introduced afterwards and I think was part of the false liturgical reforms”. Echoing some of the points made by Cardinal Sarah, Cardinal Burke pointed of that when the priest faces the people “there is a great temptation … to see him as some kind of a performer, and now instead of the priest together with the people relating to God, somehow it becomes an interaction between the priest and the people.” The priest becomes central, rather than Christ himself.

“And so Cardinal Sarah”, said Cardinal Burke, “I couldn’t agree more with him,” adding, “I trust that with time people will recognize that the criticism which was lodged against him is completely unjustified.” He also called into question the sincerity of critics of Cardinal Sarah, noting that the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments had made similar comments about the same topics in a 2015 article in L’Osservatore Romano.

Finally, asked about the lack of homilies and other communications in many parishes about assisted suicide, abortion, contraception and other moral evils, Cardinal Burke referenced Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae and the widespread “rebellion” that followed. Saint John Paul II’s catechesis on human life, marriage, and sexuality (the “theology of the body”) is an important and “brilliant” guide to these topics. Today, said Cardinal Burke, the marital act has been separated from authentic, self-giving love: “the conjugal act becomes manipulated in some way contrary to its nature.” This is followed by a justification of all sorts of sexual activity as “an expression of love” even though it is not life-giving or truly loving. “The sexual act,” he said, “belongs in marriage, by its very nature…” There is a serious need for catechesis about love and sexuality that stands against a society that has “gone completely insane”, which is dominated by debates and controversies over gender theory, lack of modesty, and use of public restrooms.

“We have to help people,” he remarked, “once again to respect themselves—respect themselves as a man or a woman, and respect themselves therefore in their sexual identity and where it finds its fullest expression, in the conjugal union. Or, for those who are called to renounce the good of marriage and to live as celibate, or a virginal life, that nevertheless is done with the fullest respect for the nature of the conjugal union.” 

[Editor’s note: This article was revised on August 31st in order to correct some minor errors in grammar.]

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.