ST. LOUIS — The Archbishop of St. Louis has been named the equivalent of the Chief Justice of the Vatican’s Supreme Court.

Archbishop Raymond Burke was named to the post three days before his 60th birthday.

The Vatican on June 27 announced the archbishop’s appointment as prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest appeals court in the Church.

St. Louis Auxiliary Bishop Robert Hermann has been elected archdiocesan administrator until the installation of the next archbishop.

At a press conference in St. Louis the morning of June 27, Archbishop Burke shed tears as he humbly expressed his affection for St. Louis and asked for the faithful’s prayers as he took on the challenge of his new responsibilities.

And weighty matters they will be, said Edward Peters, who holds doctorates in both civil law and canon law and teaches at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

“In contrast to the United States, which has a single Supreme Court, the Catholic Church has a bifurcated adjudicatory system at the top, with judicial cases ending up, for the most, in the famous Roman Rota, and administrative cases going to the less well-known Apostolic Signatura, now to be headed by Burke.”

But, noted Peters, “most canonical disputes in the Church are actually administrative, not judicial in nature. Since the Signatura handles disputes arising directly within the Roman Rota, not vice versa, it is easy to see why the Signatura is functionally the highest court in the Church, short of the pope himself, and that its prefect serves basically as a chief justice.”

This position of great responsibility suits Archbishop Burke perfectly, according to the outpouring of congratulations and praise from clergy and laymen alike.

Father Richard Neuhaus, founder and editor of the journal First Things, said that Archbishop Burke is “eminently well qualified. The clarity and boldness of Catholic witness” stands out in him; “he combines them in a very persuasive and effective way.”

So persuasive has his witness been, in fact, that a formerly excommunicated member of the Church sought reconciliation with him.

Edward Florek was one of eight lay board members for the St. Stanislaus Kostka Corp., a one-time parish in St. Louis that publicly refused to turn over ownership of their property to the archdiocese. After a series of high-profile meetings with the archdiocese over several years, the board members hired a suspended priest, Father Marek Bozek, who broke his vow of obedience to his home diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau.

Archbishop Burke had no choice but to declare the penalty of excommunication for all the board members on Dec 15, 2005.

The board appealed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which rejected the corporation’s claim on May 15, 2008. About two weeks later, Florek met with Archbishop Burke and was reconciled with the Church.

“I congratulate him; he deserves the position,” said Florek upon hearing the news, adding that he was not surprised. “He is the pillar of traditional religion.”


‘Pastor’s Heart’

Indeed, said Peters, Archbishop Burke is no stranger to administering justice in light of mercy.

“Burke comes to the Signatura with all the legal acumen one could want, and a pastor’s heart,” he said. “He has served in small dioceses and large, and has a deep devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Sacred Heart. It’s hard for me to think of someone who models ‘truth in charity’ more than he.”

Especially in terms of hot-button issues, said Russell Shaw, author of 20 books on Catholic issues including the recent Nothing to Hide. Archbishop Burke’s “articulate and courageous voice [will be] at the service of the universal Church. He has faced up to the issues, making it clear he did not wish to be punitive; he was doing what was necessary for the spiritual well-being of the individuals involved.”

Such a shepherding approach takes “real pastoral leadership,” Shaw said. “It’s ecclesiastical tough love — not glossing over serious errors.”

That brings up a tough question, especially in light of Archbishop Burke’s firm public stance against John Kerry, Rudy Giuliani and all pro-abortion Catholic politicians who should not be receiving Communion: Is he being promoted to Rome in order to remove him from St. Louis and the United States?

Father John Zuhlsdorf, author of the Catholic blog What Does the Prayer Really Say? said No.

“It’s the most common question I’m getting. For decades Catholic politicians have not allowed their ‘private’ faith to interfere with their ‘public’ positions. Archbishop Burke called them on this, pointed out the flaw,” he said. “Is this promoveatur ut amoveatur [let him be promoted so that he may be removed]? I don’t think so. The Signatura needs a firm hand, and Archbishop Burke has all the requisites. Clarity of thought and courage to profess it is absolutely necessary in Rome. For example, you can almost feel the thought of someone like Burke behind the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum permitting the use of the 1962 missal. It’s a brilliant juridical solution in harmony with the Holy Father’s vision.”


Future Cardinal?

Archbishop Burke is the first U.S. bishop to be named prefect of the Apostolic Signature, which is the Vatican’s highest court.

As head of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature, the archbishop will hear appeals of decisions issued by lower church courts. Many of the cases handled by the court are appeals to sentences of the Roman Rota dealing with marriage annulments.

Prior to this most recent appointment, Archbishop Burke was named to two Vatican posts in May: the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and the Congregation for Clergy. The archbishop said he will retain those positions. In 2006, he was appointed as a judge for the Apostolic Signature.

Archbishop Burke has a long history of experience in canon law. Among his various degrees, he earned a licentiate in canon law in 1982 and a doctorate in canon law in 1984, both from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

From 1985 to 1994, he was a visiting professor of canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University. In 1989, Pope John Paul II named him defender of the bond of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature. He served in that role until his installment as bishop of La Crosse, Wis., in 1995. He also holds memberships in several canon law societies throughout the world.

Peters said that while Archbishop Burke’s departure is sad, he has proven himself to be a father for the wider Church.

“He published an extensive scholarly analysis of Canon 915 (the law by which Kerry is prohibited from receiving Communion) in a prominent international legal journal for the benefit of bishops and canonists around the world,” he said. “How many bishops today take the time to write complex articles on controversial points? Too few, but Burke was one of them. That’s the kind of man who is being called away.”

Archbishop Burke’s tried and true experience, then, in far-ranging and often difficult matters of the Church’s interaction with the public at large will be at the Pope’s direct disposal — and, considering that the prefect of the Apostolic Signatura is normally created cardinal, possibly a participant in the gathering that chooses the next pope.

“This is all tied up with identity,” said Father Zuhlsdorf. “How does the Church interact with the public square? The Holy Father is drawing closer to himself a man who has the right understanding, the right vision, of how the modern Church interacts with the public square.

“This is the kind of input the Holy Father wants for the next conclave; it’s a vote of confidence for the United States in the curia; it’s the kind of voice he wants on a daily basis.”

Stephen Mirarchi writes

from St. Louis.