In this edition of Thinking with the Church, a conversation with Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke (a full transcript is available at Catholic World Report). The Prefect-emeritus of the Apostolic Signatura – the highest ordinary tribunal within the Church’s judicial system – and current Patron of the Sovereign Military order of Malta, Cardinal Burke is a canonist by training, who began his priestly ministry in his home diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, as vice-rector of the cathedral and teacher in the Catholic high school, before being sent to Rome to study at the Pontifical Gregorian University in the heady days before the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.
All this is covered in our first conversation with Cardinal Burke, which we brought to you last season in Episode 12. Since early April of last year, when that conversation first appeared, the situation in the Church has developed significantly. More importantly, the tone of discourse has hardened, and the difficulties attendant upon the civil and reasonable conduct of controversy within the Church – especially regarding the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris laetitia, have grown in size and number.
Even a brief rehearsal of the state of the question would run to some length, but the barest bones of it are that the document, which was in part summary statement of the views expressed by the Synod Fathers after the two Assemblies in 2014 and 2015 on the family, and in part a pastoral reflection expressing the Holy Father’s view of things, was received with great enthusiasm for its insight into the enduring joys of family life, the too often hidden strengths of the family, and ways at once to harness both within the Church and broader broader society the energies available to help families meet the challenges of contemporary life, and increase broad appreciation of the irreplaceable and indispensable role of the family in social life. The document also met with significant concern over certain ambiguities of formulation and diction, which have, as a matter of fact, been used to justify innovations in pastoral practice, the compatibility of which with constant Church teaching and discipline is in question.
Cardinal Burke has taken a strong stance, calling on Pope Francis to clarify the ambiguities and address the issues of implementation that have arisen since the document appeared.
During the course of the conversation we bring you in this edition, Cardinal Burke has frankly critical words especially for for the Bishops of Malta, who issued their own Criteria for the implementation of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia early last year – Criteria stating that persons in irregular matrimonial unions “cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist,” if they have discerned under the guidance of a pastor that continence is impossible for them, and are “at peace with God” in their discernment. Cardinal Burke calls this implementation of the document, “[S]imply contrary to what the Church has always taught and practiced.”
That the appearance of Amoris laetitia has been followed by significant controversy, is not itself too controversial a statement. However lamentable the conduct of the controversy in some of its particulars, that the document should be have been controversial was inevitable.
Amoris is a lengthy document, difficult to read, and written in a pastoral key from which it is difficult to draw immediate practical indications. Nevertheless, that is what some bishops and Bishops’ Conferences have sought to do. There is plenty about which to be confused, and the participants in the controversy occasioned by the appearance of Amoris laetitia may not ever see their way to each other.
That is why it is of the essence that we recover a spirit of patience, which disposes us to hear our interlocutors say things we find hard to hear, and yet not to abandon the disciplined presumption of good faith. In short, we must be prepared to argue. That will require both courage to speak frankly, and patience to listen and respond.
On that point, it bears mention that our beloved Holy Father, Francis, talks a great deal about the dangers of falling into a Pharisaical spirit in our thought and conduct, as we discern together the right course through the troubled waters of our time. He is right to warn us, and we need to hear him, even and especially when it is hard.
Who are the Pharisees?
If we are honest, we will see that we all are, sometimes and to some extent. We are all called to open our heart to the Gospel and to allow Christ’s grace to work in us.
In the Gospels, however, the Pharisees are always the ones defending the Mosaic Law with respect to divorce, and the people – including the disciples – are scandalized by the clarity and sternness (not to say “rigidity”) of Our Lord’s own teaching.
Nevertheless, we are told of one Pharisee, who opened his heart to the transformative power of the Gospel: St. Paul (cf. Acts 23:6).
For all his obtuse and sometimes seemingly contradictory writings (St. Peter said so, not I. See 2 Peter 3:16), Paul was utterly unambiguous on two points: the indissolubility of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony (cf. 1 Cor 7:10-11) and the danger of receiving our Blessed Lord unworthily (cf. 1 Cor 11:29).