Catholic World News News Feature

At Last, Decisive Discipline February 01, 2004

By Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

As Bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse, I am bound to be "solicitous for all the faithful entrusted to [my] care." (Code of Canon Law, 383 §1). With respect to the fundamental responsibility of safeguarding and promoting the respect for human life, it is my duty ‘to explain, persuade, correct, and admonish those in leadership positions who contradict the Gospel of life through their action and policies." (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, November 1998, #29.)

So began the notification to Catholic politicians in the Diocese of La Crosse which Bishop Raymond Burke published in his diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Times, on January 8. Later in the same document he came directly to the point:

I hereby call upon Catholic legislators who are members of the faithful of the Diocese of La Crosse, to uphold the natural and divine law regarding the inviolable dignity of all human life. To fail to do so is a grave public sin and gives scandal to all the faithful. Therefore, in accord with the norm of can. 915, Catholic legislators, who are members of the faithful of the Diocese of La Crosse and who continue to support procured abortion or euthanasia may not present themselves to receive Holy Communion. They are not to be admitted to Holy Communion, should they present themselves, until such time as they publicly renounce their support of these most unjust practices.

The promulgation of that four-paragraph decree ended a 9-year tenure in relative obscurity and thrust Bishop Burke into the media spotlight.

This sudden burst into national prominence is a turn of events that would have seemed unlikely to those who knew the prelate well. Bishop Burke had been named on December 2 as the next Archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri. That announcement had been greeted primarily with curiosity, and inquiries as to how and why this relatively unknown bishop from a rural diocese was being named to one of the most prominent urban archdioceses in the country—to a position that could well bring him a cardinal’s red hat.

If Bishop Burke was not particularly well known at the time his appointment was made public, it is still more curious that he would have hit the headlines in the weeks before the transfer was completed. The time between a bishop’s assignments is usually very quiet. The bishop is busy finishing up what business he can in his old diocese, and studying up to prepare himself for his new assignment. There are many practical details to be handled, including the moving of his personal belongings. Once the official announcement is made, the newly appointed prelate visits the diocese where he will serve, and once the news cycle surrounding that visit is ended, there is usually a pronounced lull, with few news stories about the diocese appearing until the new bishop is installed. Even that event usually does not command coverage beyond the local area. (How many Catholics outside of California read any news about the installation of Bishop Allen Vigeron as ordinary of Oakland late last year?)


But when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on December 4 that a Wisconsin state senator living within the Diocese of La Crosse had received a letter from Bishop Burke, warning her that she was jeopardizing her standing in the Catholic Church by her consistent anti-life votes, it was clear that this was not going to be one of those ordinary quiet transfers.

That Journal Sentinel story also revealed two other Catholic legislators in the La Cross diocese had received similar letters from their bishop. (The newspaper indicated that it had obtained the letter from the state senator, Julie Lassa, under the terms of the state’s open-records law. Why the Journal Sentinel had not obtained the letters to the other two lawmakers in the same way was left unexplained.) There was widespread speculation that one of the other recipients of the bishop's warnings was Congressman David Obey, a veteran Democratic member of the US House of Representatives. The third recipient was not identified.

Bishop Burke told a December 9 news conference in La Crosse that he had intended for these letters to be private and confidential. He admitted that he had not realized that by sending them to the individual’s offices rather than to their homes, he had made them subject to the terms of the open-records law. In the long run, however, the premature publicity about those letters might have helped to prepare the public for what was soon to come.

The revelation about the bishop's correspondence with the Catholic lawmakers—made public just two days after the announcement of his appointment to St. Louis—touched off a flurry of columns about the appropriateness of bishops making political statements. The Journal Sentinel, over the course of seven days, published five columns on the subject: two editorials blasting the bishop; two op-ed columns (of dubious logic) also castigating him; and one guest column by a Milwaukee seminarian at the North American College in Rome, supporting him. Other local media in Wisconsin joined in the howls of protest, as did one newspaper serving the community where Burke would soon be assigned, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The protests reached well beyond the geographical range of the bishop's own assignments, however. Even the Salt Lake Tribune jumped in on the act.

The rhetoric featured in these angry editorial columns, and repeated on radio talk shows, was predictable:

• “He’s crossed over the line separating church and state.” • “This is precisely what President Kennedy campaigned against when he ran.” • “Why doesn’t he tell those who supported the war in Iraq they can’t receive?”

A few days after the bishop's letters were revealed, the Journal Sentinel broke a new story, disclosing that the bishop had removed the La Crosse diocese from participating in the annual AIDS Walk. That was done, explained Arthur Hippler, the director of the Justice and Peace office for the diocese, because some of the groups that were participating and benefiting from the walk openly promoted homosexual activity. However the public coverage of the announcement, as well as the timing, conveyed the impression that Bishop Burke was again exercising his authority with a heavy hand.


Still, diocesan participation in a fundraising event is a minor matter. And even the bishop's letters to local legislators might have been dismissed. After all Bishop Burke was soon to be leaving Wisconsin; there was no way to know how—if at all—his successor would follow up on his warnings.

But what happened next was a bombshell: the formal canonical notification that was published on January 8.

Technically, at the time when the bishop's decree was made public, Bishop Burke had already been appointed to the St. Louis archdiocese; he was now legally the apostolic administrator of the La Crosse diocese, and no longer held the authority to issue such decrees. But the canonical action had actually been signed on November 25, eight days before the bishop was named to St. Louis. Not coincidentally, that date was the feast of Christ the King. It was also the anniversary of the date when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a doctrinal note on the moral responsibilities of Catholic politicians.

The decree by Bishop Burke was an important new landmark for American Catholicism. Although bishops have repeatedly insisted that Catholic legislators should vote against abortion and euthanasia, this was the first time, in the 30 years since the Roe v. Wade decision, that a bishop had told politicians in his diocese that they will be denied the Eucharist if they persist in voting against the defense of human life.

Archbishop Burke made it clear in his January notification that this was a spiritual, not a political, matter. While legislators might look upon the issue of abortion or euthanasia as a matter of public policy, the bishop indicated that he was concerned only about human lives and about the politicians' souls. He underlined that point by asking his people to pray for the legislators’ conversion:

I ask for the prayers of all the faithful of the Diocese of La Crosse and of all people of good will within the Diocese of La Crosse, that Catholic legislators who have promoted procured abortion or euthanasia, with the help and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, may undergo a conversion of heart in this most grave matter, so that human life may be protected and fostered in the greatest way possible and these legislators may be admitted once more to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

Some critics of the bishop's action speculated that the timing of his decree had been carefully planned. This speculation ran in two different directions: some critics said that Bishop Burke was looking for greater national prominence as he prepared for his move to St. Louis; others suggested that he was making the announcement just before he left town, so that he could avoid the long-term consequences. Both lines of speculation are illogical.

Many people overlook the fact that when a careful prelate like Bishop Burke makes a major policy announcement, preparations have been long in the making. This was certainly the case with his January decree. The warning letter received by Julie Lassa was dated in August—well before Bishop Burke knew that he would be transferred to St. Louis. Although the bishop chose not to discuss his correspondence, it seems likely he had been engaged in a lengthy dialogue with the lawmaker before he reached the point of issuing such a stern warning.

The notion that Bishop Burke could escape the fallout from his decree by moving to St. Louis is even more unrealistic. During his press conference in La Crosse, the bishop was asked how he would approach the same problem in St. Louis. He responded that he would do the same thing, if he found that the same action was needed.

Most likely it will be needed. Will the new archbishop lower the boom on politicians during the first weeks of his administration in St. Louis? That seems doubtful. Bishop Burke was installed in his home diocese of La Crosse in 1995 and, according to knowledgeable sources, had turned his attention to the problem of pro-abortion politicians in 2002. His record is one of moving deliberately. Coming into a new place with greater responsibilities will likely mean that he will study the situation at length before he makes any moves.

But the La Crosse decree has Missouri legislators concerned. “We as legislators have never faced anything like that from an archbishop or bishop in the state of Missouri,” Steve Stoll, a Democratic member of the Missouri state senate, told the Associated Press.

In the final analysis, Bishop Burke issued his decree not because he saw some particular opportunity—political or ecclesial—but because he thought it was the right thing to do. In an interview he was asked whether he would have felt any regrets if he had left La Crosse without writing those fateful letters to Catholic politicians. “Not only regrets, but guilt,” he replied.


The only other incident that can be compared with the La Crosse case is one that occurred 14 years ago. In 1989, Bishop Leo Maher of San Diego excommunicated a legislator in the midst of a political campaign, because the legislator attacked her opponent for supporting restrictions on legal abortion. But Bishop Maher's action drew no support from his brother bishops in California. And even some pro-life supporters have questioned whether the bishop handled the case properly, since his public action against the legislator, in the heat of a campaign, generated so much media attention that it probably helped the pro-abortion candidate secure her victory. Leaving those considerations aside, Bishop Maher's announcement involved only one legislator, whereas Bishop Burke's policy applies across the board to all of the Catholic lawmakers in the La Cross diocese.

Another step toward discipline of pro-abortion Catholics was taken in 1996 by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, when he issued a decree excommunicating people who were members of several different organizations. While those organizations were clearly at odds with Church teaching on many issues, the bishop's action was not directly targeted at legislators who voted in favor of abortion. Moreover, Bishop Bruskewitz's decree was appealed to Rome, and the bishop lost his case on procedural grounds. In 1998, the same policy was included in canonical legislation for the Lincoln diocese, based on a diocesan synod of 1996, and it is now in force.

More recently, Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento, California, warned then-Governor Gray Davis that his stance in favor of abortion imperiled his status as a Catholic. Bishop Weigand made his statement during a Mass in his cathedral commemorating the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. But he did not take any disciplinary action to follow up on his statement, nor did other California bishops give him their public support. In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Bishop Robert Carlson is said to have initiated an exchange of private letters with Senator Tom Daschle, the pro-abortion Democratic leader in the US Senate, who is a member of the Sioux Falls diocese. The bishop reportedly told Senator Daschle that in light of his public rejection of Church teaching, he should no longer identify himself as a Catholic. But Bishop Carlson refused to discuss his correspondence with the senator, saying that it was a private matter.

Shortly before Archbishop Sean O'Malley was installed in Boston last year, local newspapers recalled that during a previous assignment in the neighboring Fall River diocese he had rebuked a local legislator for her support of abortion. In a public clarification issued by the Boston archdiocese, Archbishop O'Malley explained that he had said pro-abortion lawmakers should refrain "on their own volition" from receiving the Eucharist. The archdiocesan statement continued with the explicit declaration that even if the lawmaker continued to support unrestricted abortion, "It is not our policy to deny Communion. It is up to the individual."

But if public support for abortion and euthanasia are serious sins, and if an individual who knowingly receives the Eucharist while in a state of serious sin is endangering his salvation, is a bishop not bound to deny him the Eucharist, and thus preserve him from further spiritual harm? More important, if a public figure has distanced himself from the teaching of the Church on a fundamental moral issue, has he not broken his communion with the Catholic Church? To permit someone who is manifestly not in communion with the Church to receive the Eucharist is a scandal. Bishop Burke was the first American prelate to take the next logical step.

The decisive action by Bishop Burke will call more attention to the policies of other American prelates, and to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops' conference voted last November to re-examine their responses to Catholic politicians who defy Church teachings. If other US bishops choose to take the same step now taken by Bishop Burke, the result could be something that pro-life activists and orthodox Catholics have awaited for years; bishops might actually emerge as public leaders, taking action to defend their flocks and their faith.

There are other bishops who may well take similar actions. Bishops Weigand and Carlson have already given some indication that they think along the same lines, as do Bishops Bruskewitz and Thomas Doran of Rockford, Illinois. There are also several newly appointed bishops of stalwart orthodoxy who might take similar actions when they become acclimated to their new sees. Bishops Vigneron of Oakland; Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin; Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio; and Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Arizona, would belong in that category.


Some commentators, in writing about the bishop's decree, seemed to be laboring under the impression that Bishop Burke had excommunicated the legislators in question. That is not the case. Canon lawyer Ed Peters explains that excommunication is a penalty imposed only after a canonical process. In this case, Peters continues, Bishop Burke has simply applied sacramental rules that prohibit “desecration of the Eucharist through unworthy reception.” The canon Bishop Burke used, # 915, states:

Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.

There is no penalty attached to the decree, Peters observes. So if a priest or other Eucharistic minister disobeys the bishop's instruction, and gives Communion to a politician covered by the bishop's decree, the consequences are not spelled out. But at the least, Peters said, these ministers would be guilty of violating a direct order from the bishop, an offense under canon 212.

The politicians who are affected by the decree could initiate a canonical process of their own to appeal the bishop's order, Peters says. Most likely, however, that appeal would not be successful, because the bishop's prior correspondence with the individuals concerned had provided a clear canonical basis for his action.

When he issued the canonical decree, Bishop Burke simultaneously promulgated a 15-page pastoral letter on the role of Catholics in politics. This letter encouraged members of his flock to allow their Catholic faith to form their decisions as they participate in the political process.

The bishop's letter also stated that proper intellectual formation for public life begins in the home. And in making that point, the bishop touched on another highly sensitive topic: contraception. He wrote:

We must recognize that the building of a culture of life begins in the home, in our families. It begins with a true understanding of the conjugal union and its ordering to the gift of children... So often, Catholics fail to act against abortion or euthanasia with the appropriate energy because they have compromised the Church’s teaching on the procreative end of marriage by accepting artificial birth control... The port of entry for the culture of death in our society has been the abandonment of the respect for the procreative meaning of the conjugal act. It is the contraceptive way of thinking, the fear of the life-giving dimension of conjugal love, which very much sustains that culture.

In his pastoral letter Bishop Burke also argued against what he described as an inaccurate understanding of the separation of Church and state:

Sadly, many Catholics misunderstand the meaning of the so-called “separation of Church and state” in our nation and believe that the Word of God, handed on to us in the Church, has no application to political life... [W]e, as Roman Catholics, have the right and, indeed, the obligation to inform our consciences and political judgments from the teachings of our faith, especially in what pertains to the natural moral law, that is, the order established by God in creation.


Bishop Burke—who will be Archbishop Burke of St. Louis by the time this article appears—was born and raised in the Diocese of La Crosse. He attended Catholic schools and entered Holy Cross Seminary in La Crosse for high school and college, then went to Catholic University in Washington, DC. He continued his education at the Pontifical Gregorian University and was ordained in 1975 by Pope Paul VI.

His first assignment was as assistant pastor at the Cathedral of St. Joseph the Workman in La Crosse and two years later he became a high school religion teacher. Three years into the school assignment, his bishop tapped him to go back to “the Greg,” this time to study canon law. He was still a young priest when this happened, he recalled at a press conference in La Crosse last year, and he didn’t know how to respond to the bishop’s statement. He told his superior that he was quite happy at the school. Bishop Frederick Freking responded: “I didn’t think I was asking you, Raymond.”

He excelled at his studies in Rome and on his return to La Crosse four years later was made moderator of the curia and vice chancellor. But he would stay there only until 1989, when he was called back to Rome, this time by Pope John Paul II himself, to be the Defender of the Bond at the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest court. He was named Bishop of La Crosse in December 1994 and consecrated by Pope John Paul on January 6, 1995.

Bishop Burke's tenure in La Crosse was certainly not marked by a laissez-faire attitude, even before his parting bombshell. He closed down the diocesan Catholic Charities structure, which had become corrupt, and restarted it with himself as chairman of the board. He consolidated the Catholic schools in an attempt to shore up their financial losses. He stood up for the small family farm, in an area where farms were going under at the rate of one a day. He revived the traditional Corpus Christi procession. He made annual pilgrimages with his flock and encouraged all the faithful to do likewise. Amid great criticism, he started the construction of a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe so there could be a local shrine for pilgrimages. He ended Catholic participation in the local CROP and AIDS walks because the former subsidized the export of contraceptives to the Third World and the latter worked with groups that support a homosexual lifestyle.

All of this he did quietly. The bishop showed no interest in generating headlines. On the contrary, when diocesan employees looked for ways to bring him greater notice on the national scene, he demurred and the plans were scuttled.

Clearly Bishop Burke was not looking for a move "up" from La Crosse. His voice was shaking slightly with emotion when he began a December news conference in La Crosse and talked about leaving his beloved diocese. But he had learned a lesson from his encounter long ago with Bishop Frederick Freking. Now Burke saw himself clearly as an obedient son of the Church, and planned to do whatever the Holy Father asked of him.

[AUTHOR ID] Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz writes from southeastern Minnesota. He is formerly editor of The Catholic Times, the newspaper of the Diocese of La Crosse.



According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, three Wisconsin politicians received warning letters from Bishop Burke. Only one of the three was identified, but the most likely recipients are fairly easy to identify:

JULIE LASSA, the only identified recipient, was a particularly egregious case. She has been a representative in the Wisconsin Assembly for five years and last year won a special election to fill a vacant Senate seat. In that time she made her mark on life issues, and in his letter Bishop Burke listed them for her. Over a four-year period, Lassa voted against legislation that would have: ? removed loopholes in Wisconsin's current law that requires parental consent prior to a minor's abortion; ? protected the conscience rights of pro-life health care professionals and facilities in the areas of abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and unethical research; ? restricted lawsuits based on a claim that a woman would have had an abortion if she had known that her child had a disability; ? prohibited the sale of body parts from aborted babies; ? stopped state tax dollars from subsidizing organizations that provide or promote abortion; and ? required the state health department to allow a woman and her unborn child to be considered a family for purposes of determining eligibility under BadgerCare, the state health plan for needy families.

“Indeed,” the bishop told Lassa, “Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin gave you a 93 percent approval rating for the 2001-2002 Legislative Session, with an additional 10 percent for ‘Reward for Special Leadership,’ which no doubt helped you to earn the endorsement of Planned Parenthood for the 2002 General Election.”

DAVID OBEY, who has consistently voted pro-abortion on the floor of the US House of Representatives, attends St. Anne Parish in Wausau, and is a member of the Knights of Columbus. He voted for the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, but only when it was accompanied by the health amendment that gutted it.

LOUIS MOLEPSKE, who won a special election to take Lassa’s place in the state assembly, has not voted yet on any life issues, but stated in a local newspaper that he supports legal abortion. He also is a member of the Knights of Columbus.

AMY SUE VRUWINK states in her official biography that she is a member of St. James Parish in the small town of Milladore. Another member of the state assembly, she has a mixed record on issues involving abortion. The entire Assembly approved the Born Alive Infants Protection Act. But when it came to the Conscience Protection Bill, “Vruwink voted against the bill and voted for virtually all of the amendments supported by Planned Parenthood and other opponents of the bill,” said Sue Armacost of Wisconsin Right to Life.