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Red hats, mixed messages: new American cardinals differ on a crucial issue

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 20, 2010

Most media reports on Pope Benedict’s selection of 24 new members for the College of Cardinals have focused on the heavy Italian representation among the Pontiff’s choices. But from the perspective of American Catholics, there is a much more interesting angle to this story. The two American prelates who will receive red hats on November 20—Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC, and Archbishop Raymond Burke, the former Archbishop of St. Louis who now works at the Vatican as head of the Apostolic Signatura—are on opposite sides of a crucial public debate.

Archbishop Burke became a controversial figure in 2004 when he announced that the Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry, should not present himself for Communion in the St. Louis archdiocese, because Kerry’s public support for legal abortion. Archbishop Burke, whose current position at the Vatican testifies to his expertise in canon law (he is roughly the Vatican’s equivalent of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), pointed out that #915 of the Code of Canon Law obliges priests to withhold the Eucharist from those who “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin,” such as public support for the killing of the unborn.

Furthermore, Archbishop Burke argues that the Eucharistic minister is not merely authorized, but actually obligated to withhold Communion from a public figure who supports abortion. To administer Communion under such circumstances, he says, causes scandal. The archbishop has made this argument forcefully, again and again and again and again and again. To mention the name of Archbishop Burke, among informed American Catholics, is to awaken the echoes of this canonical argument. It is inconceivable that Pope Benedict XVI would have named him to the College of Cardinals—indeed it is inconceivable that he would have given Archbishop Burke the top post at the Vatican tribunal-- if the Holy Father had seriously problems with that argument.

Yet on the same day that he named Archbishop Burke to receive a red hat, the Pope announced his plan to bestow the same honor on Archbishop Wuerl, who has tacitly rejected the Burke argument. Archbishop Wuerl, whose post in Washington puts him in the center of political debates, has repeatedly said that he will not refuse communion to the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, despite her unswerving support for legal (and government-subsidized) abortion. Like his predecessor in Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Wuerl has indicated that he does not want to turn the reception of Holy Communion into a political battleground. Archbishop Burke has dismissed that argument as “nonsense.”

What are we to make, then, of the Pope’s decision to honor two prelates who hold such irreconcilable views on such a vexing question? I wish that I could draw a clear message from the Pope’s choice; I cannot. But I can make a few observations that might help put the question in perspective:

1) It’s a big Church. Archbishops Burke and Wuerl disagree on an important issue. But they are not enemies. Within the College of Cardinals there is a wide range of opinion on a number of important issues. Pope Benedict is not looking for ideological uniformity but for sound judgment from the prelates who will be his advisers and will select his successor.

2) Archbishop Burke is the exception, not Archbishop Wuerl. No other American cardinal has endorsed the Burke argument in favor of withholding Communion from pro-abortion politicians. Archbishop Wuerl’s response to the question has been roughly the same as that of every other American now seated in the College of Cardinals. If the Pope is sending any message at all to American Catholics with these selections, it is a message of support for Archbishop Burke’s stance. We already knew that it is possible for an American cardinal to argue against confrontation; all the other American cardinals make that argument.

3) The abortion debate is more sensitive in the US than in Europe—or even in Rome. European Catholic prelates are not even arguing about disciplinary action against pro-abortion politicians. State officials who support legal abortion routinely receive Communion in Italy, even occasionally at the Vatican. American pro-life activists are gradually teaching their counterparts in Europe to take the question more seriously, and make more demands on Catholic politicians. Most European cardinals would undoubtedly side with Archbishop Wuerl in the American debate. Again, the elevation of Archbishop Burke is more significant; it ensures that the College of Cardinals will include one powerful voice for effective disciplinary action.

4) Still, American Catholics should not feel superior. Pro-life Americans might be tempted to feel smug in the knowledge that we are pushing to exert pressure on Catholic politicians who have made their peace with the “culture of death,” while in Europe that fight has not yet really begun. But in the Philippines, Catholic bishops are debating how to discipline politicians who support public funding for contraception. If most European Catholics are not ready to fight against public support for abortion, most American Catholics are not ready to fight against public support for contraception. We still have a long way to go.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: impossible - Oct. 25, 2010 12:37 AM ET USA

    More important than Wuerl agreeing to honor another Bishop's Canon 915 decision would be for Wuerl to personally enforce Canon 915 in his own diocese. His participation in the Kennedy funeral fiasco speaks volumes.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 24, 2010 3:11 PM ET USA

    I would not be so quick to associate the motive of "cowardice" with Pope Benedict. I would like very much to see the replacement of the Wuerl/McCarrick type of Catholic-lite believing bishop replaced the world over - as much as anyone wanting to be faithful to The Church and tired of betrayal. I think the Pope is appointing place-holder bishops as best he can to allow the Sacraments and administration of the Church to go on, and also to avoid a de jure schism, as probably did JPII.

  • Posted by: Chestertonian - Oct. 22, 2010 10:11 PM ET USA

    I'm not saying Wuerl is equal to Burke, but when Gov Sibelius was told by her Kansas bishop not to present herself for Communion, Wuerl said he would follow this proscription. So, I think, perhaps, that if Pelosi's bishop in CA told her not to present herself, Wuerl would follow again. Hardly perfect leadership, but I think he's deferring to the home bishop who has jurisdiction.

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Oct. 22, 2010 7:13 PM ET USA

    I totally agree with pwrosey2737! Appointing both Wuerl and Burke as Cardinals sends a message of comfort to the "We Are Church" crowd. Ethics and morality are up to the individual's own choice and not the Teaching Magisterium of the Church. Once again the pro-lifers are betrayed and can count on precious little support in their valiant struggle against the culture of death. By splitting the difference, these two appointments smack of cowardice. Pretty sad.

  • Posted by: impossible - Oct. 22, 2010 12:36 AM ET USA

    Makes one wonder if the good old boy network continues to hold power. This was a perfect opportunity to send a much needed message to the American Bishops, by making someone like Archbishop Robert Carlson or Bishop Robert Vasa a Cardinal instead of Archbishop Donald Wuerl.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Oct. 21, 2010 7:46 AM ET USA

    An excellent analysis, Phil. One must also consider the fact of which of the two Cardinals-designate will have greater access and, therefore, greater influence over the decisions made at the Holy See, and that's not Wuerl.