The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church traditionally couch even the harshest disagreements in decorous, ecclesiastical language. But it didn’t take a decoder ring to figure out what Rome-based Archbishop Raymond Burke meant in a late-September address when he charged Boston Cardinal Sen O’Malley with being under the influence of Satan, “the father of lies.”
Burke’s broadside at O’Malley was inspired by the Cardinal’s decision to permit and preside over a funeral Mass for the late Senator Ted Kennedy. And it has set the Catholic world abuzz. Even more than protests over the University of Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Barack Obama to speak, disputes over the Kennedy funeral have brought into the open an argument that has been roiling within American Catholicism. The debate nominally centers on the question of how to deal with politicians who support abortion rights. Burke and others who believe a Catholic’s position on abortion trumps all other teachings have faced off against those who take a more holistic view of the faith. But at the core, the divide is over who decides what it means to be Catholic. A Bull in a China Shop
It strikes no one as surprising that the 61-year-old Burke is at the center of the current fight. The former Archbishop of St. Louis made national headlines in 2004 when he became the first Catholic leader to say he would deny the Eucharist to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. He led an unsuccessful drive to bar Communion for politicians who support abortion rights. And as Election Day approached in 2004, Burke issued a warning to Catholics in the key swing state of Missouri that they should not present themselves for Communion if they voted for pro-choice candidates.
The Archbishop’s outspoken comments did not go unnoticed in Rome. In June 2008, Burke was unexpectedly transferred to the Vatican. The move was widely interpreted as a way to put some distance between Burke and the political contest in the States. “It was not unrelated to issues of political timing,” observes Mark Silk, a professor of religion at Trinity College.
Burke’s new assignment came with an impressive title: Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura essentially chief justice of the Vatican’s highest court. But the job, which involves hearing appeals of lower-canon-court rulings on issues like annulment requests, did not stop him from commenting on American politics. In January he charged that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was responsible for Obama’s victory because it overwhelmingly approved a document suggesting that Catholics could consider issues besides abortion when deciding how to vote. The conference’s in-house news service, he added, failed to highlight Obama’s moral failings in its campaign coverage. And he called Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a pro-choice Catholic, a “source of deepest embarrassment to Catholics.” Burke’s confrontational approach doesn’t always mesh with the more discreet diplomacy favored by his Italian colleagues. “He’s seen as a bull in a china shop,” says an American priest and longtime Rome resident. “I’ve seen Italian bishops roll their eyes.”
In retrospect, it should have been obvious that the funeral plans for Kennedy would reignite a lingering dispute within the church. The question of whether the Senator should even be described as a Catholic because of his support for abortion rights and his checkered life history was hotly debated on Catholic blogs and religion websites like Beliefnet.com. Right-wing Catholics lobbied the Boston archdiocese to refuse the Kennedy family a church funeral. Robert Royal of the Faith & Reason Institute called O’Malley’s decision to go ahead with the Mass a “grave scandal” on a par with the sexual-abuse crisis.
But it’s one thing for partisans and bloggers to disparage a Mass for a dead Senator; it’s quite another for a Vatican official to do so. Even some leading conservative Catholics may find they cannot support Burke’s latest salvo. When told of the Archbishop’s assertion that pro-choice Catholics should not be permitted funeral rites, Princeton professor Robert George was taken aback: “That’s a very different, and obviously graver, claim than that with which I would have sympathy. I haven’t heard before any bishop say that pro-abortion politicians should not be given a Catholic funeral.”
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