Archbishop Raymond Burke has arrived in Rome to take up his position as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest court.

The former Archbishop of St. Louis is no stranger to Rome or his new position. He studied at the Pontifical North American College in the early 1970s, trained in canon law at the Casa Santa Maria, the North American College’s graduate house, in the early 1980s, and then worked as an official in the Apostolic Signatura from 1989 to 1995. He spoke with Register Correspondent Edward Pentin Sept. 5 about the upcoming presidential elections, the Holy Father and the liturgy.

First of all, you have only recently come from the States, where the Catholic faith has become an issue in the presidential campaigns. What issues do you think Catholic voters should most take into consideration when voting? Should they avoid voting, as some argue, on single issues like abortion, or should that be the overriding, critical issue?

For us, for any citizen, life issues have to be the critical ones. We cannot accept for ourselves a political leadership which does not safeguard the inviolable dignity of human life. We’re in a situation today where very few politicians are completely coherent with regard to respect for human life, so we try to find those candidates who will most respond to the restoration for respect for human life in our society, and continue to work at the same time to encourage all political leaders to promote a civilization of life and help to overcome the culture of death.

Are there other issues? Of course there are, but the primary issue has to be the question of human life, and connected to it, there are other issues with regard to respect we show to immigrants, the whole question of immigration reform, the question of the death penalty. These are issues not at the same level of procured abortion, which is everywhere wrong, or euthanasia, which is always and everywhere wrong, or the admission of people of the same sex to marriage, which is always and everywhere wrong. But there are, nevertheless, serious moral questions, too, which we need to take into consideration. But as Catholics, we have an obligation to insist first and foremost on those fundamental issues of human life and family, and safeguarding human life and safeguarding the integrity of the family.

What do you say to those priests and bishops who want to take a softer line on ministering the Eucharist to pro-abortion Catholic politicians?

I simply say to them, in the first moment, that we have this discipline which is given in Canon 915 [prohibiting those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” from receiving Communion]. This is not some new discipline in the Church. It is something that has been constant since the time of St. Paul, and we’re obliged — whether we understand deeply or not why the discipline exists — to apply it. So that’s a kind of first moment.

But secondly, for us as bishops and priests, our primary responsibility is safeguarding the holy Eucharist, so that the way in which the Church treats the Most Holy Sacrament reflects the proof that this is indeed the body and blood of Christ, given to us for our salvation. So we can’t permit for any reason whatsoever that the Eucharist not be respected. And further, a third observation is that we have a very profound responsibility for the salvation of the souls of those who would commit sacrilege by coming forward to receive holy Communion when they are unworthy, but also cause scandal to others by giving the impression that what the Church teaches about the Eucharist must somehow be different to what we have thought — that it isn’t really the body and blood of Christ if, even though I am publicly sinning, I can receive holy Communion and lead other people into error about the holy Eucharist.

Do you think that mistaken approach of ministering the Eucharist has led to Catholic politicians, such as the recent case of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to make public statements about the Church’s teaching on abortion that are untrue and dangerously misleading?

They are. That approach emboldens the people who are in error to hold on even more securely to their error and to speak about it publicly as if it were true. So the statement she made about the Church’s teachings on procured abortion is so fundamentally erroneous, and she made it in the context of declaring herself to be a devout Catholic. Simply, it’s not possible to be a devout Catholic and to believe what she stated.

What do you think is the best way of dealing with someone like Mrs. Pelosi, who comes out with a statement like that? Some have gone so far as to argue for excommunication.

The first step the Church always takes is a personal encounter. We follow the evangelical counsel the Lord gives us, that in the Church, first of all you confront them individually. So her bishop or parish priests or whoever has responsibility for her pastorally, should confront her and say, “Now look, what you are doing is gravely wrong, and if you continue to hold onto this teaching which is contrary to the natural moral law and also the Church’s teaching, you should no longer approach to receive holy Communion.” My own experience, when I have confronted Catholic politicians in that way, even if they don’t change their position, is that at least they have the respect for belief, and they don’t approach anymore to receive holy Communion. One also prays and hopes, of course, that not being able to receive holy Communion might lead them to a further reflection on the error of their position, whether it be with regard to procured abortion or whatever it might be. So the first thing is to confront them personally. Secondly, if the person simply holds on to false teaching on something so fundamental, and if that person approaches to receive holy Communion, then the minister of holy Communion has to deny holy Communion to the person, knowing that he or she has been admonished but still comes forward. But now it is also possible to envision that someone who is making public declarations with regard to doctrines of the faith that are false could also be accused of heresy. This is of course another step along the way.

What if they keep on making erroneous public statements?

If they are making formal declarations that are contrary to the faith, then you would have to say this person is espousing heresy.

And that would lead to excommunication?

Yes, of course. Heresy and schism lead to automatic excommunication.

Nancy Pelosi’s bishop has invited her to come and talk to him.

That’s wonderful.

But do you think, in view of the seriousness of her error, it would perhaps be more effective if he summoned her to come, rather than merely invite her?

Well, eventually. I don’t know what the situation is, and I don’t want to comment too much about it. But I think it’s very pastoral first to invite, and then if the person won’t respond to the invitation, then you have no choice but to summon the person and state very clearly what the purpose of the meeting is. Then if the person refuses to respond to the summons, then you simply have to proceed to inform the individual that they may no longer present themselves to receive holy Communion.

In Rome, you will now be working close to Pope Benedict XVI. What aspects of his teachings do you like best? Which resonate most with you?

I’ve been especially inspired by his writings on the sacred liturgy. I’ve seen in his writings, and also in what he has done with regard to the sacred liturgy, a tremendous insight into the organic nature of the life of the Church over the centuries. He has addressed in a very effective way this false notion that somehow after the Second Vatican Council there was a rupture, that the liturgy became something that would be different than what it was before. Also, I have been very inspired by his writings on ecclesiology, especially as it pertains to the ordained ministry; also the apostolates of the laity. I’ve been inspired, too, most recently, by the life of Our Lord that he’s written, and I’m anxiously awaiting his second volume. I’ve been deeply inspired by that work and also his commentaries on the sacred Scriptures which, to me, are very illuminating.

Do you think that his emphasis on the liturgy shows he wants, as some say, to use the liturgy as the springboard to revive the Church?

I believe that very strongly, and that’s something very natural for the Church, because the sacred liturgy is the highest expression of our life in the Church, and in many ways expresses our whole self-understanding. So when the liturgy is celebrated correctly and beautifully, it lifts up the whole life of the Church and inspires us into a deeper knowledge of our faith and towards a more consistent and coherent witness to our faith. I can’t speak for the Holy Father, but I believe he has this very much in mind in what he is doing. If there is truly an appropriation of the sacred liturgy as the Second Vatican Council wanted there to be, then this will also guide the whole reform of Church life that was mandated by the Council.

And of course you approve of the way he is going about this, not imposing anything, but leading by example?

The Holy Father’s a consummate teacher. He was very well-known, and one of the best professors of theology. Even to this day, his former students gather every year to spend time with him because he was so effective in his teaching. And he teaches not only by his words. He has tremendous ability, and as brilliant as he is and his insights are, he has a wonderful capacity to express the truth in a very understandable way that is accessible to people if they really want to understand. But at the same time, he teaches by his example, by his own attention to the sacred liturgy; I think he is showing us in various ways, not as you say, ‘imposing,’ so much as leading us to a new and deeper appreciation of the gift of the sacred liturgy, especially the holy Eucharist.

Edward Pentin is based in Rome.