The Catholic Church: Is it a ship without a rudder?

The Catholic Church: Is it a ship without a rudder?

American Cardinal Raymond Burke was removed last week from the head of the Apostolic Signatura (the Church’s judicial court in Rome), and appointed to the ceremonial post of chaplain to the Knights of Malta – a charity group. The Vatican gave no reason for this unusual demotion and redeployment – seldom are Vatican officials removed from their posts. But, last month, Burke himself said that he was expecting to be removed from his post. Earlier this year Pope Francis removed him from another influential position: a department that appoints bishops. He has given a series of interviews in recent months in which he has been critical of Pope Francis. In his latest interview, with a Spanish publication, he compared the Catholic Church under Pope Francis to “a ship without a rudder”. Is Burke’s removal a case of “tit-for-tat”? By RUSSELL POLLITT.

Burke is, as far as cardinals go, in the prime of his episcopacy – he is only 66 years old. Bishops in the Catholic Church are required to retire at 75; cardinals remain papal electors until the age of 80. His removal is not simply ‘business as usual’ in Rome. Burke has regularly clashed publicly with Pope Francis since his election in 2013 and seems to be more and more out of sync with the current pontificate. He reacted defensively to the first in depth interview that the Argentine Pope gave in September 2013 to a number of journals and magazines conducted by Fr. Antonio Spadaro SJ (Antonio Spadaro is editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, an Italian Jesuit journal. Spadaro conducted the interview on behalf of La Civiltà Cattolica and several other major Jesuit journals around the world).

The Pope said, among other things in the interview, that the Church should not just focus on sexual moral issues, like contraception, abortion and homosexuality, but also be concerned with social justice issues. The Pope suggested the Church should be more merciful to the divorced and remarried and look for ways to help them participate more fully in the life of the Church (divorced and remarried people are free to attend Holy Mass but cannot receive Communion unless they have an annulment). The tone of the interview suggested a vision of a Church that was much more welcoming and merciful.

Some interpreted the Pope’s comments as a change in church policy or teaching, but this was certainly not the case. It was, however, a significant shift in style and attitude. Burke, in an interview with the conservative American Catholic TV channel Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), reacted to what the Pope had said and made it clear that he did not agree. He quickly mobilised the support of conservatives and was soon equated with the centre of resistance towards Pope Francis.

Last month Burke emerged as one of the most vocal critics of any possible change in the Catholic Church at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. He slammed suggestions that there be more conciliatory language used when speaking of people whose lifestyles are contrary to Catholic teaching, including those in same-sex unions and other non-marital relationships. The cardinal told an American reporter that a statement from Pope Francis reaffirming traditional doctrine on those matters was “long overdue”. Burke strongly resisted a proposal by German Cardinal, Walter Kasper, that it should be made easier for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive communion.

Days before his removal as head of the Apostolic Signatura, Burke again stoked the fires of division. He said if bishops, in the months leading to next year’s second gathering of the Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome, were seen to move “contrary to the constant teaching and practice of the Church, there is a risk [of schism] because these are unchanging and unchangeable truths”. In the same interview, he urged Catholics to “speak up and act” and said, “at this very critical moment, there is a strong sense that the church is like a ship without a rudder”. Burke’s suggestion of schism got many talking and speculating – including the UK based The Spectator, which, in a headline, suggested, “Catholic civil war has begun”.

Sources in the Vatican told me that the Pope saw Burke’s outspokenness as part of the so-called “culture wars” among Catholics that the Pope wants to avoid. However, it is clear that deep divisions have emerged between the more liberal and conservative elements in the Church. Another source said that Burke, in a one-on-one conversation, was a very “angry, demoralised and disappointed man who has become more and more anxious as this welcoming, informal styled and evangelical pontificate unfolds”. Judging by the enthusiastic crowds in St Peter’s Square and according to anecdotal evidence, this style is welcomed by the majority of Catholics. However a minority of conservative Catholics shares Burke’s sentiments.

The Burke case points to a much deeper problem on both the so-called right and the left of the Church: the inability to grasp the paradigm in which the Pope is operating. This lack of understanding has led to many of the recent spats that have emerged from within the walls of the Vatican.

A comment by another leading American Cardinal, Francis George of Chicago, affirms this lack of understanding. In an interview at the opening of the bi-annual meeting of the Bishop’s Conference of the US in Baltimore, George, who is about to retire, said bishops are struggling to follow the lead of the Pope. “He says wonderful things,” George said, “but he doesn’t put them together all the time, so you’re left at times puzzling over what his intention is. What he says is clear enough, but what does he want us to do?” George also said he would like to travel to Rome to see Francis. “I’d like to sit down with him and say, Holy Father, first of all, thank you for letting me retire. And could I ask you a few questions about your intentions?”

Bingo! That’s exactly the problem – what is the intention of the Pope?

Pope Francis has opted to operate from a paradigm that many of the current bishops, appointed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, are not used to working from. The previous two Popes made decisions the rest of the Church was expected to implement. Francis, on the other hand, is operating out of a different model; for him communal discernment is at the heart of deciding on a way forward.

Discernment is necessary if one is going to read the signs of the times. It is no secret that the Catholic Church faces major problems that need to be assessed and responded to in an appropriate way. An appropriate response is not simply to change everything in order to “get with the times”. On the other hand an appropriate response may also not be simply reaffirming everything as it has been. A process of discernment should empower the Church to assess critically where things are and how, at this time, it could and should respond. Maybe change is necessary – maybe things need tweaking.

And, it is not unusual for there to be many different ideas and some ‘messiness’ when one does embark upon a process of communal discernment. This should not give rise to anxiety and defense – which leads to division – but rather a sense that there really is something that needs to be carefully discerned which is critical for the future.

Francis has opted for a “Jesuit way of proceeding”. This is rooted in the teachings of St Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits. To discern means to engage in a process of trying to discover the will or desire of God in a given situation. Discernment includes a time of reflection, prayer, talking, listening, some division, and even some debate so that different perspectives can emerge. At the opening of the recent Synod, the Pope asked all present to speak boldly and listen with openness – two key concepts in communal discernment.

In his closing speech at the Synod Francis made his position clear; once again many have not grasped the paradigm from which he is operating. He spoke of the process being “a journey” which has different moments. He used classical discernment language by referring to moments of “consolation” and “desolation”. He spoke about the temptation to be “hostile” and “inflexible” and not allowing oneself to be “surprised by God”. This is a key prerequisite to any process of discernment: that one is in a place of “interior spiritual freedom” to enter fully into the process. Being spiritually free means that one truly wants to discover what God wants. To do that means to not rigidly cling to one’s own position (whatever that might be) but to enter into authentic dialogue. It is a process of discovery as people listen together for what seems to be leading towards an increase of faith, hope and love and a growing sense of peace. From reports it seems as if some of those who were at the Synod – from both the right and the left – need to grow in this openness to different points of view; hostile reactions and defensiveness can indicate a lack of interior freedom.

Francis gave other clues too. He spoke of the “temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness”. He then went on to say, again using discernment language, that it is a temptation to want mercy and to bind wounds without first curing them and treating them – this must surely be words for those on the left that want change in Church teaching and policy. On the other hand he suggested that those on the right, or as he says “traditionalists”, should not be tempted “to hostile inflexibility”.

In the process of Ignatian discernment, in which Francis is well schooled, those discerning are warned not to be tricked into holding onto a position under the guise of good. Very often it is even our virtues and deeply held values that can get in the way of really listening in a particular situation. This is a temptation for the both so-called conservatives and liberals. Francis speaks of the differing points of view and says that these are fundamental (and should not lead to “disputations”) if good decisions are going to be made for the future of the Church. The very fact that, despite Burke’s public call for him to make a stand, Francis has tried to listen carefully without offering non-negotiable statements about things, shows that he truly does want the Church to read the signs of the times and respond appropriately to them in a way that will ensure the Church’s tradition is respected but also its integrity is preserved.

Pope Francis has not let “liberals” or “conservatives” down. Those, on either side, who claim that they have lost confidence in him, have misunderstood his modus operandi. Some conservatives have called the recent Synod a “mess” or a “disaster for the Pope”. The biggest mess or disaster is not what Francis has done; it’s the inability to be open to a shift in mindset. Burke, unfortunately, is symbolic of this inability and has fueled the fires of suspicion and division for over a year now. Burke’s removal was mostly of his own doing. It is not because Pope Francis is unwilling to listen to alternative voices – over and over he has listened. Burke himself has shown an aversion to any meaningful engagement.

The divisions in the Catholic Church are not simply ideological or doctrinal. The real crisis is the inability to listen openly and attentively to views that are not necessarily in line with a single worldview. A lack of understanding of the process of discernment is the real problem that assails many bishops and lay people in the Catholic Church. Burke’s removal should not be a moment of rejoicing for so-called liberals or lamenting by conservatives – that’s futile and immature. It poses the sobering question: can we really listen to each other – especially in the Church? DM

Photo: Then newly-elevated Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, of the US, who is one of the 24 new cardinals installed by Pope Benedict XVI (not pictured) during the Consistory ceremony in Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, 20 November 2010. EPA/GIUSEPPE GIGLIA


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