Cardinal Burke Says Catechesis Is Key for the Church Today

A Conversation With Cardinal Raymond Burke About Hope for the World: To Unite All Things in Christ.

Cardinal Raymond Burke at the EWTN studio in Rome during the canonizations of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope St. John XXIII.
Cardinal Raymond Burke at the EWTN studio in Rome during the canonizations of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope St. John XXIII. (photo: 2014 photo, Stephen Driscoll/Catholic News Agency)

Editor’s Note: To learn more about Cardinal Burke’s new book, see here.


There is a crisis in society and in the Church which has its roots in the year 1968, says Cardinal Raymond Burke, the patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Within the Church, in the years since the Second Vatican Council, we have seen weak catechesis, a decline in Mass attendance, loss of faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, priests and religious abandoning their vocations, and a popularization of liturgical practices which belies the sacred mysteries unfolding at the altar.

In the greater society, there has been widespread misunderstanding regarding the institution of marriage — with the result that offenses against chastity, such as cohabitation, divorce, contraception and abortion, single-parent families and homosexual “marriage,” have become commonplace. Replacing a healthy respect for life is what St. Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, called a new “culture of death.”

Cardinal Burke discusses these challenges in his new book, Hope for the World: To Unite All Things in Christ (Ignatius Press), a 123-page interview with French writer and episcopal delegate Guillaume d’Alançon.

Cardinal Burke talked recently with the Register about the difficulty of guiding the Church in a world that has drifted away from basic Gospel values. “It’s a sobering thing to be a bishop,” he acknowledged, “with all the turmoil in society and the Church. It has always been a serious responsibility — but today, it’s a difficult office to fill.”


Is the Bishop Always Right?

In Hope for the World, Cardinal Burke cites two characteristics that a bishop must have and that may on the surface seem contradictory: humility and confidence. “We can be confident as bishops,” he explained to the Register in an interview about the book, “that if we humbly seek to imitate Christ as shepherds of his flock, he’ll bring to fruition our efforts — even when we are dissatisfied and feel that our efforts are weak. We can count on his grace and his presence among us.”

Although the Holy Spirit infuses grace in the sacrament of holy orders, Cardinal Burke warned that the bishop must still choose to obey. “I often hear from people,” he said, “that the bishop has the grace of the Holy Spirit, and so his actions must be right.” As an example, he recounted an incident during the papal conclave in 2013. One cardinal noticed him praying the Rosary and remarked, “Your Eminence, you seem very concerned; but there’s nothing to worry about because the Holy Spirit is here.” 

But when a bishop is disobedient or doesn’t respond to the Spirit’s nudge, that will eventually lead to error. “There have been bad bishops in the history of the Church,” Cardinal Burke noted, “and even bad popes.”


‘Catechesis Is Key’

In Hope for the World, Cardinal Burke looked back with fondness on his Catholic upbringing, when a strong parish, a strong priest and devout religious sisters helped to shape his character and inspire his vocation.

But as a seminarian in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council, he began to see disarray and disruption. Rather than the fruit of deeper faith and a stronger Catholic life within the Church, he saw priests and religious leaving and the liturgy being subjected to experimentation. By the time he was ordained to the priesthood in 1975, he was shocked and discouraged by what he called the “emptiness of the catechetical texts we were using.”  

The faith must be taught if it is to be lived; and Cardinal Burke criticized popular catechetical programs that focus on individual experience, rather than teaching the eternal truths conveyed in Scripture and the Church.

“We must return,” he said, “to the sources of our faith, must teach the faith with depth and thoroughness. In that way, our eyes can be opened to the beauty of Christ and his Church.”

One effective tool, Cardinal Burke explained, is a catechism that has sometimes been mocked in this country, the Baltimore Catechism. Other sources include the Catechism of the Council of Trent, which was published during the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and the more recent Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The challenge for bishops and priests is to foster an interest in the faith, with solid teaching and homilies.


Reaching the Difficult Cases

Speaking of those who might not be open to hearing the Church’s message, Cardinal Burke urged Catholic leaders to speak the truth with love. “If you love people,” he said, “whoever it is who is before you, no matter what difficulty they may be experiencing in their lives ... if you love them and speak the truth to them, most people will respond. I find that what drives people farther and farther away from the Church is an incoherence: trying to please people by being politically correct. Then the Church becomes just one more institution upon which we can’t rely.”

Cardinal Burke told the story of a journalist in Milan, Italy, who complained about a confusing message he had heard in the Church about people who were living together without benefit of marriage. “I have three daughters,” the journalist said.

“... If one of them were to come to me and tell me that she’s going out to spend the night with her boyfriend, I wouldn’t permit it. We need the Church to be firm with us, too — to tell us what is right and true,” said the journalist. 

Cardinal Burke responded to this story by lamenting a tendency to be too cautious on teaching because of fear of offending someone.

“Sometimes priests and bishops are afraid to exercise their authority, for fear of driving people away; but in fact, teaching the truth brings people to a greater understanding of God’s will. It may take some time before they accept what they know to be true. Just as a small child may run out of the room screaming, ‘I hate you!’ because of what you’ve told them,” Cardinal Burke explained, “the person may rebel against solid teaching. But in the long term (or possibly even in the short term), he will return.”

The cardinal — who has a reputation for defending orthodoxy in season and out — did offer one caution to conservative Catholics who appreciate the Mass in the extraordinary form, who may choose to veil, yet who criticize other Catholics whose practice of the faith may differ.

“Once in a while I see, even in good people who are attracted to the great tradition of the liturgy, a lack of charity. For them, it becomes a question of pride. If we really are in love with the sacred liturgy, there can be no place in our lives for rudeness or cynicism.”

“Most of the Catholics I know worship in good faith — even those who are attached to forms of the sacred liturgy about which I would raise questions,” he added. “If we who love the traditional Mass are serene in our own love of the sacred liturgy, then in time others may come to us with questions about music or whatever.”

“What happens too frequently, when Catholics adopt that aggressive tone, is that it becomes personal — and a battle erupts between those who are trying to promote the sacred liturgy and those who prefer other forms,” he said. “And what purpose does it serve, to fight with one another? Yes, reverence is important; but there’s no place among God’s people for such aggression.”



Kathy Schiffer writes from Southfield, Michigan.