Interview With Cardinal Burke . . . (Part 2) Insights On The State Of The Church In The Aftermath Of The Ordinary Synod On The Family
By DON FIER
(Editor’s Note: His Eminence Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, recently traveled from Rome to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wis., a magnificent place of worship which he founded and dedicated.
(His Eminence graciously granted an extensive interview to The Wanderer during which he shared his insights on a variety of topics, including the recently concluded Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family and his recommendations for how we should contend with the uncertainty and confusion that is currently prevalent among the clerical and lay faithful.)
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Q. It appears that proposals are under consideration for decentralization in the hierarchical structure of the Church’s governance. In other words, Conferences of Bishops and diocesan ordinaries would be given more authority to deal locally with pastoral practices on some of the hot-button topics addressed by the Synod. Please offer your comments as to the possibility of this happening. Are fractures in unity or even schisms (as some media outlets suggest) on the horizon?
A. I think it is a real danger. “Decentralization” is a word taken from the secular world and is really not appropriate to conversations about the Church. What is required is to return to the Gospels and to the Church as Christ constituted her. From the very beginning of His public ministry, He called the Twelve, He set them apart, and He prepared them to exercise His pastoral governance of the Church in every time and every place.
To fulfill this responsibility, Christ established Peter as the head of the apostolic college, as the principle of unity among all the bishops and among all the faithful. It is very clear in His words at Caesarea Philippi to Simon Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:13).
This is the Divine Gift given; this is what is of Divine Law in the Church: It is the apostolic office of the Roman Pontiff and of the bishops in communion with him. They have the responsibility for governance.
The Conference of Bishops is a man-made construct to help coordinate pastoral activity and to promote fellowship among bishops. Our Lord did not ever teach anything about it, nor is there anything in the Church’s tradition that would give Conferences of Bishops the authority to make decisions about pastoral practices which would involve a change in Church teaching. Let us recall that every pastoral practice is tied to a doctrinal truth.
[Jesuit] Fr. [Antonio] Spadaro says in his article that a pastoral practice in Germany might be radically different than a pastoral practice in Guinea. How can that be if one is referring to the same doctrine and the same truth of Christ? I find this whole notion very troubling.
The diocesan bishops are the teachers of the Faith in their dioceses. However, the bishops — and even more so the Roman Pontiff — are held to the highest level of obedience to Christ and to the living tradition by which Christ comes to us in His Church. We cannot make up the Church in every era or according to local ideas.
From my own experience with regard to Conferences of Bishops, they can be very helpful but can also have a very damaging effect in the sense that the individual bishop no longer takes as seriously as he should his own responsibility to teach the Faith and to govern in accordance with that teaching. The idea can develop that the teaching and governance of the Bishop is supposedly going to be determined by the Conference of Bishops.
When you talk about a Conference of Bishops like the one in the United States (which has so many bishops), it is clear that it is not an effective instrument to deal with pastoral questions which touch upon the truths of the Faith. If such a thing were to happen where, for instance, the pastoral practice for those who were in irregular matrimonial unions was said to be at the discretion of the Conference of Bishops or of the individual diocesan bishop, we would end up with another Protestant denomination.
We are one Church throughout the whole world: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. These four marks need to be greatly emphasized in the times in which we live.
Q. The recently released documents (issued motu proprio) by Pope Francis on the declaration of nullity process have led many to believe that the Church is relaxing her teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and that it will soon be easier to obtain a declaration of nullity. Please expound on what the changes will actually mean at the pastoral level.
A. I find it practically impossible to see how the changes which were mandated by the motu proprio pronouncements can be implemented by December 8. They are radical, and they touch upon the very heart of the matrimonial nullity process as the way to arrive at the judgment of truth regarding a claim of nullity. For instance, the idea that there are many cases that can be easily judged, so that a party could come to the bishop and receive a judgment within 45 days, simply goes against the realistic situation of matrimonial nullity.
Most claims of matrimonial nullity are very complex — the breakdown of a marriage is normally a very complex situation. There are a few cases when someone deceived another person about the fact that he or she was bound by a prior matrimonial union. The innocent party thought it was a valid marriage, but it could not be because the other party was already bound by another union. That is easily demonstrated by documents.
For the most part, and I have a long experience, these cases are very complex and require a careful examination by those who are prepared to do this work. A number of bishops, very honestly and through no fault of their own, have told me:
“I am not prepared to judge marriage nullity cases. Other than basic studies in canon law, I have not studied this. That is why I send priests away for a number of years to be prepared to be able to do this.”
My response to these bishops is: “The law can never oblige you to do something of which you are not capable; in other words, something that you cannot honestly do.” Therefore, the response to be given to the faithful is: “I am not prepared to give this judgment, and therefore I am remanding your case to the matrimonial tribunal which is prepared to give a just judgment.”
I think this whole matter of the reform of the matrimonial nullity process is in need of a very serious review, especially with regard to some of the most critical issues. For instance, it is now no longer necessary to have a second conforming affirmative decision in order to execute a declaration of marriage nullity.
The argument is often used that this was only introduced in the 18th century by Pope Benedict XIV, and indeed it was. But he introduced it for a very serious reason: There were abuses, even at that time, in the granting of declarations of marriage nullity.
But, even at that time, before he introduced the requirement of a double-conforming sentence, the marriage nullity cases were judged by a college of judges. Three to five judges (and even more) studied the cases and gave a judgment regarding the claim of nullity. In order that a declaration of nullity be granted, a majority of the judges had to be in favor of the nullity. Now, in many dioceses, the marriage nullity cases are judged by a single judge.
So we have a situation in which a claim of marriage nullity can be judged affirmatively by one man only without any mandatory check on his judgment. This is not right; it is not a serious process for judging a matter touching on the very foundation of the life of society and of the Church!
Not only does it not treat the case in a serious manner, but also places a burden on the judge which is unjust. For my part, if I were a judge, I would not accept responsibility for judging these cases. I do not believe that a single judge’s decision gives a sufficient guarantee of the defense of the sanctity of marriage; my judgment alone is not sufficient in such a serious matter.
If someone has ever worked in a tribunal, he will understand. There is this idea which is very naive and sentimentalist. It centers just on the person who has come forward and said, “My marriage was null, and I ask the Church to give a judgment so I can enter into marriage.” That person should be treated with great compassion, but his or her marriage is a public state of life in the Church which, therefore, involves a partner and a whole series of relationships within the family, usually including children.
To center our attention simply on trying to find a quick fix for that individual, so that he or she can either enter into a marriage (or have a marriage blessed which has already been attempted) creates tremendous harm to a whole series of people who are involved with that marriage, and not incidentally or in some kind of pharisaical manner. It is a real involvement and affects many people: parents, children, siblings, friends, and so forth. It has to do with that which we hold most sacred in our lives.
Q. As we enter the Year of Mercy as proclaimed by Pope Francis, it is important to recognize that the Synod Fathers discussed, on an in-depth basis, the need of mercy and love for those who live outside the Church’s precepts. However, must we not guard against a false compassion where the sin — as well as the sinner — is accepted and condoned?
A. Yes, this is exactly the point. God’s mercy is a response to repentance and a firm purpose of amendment. The prodigal son came back to his father after repenting for what he had done. He said to his father that he was no longer worthy to be his son and asked to be accepted back as a slave. He understood what he had done and repented — the father’s mercy was a response to that. He saw that his son had experienced a conversion of heart.
So, too, if people are living in gravely sinful situations and come to the Church, we embrace them with love. We always love the sinner, but we have to see that the person recognizes the sin and is striving to overcome it, that he is repenting and making reparation for the harm the sin has caused. Otherwise, mercy becomes cheapened and meaningless.
I have fear that people are saying “mercy, mercy, mercy” without understanding it. Yes, God is the God of mercy. But mercy is a very substantial concept — it has to do with our intimate relationship with God and our recognition of the infinite goodness of God, of our own sinfulness, and of our need for confession and repentance. We throw ourselves upon God’s mercy, but also beg for the grace to change our lives and to be true to our purpose of amendment.
We see this in the Gospels in Our Lord’s encounters with sinners. He is very compassionate, but He is always very clear with them. He told the woman caught in adultery to go her way and to sin no more (cf. John 8:11). Similarly, when He encountered the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, He asked her about her husband. When she replied, “I have no husband,” He said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband” (John 4:17-18).
To divorce mercy from truth is to betray mercy and to make it not what it is in essence: an expression of God’s charity.