Cardinal Burke: What the Pope Really Meant

Freshly minted Cardinal Raymond Burke discusses the controversy regarding 'Light of the World,' and what it’s like to work in Ratzinger’s Rome.

(photo: CNS)

Cardinal Raymond Burke is prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the court of final appeal at the Vatican.

The Wisconsin native is the first American to hold that curial position. Pope Benedict XVI, who appointed him to the post in 2008, elevated him to cardinal Nov. 20, along with American Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and 22 other bishops and archbishops from around the world.

In the midst of activities related to the consistory of Nov. 22, Cardinal Burke took some time to read an advance copy of Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, Pope Benedict’s book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, just as a controversy about the Pope’s views on condom use broke in the press. Cardinal Burke discussed the issue by phone Nov. 22 with Register news editor John Burger.

In Light of the World, Peter Seewald poses the objection that “it is madness to forbid a high-risk population (AIDS) to use condoms. To which Pope Benedict answers, in part, “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”

Seewald asks for a clarification: “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?” The Pope answers, “She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

What is the Pope saying here? Is he saying that in some cases condoms can be permitted?

No, he’s not. I don’t see any change in the Church’s teaching. What he’s commenting on — in fact, he makes the statement very clearly that the Church does not regard the use of condoms as a real or a moral solution — in the point he makes about the male prostitute is a certain conversion process taking place in an individual’s life. He’s simply making the comment that if a person who is given to prostitution at least considers using a condom to prevent giving the disease to another person — even though the effectiveness of this is very questionable — this could be a sign of someone who is having a certain moral awakening. But in no way does it mean that prostitution is morally acceptable, nor does it mean that the use of condoms is morally acceptable. The point the Pope is making is about a certain growth in freedom, an overcoming of an enslavement to a sexual activity that is morally wrong so that this concern to use a condom in order not to infect a sexual partner could at least be a sign of some moral awakening in the individual, which one hopes would lead the individual to understand that his activity is a trivialization of human sexuality and needs to be changed.

Is “the world” assuming too quickly that the Pope all of a sudden is open to “compromising” on condoms, that this may be a small yet significant opening toward “enlightenment” for the Catholic Church? For example: In rare cases, Pope justifies use of condoms (New York Times). “Condoms OK” in some cases — Pope (BBC). Boston Herald quoting male prostitutes saying “too little too late, but it may encourage condom use, and that’s a good thing.”

From what I’ve seen of the coverage in the media, I think that’s correct, that that’s what they’re trying to suggest. But if you read the text there’s no suggestion of that at all. It’s clear that the Pope is holding to what the Church has always taught in these matters. He starts out — the context of the question — by saying that when he was asked this question on the plane on his way to his pastoral visit to Africa, he felt that he was being provoked, and he wanted to draw attention to all that the Church is doing to care for AIDS victims. In Africa, the Church is the main agent of care for the AIDS victims, and so he was trying to draw some attention to that.

The text itself makes it very clear that the Church does not regard it as a real or moral solution. And when he says that it could be a first step in a movement toward a different, more human way of living sexuality, that doesn’t mean in any sense that he’s saying the use of condoms is a good thing.

If the media has misunderstood it, is this perhaps a failure of Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican to communicate effectively? Is there a need to “dumb things down” so the media gets it?

I believe the fact that the media has interpreted this in a way, at least from what I can gather from the communications that I’ve received, that is false interpretation and is rather widespread, that it will be rather important for the Holy See now to clarify the matter. [The Vatican Press Office did indeed issue a clarification Nov. 22, saying, “The Pope again makes it clear that his intention was not to take up a position on the problem of condoms in general; his aim, rather, was to forcefully reaffirm that the problem of AIDS cannot be solved simply by distributing condoms, because much more needs to be done: prevention, education, help, advice, accompaniment, both to prevent people from falling ill and to help them if they do.]

That’s what’s going to have to happen now, because even some of the commentators who might be in general well disposed to the Holy See could misinterpret this and take it that indeed the Holy Father is making some change in the Church’s position in regards to the use of condoms, and that would be very sad.

Did you see any Catholic commentary on this, e.g., Janet Smith, who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit? Do you agree with her interpretation?

I did. I thought it was a good commentary. It’s quite accurate. She goes into it quite in depth. She might have underlined a little bit more the words of the Holy Father himself, although she does: When she was asked if the Pope is indicating whether heterosexuals who have HIV could reduce the wrongness of their acts by condoms, she says, “No. In his second answer, he says the Church does not find condoms to be a real or a moral solution.” Again, she repeats, “the intention to reduce the transmission of an infection is a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.” That is, the intention is the first step, but that doesn’t mean that the Holy Father is justifying the means by which the person wants to fulfill that intention.

So, if nothing has changed in Catholic teaching on sexuality or the use of condoms, has this conversation changed anything?

I don’t see it at all. What I see is the Holy Father is presenting a classical position of the Church from her moral theology. Self-mastery, self-discipline is not an immediate accomplishment, so we have to understand that it may take people time to reform their lives. But that doesn’t suggest that he’s diminishing the moral analysis of the immoral actions of the male prostitute, for instance.

It seems that perhaps some of what he says in the answers to Seewald’s questions might lead to a renewed conversation on the nature of married love and sexuality.

That’s what I would hope, and I think that’s what the Holy Father was suggesting in the beginning of that part of the conversation with Peter Seewald, where he engages in that whole point about the trivialization of human sexuality. He says, for instance: the fact of the matter is people have access to condoms. That shows us in fact, as he points out, that condoms don’t resolve the question, and that’s when he begins, “the sheer fixation on the condom implies a sort of banalization of sexuality, which after all is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as an expression of love, but only a certain sort of drug that people administer to themselves.” He talks about the whole fight against the banalization and dehumanization of sexuality and the need to see human sexuality as a positive good. And sexual activity as having a positive effect on the whole of man’s being, being an expression of man’s goodness. So that’s the context, and I would hope that this matter, going forward, being clarified, will offer the real possibility of teaching more clearly about human sexuality.

Did anything else about this conversation between the Pope and Peter Seewald surprise you?

I think that what is remarkable about it, in general, is that the Holy Father granted the interview and speaks really very directly about a whole wide range of very complex questions, and there’s a great deal of his usual erudition and knowledge of Catholic teaching. And he’s very straightforward too. He corrects Peter Seewald, when he gets things mixed up, for example, at one point in the conversation about ecumenism, Seewald said he was quoting then-Cardinal Ratzinger, talking about the dialogue with the Orthodox as holding the position that the pope was “first among equals” — which of course, as the Pope points out to him, is not what he said at all. The pontiff has certain responsibilities in the Church, so he can’t be equal to all the patriarchs, for instance, of the Orthodox Church. There are a lot of excellent clarifications that the Holy Father makes, but I would say that what’s most striking about it is the wide range of topics and the Holy Father’s willingness to comment on them.

Seewald also brought up a question in regard to the declaration Dominus Iesus, and the Holy Father simply said that it’s too complex an issue to deal with in the setting of the interview.

In that discussion about unity with the Orthodox that you reference, Seewald asks, “Will Pope Benedict restructure the papacy in order to foster the unity of Christianity?” The Holy Father corrects Seewald in his interpretation of the phrase “First among equals” applying to the successor of St. Peter. He says it is not the formula we believe as Catholics and adds, “The pope has specific functions and tasks. … The question (for the Orthodox) is precisely whether the pope has specific tasks or not.” What tasks is he speaking of?

The pope is the principal and foundation of the unity of the Church. That can’t be carried out by a group of people. That is the function of Peter as the head of the apostolic college, the Prince of the Apostles. To put it very plainly, that’s the first task. He is the bishop of the universal Church, and it’s a difficult point for the Orthodox to accept, but one can’t be faithful to Catholic teaching and say that the Roman pontiff is simply one more patriarch. No, he has a service to unite all — all the patriarchs, all the particular churches into one. And that involves a direct and universal governance.

He also says, “These are contentious issues, which I would have to say more about than I can right now.” Does that suggest that something is going on in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue that will be major news?

I don’t know that. I can’t comment on that. It’s not my area of responsibility in the Holy See, and I would not be competent to talk about it. I do think there’s been a constant effort to try to help the Orthodox understand the Petrine ministry as the Catholic Church understands it, obviously to achieve a greater unity, and I do believe that over years there’s been progress in that regard. On the other hand — and I know (and this is just from my own conversations) that it’s a very difficult point for the Orthodox. He starts out that section pointing out that Bishop Gerhard Mueller of Regensburg thinks that Catholic and Orthodox have achieved 97% of ecclesial unity. The Pope himself says he would shy away from saying that because it’s clear that we’re not 97% on the way to unity with the Orthodox and that the question of the primacy of Peter is a big question. It’s not something that’s just 3% concern. It’s much bigger than that.

The book gives us a fascinating glimpse into the life of this Pope. From your own perspective, what’s it like working in the Curia under Pope Benedict?

The Holy Father is a deeply spiritual person. Strikingly for me, for instance during his apostolic visits, both the one in April of 2008 in the United States and the recent one in Great Britain, people say How is it that visits from this elderly man who holds these difficult doctrines win over the people? Those who think the visit is going to be a disaster are suddenly captured by the Holy Father. I think that the first thing that captures them is simply his goodness. He’s very close to Our Lord. Secondly, he’s a very gentle soul, a very kindly and understanding person. And thirdly, he has a remarkable wisdom and knowledge. He has an extraordinary gift for teaching, for putting the most profound truths into language that’s very accessible. People come to Rome, they love to listen to our Holy Father because of his teaching, and so those would be some of the aspects of working with him that I know that are a great comfort to me and also an encouragement and help in carrying out my service.

And you yourself: You came from relative obscurity, having been the bishop of remote La Crosse, Wis. Now, at least in many Americans’ eyes, you’ve become a rather prominent cardinal at the Vatican and a great defender of orthodoxy. Have you ever had a kind of “how did I get here” moment?

I’ve been a priest now for 35 years. I think back to when I entered seminary, and the great inspiration for me was the various priests in my home parish and the desire to be a parish priest, the pastor of a parish. Of course, I went into the seminary and I learned as a priest to show obedience and to respond to the degree I was morally able to do whatever I was asked to do. As it turned out in my life, I was asked to do a number of things. For the most part, I’ve had a good amount of parish priestly work and ministry. But I’ve been asked more and more to give that particular service which supports pastors but does not involve me so directly in the pastoral work of a priest. That is now more so than ever because of the intensity of the matters I have to study and about which I have to write, so that it’s not possible for me to administer a parish, which obviously wouldn’t be appropriate for me either as a cardinal. But I don’t have a particular flock; my service is to the Roman Curia.

So, yes, I’ve had those moments wondering how did I get here, and I’ve often said to people, especially now in the case of this consistory, that I never forget where I came from, my beginnings in rural Wisconsin. … My life as a priest and as a bishop is in my mind, even as I carry out my work here. It is an inspiration for me. I try to never lose sight of the fact that what I do here ultimately is at the service of guiding parishes and dioceses.

Why do you think the Pope chose you to head the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura?

You’d have to ask him, but what would be the most obvious response to that question is that I am well prepared in canon law and that I worked in that tribunal for five years, from 1989-1995, when I was ordained a bishop and took the office of Bishop of La Crosse. So being an archbishop and now having more years of experience I was in a certain sense a logical choice for the position — not that there wouldn’t be many others who are, I’m sure, more able than myself. But I wouldn’t have been mostly a strange or unexpected choice for such a position.

What kind of cardinal do you hope to be or will strive to be?

Simply one who is 100% with the Holy Father, using whatever gifts God has given me to help the Holy Father, to give him any counsel he asks me. Also in daily activities, simply to be supporting and promoting what he as the bishop of the universal Church wishes and desires. I would hope to keep that focus always before me. That’s what being a cardinal is all about.

John Burger is the Register’s news editor.