Archbishop Raymond Burke, left, argues that pro-choice Catholics should be denied Communion and funeral rites. Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, right, has staunchly defended his participation in Ted Kennedy’s funeral Mass.
BY AMY SULLIVAN
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 Seán 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.”
Friends of O’Malley’s say the cardinal was stunned by the criticism. The 65-year-old O’Malley is temperamentally Burke’s opposite, a shy man who dislikes celebrity and shuns politics — a major reason he was appointed to the sensitive post in Boston. With his full beard and preference for wearing the brown robe of a Capuchin friar, the man who goes by “Cardinal Sean” is not easily identified as a Prince of the Church. When O’Malley received his red hat in 2006, he persuaded some friends to go out for a late-night snack in Rome after a long day of ceremonies. But he ran into some trouble when he tried to return to his quarters. The Vatican guards didn’t believe that the casually attired man who smelled of pizza was a newly minted Cardinal.
Though he has presided over the difficult task of closing parishes and schools within the archdiocese, O’Malley is well liked in Boston and the broader Catholic community. He celebrated his inaugural Mass in Boston at a Spanish service, and he once joked that his scarlet Cardinal’s robes would come in handy if Dick Cheney ever invited him to go hunting. O’Malley, however, should not be mistaken for a liberal member of the hierarchy. He is a conservative on matters of doctrine, and for the past few years, he has been the face of the church’s opposition to Massachusetts’ gay-marriage law.
But O’Malley did not hesitate to push back against the uproar that surrounded the Kennedy funeral. In a Sept. 2 post on CardinalSeansBlog.org — he is the only Cardinal with a blog — O’Malley wrote, “In the strongest terms I disagree” with those who believe Kennedy did not deserve a funeral Mass. “We will not change hearts by turning away from people in their time of need and when they are experiencing grief,” he continued. “At times, even in the Church, zeal can lead people to issue harsh judgments and impute the worst motives to one another. These attitudes and practices do irreparable damage to the communion of the Church.”
It was the first time a Cardinal had directly and publicly challenged the Burke position. O’Malley’s statement was followed by another from Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., who lamented that “the death of Senator Kennedy has called forth at least an apparent rejection of mercy on the part of not a few Catholics.” It was inevitable that Burke would emerge to fire back. At a Sept. 18 dinner in Washington sponsored by the conservative media outlet Inside Catholic, Burke declared that “neither Holy Communion nor funeral rites should be administered to [pro-choice] politicians.” The audience gave Burke a prolonged standing ovation.
Silence from Rome
The American hierarchy has been divided before, most recently in the 1990s by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s argument that abortion is not the only issue in the “seamless garment of life” that Catholics are called to promote. But the current debate, which is expected to surface again when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) holds its general meeting later this month, is the bitterest yet. A minority faction of bishops had hoped Pope Benedict XVI would lead the way in punishing those who dissent from church teaching. His preference for avoiding the political fray has both frustrated them and emboldened them to act on their own.
The question now is whether the Vatican will move again to muzzle Burke. When he criticized Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl last spring during a videotaped interview, he was forced to apologize less than 24 hours after the video aired. In early September, the bishop of Scranton, Pa. — a Burke protégé — abruptly resigned after a stormy tenure and was not reassigned. Veteran Vatican watchers took it as a sign that some Burkean antics — such as threatening to refuse Vice President Joe Biden Communion and disparaging the USCCB — would not be tolerated.
Rome has been silent about Burke’s most recent public statements. In late September, O’Malley was named to the Pontifical Council for the Family, a minor and expected appointment, but also a reminder that the Boston Cardinal has friends in high places. “From the point of view of doctrine, Benedict has absolute firmness,” says a Vatican insider. “But he does not want to see it play out in a confrontational way.”
There are other signs that the word has gone forth, at least for now. In years past, the annual Red Mass held the Sunday before the U.S. Supreme Court’s term opens has been so heavily steeped in pro-life rhetoric that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg now declines to attend. This year’s service, however, featured a homily by the new chair of the bishop’s pro-life committee that included only the subtlest of references to abortion. More striking was the image of Biden taking Communion without incident.
Jeff Israely contributed to this report.
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