A conversation with Cardinal Raymond Burke.
In mid-October, while the Catholic Church’s internal debates were reaching another crescendo at a synod for the Amazon region held in Rome, I sat down with Cardinal Raymond Burke, best known as Pope Francis’s most vocal critic in the church’s hierarchy.
Our conversations, which continued last week, covered Burke’s role in Francis-era debates about Catholic moral teaching, as well as the sex abuse crisis, the legacy of Vatican II, his relationship with Steve Bannon and the strange position of a conservative Catholic who is also a critic of the pope. The following is an edited, condensed version of our discussions.
Ross Douthat: Let’s start with the personal rather than the theological. Tell me how you became a priest.
Cardinal Raymond Burke: Well, I grew up on a small dairy farm in rural Wisconsin. My parents were devout Catholics. It was only natural in those days: Every boy thought of being a priest.
But when I was in second grade, in 1955, my father was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. And he was operated on at the Mayo Clinic, but there really wasn’t very much they could do. He was home during the last months of his life, and the priest used to come to hear my father’s confession and bring him Holy Communion. In those days, when the priest came for Holy Communion you went to the door and met him with a lighted candle. There was this little procession into the bedroom where my father was in his sickbed, and the priest heard my father’s confession and then invited us back in for the rite of Holy Communion. This made a tremendous impression on me. Only in later years, I comprehended the whole significance of my father’s suffering and death. But I had a child’s appreciation of what was happening. I saw how this priest was bringing, from what I could perceive, the most important help to my father.
So the idea just grew in me. When I was in eighth grade I asked my mother if I could go to the minor seminary in the diocese. She was a bit worried. I was the youngest of six children and I was rather frail and the seminary was a little bit like a military school. But she agreed.
After minor seminary, Burke continued his training in Washington, D.C., arriving in the fall of 1968, when political upheaval was matched by upheaval in the church. (“It was shocking in those years, the number of men who left the seminary.”) From there he went to Rome, where he was ordained a priest by Pope Paul VI in 1975.
Douthat: And how does a priest become a cardinal?
Burke: I started out as a parish priest assistant at the cathedral of La Crosse, Wis. And then I was asked to teach in the Catholic high school, and after three years of teaching the bishop asked me to study canon law. I wasn’t really enthused about it, but I went back to the Gregorian University in Rome. There were some outstanding priests there, and one of them detected that I wasn’t so happy about being there. And so he took me under his wing. And I got hooked on canon law …
Canon law eventually led Burke to a seat on the Apostolic Signatura, the church’s high court. In 1994 he was named bishop of La Crosse; in 2004 he became archbishop of St Louis; and then in 2008, under Pope Benedict XVI, he was called back to Rome to become the Signatura’s prefect and made a cardinal in 2010.
Douthat:By this time you had a public reputation, not just as conservative, but as a leading “traditionalist.” Some of that was your reputation as a strict canon lawyer, but some of it had to do with your affinity for the traditional liturgy, the Latin Mass. Is that fair?
Burke: You have to know that in the church, even before the Second Vatican Council, but especially afterward, there was a loss of respect for church law, this sense that the code of canon law was no longer apt. And I became convinced of the importance of canon law — I was especially concerned about the easy granting of declarations of nullity of marriage. And that would have contributed in part to my reputation of being cold, legalist, rigid, as they say.
On the liturgical question, obviously I grew up with what’s now called the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, the mass that existed until the reform after the Second Vatican Council. And I had a great appreciation for the beauty of this rite. So when John Paul II permitted its celebration, I took an interest. I have always celebrated both forms. People say that I speak against the ordinary form of the mass. I don’t, I speak against a way of celebrating the ordinary form which is not properly transcendent. But I suppose you’re accurate to say this would have marked me.
Douthat:As someone who experienced the transition through the Second Vatican Council and afterward, do you think the reformers of that era had a point? Do you think that the pre-Vatican II church was too stuffy, legalistic, rigid? You compared your own minor seminary experience to military school.
Burke: Well, this euphoria set in during the council years and after. Now suddenly we’re all free. The discipline of the seminary was looked upon as repressed, and any kind of check on the will of the individual was seen as negative. But I look back now, and I see all those rules as geared to curbing the effects of original sin, and disciplining us so that we could really be good men. And it worked. But in 1968, the seminary rule book was thrown out and there ensued chaos. And we know, for instance, that a lot of the sexual abuse of minors took place in that period, where there was this idea that any tendency that I have, because that’s my tendency, it’s good. Well, that isn’t true.
Douthat: But many of those abusers and their enablers were formed in this earlier world you described. If you look at the statistics on sex abuse, there is a spike in the 1960s and 1970s — but part of that spike includes men who were ordained before the Second Vatican Council. So there had to have been some defect already.
Burke: Yes, it’s clear to me that the corruption goes back several decades: It has to, when we have these notorious cases of prelates who abused minors back into the 1940s. But in those situations, they weren’t following the rule of canon law. People were committing acts gravely contrary to the rule and somehow a blind eye was turned. But that isn’t the fault of the rule. It’s the fault of the men who were supposed to apply it.
Douthat: But what if it’s in the nature of a hierarchy to allow people in positions of authority to suspend the rules? What if you need more democratic accountability somewhere or the law won’t be enforced?
Burke: Well, clearly Christ constituted the church as a hierarchical communion. His public ministry immediately took these 12 men aside and prepared them. They weren’t all angels either, as we know. But there is always a temptation to infidelity to the pastoral office, to permit things that are evil when it comes to a friend. This, by the way, is “clericalism.” Clericalism has nothing to do with being interested in the liturgy or wanting to wear a cassock. No, clericalism is the abuse of the office of cleric for sinful purposes.
So, yes, there have to be controls and they actually existed in the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Up until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council there were a whole series of rites for the degradation of a cleric who betrayed the holiness of his office.
Douthat:Some of them very vivid rites.
Burke: Very vivid. For instance, if it was an archbishop or bishop, they’d dress him in the full vestments and then take them off one by one, with these very severe declarations, and then at the end, scrape the hands that had been anointed at ordination with a knife to signify that this person had completely betrayed the office.
Douthat:Would you like to see such a rite applied to, for instance, the now-former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick?
Burke: I would say that it’s the proper way to go.
Our conversation turned to the Francis era, in which the “euphoria” has arguably reappeared, as controversies that John Paul II tried to close — over divorce and remarriage, intercommunion with Protestants, married priests — have been reopened by the new pontiff.
Douthat: Let’s talk about how your position has changed under this pope.
Burke: It might be good to start with the 2014 Synod of Bishops on Marriage and the Family. I was still prefect of the Apostolic Signatura. And I spoke strongly in favor of the church’s traditional discipline with regard to marriage and divorce.
Douthat:This was a synod called by Pope Francis, where a core controversy was whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be permitted to receive communion without an annulment.
Burke: Yes — we were told repeatedly this is not what the synod is about, but in the end, that is what it was about. And it was about a rethinking of the church’s teaching on human sexuality, with talk about finding the good elements in genital acts between people of the same sex, finding the good elements in sexual intercourse outside of marriage.
During one of the breaks, Cardinal Caffarra [Carlo Caffarra, the late archbishop of Bologna], who was a dear friend of mine, came up to me and he said, what is going on? He said those of us who are defending the church’s teaching and discipline are now called enemies of the pope. And that is symbolic of what happened. Throughout my priesthood, I was always criticized for being too attentive to what the pope was saying. And now I find myself in a situation where I’m called the enemy of the pope, which I am not.
I haven’t changed. I’m still teaching the same things I always taught and they’re not my ideas. But now suddenly this is perceived as being contrary to the Roman pontiff. And I think here what’s entered in is a very political view of the papacy, where the pope is some kind of absolute monarch who can do whatever he wants. That has never been the case in the church. The pope is not a revolutionary, elected to change the church’s teaching. And a lot of the secular view is people looking at the church, but not understanding her profound reality.
Douthat: But this is not just a secular view.
Burke: Oh, no. It’s inside the body of the church. No question. I heard it from cardinals during the 2014 synod.
Douthat:Give me an example …
Burke: Well, one said we have to realize, finally, that marriage is an ideal that not everybody can meet and therefore we have to accommodate the church’s teaching to people that just can’t live their marriage promises. But marriage is not an “ideal.” Marriage is a grace, and when a couple exchange vows, they receive the grace to live a faithful lifelong procreative bond.
Even the weakest person, the most poorly formed person, receives the grace to live the marriage covenant faithfully. In my pastoral experience I encountered people in all kinds of situations, and insisting on the truth of the situation, it’s not easy. But I found that people, in the end, are really grateful for that. I’ve lived long enough to even have people who opposed me very strongly, years later corresponding with me telling me they understood finally what it was that I was doing. These things are natural, but I don’t think the church ever serves her mission by compromising with the world.
Douthat:Going back to the Holy Father himself, you have said that people have accused you of being the enemy of the pope. Do you think Francis regards you as his enemy?
Burke: I don’t think so. He’s never said that to me. I don’t meet him frequently, but in the encounters I’ve had he’s never reprimanded me or accused me of having inimical thoughts or attitudes toward him.
Douthat:But he has certainly demoted you.
Douthat:Can you walk through your changing offices?
Burke: Well, in December of 2013 he removed me from the congregation of bishops. Then he removed me from the Apostolic Signatura, to name me Cardinal Patron of the Order of the Knights of Malta. And then in 2016, he took that away — he left me with a title, but I don’t have a function.
Douthat:So you are now a cardinal without portfolio.
Burke: Yes, that’s correct. It’s clear that the pope doesn’t want me in any leadership position, that he doesn’t see me as the kind of person he wants to be giving any strong direction to things. But I’ve never had the impression that he thinks I’m his enemy.
Douthat:But beginning with the synod on the family, you have been a consistent critic of specific acts and general tendencies of this pontificate.
Burke: I maintain that that’s my duty as a cardinal. I tried to always communicate directly with the pope about it: I don’t like to play games with people, to pretend that I’m thinking one thing while I’m thinking the opposite. You won’t find me ever criticizing the pope personally. But when I saw what I judged to be harmful directions in the church, when I saw this whole discussion in the synod on the family calling into question the foundations of the church’s teaching on human sexuality, I had to speak up because it was my duty.
Pope Francis’s ultimate response to that discussion was a papal exhortation, Amoris Laetitia [The Joy of Love], that included a footnote that seemed, ambiguously, to offer permission for different dioceses and countries to allow communion for the remarried. To Burke, this permission represented a dereliction of papal duty.
Douthat:How would you distill your critique of how the pope is handling the debates he’s opened?
Burke: I suppose it could be distilled in this way: There’s a breakdown of the central teaching authority of the Roman pontiff. The successor of St. Peter exercises an essential office of teaching and discipline, and Pope Francis, in many respects, has refused to exercise that office. For instance, the situation in Germany: The Catholic Church in Germany is on the way to becoming a national church with practices that are not in accord with the universal church.
Burke: Calling for a special rite for people of the same sex who want to marry. Permitting the non-Catholic party in a mixed marriage to regularly receive the Holy Eucharist. These are very serious matters, and they’ve basically gone unchecked.
Douthat:But isn’t the decision of when to exercise authority inherent in the pope’s authority itself? Why isn’t it within his power to tolerate local experiments?
Burke: He really doesn’t have a choice in the matter if it’s a question of something contrary to the church’s teaching. The teaching has always been that the pope has the fullness of power necessary to defend the faith and to promote it. So he can’t say, “This form of power gives me the authority to not defend the faith and to not promote it.”
Douthat: If Francis asked you to cease publishing criticisms of him, would you?
Burke: Not if I felt it was a question of the truth. If he said to me, you’re stating lies, you’re attacking the office of the Roman pontiff, then that I would cease. But I don’t. I try not to tell lies. And I’ve never attacked the office.
This distinction between the office and the man is how Burke reconciles his criticisms with a continued belief in papal authority and papal infallibility. A pope can mistakenly tolerate heresy, he suggested, or advance errors “in a very colloquial context, news conferences on airplanes and things like that,” even as the Holy Spirit still prevents him from teaching heresy in a formal way.
This is a narrower view of papal authority than many conservative Catholics embraced in the John Paul II and Benedict XVI eras, though it does have a reasonable historical pedigree within the church. But I pressed the cardinal on whether it’s really a sustainable position.
Douthat:The issue isn’t just what Pope Francis might tolerate or say casually to an interviewer, right? A document like Amoris Laetitia is clearly an official act. And its apparent permission slip creates a reality where the reasonable observer sees a new teaching or a change. In which case, aren’t conservative Catholics left holding onto a sort of esoteric religion, one that exists in older documents but doesn’t seem to influence the present life of the church?
Burke: Well, that’s not my experience. I travel a lot, including places which are considered to be very progressive like Germany, France. And everywhere I go, I find a significant number of young couples with children, of young single people, young priests who treasure their tradition, which is considered to be old or rigid and petrified or whatever term you want to use. They’re on fire. And I don’t find young people who buy this agenda of accommodation to the world. The younger people, they’ve experienced the bankruptcy of the culture. A lot of them have suffered through divorce in their families or they’ve been plagued with the evil of pornography. And they want a church that teaches them clearly the way to eternal salvation, the way to lead a good and decent life on earth.
Douthat: I agree that the Catholic subculture you describes exists. But I also see, as this pontificate has advanced, a growing paranoia and alienation among conservative Catholics, a temptation toward conspiracy theories that shade into sedevacantism, the belief that the pope is not the pope. I’m curious whether you worry that criticism of the pope contributes to this.
Burke: It’s true that for all the good social media does, they also give a voice to these extreme positions. And in my criticism I’ve been deeply concerned not to call into question respect for the papal office.
Douthat:You believe Francis is a legitimate pope?
Burke: Yes, yes. I’ve had people present to me all kinds of arguments calling into question the election of Pope Francis. But I name him every time I offer the Holy Mass, I call him Pope Francis, it’s not an empty speech on my part. I believe that he is the pope. And I try to say that consistently to people, because you’re correct — according to my perception also, people are getting more and more extreme in their response to what’s going on in the church.
I also asked Burke about whether this extremism is bound up with the right-wing populism roiling Western politics. Certainly Francis’s inner circle regards conservative criticism of this pontificate as one with Trumpism in the United States, a variation on the same reactionary impulse.
The cardinal sidestepped the larger question a little, but he was eager to distance himself from a specific exemplar of populism.
Douthat:What about your own relationship to Steve Bannon, which has been a source of great media fascination?
Burke:I came to know Steve Bannon through my involvement with the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, an association founded to assist European parliamentarians in following the demands of the moral law. Eventually, Bannon also became involved in its work. I met with him on three or four occasions, as I recall, to discuss Catholic teaching with him. From my point of view, they were conversations of a priest with a member of the lay faithful, which concerned the moral duty of a Catholic in public life. When the media presented more and more my relationship as my cooperation in his particular political program, I had to clarify the matter.
The final straw was the announcement of his plan to make a movie of the book by Frédéric Martel, “In the Closet of the Vatican,” a project [concerned with closeted homosexuality among Catholic clergy] with which I was in complete and clear disagreement. It was necessary for me to make clear that I have never been part of Bannon’s political organization. In my relationship with him, I have tried to fulfill my mission, as a priest, to teach the faith and morals for the common good.
This circumspection about politics, however, disappeared when we turned to the Amazonian synod. Burke objected to its consideration of married priests, but like many traditionalists he seemed most concerned about the synod’s attitude toward indigenous religion — beginning with the working document, the blueprint for the meetings.
Burke:For instance, what was proposed in the working document, I have said, and I believe, is in apostasy from the Catholic faith. A denial of the unicity and universality of the redemptive incarnation of our Lord Jesus’ saving work.
Douthat:You mean the parts that talk about the spiritual value of pre-Christian religious traditions in the Amazon?
Burke: I mean the idea that Jesus’ grace is one element in the cosmos — but it’s the cosmos, the world, that is the ultimate revelation. And therefore, even in going to a region like the pan-Amazon region, you wouldn’t be concerned to preach the gospel because you recognize there already the revelation of God. This is a falling away from the Christian faith.
During the synod, a controversy erupted over a wooden statue of a naked, kneeling pregnant woman, which was used by indigenous attendees in a prayer service and displayed in churches in Rome. She was sometimes described as an image of the Virgin Mary, sometimes as an embodiment of fertility or nature or Mother Earth. This ambiguity convinced many traditionalists, Burke included, that pagan worship was being smuggled into the church: “The statue in question is an idol,” he told me flatly.
In the last days of the synod, a young traditionalist Catholic took one of the statues from a Roman church and hurled it into the River Tiber. He subsequently revealed himself as an Austrian named Alexander Tschugguel, and there was a picture on Instagram showing him with Burke. When I asked about the incident, I expected the cardinal to disavow any personal knowledge of the young man.
Burke:While I know quite well and regard highly Alexander Tschugguel, especially for his courageous and tireless work in defending the inviolability of innocent human life and the integrity of the family, I had nothing to do with his removal of the pagan idols from the Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina and his throwing them into the Tiber.
At the same time, knowing his deep Catholic faith, I can understand why he found it intolerable that pagan idols be displayed in a Catholic church. It reminds me of similar situations in Old Testament times, for example, the case of the Maccabee brothers, and the case of so many confessors and martyrs, who would not tolerate that the Catholic faith be denied through the worship of pagan idols. Having listened to Alexander’s statement regarding his actions, I can only express my respect for him and my gratitude for his courageous witness to the faith.
It was also in discussing the Amazonian synod that Burke brought up the specter that hangs over Francis-era debates, the idea of a schism in the church.
Burke: While the final document is less explicit in the embrace of pantheism, it does not repudiate the statements in the working document which constitute an apostasy from the Catholic faith.
The working document doesn’t have doctrinal value. But what if the pope were to put his stamp on that document? People say if you don’t accept that, you’ll be in schism — and I maintain that I would not be in schism because the document contains elements that defect from the apostolic tradition. So my point would be the document is schismatic. I’m not.
Douthat:But how can that be possible? You’re effectively implying that the pope would be leading a schism.
Douthat:Isn’t that a deep contradiction of how Catholics think about the office of the papacy?
Burke: Of course. Exactly. It’s a total contradiction. And I pray that this wouldn’t happen. And to be honest with you, I don’t know how to address such a situation. As far as I can see, there’s no mechanism in the universal law of the church to deal with such a situation.
One mechanism outside that law would be the kind of open schism that Burke’s critics accuse him of fomenting. I asked him if that was imaginable.
Douthat: Can you imagine any situation that would justify the equivalent of what Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre did in the 1980s, when as a leader of a community of traditionalist Catholics he consecrated his own bishops in defiance of Rome?
Burke: Schism, that can never be the will of Christ. Christ can never will a division in his body. People come to me and say, look, cardinal, it’s time, we have to go into schism. And I say no, it’s not possible. Our Lord can’t want that, and I’m not going to be part of any schism.
Douthat: Does all this affect your faith?
Burke: No, I trust our Lord. He said, I’m with you always until the end of time. And so it doesn’t test my faith. It makes me concerned about my own wisdom and courage to deal with such a situation. And for better or worse, I am a cardinal of the church, with a heavy responsibility.
Douthat:But the majority of the cardinals for the next papal election are now appointed by Pope Francis himself. And for anyone watching these debates from the outside, from a secular perspective, this feels like a familiar story — where you have liberalization, resistance, the resistance is overcome, the institution moves on. So figures like yourself are seen, not necessarily as terrifying grand inquisitors, but as well-meaning old men out of touch with the inevitable future.
Burke: If the Catholic Church were simply a political institution, I think your description would be quite accurate — that here we have these conservatives who are resisting a change, the majority are in favor and it goes forward. But the church is always governed by the living tradition, which is a question of grace, of divine grace in the church. So I trust that somehow the Lord will bring all of this to a good conclusion. But I think there’s a lot of suffering to be endured going forward.
For my own part, I simply wanted to be able to say, with St. Paul, that I fought the good fight, I stayed the course, I kept the faith. And it doesn’t matter to me if people say, well, he’s just an old man who was out of touch with the world and it’s sad, he made this fuss, now it’s over and we move on.
I know that I have to give an account to our Lord and I wanted to be able to say to him that even if I made mistakes, I had tried to defend him, to serve him. That sounds like a pious comment, but it’s what really drives me — and that’s all.