Cardinal Burke Officially Transferred From Apostolic Signatura

NEWS ANALYSIS: The U.S.-born canon lawyer goes from the head of the Vatican’s highest court to a non-Curial position as patron of the Sovereign Order of Malta.

Cardinal Raymond Burke
Cardinal Raymond Burke (photo: Bohumil Petrik/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — When asked for a story that summed up the legacy of Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, canon lawyer Ed Peters quickly produced one.

“At a conference, a student once asked then-Archbishop Burke what advice he might have for a young student about to start canon-law studies. The archbishop replied without a moment’s hesitation: ‘The first thing I would tell you is: Canon law is not for the faint of heart!’” Peters told the Register.

On Nov. 8, the Vatican announced that Cardinal Burke has been appointed patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and will leave his post at the Apostolic Signatura, the Catholic Church’s highest court.

As the cardinal marks a new chapter of service to the Church, his standing as a leading canon lawyer and a passionate defender of Catholic discipline on marriage and of declining Communion for public dissenters to the faith suggests that he followed the advice he dispensed to students.

Unofficial news of Cardinal Burke’s departure, verbally confirmed by him in an Oct. 18 interview, drew global attention from Catholics and secular media. Some commentators suggested that the U.S.-born cardinal was being sidelined, possibly for his strong response to attempts to change or modify Church practice governing the reception of the Eucharist by Catholics who divorce and remarry.

Other Church observers question that assessment, noting that Cardinal Burke has now completed the standard five-year term for leadership of the Apostolic Signatura. Whatever the reason, the transition provides an opportunity to examine Cardinal Burke’s legacy as a top canon lawyer who has held two high-profile positions in the Holy See and who, before going to Rome, served as the archbishop of St. Louis and earlier as the bishop of La Crosse, Wis.

“Cardinal Burke’s impact as prefect of the Signatura will be felt for many years, if only because the resolutions of the highly technical kinds of cases that typically come before the Signatura take many years to ‘percolate through’ the Church’s legal consciousness, whereupon they begin impacting ecclesiastical decision-makers,” Peters said. “Canonists will be reading and studying decisions issued during Burke's tenure for decades.”


Gregorian Graduate

Raymond Burke was ordained a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., and studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he received a licentiate in canon law in 1982 and a doctorate in canon law in 1984.

After completing his studies, he was named the moderator of the diocesan Curia and vice chancellor of the La Crosse Diocese. But in 1989, he returned to Rome as defender of the bond for the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, a senior position in the Curia.

“In a trial over the validity of a marriage, two people, husband and wife, claim their marriage wasn’t valid. The defender of the bond looks for every reason to protect the bond. It is a very important position in the Vatican structure,” explained Dominican Father Joseph Fox, a canon lawyer who teaches at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif., and previously taught canon law in Rome and served in the Roman Curia.

How did then-Father Burke draw the attention of Pope John Paul II and become the first U.S. defender of the bond?

“His doctoral dissertation in canon law was highly influential. It was on marriage law and specifically on the issue of psychological impediments to marriage (Canon 1095),” said Benedict Nguyen, a canon lawyer who served as the chancellor of the Diocese of La Crosse under Father Burke.

“His work on this, even after his dissertation, did much to stave off many loose misapplications of this ground in marriage declaration-of-nullity procedures.”

In 1994, he went back to La Crosse, now as the bishop of his home diocese.

He began to draw attention during his time as a sitting bishop of La Crosse and then as archbishop of St. Louis from 2003-2006, because he offered “models to other bishops of how to combine canonical acumen and pastoral patience,” Peters said.


Pro-Abortion Politicians

During his tenure in St. Louis, noted James Hitchcock, professor emeritus of history at St. Louis University, then-Archbishop Burke sparked a firestorm when he took on the problem of pro-abortion politicians receiving the holy Eucharist.

His scholarly work dealing with Canon 915 on the Church’s discipline of the denial of Communion, combined with public statements and actions, provoked both support and criticism from bishops and lay Catholics.

“Cardinal Burke inspired a lot of bishops to have conversations with politicians about this issue,” said Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., who directed Kathleen Sebelius, while she served as the governor of Kansas, not to present herself for Communion.

“But every situation has unique circumstances, and a bishop has to discern what is best pastorally.”

In hindsight, Archbishop Naumann told the Register that Cardinal Burke’s effort to face the issue appears strikingly prescient. Today, he said, pro-abortion Catholic politicians increasingly “insert themselves as teachers of the faith and tell people, ‘This is what you can be as a Catholic.’”

In July 2006, Pope Benedict XVI appointed the St. Louis archbishop to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. Two years later, he was named prefect of the Signatura and returned to Rome full time; he was made a cardinal in 2010.

Father Fox, the canon lawyer, explained that, as the highest court, “the Signatura makes sure justice is served in the Church” and deals with a range of issues like disputes over church closings or questions about which Vatican dicastery has the authority or competency to rule on a legal issue.

While overseeing the work of the Signatura, Cardinal Burke also sought to improve transparency at the tribunal, making its decisions more accessible to canonists.

“His involvement in the publication of a work entitled Ministerium Iustitiae: Jurisprudence of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, a private publication of Signatura decisions on a variety of issues, has been very important in providing canon lawyers with models for canonical jurisprudence in these situations,” said Nguyen, who now works for the Diocese of Venice, Fla.


Cardinal Walter Kasper

But this year, in the months leading up to last month’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, Cardinal Burke returned to a subject that anchored much of his early scholarship as a canonist: questions of nullity of marriage.

As Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany called for the synod fathers to change Church discipline for Catholics who have divorced and remarried, Cardinal Burke contributed to a published response, Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church, which rejected Cardinal Kasper’s arguments. He also spoke out on the issue during and after the synod.

“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,” he stated in an Oct.11 Register interview.

“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.”

But as Cardinal Burke sought to counter efforts to relax Church discipline, he acknowledged in October that he had been informed that he would no longer serve as prefect of the Signatura.

Cardinal Burke’s supporters have expressed surprise that he has been appointed patron of the Order of Malta, a position widely viewed as an “honorific” post.

“The demotion is all the more grave [because] the cardinal is young (66), at the height of his powers, known for his intellectual abilities and his personal piety and has never been charged [with any misdeed],” Roberto de Mattei, professor of modern history and the history of Christianity at the European University of Rome, told the Register.


Standard Five-Year Term

But Father Fox, who deeply admires Cardinal Burke’s work as a canonist, suggested that “some people are making too much of this change. He has had a standard five-year term of office.”

“Also, he was kept in office for more than one full year by the Pope,” Father Fox said. “That says the Pope was not in a hurry to remove Cardinal Burke.”

Cardinal Burke, for his part, told the Register that he plans to begin the next phase of his life with prayer, “asking Our Lord for the wisdom to discern the most effective way of being of service in what he has called me to do.”

The cardinal also said he had pondered how many Catholics, who seek to defend truths that safeguard the dignity of the human person, are often wrongly attacked as “Pharisees.”

They are unfairly “accused of obsessing about how others live, while not wanting to give any help to others in actually carrying their cross.”

“I want to work to reconnect in the worldwide Catholic imagination this most profound link between truth and charity. In other words, there cannot be one without the other,” Cardinal Burke said in an emailed response to a request for comment from the Register. 

“I think the saint that speaks most directly to our current time is St. Augustine,” Cardinal Burke said. “He combined truth and charity in his pastoral ministry. I also note that Pope Francis has paid tribute to the influence that this great saint has had on him.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.