“Justice in the Service of Charity”
May 15, 2010
As Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, the Most Rev. Raymond L. Burke holds the highest judicial office in the Church after only that of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, who elevated him to the post in 2008. Archbishop Burke is the first non-European to head the tribunal and the second-highest ranking American prelate in the Roman Curia. On May 15, 2010, His Excellency graciously served as Thomas Aquinas College’s Commencement Speaker and the principal celebrant and homilist at the Baccalaureate Mass.
Q: What are your primary responsibilities as Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura?
A: The Supreme Tribunal is both a tribunal — in the strict sense of the term — and it is the department of justice in the Church. Basically the function is to safeguard for the Holy Father the right administration of justice. Now I say that our service is very humble. We’re not involved in the great works of the Church in terms of works of charity or education or so forth, but our work is essential because you cannot talk about exercising charity or exercising any other virtue if you are not first of all just.
Q: How is running a congregation different from your earlier work as the ordinary of a diocese?
A: In one sense, it is not different. It is all pastoral care. In other words, you are caring for souls. In another sense, it is radically different because when you are the bishop of a diocese, you are caring for souls directly as a shepherd of the flock, and you are exercising directly the pastoral office on behalf of souls. Whereas as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, I exercise my pastoral care on behalf of the Holy Father. I am acting, in a certain sense, as his vicar in the administration of justice.
Q: How much of the work of the Signatura concerns marriage annulments?
A: The oversight of the Church tribunals throughout the world — the function of the department of justice — concerns chiefly marriage nullity. “Declarations of nullity” is really the correct term, but the term “annulment” is the term most often used. It has an unfortunate connotation because it gives the impression that the Church is annulling something that exists, whereas the Church’s understanding is that it is declaring that the marriage never existed. Even though the people lived in good faith, thinking they were married, some essential requirement of marriage was absent. They sincerely believed themselves to be married and then, with time, discovered that in fact their marriage was null.
Q: There seem to be so many declarations of nullity. Many people wonder, are they all legitimate?
A: In our day perhaps there are more marriages that are annulled because people form erroneous ideas about marriage. For instance, the exclusion of children by a positive act of the will would render a marriage null. And the exclusion of the indissolubility of the marriage would render it null if it was done by a positive act of the will. There may be more people who do that today.
The family is the first cell of the life of the Church, and it is through the bond of marriage that new members of the Church are brought to life in cooperation with God. So we want to make sure that in every respect the tribunals are honoring and safeguarding a valid marriage, and we do not want to be in a situation which has sometimes been described as “Catholic divorce,” where a different name is given to what is in fact a recognition of divorces. So that is a big responsibility and one that is very much weighing on our minds in the Apostolic Signatura.
Q: Is that concern especially acute in these times, when the surrounding culture is so hostile toward marriage and children?
A: There was a time when the Church stood up for the indissolubility, the fidelity, the procreativity of marriage, but so, too, did society. But now we live in a society in which these truths about the married life are not upheld. There is an illusion today, a stubborn refusal to understand human sexuality, male and female, particularly its procreative dimensions.
This illusion has contributed to the anti-life mentality. I once used the phrase that contraception was “the port of entry” for the whole abortion mentality because once sexual activity is not respected as procreative, if you don’t succeed in its not being procreative by contraception, then you move to abortifacients or direct abortion itself.
And the fact of the matter is that a number of the so-called contraceptives are really abortifacients. In other words, they destroy a fertilized egg by not permitting it to be implanted in the womb and continuing its development.
Q: Abortion is often treated as a religious matter, but is it not more fundamentally a question of Natural Law?
A: St. Thomas said the respect for human life was the first precept of the Natural Law; Natural Law being to do good and to avoid evil. What is the first way you do good and avoid evil? You respect human life. You do not take innocent and defenseless human life.
It is sad now that, when you read about the country’s founding documents, you will note on the life issues very little reference is made to the Declaration of Independence. Why? Because it is in the Declaration of Independence that that phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” appears. Sadly, the phrase is not repeated in the Constitution, so people try to make the claim that the Constitution does not protect the right to life. But in fact it has to. Inasmuch as it is a valid legal document, it has to rest on the natural moral law. It cannot rest on itself alone. You cannot have a positive law that is not rooted in the natural moral law. Otherwise you have an arbitrary situation where the law is whatever the strongest element in society says it is.
Q: What counsel do you have to offer the faithful in light of the horrible scandals afflicting the Church?
A: There are few things more evil than the violation of the trust between a priest and a member of the flock. That trust is sacred. It is a trust which is predicated on the relationship of the individual member of the faithful and Christ the Good Shepherd. And these violations of trust were, in the most horrible ways, perpetrated upon children and young people. The Holy Father was right to say that this is “filth” and it has to be eliminated from the Church. When he was Cardinal Ratzinger — I can say this personally, that in the late ‘80s and in the early ‘90s when I was working at the Signatura — he pushed for a very hard line on these cases. So that is the number one thing.
The number two thing in addressing accusations of sexual abuse is we have to avoid a kind of moral panic, by which because of the horror of this evil, we presume that any priest who is accused is automatically guilty. These kinds of things require that the most thorough investigation be made, an investigation that protects the rights and the dignity of everyone involved. And so in bringing to light the horror of these crimes and insisting that they need to be eliminated from the Church, and that every precaution has to be made so that they never happen again, we cannot then fall into moral panic whereby the only reality we see in the Church now is sexual abuse of minors by the clergy. That leads to a kind of mentality that is not healthy and can actually lead to some grave injustices.
Q: In addition to heading the Apostolic Signatura, you also serve on the Congregation for Bishops. Could you please describe your work there?
A: The Congregation has what are called members — cardinals and archbishops and bishops — I do not know what the total number is, maybe 25 or so. Usually every other Thursday we meet and we study four or five cases: dioceses that need a diocesan bishop, a coadjutor, or an auxiliary bishop. We are given in advance, in a strictly confidential way, a summary of the situation and pertinent documents. Then we’re asked in that session to express our mind, that is, what we recommend to the Holy Father, who appoints every bishop.
Q: You have been very generous to the College over the years, attending many key events and serving as this year’s Commencement speaker. From what springs this great affinity?
A: Well, I think that the number one thing is that the College is predicated on obedience to the Magisterium, to the Roman pontiff, and that is the guiding light in the same way it was for the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, your patron. That is the guiding law, the guiding direction of the College, and everything else fits in there.
And that is not a narrowing factor. In fact, it expands the education here to the widest possible degree to seek all truth. When one is faithful to the Magisterium, then one has the possibility to seek the truth in its integrity, not according to personal interests or personal convictions. That is the heart of the matter, that one undertakes one’s education fully in Christ and in His church, knowing that is what is going to really permit you to come to the deepest understanding and knowledge of things.
I wish that certain aspects of this year’s graduation ceremony could simply be broadcast throughout the whole country, so Catholics would see that this is possible — to have a truly Catholic education. You should be able to hear in every Catholic university in the country a senior address like that young man gave here. It was so natural for him, and he was as full of conviction as he could be.
“There’s a joy for life here you don’t get in most places, a sense of purpose, a sense of love and fellowship bound up in our common cause of seeking the truth.”
– Isaac Cross (’19)