Thursday, November 13, 2014

Musings on the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, the Removal of Cardinal Burke

Those who pay attention to Church things know that a large number of bishops from around the world were recently meeting in Rome. In Church-speak, it was an "extraordinary synod," extraordinary not in the sense that it was "marvelous" or "spectacular" but in the more ordinary sense that it was but a prelude to the "ordinary synod," that is, the meeting of bishops that sends its suggestions to the pope, who then publishes a document. Last month's synod was extraordinary in the first sense of the word, though, I would aver, because of the amount of attention it garnered, even among those who, unlike myself, don't ordinarily pay attention to Church things.

The Extraordinary Synod's focus was on the family, and it garnered extraordinary attention primarily because of the suggestion of Cardinal Walter Kasper that the Church modify her practice of denying Holy Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. The age-old teaching of the Church is that Catholics in second marriages cannot receive the Eucharist because their earlier marriages are indissoluble. It follows that those who get married civilly a second time are committing adultery against their spouse from their first marriage, even if their civil marriage has been dissolved in the eyes of the State through a divorce proceeding. In the eyes of the Church, the person must also seek a declaration of nullity--in other words, an annulment--which is the Church's juridical decision that there was some impediment to the couple giving their consent in the first place. In a speech last year, however, Cardinal Kasper argued that people who attempted to marry a second time without seeking an annulment need a second chance, alluding to the Orthodox Church's toleration of second marriages as a practice for the Catholic Church to emulate. After Pope Francis himself spoke up in appreciation of Cardinal Kasper's emphasis on mercy and forgiveness, some writers--Catholic and secular alike--began to suggest that the Church might actually change her teaching on marriage.

This is, of course, deeply troubling to those of us who understand the role of the Church as the faithful proclamation of the deposit of faith entrusted to her. The Church's traditional denial of the Eucharist to those in second marriages is based in Christ's own teaching about marriage--"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (Mark 10:11-12)--and St. Paul's teaching regarding reception of the Eucharist--"Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 11:27). But let me emphasize that I am not accusing Cardinal Kasper or for that matter Pope Francis, who lauded Cardinal Kasper's speech, of deliberate unfaithfulness to the perennial teachings of the Church. Cardinal Kasper, for his part, insists that he is advocating for a change in pastoral practice, not a change in the unchangeable deposit of faith. And Pope Francis, for his part, is the guardian of that deposit of faith and the successor of St. Peter, the rock on whom Christ built his Church, promising that "the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).

So, I stand with Pope Francis, trusting that the Holy Spirit will guide him through the ever stormier waters of a secular world at odds with the Gospel message. That having been said, I've read enough history to know that the Church has often stood at the brink of doctrinal or pastoral shipwreck and that sometimes it's only because people, prompted by the Holy Spirit, have chosen to speak up with force and conviction that the Church has stayed true to her evangelical mission and purpose. St. Catherine of Siena's strong words to Pope Gregory XI is the first example to come to mind, but history is full of worse popes than Gregory and worse situations than a timid French pope who preferred to live in the relative safety of Avignon rather than return to Rome.

I am encouraged, in any case, that Pope Francis himself called for an open discussion of these matters leading up to the synod. And I was heartened by the example of Cardinal Raymond Burke, who, together with four other cardinals, published a collection of essays last month called Remaining in the Truth of Christ. Therein, these cardinals take a strong stance against Cardinal Kasper's proposals, noting, for example, that the cardinal misrepresents the Orthodox practice of tolerating second marriages, misuses his patristic sources, and thoroughly misunderstands the Church's annulment process. It is not at all as the media have presented it: Cardinal Kasper is the sympathetic, merciful pastor while Cardinal Burke is the cold-hearted, legalistic judge. Rather, Cardinal Burke and the other authors argue that true mercy, and true charity, must be grounded in truth. True forgiveness entails true repentance. As one writer has put it, if a penitent comes to the confessional, confesses his sin, and says that he is perfectly happy living in his sin, then the priest would fail in his duty if he were to pat the sinner on the back, assuring him that everything is all right and sending him on his way. Essential to penitence is being penitent, and resolving to amend one's life. How could the Church, pastorally speaking, both hold that marriage is indissoluble and at the same time pat those in second marriages on the back, affirming them in their situation? It doesn't seem very pastoral to me, insofar as the true pastor calls his flock to live their lives according to the truth.

It is not surprising, therefore, that many faithful Catholics, including myself, have observed the synod from afar with particular trepidation, even if we trust that the gates of the netherworld will not prevail. How is it that Pope Francis praised Cardinal Kasper when the German cardinal's proposals seem so clearly at odds both with Church teaching and with solid pastoral practice? It was particularly distressing to watch as Cardinal Kasper continued to give interviews to the media during the synod, and as other distressing proposals came to light in the interim document, most notably the suggestion that there was something to praise in the love and devotion that homosexuals have for each other their relationships. As the head of the Polish bishops' conference wrote about the synod, he had thought that he was coming to Rome in order to find ways to foster and strengthen Christian marriages in response to the challenges of a rapidly secularizing society. Instead, he found attempts to accommodate the teachings of the Church to the spirit of the age. The African bishops were particularly outspoken, pointing out that marriage and family life are vibrant and strong on their continent. Why, they asked, aren't the bishops doing more to resist the spirit of the age? My mouth was agape, in fact, as I read of Cardinal Kasper's patronizing, Euro-elitist remark to a journalist that "nobody is listening" to the African bishops at the synod.

Cardinal Kasper's unguarded remark seems to have been a last straw. Pope Francis proceeded to add several more bishops to the document drafting committee, including Cardinal Napier from South Africa. Shortly thereafter, several second-hand accounts have another outspoken cardinal--Cardinal Pell of Australia--standing up to speak when it was announced that the summaries of the various language groups discussions would be kept secret. Cardinal Pell said that, given the publicity of everything else, the world needed to know where the bishops stood. Some accounts state that the cardinal's microphone was turned off but that he stubbornly raised his voice and continued to speak, with his remarks being met with sustained, approving applause from frustrated bishops who detected manipulation of the synod proceedings by a small cadre of bishops who favored change.

The language group summaries, which were almost universally critical of the interim report, were indeed published, as Cardinal Pell insisted that they be, and the final document for the pope's consideration did not contain any of the controversial propositions. That having been said, the whole charade leaves an intensely bad taste in my mouth. Yes, I'm aware that the earliest Church synods and councils were contentious, but still, to have bishops seemingly so inured to the spirit of the age that they feel pastoral compromise is the best way to evangelize is deeply troubling. I can't pretend not to have seen it on full display on the local level over the years--schools I've attended that are Catholic in name only, parishes I've belonged to that water down their CCD programs, priests I've known who avoid controversial topics. What is the famous observation about water following the path of least resistance? It's definitely true of fallen human nature as well, and history clearly demonstrates that bishops, for all the special guidance that the Holy Spirit provides, are as human as anybody else.

Which leads me to related musings on Cardinal Burke, who last weekend was removed from his position as Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura--the Vatican's equivalent of the Supreme Court--and given the honorific title of Cardinal Patron to the Knights of Malta. Given Pope Francis's praise for Cardinal Kasper, some observers have detected in this move a demotion, perhaps even a punishment for Cardinal Burke's outspokenness. Cardinal Burke is only 66 years old, and it is very rare for a cardinal to be left without a fulltime position at such a young age, either heading a major archdiocese or serving in the Roman Curia. Other observers, however, note that no Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura in recent years has served more than one term in office and Cardinal Burke had completed more than a full term, having served in that capacity since 2008. Personally, I think the latter group of observers is rather naive. Could the Vatican really be so tone-deaf as not to recognize that Cardinal Burke's departure from the Apostolic Signature at this particular juncture would be interpreted as a repudiation of his point of view? But then again, maybe I'm naive in thinking that the Vatican, which has a legendary reputation for tone-deafness, would have picked up on this.

The fact is that I have the utmost respect for Cardinal Burke, and particularly for his pastor's heart. He was the Bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin, when I was a seminarian there after high school. Even after I left the seminary, and after he left to become Archbishop of St. Louis, he would often return to La Crosse for events at the Shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe that he founded. I would see him frequently in my capacity writing for the diocesan newspaper, and every time we met he would greet me warmly, grasping my hands and smiling; he would ask not only how I was, together with my growing family, but he would also inquire about one of my younger brothers, who happened to have served Mass for him many years before. The man has an amazing memory, and I am guessing that the list of people he prays for by name must be thousands of names long.

Thus, I don't know how to express adequately the distress I feel in reading in the media about the cold-hearted, legalistic Cardinal Burke who stands, frowning, with arms crossed, to block the way of a sympathetic, pastoral Cardinal Kasper. I feel this is a terrible injustice not only Cardinal Burke's person and character, but infinitely more so to the notion that true mercy and charity are always grounded in truth and justice. What the removal of Cardinal Burke from the Apostolic Signatura accomplishes, besides giving pause to those who have vigorously resisted Cardinal Kasper's proposals, is to clear the way for a rash, ill considered reform of the annulment process that would, in the estimation of some prominent canonists, significantly water it down, making it less thorough (in technical terms, removing the requirement that a case be examined by a Court of Second Instance). I don't think I've bought into the conspiracy theories overly much in concluding that somebody had a hand in the non-reconfirmation of Cardinal Burke as Prefect. It's certainly the case that many people of Cardinal Kasper's persuasion--and there are many--are relieved to see him gone.

My hope and prayer, in any case, is that Cardinal Burke keeps preaching the truth in charity in whatever capacity he can. Inspired by his example, in the lead-up to the ordinary synod on the family I'll be doing my best, in my own small way, to follow suit.


  1. This was a great summary of events with nicely tempered commentary. I, along with many others, have many the same thoughts on this whole debacle. People like to think that the whole issue resolved itself by the end of it, glibly remarking, "All's well that ends well." However, Pope Francis's conclusion of the Synod seems to create a false dichotomy between "conservatives" and "progressive" as though truth in this case has two sides and that adopting falsehood qualifies as a valid debate worth having. I sometimes imagine people arguing whether 2+2=4 is true or not, with people who maintain this is true characterized as conservatives, and those who say that 3 and 5 should also be allowed as answers characterized as progressives. What makes less sense about the discussion in the Synod is that this fudging on facts and doctrine will do little to nothing in strengthening marriages, increasing religious priestly, or bringing in converts. The people advocating these heresies have little to show for their pastoral tenure, but rather have much to regret in the loss of practicing Catholics and increased marginalization in cultural debates. Now, they want to spread their mediocrity globally.

    While Elton John and the like praise this pope's liberalism, practicing Catholics wring their hands in apprehension. Did the Christian martyrs, today and in the past, die for popularity? Did the saints bear the cross so that sinners could be redeemed without it? Was Jesus simply pandering to his audience when he spoke about marriage, sin, and salvation? Unless Catholics speak up, this is the conclusion people will come to before they finally give up on religion and join the rest of the world.

  2. Thank you for this, Franz. Burke was my bishop for my earliest years as a Catholic, and I didn't entirely realize at the time how exceptional he was. I talked with him briefly on a few occasions, and he was always kind and friendly. It's a real shame how he's being treated, both by the press and by his fellow bishops.