Faithful Catholics around the world love Cardinal Burke. And in truth, there is and has been much to love. He is a good and holy man who loves Our Lord and His Church. He has, for a very long time, been one of the few voices of doctrinal sanity in a hierarchy gone mostly off the rails. Our coverage of him in these pages has, for this reason, been universally positive.
But during the Synods, I noticed an alarming thing happening. Whenever Cardinal Burke made a strong statement about Church teaching that appeared as though it could be construed as a criticism of the pope, he would quickly and urgently seek an opportunity to put such a notion to rest. This happened not just once, but several times. Here’s an example from October, 2014. Another from April, 2015.
Still, there was always the possibility that he was playing the long game. Biding his time until the evidence was irrefutable. Vatican politics at work.
And he continued to give us hope. In fact, he told us what would happen if the most-feared Synod outcome came to pass:
Cardinal Burke: I cannot accept that Communion can be given to a person in an irregular union because it is adultery. On the question of people of the same sex, this has nothing to do with marriage. This is an affliction suffered by some people whereby they are attracted against nature sexually to people of the same sex.
Question: If perchance the pope will persist in this direction, what will you do?
Cardinal Burke: I shall resist, I can do nothing else. There is no doubt that it is a difficult time; this is clear, this is clear.
That was in February of 2015. Fast forward to this week, and the cards are on the table. In Amoris Laetitia 301; 304-305, we see the opening of the door to exactly the scenario Cardinal Burke described (with my emphasis):
Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.
It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being. … For this reason, a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in “irregular” situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, “sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families”.349 Along these same lines, the International Theological Commission has noted that “natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions”.350 Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.351 Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God.
And in footnote 351 of the above, we have this:
351 In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 , 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039).
Does the document explicitly say, “Hey all you ‘remarried’ adulterers: come on in and receive communion!”? Of course not. Nobody ever expected it to, and, if I may hazard a reasonable guess, neither did Cardinal Burke when he made his comments about resistance.
But today, Cardinal Burke has offered his analysis of the exhortation, and he is singing a decidedly different tune; Rather than “I will resist,” he offers a 2400-word explanation of why the exhortation really shouldn’t bother us. He not only focuses his attention away from the damage the document will do on a pastoral basis, but in fact downplays its importance altogether. He spends a good portion of his text explaining its lack of real magisterial authority, and also reminding us that it didn’t change Church teaching (which we all knew it couldn’t do from the very beginning). Perhaps most disturbingly, he accuses those who interpret the document as a “radical departure” from the Church’s teaching and practice on marriage and family as the ones guilty of scandal:
The secular media and even some Catholic media are describing the recently-issued post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, “On Love in the Family,” as a revolution in the Church, as a radical departure from the teaching and practice of the Church, up to now, regarding marriage and the family.
Such a view of the document is both a source of wonder and confusion to the faithful, and potentially a source of scandal not only for the faithful but for others of good will who look to Christ and his Church to teach and reflect in practice the truth regarding marriage and its fruit, family life, the first cell of the life of the Church and of every society.
It is also a disservice to the nature of the document as the fruit of the Synod of Bishops, a meeting of bishops representing the universal Church “to assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith and morals and in the observance and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline, and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world” (Canon 342). In other words, it would be a contradiction of the work of the Synod of Bishops to set in motion confusion regarding what the Church teaches, and safeguards and fosters by her discipline.
The only key to the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is the constant teaching of the Church and her discipline that safeguards and fosters this teaching. Pope Francis makes clear, from the beginning, that the post-synodal apostolic exhortation is not an act of the magisterium (No. 3). The very form of the document confirms the same. It is written as a reflection of the Holy Father on the work of the last two sessions of the Synod of Bishops.
The cardinal goes on, at some length, to reiterate his assertion of the non-binding nature of the exhortation. He offers anecdotal evidence that the Church has long been merciful to the divorced and remarried (without allowing them to receive Communion), a subtle contradiction to the idea presented throughout the document that this merciful approach is something new. He also offers several very gentle rebuttals to areas in the document he thinks might cause problems, such as the oft-repeated notion that the Church’s concept of marriage is an “ideal” which many cannot live up to:
It may be helpful to illustrate one example of the need to interpret the text of Amoris Laetitia with the key of the magisterium. There is frequent reference in the document to the “ideal” of marriage. Such a description of marriage can be misleading. It could lead the reader to think of marriage as an eternal idea to which, in the changing historical circumstances, man and woman more or less conform. But Christian marriage is not an idea; it is a sacrament which confers the grace upon a man and woman to live in faithful, permanent and procreative love of each other. Every Christian couple who validly marry receive, from the moment of their consent, the grace to live the love which they pledge to each other.
Had Cardinal Burke’s statement been issued in advance of the final text, it would undoubtedly be seen as a good — if anodyne — attempt to keep the discussion of the exhortation focused where it needs to be.
But that is not where we are today.
We are in the aftermath of one of the most controversial texts ever produced by a Roman Pontiff, derived directly from the work of two Synods that in themselves caused great scandal. As Cardinal Kasper just noted,
[T]he pope did make an “opening” toward the “remarried” divorcees, and Kasper said that “the German bishops can work well with this document.” Concerning the admittance of the “remarried” divorcees to the Sacrament of Holy Communion, Kasper said: “There exists an opening, very clearly.”
Some will no doubt be tempted to say, “Yes, well, Cardinal Kasper will stop at nothing to find such an opening.” And this is true. Which is why the door should have been unequivocally slammed shut, not left tantalizingly ajar.
What is found in this statement from Cardinal Burke is, by and large, not the problem. The problem is what he fails to say. It lacks any real, firm corrective. It is startlingly devoid of any sense of concern whatsoever, let alone the resistance he once promised — resistance to the way this document will undoubtedly be used to further decimate sacramental discipline and the institution of Holy Matrimony.
For those of us who look to Cardinal Burke as a beacon of hope, this feels like a betrayal, a failure of courage when courage is needed most. My disappointment here can not be overstated. The time for playing clever games with subtle words is in the past. Instead, as I have already argued, St. Paul is the example for our bishops now:
“But when Cephas was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.” – Galatians 2:11
I will continue to resist, as Cardinal Burke once said he would, even though I will now spend the foreseeable future having his words thrown in my face while doing so. I hope and pray that at some point before long, he will discover the fortitude to do the same.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.