Law & Order: Special Vatican Unit

Raymond Burke thinks like a lawyer. It’s only natural. His licentiate and doctorate in canon law have served him well.

Father Burke rose from the curia in La Crosse, Wisconsin to eventually become archbishop of St. Louis. From there, Benedict XVI made him prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. A useful though inexact synonym would be Chief Justice of the Vatican Supreme Court. Benedict then raised him to the purple as cardinal-deacon of St. Agatha’s, Rome.

Law and administrativa are Cardinal Burke’s metier. You talk about what you know. Cardinal Burke talks about what he knows. So, when he ponders the challenges of the Catholic Church’s “New Evangelization,” he seizes on this insight: the “irreplaceable role” of canonical law and order.

Such was the ultimate thrust of his recent speech to the annual convention of the Canon Law Society of Kenya. Full text is at ZENIT, with a hat-tip to for the link.

Burke argued that since the Second Vatican Council, we’ve gutted two millennia of carefully accumulated “organic” tradition, including legal tradition, secularizing ourselves and crippling our mission seven ways from Sunday: “The ‘hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,’ which has tried to highjack the renewal mandated by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, is marked by a pervasively antinomian culture, epitomized by the Paris student riots of 1968 [that’s your epitome? stuck in the ’60s much?], and has had a particularly devastating effect on the Church’s discipline.”

He looks at the sex abuse scandal, and hurls a mind-boggler: “It is profoundly sad to note, for instance, how the failure of knowledge and application of the canon law, which was indeed still in force, contributed significantly to the scandal of the sexual abuse of minors by the clergy in our [sic] some parts of the world.”

In the full transcript, Cardinal Burke briefly describes the historic and “carefully articulated process by which to investigate accusations,” which allegedly failed because, as he mysteriously laments, “it was not known.” Really? This in a church where decisions about priest-shuffling are regularly made by men with a canon law background (bishops and diocesan chancellors frequently have J.C.L.s and J.C.D.s)? These folks forgot the law was “still in force”?

Burke lost me there. He lost me again when he complained:

The years of a lack of knowledge of the Church’s discipline and even of a presumption that such discipline was no longer fitting to the nature of the Church indeed reaped gravely harmful fruits in the Church. For example, I think of the pervasive violation of the liturgical law of the Church, of the revolution in catechesis which often rendered the teaching of the faith vacuous and confused, if not erroneous; of the breakdown of the discipline of priestly formation and priestly life, of the abandonment of the essential elements of religious life and the devastating loss of fundamental direction in many congregations of religious Sisters, Brothers and priests; of the loss of the identity of charitable, educational and healthcare institutions bearing the name of Catholic; and the failure of respect for the nature of marriage and the time-proven process for judging claims of nullity of marriage in ecclesiastical tribunals.

Now that’s just training your gun on everything in sight. But then, as Thomas C. Fox put it in the NCR write-up, “Burke has argued on more than one occasion that lack of obedience to canon law is the prime cause of today’s church problems.” Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot; Raymond Burke would apparently write Waiting for Jack McCoy.

It is one thing to take Burke’s grim worldview, assuming with him a record of substantially unmitigated ecclesiastical disaster since the 1960s. It is another thing to believe with him that, in our churning postmodern society, we could have avoided such woes if we’d only deeply studied and applied our law books. I smell magic bullet theory. (Did Burke smell it himself? At one point he referenced John Paul II’s warning that “we will not save ourselves and our world by discovering ‘some magic formula.'”)

Being church is complicated. It means day-to-day discernment. It means foregoing a sense of security. It means acknowledging messy reality and privileging divine mystery. This is not a way of life best approached by either a lawyerly mind or some sweeping account of the one big thing we should do.

Nevertheless, key Catholic leaders in the highest offices really do think this way. And this is a large part of why, as Carlo Cardinal Martini, one of the Sacred College’s more nuanced thinkers, said shortly before his death last month, we are “200 years behind the times.”

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