Cardinal Raymond Burke, the prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura (the Vatican’s highest court), is known for his straight talk and ardent orthodoxy to the Catholic faith.
A participant in the ongoing Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, Cardinal Burke, along with Cardinals Gerhard Müller, prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Walter Brandmüller, president emeritus of the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences; Carlo Caffarra, archbishop of Bologna, Italy; and Velasio De Paolis, president emeritus of the Prefecture for Economic Affairs of the Holy See, wrote Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church, affirming Church teaching on marriage.
He discussed the synod, marriage and the talk he presented to delegates in an Oct. 11 interview.
Your Eminence, could you share the contents of your intervention?
My intervention stressed to the [synod] fathers that the marriage nullity process, as it is, has been carefully developed over the centuries to provide for a response according to the truth, a response to a claim of a nullity of marriage.
It’s not just a question of juridicism or legal encumbrances and so forth, but a process that’s actually quite simple and straightforward. It guarantees, as much as we humanly can, that a judge will see all of the arguments, proofs in favor of nullity and all of those in favor of the validity of the marriage and then come to a judgment regarding the claim of nullity.
Therefore, to tamper with the process is very dangerous. And, if I may, I wish to respond to Cardinal [Walter] Kasper’s assertion that the matrimonial-nullity process is not of divine law. Well, the individual elements of the process are not of divine law, but that the Church has a well-articulated process by which she can arrive at the truth in response to a claim of nullity is of divine law.
The Church cannot irresponsibly declare marriages null. This is contrary to the teaching of Our Lord himself, obviously. So, then, I point out in the intervention that, in the Signatura, we’ve been studying the work of the tribunals for over 50 years. We know a lot about what is happening with causes of nullity of marriage.
The popular move is to get rid of a second instance: In other words, if a declaration of nullity is given in the first instance, the need to have the decision confirmed in a second instance, as is now required by universal Church law, would be eliminated. But I ask: What could be more reasonable, in so serious a matter as declaring a marriage null, that there be a control, a check?
That is why Pope Benedict XIV introduced the requirement in the 18th century: because there were serious abuses of the process.
Are there examples of what can happen when the second instance is removed?
Yes, we already know what happens when it is taken away, because in America, from 1971 to 1983, effectively, there was no second instance. Marriages were declared null wholesale; people wrote about “Catholic divorce” and the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church: “They teach that marriage is indissoluble, and when anyone comes forward asking for a declaration of nullity, they grant it.”
Even the Secretariat of State admonished the U.S. bishops about it. In my essay in the book Remaining in the Truth of Christ, you will find a footnote in which I document all this. And then there is a wonderful quote from John Paul II who says: “To declare null a marriage which is valid destroys the foundation for the life of the individual, society and the Church itself.”
We cannot go forward if the sacred reality of this truth is not respected. So I’m very much opposed to the idea of streamlining this process or making it administrative.
For instance, to suggest that each bishop, either by himself or through one or two priests, would interview couples and decide on the nullity of their marriage is contrary to the requirements of truth and justice. It is impossible.
With regard to the supposed excessive duration of the process of marriage nullity, the experience of the Apostolic Signatura shows that, when the personnel in the tribunal are well prepared, the process is completed with the norm established by the Code of Canon Law, within a year for first instance and within six months for second instance (Canon 1453).
We find that, when the process goes on too long, the fault is that there is a lack of personnel in the tribunal or those working in the tribunal are not properly prepared for their work.
Would it not be better, in this case, to improve the marriage preparation of couples?
This is the point. We need to improve the preparation of the couples and to teach, in depth, the truth about marriage, which we have not done well for over 50 years. We need to give a sound catechesis to children on the truth about marriage, so that when they come into their young adult years, they understand what the call to marriage is all about and the seriousness of it.
If this did go through, and the streamlining did happen with the dangers you mention, then you could conceivably have cases of marriages declared null when in fact they are not so. Who would have to answer to God for that? The judges?
That’s right. Those who, without making a proper investigation, gave the impression to someone who was indeed in a valid marriage that the judges had arrived at a judgment of nullity. But the judgment of nullity must always be made before God. The judges must come to moral certitude regarding the alleged nullity before giving a judgment.
It is true that in many, if not most, cases the judges cannot arrive at absolute certainty. But when they follow a carefully reasoned process, they can say: “As much as is humanly possible, we have no reasonable doubt that the claim of nullity is true.” Then everyone’s conscience is clear, even if they make a mistake.
But if you’re just declaring marriages null in order to permit people to enter a new marriage or to permit people who have already attempted marriage after a divorce to receive holy Communion, then you are going to declare marriages null that are not null. So it is very serious, and I wouldn’t want it on my conscience.
Many are criticizing the relatio for its lack of Catholic teaching and the effect it will have on Catholics and non-Catholics? Are these concerns valid?
Yes, the concerns are valid. The document lacks a proper foundation in the sacred Scriptures and the perennial and rich teaching of the Church regarding holy matrimony. It also does not reflect a proper theological anthropology, with its reference to the natural law. The effect which the document has already had upon Catholics, non-Catholics and people of good will has been disastrous. The document, not without reason, gives the impression that the Catholic Church is abandoning the apostolic faith regarding marriage.
What is your general assessment of the synod so far?
To me, there has been a tremendous lack of clarity in the discussions that are taking place, and I am particularly concerned about what I am reading in the secular media.
I read the transcript of a transmission on RAI [Italian state television] this past Tuesday night, I think, that was viewed by some 5.7 million Italians. The synod was depicted as opening the door to holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, as if this was all that the synod was about or what the synod was principally addressing and as if there was a consensus that those in irregular unions should be admitted to receive the sacraments of penance and the holy Eucharist.
It’s being spun in that direction?
Yes, and this didn’t begin just at the time of the synod, but has been going on at least since the consistory on Feb. 20-21 of this year, when Cardinal Walter Kasper gave his discourse and began to give interviews and speeches to sustain his position. His book was published in five languages.
The idea has built up that this synod is being convoked really — to put it plainly — to change the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage. That is a betrayal of the Catholic faith and a betrayal of our mission to the world.
The Catholic Church is one of the few institutions left in the world that upholds and teaches the truth about marriage, even if there have been these failures in some tribunals to uphold it. Now, if we no longer teach the truth about marriage, why are we Catholic?
Did you get the sense in the synod that the overriding push is being made to bring this radical change about?
On the part of some, yes, and you read it in some interviews, which state that there are certain prelates pushing it. I do not understand it, and I am very clear about it.
I can say very honestly to you: I do not know how I could accept such a thing in the Catholic Church. I just could not.
This also brings us to the media and how the Vatican is disclosing the contents of the synod. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has criticized the way it has been handled and the restrictions placed on what is disclosed. What is your view on this? Are criticisms of these radical proposals, for example, being purposely withheld?
I have not been able to study the mechanism because the sessions themselves and other things have kept me so busy. But I have seen the fruit of it, and, somehow, what is coming out does not reflect the reality, in my judgment. I am speaking very openly about it because I think it is my moral obligation.
So a lot of what is going in the synod doesn’t tally with what the Vatican is reporting to the media?
Not in my judgment. There are people who are pushing the agenda of Cardinal Kasper, and, obviously, some are following that line, but I do not believe in it, and there are many others who do not accept it.
One reported discussion was about changing the language of some terms such as “living in sin,” “contraceptive mentality” and “intrinsically disordered.” It was said there was a “great desire” to alter the language and make it more “inclusive,” but there was no criticism of this reported, which many found surprising.
I was not able to say so publicly, but I have quoted John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, when he says we have to call things by their proper name. He properly called abortion murder, which it is. And here, now, some want to say cohabitation is not living in sin. Well, what is fornication or adultery? And the same thing with regard to same-sex relations, which have come up. Some do not want to talk about disordered acts. Well, what is a homosexual act? It is disordered. And how am I being kind — if you are beset by this inclination and do these acts — how am I being charitable to you by calling the acts by some other name or by giving the impression that there are good aspects to the acts?
That is the other thing. Some are saying that we need to find the good aspects of de facto unions and homosexual unions. What are the good aspects of unchaste acts? There cannot be.
On this issue of doctrine and pastoral practice: Synod participants, according to the reports coming from the Vatican, keep stressing that doctrine cannot be changed but pastoral practice and discipline can. What is your view of this?
This is a false dichotomy. Some keep repeating it and repeating it. It has never been the case in the Catholic Church that she rightly countenanced a difference between her discipline and her doctrine, because all the discipline we have is at the service of the doctrine, to safeguard it and promote it. To say that we are just going to change some disciplinary rules and doctrine will remain the same, first of all, is false, and, secondly, what will your Catholic in the pew, so to speak, think when something contrary to doctrine is permitted in practice? They will think: “Well, the Church has obviously changed its teaching on divorce and the indissolubility of marriage.” It is not a pretty picture.
Critics say these things have been discussed for many years and there’s nothing new.
Yes, this whole debate is just like going back to the 1960s and before the synod of 1980, when John Paul II’s magisterial Familiaris Consortio, his apostolic exhortation, set these things forth clearly. They have been set forth clearly by Pius XI in Casti Connubii [Of Chaste Wedlock] and by Pius XII and Paul VI.
Now, the questioning again of the Church’s teaching and discipline is being justified by saying the world has changed so much. Well, no matter how much the world has changed, the truths of the faith have not, and the magisterium needs to be presented with more vigor and honesty today than ever.
And I will tell you this: From my experience — and I have had a fairly ample experience — as a pastor of souls, people are attracted to the truth even when it is painful for them, at first, to hear. They know in their own hearts that something is not right.
If you want to be the “nice guy” and say it is okay and so forth, that does not help them, and they are not ultimately going to be attracted to that.
What do you say to the view that the Church cannot be led into error on faith and morals, and so there’s nothing to worry about here; that the Church’s magisterium will always remain the same, and we need to trust in God more that all will be fine?
Absolutely, in the end, the forces of hell will not prevail against the Church. The Holy Spirit will protect the Church. But, in between, by our own foolishness and error or whatever it may be, we can betray the faith, which has happened, in fact, in the past.
We had a whole Arian heresy that practically destroyed the Church in her early centuries. Even bishops were involved in spreading the heresy that Jesus was not true God, consubstantial with the Father.
The other thing that is being said, which is absolutely pernicious, is that the power of the keys is much greater than we imagine and that, therefore, the Holy Father can dispense from many more marriages than we presently think.
This position reflects the confusion between the fullness of power, which of course the Roman pontiff has, and absolute power, which he does not have.
Christ alone has absolute power, and the Roman pontiff, first among everyone, must be obedient to the word of Christ, to the Church’s doctrine on faith and morals.
For example, it was observed that the pope can dispense from a marriage which is not consummated. This is true, because of the inherent relationship between marriage consent and its natural expression in the conjugal union. The marriage consent is valid, but if it does not reach its natural expression in the conjugal union, then the pope can dispense the couple from the marriage.
Now, an old argument from the 1960s and 1970s has been raised again, suggesting that we cannot just define consummation physically, we have to take it in a bigger sense, what used to be called existential consummation. Then the marriage can be dissolved at any point along the way, if somehow it has not become all that one or both partners desired.
This is nonsense. Consummation means consummation, that is, the conjugal act.
How do you see this synod concluding? What do you expect from it?
There is going to be, on Monday, the relatio post disceptationem (post-discussion report), and then we are going to meet in little groups from Monday afternoon until Thursday, making what are called modi, suggestions of changes, corrections or additions to the report. The only ones you can make are the ones that the majority in the little group approves. But, clearly, if someone objects in conscience to something in the report, even if his objection does not obtain a majority of support in the small group, then he is morally obliged to make such an objection known.
When all of the suggestions have been received from the small groups, the document for the next synod will be presented. Of course, no synod decides anything, but gives counsel to the Holy Father, who has the responsibility to decide.
Some are saying that this synod is just a consultation and, therefore, there should be no great concern about its final document. But if this synod — which is a meeting of all the presidents of the conferences of bishops, together with the heads of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia and other papal appointees — gives a strong statement in favor of certain positions, it will be very difficult at the next meeting to resist the acceptance of those positions.
In the meantime, the mass media will take the document of this synod to be the teaching and discipline of the Church.
Do you see any good coming from it?
One good, I hope, is that people wake up to the seriousness of these discussions and to what is at stake and that there will, in the end, be the energy to teach positively about marriage, to put a strong emphasis on catechesis and on all the other ways that we can uphold the beauty and truth of the Church’s teaching on marriage.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.