Cardinal Burke: Let us beg the State!

Cardinal Burke

Cardinal Raymond Burke is back in the news, this time for having published a lengthy letter wherein he weighed-in on the widely unmet spiritual needs of the faithful in light of COVID-19. As usual, he is once again receiving unqualified applause from neo-conservative Catholics, as well as some traditional types.

Don’t get me wrong, the majority of Burke’s comments are on point. It ends up, however, that the portion of the letter that is getting the most attention also happens to be the part that is most lacking in Catholic sense.

He writes:

… prayer, devotions and worship, above all, Confession and the Holy Mass, are essential for us to remain healthy and strong spiritually, and for us to seek God’s help in a time of great danger for all. Therefore, we cannot simply accept the determinations of secular governments, which would treat the worship of God in the same manner as going to a restaurant or to an athletic contest.

So far so good, but then Cardinal Burke gets to his proposed solution to the present problem. With the civil authorities in numerous places having presumed to issue orders that severely restrict the pubic celebration of Holy Mass and, in some cases, effectively leading to its cancellation, Cardinal Burke advises:

We bishops and priests need to explain publicly the necessity of Catholics to pray and worship in their churches and chapels, and to go in procession through the streets and ways, asking God’s blessing upon His people who suffer so intensely.

We need to insist that the regulations of the State, also for the good of the State, recognize the distinct importance of places of worship, especially in time of national and international crisis. In the past, in fact, governments have understood, above all, the importance of the faith, prayer and worship of the people to overcome a pestilence.

The fact of the matter is that the “regulations of the State” do not apply to the salvific mission of the Church! She is eminently free to carry it out as she sees fit whether the State likes it or not. Why? Because it was given to her by Christ the King who reigns over all men, including those who exercise civil authority.

Even so, Cardinal Burke is essentially saying that we – priests and bishops in particular – must beg the civil authorities to allow for the public celebration of Holy Mass during this crisis. He also suggests that we would do well to remind them that the government, back in the day, was far more accommodating of the Church in the face of such challenges.

For this, Cardinal Burke is once again being placed on a pedestal.

An authentic Catholic response, however, would look quite different. Consider, for example, the words of Pope Leo XIII:

Wherefore, being, by the favor of God, entrusted with the government of the Catholic Church, and made guardian and interpreter of the doctrines of Christ, We judge that it belongs to Our jurisdiction, venerable brethren, publicly to set forth what Catholic truth demands of every one in this sphere of duty; thus making clear also by what way and by what means measures may be taken for the public safety in so critical a state of affairs.  – Diuturnum, 1881 

Get that? Regulations pertaining to “public safety” include more than just matters of temporal governance; they include mankind’s duty toward God, and on this note it belongs to the Church, not the State, to set the parameters.

Whatever, therefore in things human is of a sacred character, whatever belongs either of its own nature or by reason of the end to which it is referred, to the salvation of souls, or to the worship of God, is subject to the power and judgment of the Church … To wish the Church to be subject to the civil power in the exercise of her duty is a great folly and a sheer injustice. Whenever this is the case, order is disturbed, for things natural are put above things supernatural… – Immortale Dei, 1885  

In other words, what priests and bishops really need to do is to make it perfectly plain to the civil authority that they are not the sole power on earth by which society is governed.

Following is the Letter of Pope Gelasius I to Emperor Anastasius in 494, widely referred to as “Duo Suit” (Latin for “There are two”). Fr. John Hardon, S.J. called this the most succinct expression of the Church’s mind on the civil power’s relationship with the ecclesial power and it remains the doctrine of the Church.

There are two, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests [the Church] and the royal power [civil authority]. Of these, that of the priests is weightier, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment. You are also aware, most clement son, that while you are permitted honorably to rule over humankind, yet in divine matters you bend your neck devotedly to the bishops and await from them the means of your salvation.

In the reception and proper disposition of the heavenly sacraments, you recognize that you should be subordinate rather than superior to the religious order, and that in these things you depend on their judgment rather than wish to bend them to your will.

In many places, the civil authority has issued “orders” setting limits on the numbers of persons that are allowed to gather, even for Holy Mass. In the face of this, many Novus Ordo bishops have gone above and beyond what the civil power has ordered, deciding to cancel public Masses altogether.

Ironically, the conciliar bishops in these cases (never mind whether their decision is good or bad – I happen to think it’s reprehensible) are actually giving a better example (even if only inadvertently) of how the regulation of such things belongs to the ecclesial power alone than some traditional clerics (like Fr. Wegner, SSPX) who have pledged to follow government rulings.

The latter would give one who doesn’t know any better (and evidently very few do) to believe that the Church should submit to the State in matters such as these.

Truly, the world is being turned upside down.

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