Prelude to St. Louis: Archbishop Burke and Catholic Politicians

LA CROSSE, Wis. — St. Louis is learning what they can expect from Archbishop-designate Raymond Burke.

Last November, the U.S. bishops decided to address the thorny issue of Catholic politicians who oppose Church teaching on key issues such as abortion — after the elections.

But Archbishop-designate Burke isn't waiting.

He has recently come under fire because of letters he wrote to Catholic politicians in his home state of Wisconsin. The politicians involved have been voting for what Bishop Burke calls “anti-life” legislation.

One letter admonished state Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, one of the most Catholic areas of the Diocese of La Crosse, which Bishop Burke has headed for nine years.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on the existence of the letters in early December, only a couple of days after the Vatican announced the bishop's appointment to St. Louis. Bishop Burke made it clear in a press conference in La Crosse on Dec. 5 that he wrote to Lassa in confidence and had no intention of making the letters public.

The correspondence was written in August and early November, well before he knew he was being transferred to St. Louis. The newspaper obtained the Lassa letter under the state's open-records law.

Two other politicians received letters, according to the Journal Sentinel, a fact diocesan officials have confirmed, though the identities of the other recipients have not been revealed. It is strongly believed Democratic U.S. Rep. David Obey, a Catholic, is one of them. Obey's office did not return calls from the Register.

But the bishop's purpose wasn't only to admonish. He also appealed for a private dialogue based on documents from the Vatican and the U.S. bishops about politicians. It was an appeal the recipients seem to have ignored.

Lassa told the Journal Sentinel she never responded to Bishop Burke's invitation to set up a meeting to discuss “Living the Gospel of Life,” the 1998 letter of the U.S. bishops, which he included in his mailing to her.

“Living the Gospel of Life” recommends that bishops exhort political leaders to respect and protect innocent human life. It also points out that lawmakers who support abortion share in the responsibility of taking human life.

Bishop Burke finally told Lassa, and perhaps the other two politicians, “Therefore, by my authority as the bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse, I must call upon you in the public forum to cease calling yourself a faithful Catholic, and further, to appeal to your conscience to abstain from receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist until you have reconciled your political activity to the magisterial teaching of the Church with regard to the legal protection of innocent life.”

He also cautioned her about the possibility of giving scandal, leading others into sin by her example.

‘Very Serious’

Lassa's response?

“I'm concerned that the bishop would pressure legislators to vote according to the dictates of the Church instead of the wishes of their constituents because that is not consistent with our democratic ideals,” she told the Journal Sentinel.

But Mark Gundrum, a Republican member of the Wisconsin Assembly, did not view the bishop's actions as lobbying.

“These were private letters sent to human persons,” he told the Register. “This is a shepherd who is concerned for the spiritual well-being of a lost sheep.”

When asked if he would have taken further steps, Bishop Burke replied, “I would have instructed them not to receive Communion and then I would have instructed their pastors to tell them that these people are not to be given holy Communion. I consider it very serious.”

Archbishop-elect Burke could be facing a similar situation in St. Louis, the archdiocese headed by Cardinal Justin Rigali until he was appointed to Philadelphia earlier this year. Archbishop-elect Burke, a 55-year-old Wisconsin native and a canon lawyer, will be installed in St. Louis on Jan. 26.

“There are some high-profile Catholic politicians who are ‘liberal,’” said Helen Hull Hitchcock, a prominent St. Louis Catholic who founded the organization Women for Faith and Family. “But it's clear that [Archbishop-elect Burke] will not flinch from his duties as a teacher of the Catholic faith.”

There will be other issues Archbishop-elect Burke as the ordinary of a rural diocese has never faced, ones he will have to take on in a major metropolitan see. Racism, urban poverty, homeless-ness, Catholic health care networks, a major seminary and Catholic universities are all issues that dominate the scene in St. Louis. The archbishop-elect admitted in a press conference in La Crosse, “I have a steep learning curve.”

Archbishop-elect Burke began his education on the day his appointment was announced. He spent an hour and a half at St. Patrick Center in St. Louis, a place that deals with homelessness and poverty on a large scale.

“I certainly want to be very supportive of that. What they’re doing, from what I saw, is very extensive,” the archbishop-elect said. “But underlying those needs is the gravity of the homeless problem.”

That will be good news for Dan Buck, Gwen Crimm and Leoda Gooch. Buck, who directs the St. Patrick Center, was unable to be present for the archbishop-elect's visit. But, he said, “I can't tell you what his visit did for our staff. They were rejuvenated.

“He is taking over at an opportune time,” Buck said. With the homeless population going up and parish consolidations taking place all around the city, Buck is hoping the new leader will look at using the empty parish space to serve the needs of the poor.

Crimm, the archdiocesan program director for race relations and ethnic concerns, and Gooch, the director of the archdiocesan Human Rights Office, are both hoping their new leader will take on racism in a city that has had its share of racial trouble.

One of the archbishop-elect's predecessors, Cardinal Joseph Ritter, set an example they hope the new archbishop will follow. When Cardinal Ritter was made archbishop, “he didn't wait,” Gooch said. “He immediately said there was to be no segregation in Catholic schools.”

Indeed, Archbishop-elect Burke said there “continues to be a racial tension” that he is “going to have to certainly address.”

Active Tenure

The press is just starting to pick up on the impact Archbishop-elect Burke had in La Crosse, where his accomplishments were many: revitalizing Catholic Charities, beginning the building of a major shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, getting Catholic schools on a better financial footing and increasing teacher pay through school consolidations, leading annual pilgrimages, promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and having Mass for diverse ethnic and immigrant groups.

He also withdrew diocesan participation from CROP Walk, the ecumenical fund drive for Third World poor, since the event's sponsor sends contraceptives to developing countries; and from an AIDS Walk, since some of the recipients of the money actively promote a homosexual lifestyle.

When the archbishop-elect was asked at a press conference to react to the fact that people think he's a conservative bishop because of all these things he's done, he retorted, “I'm a Catholic bishop.”

Of the urban issues, the archbishop-elect understands the difficulties he faces.

“There is no question about it — I have a lot to learn,” he said. “It's radically different from the Diocese of La Crosse in those respects.”

But, he said, he believes a lot of urban difficulties are not necessarily that different from rural issues, since they stem from problems in the most basic unit of society: the family.

Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz writes from Altura, Minnesota.