Editorial: Cardinal Burke is a living symbol of a failed version of church

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U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke waves to the congregation after celebrating Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Cork City, Ireland, July 7. (CNS/Cillian Kelly)

U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke waves to the congregation after celebrating Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Cork City, Ireland, July 7. (CNS/Cillian Kelly)

Catholics, especially those of a traditional bent, love and understand symbols. Someone as traditionalist and as media-savvy as Timothy Busch has to understand that whatever else was said during his Napa Institute’s sprawling conference at the end of July, the most visible symbol was Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the most outspoken critics of Pope Francis.

The five-day conference in Napa, California, at the posh Meritage Resort and Spa, one of Busch’s holdings, was transparently partisan (Republicans Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin were the politicos on hand) and tilted, episcopally and theologically, to the far right.

All of that, of course, is unsurprising. Busch has made no secret of his ambitions or of his spending aimed at influencing the church, its institutions and the narrative that is fed to the wider culture. But symbols are important and Burke is a living symbol, in both thought (amply expressed in rather arrogant terms even when his critique is aimed at the pope) and appearance (often amply adorned in the royal paraphernalia of imagined ages long past).

His thought on this occasion, under the heading “Proclaiming the Truths of the Faith in a Time of Crisis,” was a repeat of an eight-page “declaration” that he signed with four other prelates — a retired cardinal from Latvia and three bishops from Kazakhstan — outlining 40 points of contemporary church teaching about which Burke and his cohort believe “there is much error and confusion.”

Of the points he raised at Napa, addressed early was “confusion” about bringing Jews and Muslims to Christianity. Burke advocates a more aggressive approach to converting those of other religions.

He might reacquaint himself with the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate, which speaks with great regard for other world religions, specifically, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and, particularly, Judaism. “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions,” the document states. “She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.”

Burke noted more confusion in the understanding of some (including, increasingly, the U.S. bishops) that the church does not permit civil authorities to exercise capital punishment. This is a direct slap at Francis, who has advanced the growing objection to capital punishment voiced during the two previous papacies, and who recently described the death penalty as “a serious violation of the right to life of every person.”

In Burke’s imagination, the Catholic community is simply riddled through with confused souls, and there is error everywhere. He maintains that significant numbers of Catholics are in “open apostasy.”

He took another direct shot at Francis when he criticized the working document for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, which includes discussion of possible ordination of widely respected married men to assure continued access to the sacraments.

“Celibacy stems from the example of Christ,” said the cardinal. That may be, but it is not the only example provided, given that the chosen Twelve included married men and that the tradition of celibacy is merely a thousand years old, half the life of the church. The tradition has certainly been mutable.

Intentionally or not, the Napa gathering provided us with a full cast of those creating acute strains in the church today. In placing Burke as the keynoter, Busch and the organizers sent a clear signal: The lay leadership they exemplified would take us back to a romanticized church that never existed. It would reconstitute the clericalism that is at the heart of the sex abuse cover-up scandal that continues to undermine the authority of the church, and it would attempt to replace the dynamism of Francis’ model of accompaniment with a return to a statute-bound and static institution in service of itself.

Burke personifies the kind of legal “rigorist” that Francis ardently resists. He is the modern version of that religious leader that drew some of Jesus’ harshest condemnations, those who placed undue burdens on others and pronounced themselves the undisputed bearers of truth.

In an earlier interview with NCR, Busch dismissed the idea that he opposed Francis and brushed off any objections to Burke headlining his conference, stating that he’s “a serious theologian.” Some may consider Burke a theologian, but he made his reputation as a canon lawyer who, by all indications, thinks that Catholic Christianity is primarily a transactional enterprise in which the highest calling is to abide by every detail of every church statute as he interprets them.

It is not overstatement to say that Burke stands as representative, perhaps in the extreme, of a certain version of church and one that we believe has failed miserably. He is a member of a culture that by instinct (and not insignificantly by church statutes of that time) opted to protect those who viciously abused the most vulnerable in the community while ignoring the perpetrators’ victims.

Francis invites us to a far more adventuresome embrace of the faith. For instance, in his address opening the synod on young people, he said, “This Synod has the opportunity, the task and the duty to be a sign of a Church that really listens, that allows herself to be questioned by the experiences of those she meets, and who does not always have a ready-made answer. A Church that does not listen shows herself closed to newness, closed to God’s surprises, and cannot be credible, especially for the young who will inevitably turn away rather than approach.”

Perhaps the tension between the rigid and unyielding boundaries of law and a pastoral approach that invites dialogue, values listening, and encourages questions — characteristics troubling to the legalist — is inevitable and perennial.

However, where Burke and his like see confusion, we see an openness to new ways of expressing the faith; where he claims clarity and precision, we experience the confusion of a community betrayed at the deepest levels by those who were supposed to be examples of Christ’s selfless love.

It is time to give new symbols their place: a community where the poor are invited to the banquet; authority where mercy takes precedent over precepts; accompaniment predicated by love and acceptance, where doubts and questions are not reasons for derision and banishment.

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Editorial: With the Earth in peril, we must act on behalf of God’s creation

This article appears in the Our Common Home feature series. View the full series.

One would think that with an overwhelming consensus among scientists on the planet agreeing that the Earth is in peril because of human activity and that the window of time we have to ameliorate the damage is quickly closing, there would be little disagreement about what the top priority should be for the human race.

And yet, as a small but essential conference at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, recently demonstrated, we are still groping for ways to persuade this country’s government and religious officialdom to demonstrate bolder leadership on behalf of a natural world that sustains us all.

Our churches and schools have to become centers of truth-telling about what’s happening to God’s creation, said San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, a keynote speaker at the gathering. We have to face up to the fact “that we have let the United States, which has for so long been the leader in scientific inquiry, countenance the wholesale spread of pseudo-science created by and in service to those industries and economic interests that despoil our planet.”

McElroy is an episcopal outlier on the subject. While others may share his sentiments — and even as the U.S. bishops come to the discussion armed with a detailed and powerfully argued papal encyclical on the issue — they’ve been relatively silent.

Which makes the conference at Creighton, “Laudato Si’ and the U.S. Catholic Church,” a reference to Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, all the more significant. It is impossible to separate the importance of this matter and the lack of attention given it from the current troubles of the Catholic hierarchy, especially in the United States, and the political climate of the country.

The issue resides at the nexus of those prevailing forces, caught in the increasingly strong crosswinds of divisions within the church and those rending our civic culture. It is no small matter that part of the discussion at a far-reaching session on climate change was how to talk about it. Tone it down, taking into account political sensitivities? Choose words carefully so as not to scare off with a kind of fright overload? Or ramp it up — climate emergency, environmental justice and the like — casting aside restraint for language that expresses the severity of the moment? Talk about it as a matter of science or a political challenge?

All of the above, of course. How we talk about it is often a matter of circumstance and tactics. Catholics and other people of faith, however, have an additional contribution to make to the conversation. Our language, incorporating both science and spirituality, can give voice, as Francis did in his encyclical, to the expressions of awe and wonder so eloquently part of his patron’s approach to creation.

“He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself” writes the pope about the saint. “He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”

If, indeed, Christ is in all and informs all we do, the act of creation and the consequences of our actions upon that creation should rivet our attention in this time of crisis.

In an interview some years ago, Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, discussing the erosion of authority in civil and ecclesial realms, was asked where he thought the new authority resided. The question is a perennial, he said, adding that he believes “the new authority is going to come from nature or the cosmos, the natural world. I know when Catholics first hear that, it sounds New Age-y, but it seems to me that’s the primary Bible as Franciscans believed.”

Indeed, the new cosmology, he said, understands that the written Bible was assembled “in the last nanosecond of geological planetary time. … Do you really think God wasn’t talking for the first 14 billion years or whatever it is?”

The squalls and distractions created by our divisions cannot be allowed to knock us off purpose or focus regarding the defining issue of our era. That is why NCR has doubled down on its effort to raise concern about the Earth and the effects of climate to the highest level possible. The evidence of a broad Catholic coalition gathering around the issue, including a robust presence of younger Catholics is apparent in the reporting from the Creighton conference.

The NCR website also contains more, on a continuing basis, than we could ever fit into these pages. What we publish could serve as compelling material for a Catholic discussion group. Our reporting and commentary might also be passed on to pastors and deacons. Those who can take to the pulpit might well be moved if those who sit and listen make a strong enough case about the issues they wish to have addressed. You could also help us frame our climate coverage going forward by taking a brief survey: NCRonline.org/survey.

God has been talking through creation for a very long time. God continues to speak. If we’re listening, no clearer mandate is delivered than to act on behalf of God’s creation, all of its dimensions and creatures.

This story appeared in the paper…

July 26-Aug 8, 2019


God speaks through creation

Milwaukee Inclusion Mass Welcomes LGBTQ People to Church — New Ways Ministry

Earlier this summer, Good Shepherd Catholic Church, Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, held a Mass of Inclusion to welcome LGBTQ people to the church. Father Greg Greiten, an openly gay Catholic priest, presided at this first openly inviting LGBTQ mass in the Milwaukee area. Fr. Greg welcomed the congregation of about 60 people by saying, “I know…

via Milwaukee Inclusion Mass Welcomes LGBTQ People to Church — New Ways Ministry