In this edition of Thinking with the Church: a conversation with Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke.
His Eminence was very gracious to host Chris Altieri, receiving him in his apartments in Rome, and generous with his time, allowing them to unspool and to dig into questions that – wherever one stands on them – are of immense importance for the life of the Church.
We have prepared a transcript, which has been very lightly edited for clarity, and hyperlinked for easy access to documents, articles, speeches, etc., referenced during the course of the conversation.
The transcript appears below the audio player
RLCB: I was raised on a dairy farm, a small dairy farm in the state of Wisconsin in the United States of America. At that time, the state of Wisconsin was principally made up of small dairy farms, and it was a very good way of life: there was responsibility for the farm taken by all the children – I’m the youngest of six children – and also a deep sense of cooperating with God and working with nature to produce food and other products. In any case, it was in that context – of growing up in a Catholic family – on the dairy farm, and then attending the Catholic elementary school, and clearly, being part of the parish in the nearby town of Richland Center, that I discovered my vocation to the priesthood. Certainly, my parents encouraged me. My father died when I was quite young. I was just eight years of age, and I had actually begun to hear the call. Before his death, I was very attracted to the priesthood, but he certainly encouraged me, and so did my mother, but I never felt in any way forced to be a priest, but as time went on, I was able – having graduated from elementary school – then I was able to go to the minor seminary for my diocese, and that was a very positive experience, beginning in 1962. When I finished my high school education and began college, was when the ferment started in the Church following the II Vatican Ecumenical Council, and then the general turmoil in the world, with the cultural revolution in 1968 – and so I lived through that. In my last years in the seminary there was just a complete contrast between the first years – in the minor seminary, when there was a great tranquility, a great sense of the Church knowing herself well, and confident in what she was doing – to a time of really questioning almost everything, and upheaval, regarding those central aspects of our life in the Church: whether it be Sacred Liturgy, or teaching – especially catechesis – and question[s], too, over governance and even the moral law.
CRA: My own father talks about that. He was an undergraduate from ’64 to ’68, at Georgetown. So, this was right before and at the beginning of what we sometimes call “the silly season” and he says that, living through it – you know – you started out, and there were rules, and then all the rules were gone, and we were left adrift, and – he’s a lawyer himself, and has a lawyer’s respect for the law: he knows what it’s worth, and what it isn’t [worth] – and the idea of change for change’s sake, and “let’s throw it all out!” was something that was terribly disconcerting to him, even as – you could hardly call him a conservative, let alone a reactionary – [he was] very much willing to be excited about the idea of an openness of the Church to the modern world, and to see about what was – to see about a genuine process of renewal. There was no resistance to change, but there was this idea that we weren’t asking a basic question, which was: “Why?” “Why are we getting rid of this?” Does that resonate?
RLCB: Yes, there was a sense that everything that had gone before was somehow retrograde: that there was this kind of fantasy about the early Church, and how everything was perfect in the early Church and then in the succeeding centuries, everything got encrusted, and corrupted, and so forth; but this is simply not true to the life of the Church, which is organic, and from the very beginning, the Church had her struggles. St. Paul had to deal with – for instance – the severe difficulties at Corinth, or early on we had tremendous heresies like Arianism, and Nestorianism, which denied the Divine motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary – and so this idyllic time of the Church never existed and it never will exist, because Our Lord has taught us in His own life as the exemplification of it, of the Church as always [in] struggle with the world, in the sense that the Church teaches that good order, which God placed in creation from the beginning, and which, after the rebellion of our first parents, Our Lord Jesus Christ restored by His saving Passion, Death and Resurrection – and so we struggle with the effects of that rebellion of our first parents, the effects of Original Sin – but anyway, there was this sense – and it’s curious, too. I remember in my childhood, too, there was this strong sense of sin: not in a negative way, but in a sense of needing to be coherent with God and with the order that He had placed in creation and in the human heart; and when this rebellion set in, this kind of revolution, no one wanted to talk about sin anymore. In fact, we used to make fun of the constant talk about “love, love, love,” but what the question was, “What is this love? What form does it have?” Well, love is the virtue of virtues, but as the virtue of virtues, it presupposes that you are practicing all of these other virtues, like chastity, and honesty, and so forth – but that’s what happened. It’s what – Pope Benedict XVI described it as a kind of interpretation of the Church by way of rupture – that the Church is recreating herself in every generation, well, this just isn’t the nature of the Church. The Church is a divine institution that grows and develops over time, but its essence never changes.
CRA: As a theologian, he was a peritus at the [II Vatican] Council, and was terribly enthusiastic about a great deal of the work that was being done, both as a professional theologian and as a pastor, and then was suddenly – he – this is a matter of public record here – was traumatized in the years of the late ‘60s…
RLCB: You’re referring to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
CRA: To Cardinal Ratzinger, yes, who became Pope Benedict XVI – he wasn’t obviously, then, but he was traumatized by this.
RLCB: He wasn’t the only one. A lot of those people of profound thought, who were very enthused about the II Vatican Ecumenical Council, and enthused about its documents, when they saw what happened after the council, that is, this “spirit” of the II Vatican Council superseded the teaching of the Council itself, so that the Council became susceptible to all kinds of abuse, both doctrinal and liturgical, and disciplinary. Many of the great contributors to the work of the Council became disillusioned, or to use your term, traumatized, and Pope Benedict XVI describes this in his memoires, the Ratzinger Report, and then Milestones, and he, in that rather noteworthy presentation to the Roman Curia and the College of Cardinals for Christmas in 2005, he says how there was this idea among some at the Council that they were like a constitutional assembly, that was drawing up a new constitution for the Church – but as he rightly points out: first of all, they had no mandate, they couldn’t have any mandate, because it is Our Lord Jesus Christ who constitutes the Church. That’s the kind of spirit that intervened, and we are still dealing with it. The pontificate of Pope John Paul II brought us a long way. For instance, you mentioned earlier on in our conversation [before beginning the recording] the importance of Canon Law, of law in the Church, but it was Pope John Paul II, who was not himself a canon lawyer, he was a philosopher and theologian, who insisted that the revision of the 1917 Code of Canon Law be brought to completion (St. John XXIII – Pope John XXIII had mandated the revision of the 1917 Code in 1959, but it wasn’t completed until some twenty-four years later. You can imagine all of the unrest and so forth that took place in the meanwhile, but there’s always this tendency in the Church for people to want to remake the Church according to their own ideas, instead of respecting the tradition that comes to us in an unbroken line.
CRA: You had had your legal training at that point, and were practicing as a canon lawyer?
RLCB: No, I – well, I started my studies in canon law – I was ordained a priest in 1975, and I returned to my diocese and I worked in a parish and taught in a Catholic high school until 1980, and I was sent here then, to Rome, to study canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Well, those were the final years of revision – of the work of revision – of the 1917 Code [of Canon Law]. So, it was not the best time to study canon law, in the sense that we had the 1917 Code that was still in force, but then we had all these photocopies of the drafts of the new legislation. But anyway, so, I defended my doctoral dissertation in 1984, so it was just – how shall we say? – my studies of canon law more or less coincided with those last years of the revision of the 1917 Code.
CRA: I guess I’m sort of interested now – sort of as a “working lawyer” – I mentioned earlier that I am the son of a lawyer, my wife is a canon lawyer herself – how was it trying figure out how the new Code worked?
RLCB: Well, it was – the new Code of Canon Law took a different approach from the 1917 Code, not in the sense that it broke with the juridical tradition of the Church, but in the sense that it presented the Church’s discipline in a different way. The 1917 Code had used a classic, Roman Law division of the material: according to persons and things and processes, but the 1983 Code followed the structure of the teachings of the II Vatican Ecumenical Council: you have general norms, but then you have a book on the People of God – and then in that book on the People of God, treatment on the laity, and then on consecrated persons, and [then] clerics; and then you have the books on [the] teaching office of the Church, the sanctifying office of the Church and then on the administration of temporal goods; and then a book on crimes (which there was also in the 1917 Code) Ecclesial crimes and the process by which to verify them; and then, finally, a book on procedural law. So, it took some adjusting, and the language in some respects was new, because in many cases the Code takes texts directly from the II Vatican Ecumenical Council, and so there was need to have a correct interpretation of those texts. But we – I’d say we’ve come a long way – and there are some good commentaries published now, to help to understand the law.
I might just make a comment, since we are talking from the perspective of the law itself, and from the perspective of the work of lawyers.
A code has a certain benefit, in the sense that it brings together the whole discipline under various categories – it’s easy to access – but the drawback is a Code gives you just the dispositive part of the law, in other words, the law in its essence, and it doesn’t give you the reason behind the law.
CRA: The jurisprudence is completely lacking, and so you don’t have the mens iuridica to hand, you just have a…
RLCB: And that requires study – and the 1983 Code now has an edition – an edition now is published – with what are called the fontes or sources of the law – but it is important for canon lawyers to study those, so that they understand the reason behind particular legislation, because otherwise, it’s subject to misinterpretation, and even – sometimes – people manipulate the law to advance [a] certain agenda.
CRA: Why – and I’m anxious to get back to this point, but before that, because I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, and I realize that I was sort of doing that, in getting to the sort of technical [areas], “Why does the Church need law at all? Aren’t we this community of the saved? Aren’t we in perfect liberty in Baptism?”
RLCB: Yes, we are, of course, but the very fact of being alive in Christ, constituted in Christ through Baptism, and that grace strengthened and increased in Confirmation, means that a discipline is introduced into our lives, by which we are conformed more and more to Christ. In other words, we could use also the image – very popular and sound spiritual image – of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, from which comes into our hearts the grace, the sevenfold grace of the Holy Spirit. That grace presupposes, for it to be active and effective, means we have to be disposed – and the only way we can be disposed is if we follow a certain discipline of life – and we see this then, too, in terms of the most sacred realities of the Church. Let’s take, for instance, the Holy Eucharist: the greatest gift that God has given to us in the Church, by which Christ makes present sacramentally His sacrifice on Calvary. There has to be a discipline by which that gift is respected and safeguarded and fostered in the Church, and that’s why we have liturgical law. Otherwise we end up with a situation after the Council, where people were using the celebration of the Holy Mass, the offering of the Holy Mass, for all kinds of other self-expressions and other purposes that gravely distorted the reality of the Eucharist.
CRA: Safeguarding the gift is something that has been very much on the minds, and before the attention of all the faithful of every state of life in the Church and of every age, recently. I’m not going to beat around the bush with it: we’re talking about the eighth chapter of Amoris laetitia, the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. You have yourself made statements to suggest that the document itself is perfectly amenable to a perfectly orthodox interpretation, but that there are, as a matter of fact, others out there, that are not so much so, and you’ve asked the Holy Father to clear this up for us.
RLCB: Yes. The Holy Father says himself – in the document – that he’s not presenting the Magisterium – it’s a kind of reflection – and the language is often times imprecise, and there aren’t a lot of citations of the tradition regarding the teaching regarding Holy Matrimony and on the Holy Eucharist, and so I say the document is acceptable if the key to interpreting it is what the Church has always taught and practiced, and this is where the debate comes in, because there are other people who are saying – including Cardinals – “No, this represents a completely new approach.”
In the whole history of the Church, it’s never been possible that someone who was living publicly in a state of sin, for example a person who is bound in matrimony to one person, is living in a marital way with another person. It has never been permitted that such a person could approach to receive Holy Communion. Now, suddenly, there are those, who are saying, “Oh, yes, but it is possible in certain cases,” and so forth – but if this is something that is always and everywhere wrong, how is it possible that someone who is living this way can receive the Sacraments?
CRA: And it bears mention at this point, that the Church has been trying to help people, whose lives are not in order, for a very long time now. This is not new.
RLCB: Not at all. It is not new, and all of these questions – sometimes I had the impression during the last two sessions of the Synod of Bishops, that all this was being discussed for the first time. Well, that’s ridiculous. The Church has dealt with this question throughout her history – and as recently as the time of the writing of Familiaris consortio.
CRA: I remember reading some of the statements that came either in and/or immediately following the release of [the President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts], Cardinal [Francesco] Coccopalmerio’s pamphlet on the 8th chapter of Amoris laetitia and I have to say that I was very sympathetic to him, and to – certainly one would have to be heartless not to feel for the people, whose cases he presented – as hypotheticals – though saying that there are real cases, which correspond to these – [which] are discussed – but one of the interesting things I found was [that] he kept coming back to the example of people who are in irregular marital situations, and who are being placed under enormous stress in those situations, perhaps by a spouse – a putative spouse, it is very important to make that distinction, too – who is saying, “Well, I’m not interested even in trying to forego relations with you, and if you try to force this on me, I’m going to turn you out with the children.*” Or – what may be worse, I’m not sure – “If you leave me, I’ll kill myself.” Now, that’s a terrible situation to have to live through, but the former, I think, is fairly describable as one of quasi marital rape – the person is being coerced – and so it is not a normal case, right? It is a special case. In the case of the psychological pressure being put on a woman who clearly – or a man, if it is the other way around – who is in a situation of having a [putative spouse] essentially commit emotional blackmail that way – that also is not a – that is a special case [as well], is it not?
RLCB: All of these situations are complicated. That simply is the way human life is, and some are beset with more suffering than others – but in the end the point is this: that one has to work toward achieving a chaste way of life; and yes, if a partner is violent, and so forth, it makes the situation much more difficult, the suffering much greater, but the fact of the matter is that, if the couple are living in a marital way, even if it is in this kind of stressful situation, of a spouse who is violent or a spouse who is very difficult, it does not chance the fact that the[ir] life itself does not respect the truth of Christ – and therefore the couple have to be helped in every way that we can, to achieve a chaste way of life, and therefore serenity – but that isn’t achieved by saying, “Well, come receive the sacraments,” because, for instance, the – with regard to the Sacrament of Penance – the person can’t make a firm purpose of amendment, because he or she knows perfectly well that the marital relations will continue. Likewise, too, the person can’t present himself or herself to receive the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, because – no matter that the situation is very stressful and so forth, it is in itself a publicly sinful situation. So, I think the Church has always taught that a special compassion, a special help, a special pastoral care must be given to couples who find themselves in this situation, especially those, who find themselves in a very stressful situation – but that pastoral care can’t include the offering of the Sacraments. That doesn’t make any sense.
CRA: If people were willing to make a go of it, though, they could receive absolution, and…
RLCB: If a couple want – if a couple is willing to – to live chastely, even though they don’t separate from one another because, for instance, there are small children – or for whatever reason – one of the partners has health issues that requires the help of the other – if they are willing to live a chaste life, that is, live as brother and sister, the Church has always helped such couples, so that they could receive Communion in a place where it wouldn’t cause scandal – because, normally speaking, when people see that a man and a woman are living together, they presume that they’re living as husband and wife – but if they are living as brother and sister, they can go to a church where they’re not well known, and receive the Sacraments – and the Church has always permitted that.
CRA: And that could very well – I suppose – be even their own parish in a big city or something like that – in the territory…
RLCB: It could well be. I mean, if in some way it is clear that this is the way they are living, and that the only reason they continue to live together is because of these obligations, but that they recognize fully that one or both are bound in marriage to another person, then there isn’t a difficulty.
CRA: And the spirit may be willing – the flesh is weak – we know this. There was an attitude – and you still find it in some places, where confessors – who are willing to help people in the way that you’re suggesting – but will say, you know, “One strike and you’re out!” Is that perhaps too rigid by half? How do you deal with that as a pastor?
RLCB: Well, the point is this: that the couple has the firm resolve to live chastely, and to take all measures to live chastely. If they fail, on one occasion or another, then they simply have to confess that, and renew their effort to live chastely – but the point is that there is this firm resolve and corresponding practice to live chastely.
CRA: On the broader issue – because we got very quickly down to some very narrow and quite technical things – going back to the slightly broader question: we’ve seen bishops’ conferences, individual bishops, offer different interpretations of the post-Synodal Exhortation and especially [of] the things that appear to be in chapter 8. I have to say that I was sort of surprised to see whole conferences crafting more-or-less legally binding implementations of a thing that the Holy Father himself has said changes neither doctrine nor discipline. Is there a simple misunderstanding here about the right interpretative key? I know you’ve talked about this a little be, but I’d like – on a practical level – I’d like to dig into it.
RLCB: Yes, well. I travel a great deal now to different parts of the Church, and what I find everywhere is a great confusion about these matters, and division: between priests, and between bishops, and even between conferences of bishops, and this is the difficulty when people try to make change without respect for the doctrine – the constant doctrine and discipline of the Church – and so you end up with sometimes radically different practices [from] one part of the Church to another, and this cannot possibly be, because marriage and the Holy Eucharist are the same in every time and every place of the Church. So, we need to deal – right now – with all this confusion and put an end to it.
That’s one of the reasons why, together with three other Cardinals, we proposed these questions, or dubia, to the Pope: so that he could set this forth, and dispel a great deal of this confusion, because confusion is never helpful – and I don’t know what it means to say that changes neither doctrine nor discipline. Change has to follow doctrine and discipline. If it doesn’t, then in fact it is either weakening doctrine or even contradicting doctrine and discipline. Reason itself teaches us this.
CRA: That’s the thing that is consternating to me here – and I can speak as a Catholic – reading the document, and having the insistence from people who are the Holy Father’s appointed interpreters and mouthpieces on this, saying that this is development in continuity with doctrine, with standing doctrine, so we’re seeing doctrinal development in continuity with the tradition. I can see how, for a certain value of the term, we are dealing with doctrinal development. It’s developing from one doctrine into another, it would seem.
RLCB: And that can’t be. In other words, doctrinal development means that we have come to a deeper understanding of what is the constant teaching of the Church, and are able to give fuller expression to it, but it does not mean that we change the doctrine or that we go away from it, and that’s the difficulty with the people who call this interpretation of the famous chapter 8 a “doctrinal development”. If the doctrinal development means that now, in the Church, those who are living in irregular matrimonial situations may receive the Sacraments, then this isn’t doctrinal development: this is a change in the Church’s teaching.
In fact, there is a commentator in the United States, Ross Douthat – [Do-that] I think – is how you pronounce his name, but I could be pronouncing it incorrectly – and a certain bishop in the United States gave an interpretation [to Amoris 8], which was radically contrary to what the Church has always taught and practiced, and this commentator – I believe he is a convert to Catholicism, but – he just simply said [that] from the point of view of reason, this is the end of the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage – and I believe that he’s correct.
CRA: I have tried to see my way to the people who are proffering a different interpretation – I can get a pretty good way toward them – I am sympathetic to the desire…
RLCB: Certainly. All of us are sympathetic to the situation of people who are suffering, because of matrimonial difficulties, and that shouldn’t change, but the question is: how do we respond to their situation? And anything less than a truthful response isn’t worthy of them, and will redound ultimately to their harm and to the harm of the Church.
CRA: Some of the commentators and people with whom I’ve been in conversation, privately and out in public, where we are trying to work our way through these things, have suggested that, “Well, you don’t understand, and you’re not sympathetic to the weakness of people,” and, look, I know myself well enough to know what weakness is…
RLCB: Of course, we are all weak, we are all sinners, but we are also all the beneficiaries of divine grace, which is a reality, it’s not an idea – and those, who marry, receive the grace to live an exclusive, life-long, procreative union, and with that grace, they can overcome their weaknesses – and this is the beauty of a marriage where a couple struggles – and there can be failures, of course – but they struggle to live in the grace, which they have received, and in that way bring great joy and happiness to themselves and to their children.
CRA: In the purpose of the podcast, and one of the things that I have been trying to do in my own intellectual life in the service of the Church is really to struggle to see my way, as far as I can, toward my interlocutors with whom I disagree: and so, if I could ask you, as we close out here, maybe to help me think aloud about what good has come of this thus far, and what is the best possible interpretation, or the fairest possible interpretation that we could put on interlocutors who don’t see it the way that you do?
RLCB: Well, the point is this: I say too many people, whom I meet, who are deeply concerned about this, who are confused – some feel abandoned in their Catholic faith – which they have understood correctly – and then they hear other Catholics or even their priests saying things that – or, God forgive! – their bishops, saying things that contradict that faith. I think the only way to go forward is simply to address the interlocutors who disagree with us, with the teaching of the Church in its deepest sense, and that is what we need right now.
A number of us, before the 2014 session of the Synod of Bishops, when the idea was put forth – in February of 2014 – by Cardinal Walter Kasper, that indeed, the Church could change her practice with regard to the reception of the Sacraments by people in irregular unions without touching the doctrine on indissolubility, a number of us got together and we produced a book, which I believe is a good presentation of the Church’s teaching and discipline regarding Holy Matrimony and Holy Communion. The title of the book is Remaining in the Truth of Christ. It is published in some – maybe eight or nine – languages now, but it is a series of essays in which one can deepen his or her appreciation of the constant teaching of the Church, and so, that’s what has to happen. We have to give an account of our faith to others and if they don’t agree with us, try to show them how what we are presenting is not our own ideas, but is in fact the teaching of the Church on the objective reality of marriage.
*An extrapolation from Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s remarks as reported in an interview with Edward Pentin in the National Catholic Register, and linked above. Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s ipsissima verba are, “If the two can live together as brother and sister, that’s great. But if they cannot because this would break up the union, which ought to be conserved for the good of these people [children], then they manage as best they can.”
Image credit: Paul Haring, CNS
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