816242-raymond-burkeIt is difficult to discern which public-relations spin is correct when it comes to the public and well-publicized disagreements among the college of cardinals about the nature, scope, hopes, and fears of the upcoming Synod on the Family. Some commentators have suggested that this is an example of infighting and ecclesiastical politics playing out, while others have suggested that this is an important dialogue reminiscent of the early church debates among bishops on matters of doctrine and morality.

While I would like to believe that the latter scenario is true, thereby evoking a time and experience of serious debate in theological reflection  along the lines of Nicaea or even the Council of Trent (in which theologians debated at the request of participating bishops to help shape the doctrinal and disciplinary pronouncements), I fear that a great deal of what is currently unfolding fits the bill of the former scenario — some cardinals just cannot accept the truth that fides quaerens intellectum means that we come to a fuller understanding of the so-called “content of the faith” over time and with serious and faithful research, reflection, and dialogue.

Case in point: Cardinal Raymond Burke’s latest rantings.

I don’t like to use such unfavorable descriptors as “ranting” to describe what my brother Christians and priests are doing, but there is really no other way around it in this particular case. Clearly unhappy with the change in pontificate, something about which he’s has not remained shy, and ostensibly threatened by the possibility that scripturally based mercy and social justice might inform the forthcoming proceedings of the October Synod, Burke has lately suggested that “the media” is responsible for “hijacking” the discussion in preparation for the Synod. Originally reported by the Catholic News Agency and picked up elsewhere, the Cardinal is reported to have said:

I don’t think you have to be brilliant to see that the media has, for months, been trying to hijack this Synod…he media has created a situation in which people expect that there are going to be these major changes which would, in fact, constitute a change in Church teaching, which is impossible. That’s why it’s very important for those who are in charge to be very clear.

So, what’s the problem? “Church teaching,” in the broad sense in which Burke evokes it here, does in fact change and change more regularly than one in his reactionary shoes might imagine.

Unfortunately, the good cardinal and canonist makes for a very inaccurate theologian and historian: changes in “church teaching” are in fact very possible and recognizable.

There are the classic examples of usury, slavery, interfaith marriage, and the like. But there are also more subtle ways in which “church teaching” has changed even within my admittedly short lifetime. Teaching pertaining to morality of all things. Take, for example, the way that magisterial teaching on capital punishment has shifted over the last thirty years, but in the exercise of papal teaching authority as well as on the more regional and local levels with bishops conferences and synodal statements. Also, the Code of Canon Law, that governing document so precious to Burke personally, continues to be a living document that is amended (Benedict XVI made changes, to the status of authority for the order of deacons, for example) and had in 1983 after the mandate of Vatican II significantly revised the Code.

On the more pertinent topic of the Sacrament of Marriage, both Vatican II (see Gaudium et Spes) and subsequent encyclicals (e.g., Humanae Vitae) significantly changed the “Church’s Teaching” on the natural “ends” of marriage, expanding that category from just procreative ends to include the role of mutuality and love between the spouses.

Unfortunately for Cardinal Burke, his personal opinion (which is what is expressed here) is not supported by the tradition, neither historically nor theologically. In truth, even his canonical field has to admit to change and with good reason. Regarding questions of the family, the meaning and practice of marriage in particular, these are things that certainly fall within (to put it simply) the extended category of church teaching and are not, as the Creed is for example, “impossible to change.” So much of what is billed by Burke and his likeminded fellows as essential to the faith is really a reliant, not simply on teaching constituting dogma (e.g., Scripture, the Creed, etc.) but the result of centuries of theological reflection and growing in the understanding of our shared faith. Additionally, so much of what is perceived as “unchangeable,” is reliant on medieval fundamental theology that does not always hold up to the natural and social scientific and philosophical discoveries we’ve made over the last millennium.

It is indeed time for conversation, and people like Burke are certainly welcome to oppose the work of other bishops and theologians, but don’t blame this on the “bogeymen” of “the media” and “culture.” Each should take responsibility for their own views and enter the dialogue with respect.

Photo: File


  1. I think there is a middle ground here. As a Catholic who is divorced, and who facilitates ministry to divorced & separated in my local parish, I am anxious (and dare I say hopeful) for the outcome of the Extraordinary Synod discussions particularly in the area of second marriage, annulment and reception of the Sacraments. Father is correct to point out that many Church teachings have changed over time. Sometimes this takes centuries. I think what the Cardinal may be worried about, and I share that worry, is that many in and outside the Church who would like to see the Church conform more to the worldly view of things are advocating for wholesale and immediate changes that completely dispose of core doctrine, simply for the sake of change, and because they see the Church as being “out of touch”. We must always remember in any discussion about the evolution of Church teaching that Christians are called to change the world, not the other way around.

    1. Yes, you bring up good points. However, don’t be so quick to affirm your last line:

      We must always remember in any discussion about the evolution of Church teaching that Christians are called to change the world, not the other way around.

      Such a claim may be viewed as an illegitimate dichotomy between something called “the world” and “the church.” As Gaudium et Spes, a conciliar constitution and therefore highest form of authoritative teaching, makes clear in it’s title: the “Church is in the world” and not apart from it!

  2. Fr. Dan, Thanks for a clear and balanced presentation that sheds light without the heat currently being generated in this media debate.

    I am a Catholic in a second marriage and my wife and I both received annulments. While I recognize that the annulment process is juridical, going through that process was healing for me. So finding a way to be “in the world and not apart from it” (as you note in your helpful response to mgr1984s comment above) in a way that sustains the “truth”, builds up the body of Christ, and promotes healing would be a great blessing to many people and the Church.

    A quick aside: Reading about the ongoing debate in advance of the Synod I recall Pilate’s question to Jesus, “What is truth?” Cardinal Burke might say, The position I have just presented out is the truth. to say otherwise is to .”..constitute a change in Church teaching, which is impossible.” And as we all know, although Jesus didn’t answer Pilate, he had already given Thomas the answer saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” May the Holy Spirit descend up the Synod in the most profound way and guide its work.

    Twitter: @RayGlennon

  3. Dan Horan is correct re: church-world relationship at Vatican II still being misunderstood and misapplied. Check out great new book by Australian theologian, James McEvoy, Leaving Christendom for Good: Church World Dialogue in a Secular Age (2014). Best “church-world” interpretation to date.. lots of Charles Taylor.

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