Cardinal Burke: Disputes Over Doctrine Sapping Church’s Energy to Evangelize

While he expressed gratitude that the document itself did not call into question clerical celibacy or recommend ordaining women deacons, he identifies a number of aspects that are problematic.

 Cardinal Raymond Burke, shown listening in the audience during the book presentation of Christus Vincit in Rome on Oct. 14, 2019, says of the post-synodal document: ‘I find the document troubling, in that it’s subject to so many different interpretations.’
Cardinal Raymond Burke, shown listening in the audience during the book presentation of Christus Vincit in Rome on Oct. 14, 2019, says of the post-synodal document: ‘I find the document troubling, in that it’s subject to so many different interpretations.’ (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Raymond Burke is “very grateful” that Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia (The Beloved Amazon) did not explicitly call into question clerical celibacy or directly address the issue of women deacons, but he nevertheless finds the document “troubling” and does not expect these issues to now be left alone.

In a Feb. 26 interview with the Register, the prefect emeritus of the Apostolic Signatura takes issue with passages in the document that he says “gravely contradict theological truths.” He also takes certain prelates close to the Holy Father at their word when they say the door is still open for married priests in the Latin Church and women deacons.

And as this pontificate approaches its seventh anniversary, the U.S. cardinal says that internal Church strife is causing the faithful to look inward, sapping the Church’s energy to evangelize.

“We’re weaker than ever in our witness,” he says. “What’s at stake right now is a fundamental misunderstanding about the Church herself and about the papacy, about the College of Bishops and Tradition.” Cardinals and bishops express their concerns directly to the Holy Father in private, he stresses, but he calls on the laity to also do their part, beginning with studying and knowing the faith.


Your Eminence, what is your overall assessment of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia?

First of all, I’m very grateful that the document doesn’t make an explicit pronouncement that would call into question clerical celibacy. I’m very grateful for that. I’m also grateful that it did not address directly the question of female deacons or deaconesses. While there is a section in the exhortation which cautions against clericalizing women by admitting them to holy orders, the part that follows deals exclusively with the exclusion of women from ordination to the priesthood. And inasmuch as the diaconate is related to the priesthood, I suppose one could understand that this is to signify also that it wouldn’t be possible for women to be admitted to the diaconate. For that I am very grateful.

For the rest, I find the document troubling, in that it’s subject to so many different interpretations. There are those like Cardinal [Gerhard] Müller and Bishop [Marian] Eleganti who were highly critical of the preparation and actual work of the synod on the Amazonia but who are now praising this document as a wonderful effort on the part of Pope Francis to reconcile everyone who was disturbed by the Amazon synod.


In relation to what was averted in the document, do you see this as Pope Francis’ “Humanae Vitae moment” — similar to when Pope St. Paul VI went against a commission’s advice and upheld the Church’s teaching on contraception?

No. If it were a Humanae Vitae moment, the Pope would have expressed very strongly the ideas of the Lordship of Christ, would have reaffirmed clerical celibacy in clear terms, and would have said why the Church can’t ordain deaconesses.


So do you think that reaction to the document is misplaced?

I do. Cardinal Müller says that know-it-all theologians should not be picking the document apart; that it’s poetic and pastoral and so forth. I don’t have any problem with the Pope writing things that have poetry in them, but the poetry and the pastoral content can only be sound if they are coherent with theological truths.

For instance, there are passages in the document which gravely contradict theological truths. There’s a very poetic passage in which, seemingly, the Pope is underlining the Lordship of Christ, but then he says that Christ is in the river and in the trees and so forth. This is classical animism, paganism, and it’s simply not true.

So, from that point of view, I think that it would be very questionable to give an overwhelmingly positive presentation of the document, because it could, in fact, lead the faithful into error.


Are you concerned that there’s an undue emphasis on lay involvement in the document, almost as a way of placing the laity on a level with ordained ministry?

Yes, in the document there’s this very strong dichotomy between the laity and the ordained in the pastoral activity of the Church, and the fact of the matter is that the two are essentially related to each other. You can’t talk about a lay Church — that the Amazon Church should be a lay Church. Well, if the Amazon Church is going to be a lay Church, then it won’t be Catholic. As the Lord himself constituted the Church during his public ministry, the pastoral charity exercised by those called to be apostles and successors to the apostles is essential. There is no dichotomy between their ministry and the apostolate of the laity. To suggest that we recognize the importance of the priestly ministry in the confection of the sacraments, that certainly is correct. But the very confection of the sacraments as the supreme act of pastoral charity is essentially related also to the teaching office of the priest and his governing office.


Does this reflect a move toward a sort of “priesthood of all believers,” in your view?

Yes, I think what we see here is exactly that — a kind of Protestant idea: At least among certain Protestant denominations, the idea prevails that the priesthood is not a sacrament, first of all, and therefore that it does not ontologically change the one who receives the sacrament, so that he acts in the person of Christ, the head and shepherd of the flock. I think that’s very clearly what’s going on; and that’s, of course, of the gravest of concern to us. This has to be clarified.


Do you think that efforts to give women more liturgical roles but without access to ordination — something alluded to in the document — is what is going to be tried, as perhaps another way to allow women priests in the future?

I think that’s what’s happening here. Even as I read the text, there’s almost the sense that it’s not important whether they’re ordained deacons or priests; effectively they carry out the priestly ministry, except for the fact that they don’t confect the sacraments. Eventually, if you have a Church in which the lay faithful are in effect carrying out the priestly ministry with the exception that they have these priests who come to say Holy Mass and to hear confessions, the next step is to say, well, these women are carrying out the whole priestly ministry — why are they not also [ordained]?

This was, in fact, the kind of argumentation used in the synod, where people like Bishop Kräutler and others talked about these elders who are effectively leading the community. Even in some cases, when the priests didn’t come for a long while, these people were apparently simulating the Holy Mass. So I think — and am afraid — that’s exactly where the thinking is heading.


So there are hidden parts of the text, or, rather, agendas?

I don’t even find them so hidden, in the sense that the language is clear enough, and there are a number of interpreters who tell us exactly what is intended. Perhaps the most authoritative interpreter of Pope Francis is Archbishop Victor Fernández, the archbishop of La Plata, who, in a front-page article on the apostolic exhortation, printed in the Feb. 17-18 edition of L’Osservatore Romano, stated very clearly that none of these issues like clerical celibacy and deaconesses are resolved, that the Pope simply saw that he had to wait a little bit to accomplish his agenda because there are people causing difficulty. It is clear to him that the Pope is determined to do this. It’s quite an important article. Cardinal Czerny said openly, too, that all these questions are still on the table, and it’s just a question of time.


Why do you think the Pope appeared to step back? Was it because of the opposition these changes would have caused if they were explicit?

Yes, I suspect that’s the case on the question of celibacy especially, but also on the question of deaconesses. There is the book written by Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah, which underlines strongly the integral nature of the perpetual continence of the priest with the office of the priesthood. It seemingly would have been too much, with that book now published and with many reading it, to have that Paragraph 111 of the final document [which proposed the exception of ordaining married men in the Amazon] in the apostolic exhortation. But one bishop who received the communication from Cardinal [Claudio] Hummes informing the bishops when the post-synodal apostolic exhortation would be published and giving them certain texts to prepare them for it, said that paragraph was clearly there. So it would seem to me it was intended to be included, but then it was judged not to be included.

But to go back to a more fundamental question: It’s very clear from the opening numbers of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation that the Pope intends solely to present the final document, the concluding document of the synod. It’s very clear that that’s what is going on. So I think what everyone has to keep in mind is that, as you read this document, you have to have with you the final document of the synod. Yet clearly the final document is quite problematic.


Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, made clear it’s not magisterial because the Pope hasn’t expressly approved it. Do his comments carry weight, putting to rest the idea that the final document is in any way magisterial?

There’s another thing we have to deal with here, and that is confusion about what is the magisterium. People talk about the magisterium of Pope Francis. If, by that, you mean his way of teaching the deposit of faith, then that’s perfectly acceptable. But if you mean that he has a teaching of the deposit of faith that contradicts the deposit of faith, then that’s not acceptable. And the “magisterium” is a somewhat recent theological term, and what it refers to is the duty of the Church to teach, safeguard and promote the truths of the faith as they’ve been handed down in the Tradition. So whether you say that it’s magisterium or not, if it’s not in agreement with what the Church has always taught and practiced, then it can’t be magisterium, even if you say that it is.


So Cardinal Baldisseri’s clarification is helpful in that regard?

Yes, it is; at least the cardinal is signaling to the people that the Pope is not presenting the apostolic tradition — he’s presenting his own personal framework, as he [the Pope] calls it, or his dreams, and those have to be taken in accord with the truths of the faith. Certainly, the fact that the Pope says something gives an authority to it, but it doesn’t make what he writes the doctrine of the faith or dogma.

But then I ask myself: The Pope doesn’t say here that Querida Amazonia has magisterial weight, but the Vatican press spokesman, Matteo Bruni, announced that this is a magisterial document. I would find that very difficult to believe, in terms of some of the things said here.


Regarding the document’s words praising indigenous culture, its indirect dismissal of the pachamama controversy: The Pope writes: “Let us not be quick to describe as superstition or paganism certain religious practices that arise spontaneously from the life of peoples. It is possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry.”

You have to determine whether the practice or symbol is an expression of the truth of human nature, or is idolatry. The pachamama is a demon who demands human blood in order to be at peace with man. There’s no way this can, in any way, be incorporated.

I don’t think you can question that in the Vatican Gardens they were prostrating themselves in front of a pagan idol, and, also, they carried it in front of St. Peter’s tomb. First people said, “Well, this is the indigenous people’s image of the Mother of God,” but then the indigenous people themselves said “No, no — this is pachamama.”


There was no clear answer from the Vatican about what it was.

No clear answer about it. We never incorporate anything into the sacred liturgy unless we know very certainly that it is coherent with the worship of God.


Throughout the past seven years, the Church has often been preoccupied with discussions about settled matters and Church politics that seem fruitless, lead to dissension, and which have caused the Church to look inward, hampering her evangelization efforts.

I agree. Archbishop Fernández says he hopes our internal ecclesial issues don’t get in the way of this encounter with the world. As a matter of fact, this kind of situation prevents, or saps, the energy of the Church for presenting her true image to the world — for instance, having a very dynamic and articulate missionary effort in which the Church’s teaching or sacraments and her very nature are presented very clearly to the people with a united front.

We are divided, and it’s not over merely ecclesiastical issues. For instance, celibacy of the clergy is not some internal concern; it has to do with who the priest is. If you ask people, they will tell you that the celibacy of the priest is key to his ministry to them. In the same way, too, this applies to the question of deaconesses. There are so many contradictions that your head begins to spin, because this whole approach is to “get the Church out of the sacristy.” But, in fact, we’re weaker than ever in our witness, and what’s happened as a result is that forces that are inimical to the Church are going around claiming that the Church herself vindicates them.


What is the root cause of this, apart from a departure from orthodoxy?

I think there’s a fundamental problem represented by synodality, or the “synodal way,” which has not been clearly defined from the start. I think that what’s at stake right now is a fundamental misunderstanding about the Church herself and about the papacy, about the College of Bishops and Tradition, of course.


Is the fact that the document includes the Great Commission praiseworthy, in your opinion?

Some parts are very good, but they are mixed with other very confusing aspects. It says:

“There is a need to respect the rights of peoples and cultures and to appreciate that the development of a social group presupposes an historical process which takes place within a cultural context and demands the constant and active involvement of local people from within their own culture” [40]. 

Well if the culture is a true culture, yes, it’ll be an expression of the natural law, but there are things in a culture which are not true.

Or when it says the “authentic Tradition of the Church” is “not a static deposit or a museum piece, but the root of a constantly growing tree” [66]. Well, the Tradition is not just the root; the Tradition is the tree itself. I also don’t know these poets [to whom Pope Francis refers], such as Vinicius de Moraes or Juan Carlos Galeano; but people tell me they’re very radical in a non-Christian way.

It says that a relationship with Jesus Christ “is not inimical to the markedly cosmic worldview that characterizes the indigenous peoples, since he is also the Risen Lord who permeates all things” [74] and cites St. Thomas Aquinas. But that can’t be true. It then says: “All the creatures of the material universe find their true meaning in the Incarnate Word, for the Son of God has incorporated in his person part of the material world, planting in it a seed of definitive transformation.” Christ became man and transformed human nature, but I don’t know what it means to say that he “incorporated part of the material world” into his person. Then it goes on to say, “He is present in a glorious and mysterious way in the river, the trees, the fish and the wind, as the Lord who reigns in creation without ever losing his transfigured wounds, while in the Eucharist he takes up the elements of this world and confers on all things the meaning of the paschal gift.”

I remember when I was a young priest in the 1970s, with regard to the Sunday Mass obligation, certain people would say that they were meeting the Lord when going out into the woods or to the river. It is this kind of thinking that leads us down a path in which Christ becomes relative to the world.


Do you nevertheless think that the failure to push the agenda of married priests in the Latin Rite and women deaconesses through this synod augurs well for future synods — that it shows the Holy Spirit is working and that these efforts are being thwarted?

I would think it is the Holy Spirit who prevented any statement that would directly weaken clerical celibacy or directly weaken the exclusion of women from holy orders, but I don’t think it bodes well for future synods and so forth, because the very people who were at the heart of this, Archbishop Fernandez; Cardinal [Oswald] Gracias, who is one of the six cardinals who counsels the Holy Father; Cardinal [Michael] Czerny and others, are all saying: “No, this agenda is going forward.” So you’re almost put in a position in which the Holy Spirit seems to be doing one thing and those closest to the Pope are saying, “Oh no, that’s just a temporary measure.”


If the Holy Spirit is acting to ultimately prevent these ideas, and we have that safeguard, should the laity be all that concerned?

The laity should always be concerned. Yes, we count on the Holy Spirit to act, to prevent possible evils to the Church, but the Holy Spirit is also at work in all of us who are called to give an account of our Catholic faith to the world and within the Church herself when she’s confused. I always say to the lay faithful — there are so many today who are confused; they feel disorientated; they feel even betrayed by the Church — that we have the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Study your faith, and when people say things that are contrary to the faith, in a serene and strong way, say what the faith really is.


The Holy Spirit also works through us.

Exactly. I remember during the conclave. when I was praying the Rosary, one cardinal came up to me and said, “You seem to be very concerned; I see you praying the Rosary.” I said, “Well, I am; this is a most serious matter.” And he said, “Well, there’s nothing to worry about. The Holy Spirit is here.” And I said to him, “Your Eminence, there have been conclaves that have elected bad popes. It’s one thing to say the Holy Spirit is here, which we know, indeed, is true: The Holy Spirit is present in a conclave; but it’s another thing to have the cardinals be obedient to the Holy Spirit.” So, for instance, if the Holy Spirit is working to prevent in this document some statement or position that would do great harm to the Church, that would have to inspire us all the more to defend our Catholic faith.


One often hears the question: Why aren’t more bishops or cardinals speaking up more?

That’s an excellent question.


And often people feel that if the cardinals aren’t willing to stand up, then why should I, or what can I do?

But that has happened, too, in the past, when cardinals and bishops have failed in their duty, and it’s been other faithful, like St. Catherine of Siena — she’s not the only example — but it’s been devout lay faithful, who have defended the faith.

We respect the irreplaceable office of the hierarchy; hence, the disappointment of so many of the lay faithful: that the hierarchy is not carrying out its duty. That’s a legitimate disappointment, but that means it’s even more important that everyone else, lay faithful, consecrated persons, and so forth, do their part.


Why won’t a group from the College of Cardinals visit the Holy Father and appeal to him to change course, or express their disapproval about the direction things are going in?

The question is: Is there such a group? There are two or three or four who have spoken up and made it clear. And we don’t make this public, but, obviously, we express our concerns directly to the Holy Father. I’m not excusing myself, but I don’t consider myself the savior of the Church. I’m trying to do my part, but, normally speaking, in the history of the Church regarding these matters, there was at least a group, in the sense of three or more, who would go to the Holy Father and say to him that something is simply not right and can’t go on.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.