Did the Bishops Punish Archbishop Burke?

Deal W. Hudson

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Archbishop Raymond Burke (St. Louis) lost an election at the annual meeting of the U.S. bishops last week.

Over the past three years, Burke has assumed the mantle of the late Cardinal John O’Connor in pro-life matters, challenging fellow bishops to take stronger stances in the defense of innocent life.

Nominated as chairman for the Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance, 60 percent of his fellow bishops preferred his opponent. As bishops’ conference expert Rev. Thomas Reese noted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, an auxiliary bishop defeating an archbishop for a conference chairmanship is “very unusual.”

Archbishop Burke’s credentials as a canonist are widely recognized. In fact, he missed the bishops’ meeting because he was in Rome as a member of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signature, the Vatican’s highest judicial authority.

Burke has been a controversial figure since early 2004 when, as bishop of La Crosse, WI, he began to challenge pro-abortion Catholic politicians publicly on their reception of the Eucharist.

Shortly after moving to St. Louis as archbishop, Burke said he would deny Communion to Sen. John Kerry if he presented himself. Although his position has been backed up by 13 other bishops, Archbishop Burke was clearly straining the boundaries of “collegiality.”

Father Reese, former editor of America magazine, says the bishops were sending a message: “Most of the bishops don’t want communion and Catholic politicians to be a high-profile issue, and he [Burke] is seen as a man who’s pushing that issue. . . . Had he been elected, it could have been interpreted as endorsing his position.”

Archbishop Elden Curtiss (Omaha), Archbishop Sean O’Malley (Boston), and Cardinal Francis George (Chicago) went on the record denying that there was any message being sent by the bishops to Burke. And supporters of Archbishop Burke have no reason to regret the selection of Bishop Thomas Paprocki, the Chicago auxiliary, whose reputation and credentials are similar to that of Burke’s.

The question still in the air after the bishops’ meeting, however, is whether Burke is being punished for not backing down after the controversy surrounding him during the 2004 election.

In response to the Kerry and Communion controversy, the bishops formed a task force, headed by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, to study the issue and present a report. That report, “Catholics in Political Life,” differed sharply with Burke, finding that each bishop could decide for himself in such cases.

Archbishop Burke did not back down. Early this year, he published an article on Canon 915 in Italian law journal Periodica de Re Canonica arguing that the McCarrick report was incorrect.

Burke said that a bishop’s interpretation of what to do in the face of a pro-abortion Catholic politician “would hardly seem to change from place to place.” For Burke, enforcing discipline must go hand-in-hand with teaching:

No matter how often a bishop or priest repeats the teaching of the Church regarding procured abortion, if he stands by and does nothing to discipline a Catholic who publicly supports legislation permitting the gravest of injustices, and at the same time, presents himself to receive Holy Communion, then his teaching rings hollow.

He gave the names of bishops with whom he disagreed: Cardinal McCarrick, Cardinal Roger Mahony (Los Angeles), and Archbishop Donald Wuerl Washington, DC. Just as it’s very unusual for an archbishop to be defeated by an auxiliary bishop in an election, it’s just as unheard of for a bishop to take issue with another bishop by name.

In his article, however, Burke spread the net even wider. He argued that any Catholic who administers Communion – even a lay person – is required to withhold it from Catholic politicians who know they hold positions contrary to Church teaching.

Burke has said publicly that he will not stop addressing this issue. In an interview with Catholic News Service shortly after the 2004 election, he said:

It’s funny because some people now characterize me as a fundamentalist, or an extremist . . . . But these are questions that are at the very foundation of the life of our country. We just simply have to continue to address them.

The archbishop of St. Louis has been true to his word. His article on Canon law formalized his objection to McCarrick’s report.

If Father Reese is right, the bishops are distancing themselves from a fellow bishop who kept controversy in the air, a controversy most of them would rather see go away.

The bishops’ own document from last week, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” was a powerful indictment of Catholics who participate politically without demanding an end to abortion. Archbishop Burke, though he was not at the meeting, and though he will not chair the canonical affairs committee, must be given some credit for the strength of the bishops’ corporate voice in this statement.

Published at InsideCatholic.com, November 19, 2007

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