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Cardinal Burke: “I Don’t Ever Put Myself in Opposition to the Successor of St. Peter”


AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

Diane Montagna - published on 11/07/14

American prelate clarifies reports suggesting he is the leading critic of Pope Francis (Interview)

Is the Catholic Church drifting from its traditional teachings on life, love, marriage and sexuality?

Cardinal Raymond Burke, who heads the Church’s highest court at the Vatican, has been warning of attempts by members of the Synod of Bishops to change the Church’s unchanging truths. In spite of recent media reports suggesting he is leading the "conservative opposition" to Pope Francis’ "reformist agenda," the American cardinal insists on his fidelity to the Pope as Vicar of Christ and Successor to St. Peter.

Cardinal Burke was in Vienna, Austria this week for the launch of the German translation of a new book  to which he contributed, Remaining in the Truth of Christ. The book is the collaborative work of five cardinals from Germany, Italy, and the United States. It is a response to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s address at the Extraordinary Consistory in February of this year, in which he proposed allowing some "remarried" divorcees to have access to Holy Communion.

Tuesday’s launch at the parish house of Vienna’s Karlskirche brought together representatives from the Cistercian Abbey of Heiligenkreuz, the German speaking academic world, and Una Voce Austria. 

Aleteia’s Rome correspondent and another reporter sat down with Cardinal Burke to discuss new accusations that he’s been critical of Pope Francis, Elton John’s praise of the Pope, and how he sees the Synodal process over the coming year.

Your Eminence, you said in your recent interview with Vida Nueva that you have a strong sense the Church is like a ship “without a helm.” Some observers are seeing statements like this as an insult against the Pope. Would you like to correct this?

Yes, I would love to. The fact of the matter is the interviewer simply asked me the question: there are many people who are confused at this point, and I think he used the image, or I did, that people on the ship of the Church, because of this confusion, are feeling some sea sickness. Many people are anxious and concerned and many people have been in contact with me. They say, “Where are we going? What is the Church really teaching?” And my response to them has always been that we know the Church’s teaching, it’s in the Catechism, it’s in the Tradition, and we simply have to cling to that, and with that we know we’re going to do the right thing.

I wasn’t in any way commenting directly on the Holy Father, and it’s unfortunate that people are using that. But certain media simply want to keep portraying me as living my life as an opponent to Pope Francis, which I’m not at all. I’ve been serving him in the Apostolic Signatura and in other ways I continue to serve him. And I know that part of my service is to speak the truth about situations, and we simply are in a situation right now in the Church where many people are confused. 

In the Pope’s speech at the end of the Synod he spoke about defending the deposit of faith. Is that what you’d like to stress?

That’s all that I’m about. And I made it very clear in my response to [the interviewer] that I did not say that this was what the Holy Father is causing or doing but simply a reality today. 

And you also said in that interview that we cannot go to the peripheries empty-handed. Do you want to explain that more?

Many people, I believe, are misinterpreting the Holy Father’s emphasis on going to the peripheries as a kind of chasing after the culture. In other words, that somehow we no longer have confidence in the teaching of the Faith and in the life of the Church, and so we go after those very deficient situations in society as if we have nothing to offer, and nothing to say.

The point I was making is that, yes, we go out to the peripheries, but we go there with Jesus Christ and all the richness of his life with us in the Church. That’s how we really serve those who are on the peripheries, those who are looking for some sign of God’s mercy in their lives, God’s truth. So it’s very important when we go out to the periphery that we go there with the integrity of our Catholic faith.

I also made it clear in the interview that I wasn’t saying that the Holy Father’s idea is this, but I’ve seen other people using his words to justify a kind of accommodation of the faith to culture which can never be.

Elton John last week called Pope Francis a great hero for gay rights. Some welcome this and rejoice that someone who wouldn’t normally look at the Church is now engaged with it in some way. Others say: yes, people like Elton John see an open door, but it’s opening a door that affirms them in a sinful lifestyle. How can the Church best now navigate this situation she finds herself in so that there is truth and charity?

Only by the diligent effort to explain very carefully the Church’s teaching with regard to homosexual acts, and to make the proper distinctions between the sinner and the sin. This was one of the difficulties of the Synod, that this was all confused where it was at least implied that there could be good elements in mortally sinful acts. We all know that’s not possible. There cannot be any good in this. And so if the Pope is being praised for caring deeply about people suffering from same sex attraction — and in society today this is at least made very conscious through the whole gay rights movement  the Pope’s concern for them is that they understand that, even though they have this attraction, it is an attraction to disordered acts and that they need to seek the healing and grace needed and to order their lives correctly and to deal with this suffering, and it’s a very profound suffering.

But the Pope’s position cannot be seen to be somehow the Church taking back what she cannot take back; namely, the teaching that these are contrary to nature. 

There was also an article last week about how you managed to bring a homosexual man back into the Church.

Yes, I remember the situation very well.

How did that happen?

He was very aggressive in the homosexual movement. Obviously he suffered very severely from the same-sex attraction. And he had tried in a way to be in the Church, and finally he became very angry. It may have even been caused by some teaching that I had given publicly with regard to homosexual acts and to the whole situation. And so one day he delivered to my office this box with what he called “the trappings of my Catholicism,” and he wrote a letter saying he was renouncing the Catholic faith and wanted to be rid of these. There was a crucifix, a rosary, a bible, the normal tools of the faith.

So I told my secretary to put them in the closet because I think the man will come to see the truth and then he would like to have those objects back. And so we put them on the shelf, and that’s exactly what happened. He experienced a conversion and he was helped. I didn’t help him directly with the conversion. He was helped by a good priest and by some very good laypeople who took him into their home because he had been so actively engaged in the homosexual movement that he was in a very deeply wounded condition. And then he made an appointment to come to see me, and on that occasion I certainly embraced him and told him how happy I was for him, and I told him: "I saved these things for you, and I think you would like them back." And he was delighted to have them back, and so I gave them back to him.

Sadly I’ve lost contact with him now, once I moved away from the United States, but I hope that he’s still doing well, because this is a suffering and there can be recidivism. But in any case, in that instance I saw the beauty of the Church’s teaching at work. It really was the best thing for him, and when he was able to come back to the practice of the faith and lead a chaste life he was truly happy. 

Was there any lessening of the Church’s teaching on your part?

No, no. I don’t bear bad feelings towards people with same-sex attraction. I try to help anyone who would come to me, but I’m always clear with them that the ultimate way has to be to cease any kind of activity and lead a chaste life, but that’s true for all of us. 

Returning to the topic of your recent interviews, as perhaps you saw, Religion News Service Friday identified you as the cardinal “who has emerged as the face of the opposition to Pope Francis’ reformist agenda”. How would you respond?

My purpose, my goal is to present the Church’s teaching around which there has been a great deal of confusion, also some of it caused by what happened at the Synod of Bishops. The Holy Father is the Successor of St. Peter and I don’t ever put myself in opposition to the Successor of St. Peter. But I think that people who wanted to identify the so-called “reformist agenda” of Pope Francis with all of their favorite ideas of what the Church should do or what the Church should become now try to discredit what I say by attributing it to some personal animosity toward the Holy Father, and that is not right. 

But there is increasing talk of fear of schism, that if the Synod of Bishops keeps going in the direction it’s going, that it’s going to get worse. What could be done to avoid that happening, in your view?

We have individually to make sure that we keep in strong contact with the Tradition through our study of the Catechism, above all through prayer, and also through sound spiritual direction, strong in our Catholic faith and our witness to it. And then that we use other occasions and opportunities, whether it’s our personal witness in our daily contacts, visits with family and friends and so forth, to underline the beauty of the truth about marriage. And also events like today’s, a colloquium centering around questions that were raised at the Synod on the Family, and other questions around which there is a lot of confusion.

I think, for instance, of the question: is it possible that the Church’s teaching can remain the same and yet that she could have a pastoral practice which seems to contradict it. Those kinds of questions need to be addressed. And the confusion, too, surrounding the position of the Fathers of the Church with regard to Communion for those who are in irregular unions, or the confusion surrounding the practice of the Orthodox Churches and so forth, and the idea that we should adopt the same practice. 

And do you think that there is a real risk of schism in this?

If in some way the Synod of Bishops was seen to go contrary to what is the constant teaching and practice of the Church, there is a risk because these are unchanging and unchangeable truths.

At the Synod, when the interim report came out, some said it was a disaster.

It was a total disaster.

The final report noted the need for “sensitivity to the positive aspects” of civil marriages and, “with obvious differences, cohabitation." The Church, it says, “needs to indicate the constructive elements in these situations.” The paragraph, number 41, passed the requisite two-thirds majority. Do you find it disturbing that this paragraph gained a two-thirds majority among the bishops? 

The language is at best confused, and I’m afraid that some of the Synod Fathers may not have reflected sufficiently on the implications of that, or maybe because the language is confused, didn’t understand completely what was being said. But that is disturbing for me. And then the whole matter: that even though [certain] paragraphs were removed, and rightly so, although contrary to practice in the past the document was printed with those paragraphs included, and one had to go and look at the votation to see that certain paragraphs had been removed. It’s disturbing to me that even those sections which were voted to be removed still received a substantial number of votes.

Juridically, when those three paragraphs did not receive the two-thirds majority, were they to be removed from the document?

Absolutely. We couldn’t have any discussion on that text, but we voted paragraph by paragraph, and what’s the point of voting paragraph by paragraph except to either accept a paragraph of have it removed. This is just one more disturbing aspect about the way in which Synod of Bishops was conducted. 

Do you see this agenda continuing through the coming year? They aren’t going to change course?

No, because the General Secretary has identified himself very strongly with the Kasper thesis, and he is not hesitant to say so and has gone around also giving talks in various places. He’s less outspoken than Cardinal Kasper but nevertheless it’s clear that he subscribes to that school. So no, this is going to go on and that’s why it’s important that we continue to speak up and to act as we are able to address the situation.

A question about language: in the interim document the word “accogliere” was repeatedly used, especially in the three paragraphs regarding homosexuality. As you know, “accogliere” can mean many things in Italian. Initially in English it was translated as “welcome.” Then, two days later, it was changed to "provided for," and then it was changed back. What is the proper understanding or rendering of “accogliere” if that word is to be used?

I’m not sure that “accogliere” is the correct term to use, because it can, I believe — and I’m no expert in Italian  it can be understood that they are welcomed as persons who are living in this way. We welcome them as children of God, as brothers and sisters of Christ, but we don’t welcome their lifestyle, so to speak, or the way in which they are living. And so if you have, for instance, two men or two women who are living together openly in a homosexual relationship, yes, you care for them, and perhaps “care for pastorally” is the better expression. You care for them but one has to be very careful in the Christian community that the impression is not given to the rest of the faithful that somehow their relationship is morally right and that the Church welcomes that relationship too. No, it doesn’t. That’s the delicate thing. I remember in our small discussion group that certain bishops had an objection to the word “welcome,” and I understood it just for that reason.

And so I think the language itself is not correct, and I think we need to find a different way. And again, I’m not an Italian but I don’t think “accogliere” is the right term.

At the Synod, there did not appear to be much talk about heaven, or the final end, or eternal life, or hell, or sin. The language surrounding the Synod seemed rather horizontal. Yet the Catholic understanding of marriage is understood in light of eternal life and the reality to which it points, i.e. the union between Christ and His Church and God’s faithful love for His people. How can we refocus our attention on these realities in the coming year?

In the book, Remaining in the Truth of Christ, which was published and to which I contributed, in the back of it is a compendium of the Magisterium on marriage. There you will find this kind of direction, this approach, that everything has to be seen and approached from the perspective of eternal life and eternal salvation, which comes to us in Jesus Christ alone and His grace by which we daily convert our lives to Christ and daily struggle to overcome sin. And so also in marriage. The beauty of the sacrament is enhanced by the struggle of the partners to be faithful and to be generous in every way.

Diane Montagnais Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.

CatholicismHomosexualityMarriageSynod on the Family
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