Cardinal Burke reflects on role in Rome, topic of free will | with multimedia

An Interview with Cardinal Raymond L. Burke during his visit to St. Louis to celebrate the occasion of his elevation to the Sacred College of Cardinals. Cardinal Burke also was present for the Ordination Mass of the new Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Bishop Edward Rice. The interview was conducted by Jennifer Brinker, a reporter for the St. Louis Review. Video by Lisa Johnston.


Jennifer Brinker |

During his visit to St. Louis last week, Cardinal Raymond L. Burke spent time with the Review, reflecting on his role with the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, his service to the Universal Church, and life since being elevated to the Sacred College of Cardinals last November. He also spoke on the topic of free will and what the Church teaches on the subject.

Now that several months have passed since you were elevated to the College of Cardinals, have you had time to reflect on that moment? And have you thought to yourself: How did this happen, and how did I get here?

I have, in fact. In particular, having the celebration of a Mass of Thanksgiving, both in the Diocese of La Crosse and also now in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, has given me even more occasion to reflect upon the reality of the new responsibility which has been given to me. When I think about it, it is not something I ever would have imagined when I began my studies for the priesthood or even in my years of service as a priest and bishop. I simply thank God for the privilege to serve our Holy Father in this way. And at the same time, I am calling upon the help of God, because I realize my own limitations in providing for the Holy Father whatever he may ask of me.

How, if at all, has becoming a cardinal changed your priesthood?

My priesthood has taken on a new consciousness. Now there is the need to be even more attentive to the Magisterium of the Holy Father and to try to assist him in carrying out his work as he is inspired to do it. I'm conscious of the need to pay a closer attention to the words of our Holy Father and to his manner of carrying out his service of the Universal Church, and to try to assist him in any way that I can — clearly, through my regular duties as prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura and as a member of a number of his congregations and councils, but also in my everyday service as a priest and bishop.

Tell me about your position as prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. Could you provide our readers with a glimpse of the work that you do?

What the Supreme Tribunal does is to help the Holy Father in his responsibility to secure justice in the Church. To take care that justice is done, which it is the minimum but essential work of the Church, in order that She carry out her highest service, which is charity. But where there is not justice, there cannot be charity. So we often say in the Apostolic Signatura that we carry out a very humble, but essential service.

What do we do? We have the oversight of all of the Church tribunals throughout the world, and we respond to all the diverse kind of requests and questions that come from the tribunals themselves, or from the faithful who have had some experience with the tribunals, either asking us to discipline a situation or to assist them in some way, so that the tribunal can assist the faithful. Each tribunal submits an annual report on its status and activities, which is given careful study. After the study of the report, we may ask for some further information or request copies of decisions of the tribunal, in order to understand better how it is operating and to assist it. This first area is a big area of responsibility. There are over 1,000 ecclesiastical tribunals throughout the world. There is a great deal of work here, and we could always do more.

Secondly, we handle what are called administrative cases, namely recourses against an individual administrative act of someone in authority in the Church, usually a bishop or a religious superior. The faithful may be upset, for instance, about the suppression of a parish ... or a religious about his or her dismissal from the religious life, or a priest about his transfer or his removal from office. If they believe that the act was not carried out according to the Church's law, they may make recourse to the Holy See. Those are very laborious cases. They come to us after they have already been appealed to one of the Roman congregations or councils. If either party, either the superior or the person making the recourse, is not happy with the decision given at the Roman congregation or council, he can then appeal to us for a final decision. We handle it in a judicial way, with arguments from advocates for both parties, with the intervention, as often as necessary, of the promoter of justice of the Supreme Tribunal. Then the final decision is rendered by the judges who are all cardinals, or archbishops or bishops of the Church.

These are very difficult cases in which there is usually a great deal of unhappiness. The only comfort that we take is that we are able to give a definitive decision in the name of the Holy Father. This brings peace to people in the sense that they know now that their contention has been judged at the highest possible level. They have received a decision, and even if they don't like it, at least they know that they have been heard, at the highest level, by those who act for the Holy Father.

The third area that we deal with is very limited and that is the cases against the Roman Rota, which is the Pope's ordinary tribunal for judicial cases, mostly cases of marriage nullity.

During the events of the consistory, I remember you saying that "I discovered in canon law a great richness that has to do with the whole life of the Church. In many ways, it's a very humble discipline ... but it's at the service of every aspect of the Church's life." Can you elaborate on that?

Canon law, the discipline of the Church, which is codified in the canons of the Code of Canon Law, is what guarantees the effective exercise of the Church's mission, whether it's teaching, whether it's sanctifying, or whether it's governing the people of God. And so when you study canon law, you end up studying all of the various aspects of the Church's life. Her organic nature, the different vocations, the different states in life, the different services given by various members of the Church ... In that way, you come to appreciate very much the richness of the life of the Church. As I say, it's humble. We don't have the joy in canon law of actually carrying out these services, but we have the deep joy of knowing what we're doing is safeguarding relationships and situations in the Church so that the Church's mission can be carried out.

What is life like serving in ministry for the Universal Church? I ask this because many Catholics have not had the privilege of seeing firsthand how the Roman Curia works. How does that work hand in hand with the life of the average Catholic in the pew?

What I experience, and what anyone working in the Roman Curia experiences, is the direct service of Catholics, individual Catholics in the pew, but now coming from every corner of the world. One experiences a whole diversity of situations in the Church, and what you learn and come to know, serving in the Roman Curia, is the wideness of the Church, Her Catholic nature embracing the whole world, embracing people of every language and race and nation. And that is, at one and the same time, a source of wonder and also a ... cause for humility.

In summary, what does the Church teach on the subject of free will?

God made us in His own image and likeness. And that means that He made us to both know the truth and to live the truth in love. With our mind we come to know the truth; with our will, we love the truth and live the truth. Free will for us is never a question of license, namely doing whatever I please, because that really doesn't make us free. And all of us have had the experience when we've just done what we please. Indeed, we don't enjoy freedom. In fact, we become enslaved to one or another creature, or enslaved to a habit of sin.

Free will is developed in us through a discipline of our thoughts and our affections, and our words and our actions, so that they more and more are conformed to the mind and heart of Jesus Christ. And as we attain that conformity with the mind and heart of Jesus Christ, we experience a great freedom. We discover that freedom is not meant for my selfish enjoyment, but that true freedom is for the good of my brothers and sisters and the good of those who are around me. We discover that our greatest joy comes from being selfless and being generous and sacrificing ourselves, even when it hurts us very much, in order to love.

Even though God has a plan for every one of us, why is it that He gives us free will to make decisions in our earthly life? Why doesn't He just say He has a predestined plan for us and make us act according to that?

If that would be the case, we would no longer be made in His own image and likeness. We would be a kind of determined creature who is simply carrying out a program. Yes, He has a plan. The plan is our own perfection, what is for our greatest good. And we are confident that, if we pray to know God's will and use all of the appropriate means to discover His will in our life, we will do it. But we will do it through our own knowledge, with the help of God's grace of course, and our choice. We give ourselves. We are not determined to do something, but it is our free gift. That's the way our Lord wants it, because we're made to have communion with Him. And communion with Him means we share in His own gifts of truth and love.

Would you say that a properly formed conscience is the meeting point between God's will for us and our freedom to choose to live according to His plan? What sort of instruction must one go through to have a properly formed conscience?

We start with reason itself and what it can uncover for us with regard to God's plan for us in our world. And fundamentally what we discover is the Ten Commandments. The respect for the inviolability of human life, the respect for the integrity for marriage and of the family. And ultimately the respect for God Himself as the origin of all being, and moreover the Savior, after the rebellion of our first parents. And so God ... has written into our hearts the knowledge of His law, a disposition to grow in the knowledge of His law, which is called conscience. Conscience is a meeting place between God and ourselves, and is formed through reason first. Then, Divine Revelation, as it is handed down to us in the teaching of the Church, brings us to an ever deeper understanding of the truth. ... It also uncovers for us particular aspects of our relationship with God and one another that we would not be able to discover by reason alone.

What about a person who has an ill-formed conscience? I think of the case in which an Arizona hospital recently lost its Catholic status after allowing an intentional abortion. What, then, happens to the matter of free will if a person has not been properly formed in conscience or deliberately chooses to go against God's design for us?

We simply become subjects to either what is popular or what the majority wants or is advocating, or of some fad or ... of a confusion and an error, for instance, with regard to abortion. Once we abandon the truth that it is always and everywhere wrong to take the life of an innocent and defenseless human being, then we are following a voice which is not the truth, and we are leading ourselves down a path which is ultimately deadly. What is produced in a society by this kind of conduct, by a lack of respect for a properly formed conscience, is a culture of death. We find increasing violence, we find the taking of the lives of the innocent and defenseless unborn, then the attack ... on those who are bearing a heavy burden of weakness because of age or serious disease or some special needs.

What are your thoughts on those who are held against their will and unable to freely make a choice? There are women who every day are coerced into having an abortion, either by the child's father, or the mother's parents, for example.

It's a difficult choice, but we cannot ever say that the end justifies the means. There can be all kinds of situations, especially during times of war, and other situations where people are obliged to endure imprisonment, or even death itself in order to follow their conscience. For instance ... St. John Fisher refused to acknowledge the supremacy of King Henry VIII over the Catholic Church; which would have been for him to deny that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth. And he remained free in upholding the teaching of the Church, but it cost him his life. But his freedom was too important to him to give it up in order to save his life. The same way with St. Thomas More.

Do you think individuals take for granted this awesome responsibility and gift of free will? What kind of advice would you give to someone to help that person to remember that God gives us free will, but yet also keep in mind His will for us?

I do think that there's a tendency in society today, especially through a lack of a deep education of the children and young people, and also from a lack of study and reflection on the part of us who are adults ... to lose sight of the central reality of free will and of conscience in our lives. And that's how we end up with so many tragic situations in the world. ... I would urge, especially in the home, that parents devote themselves to forming the conscience of their children, even as they seek to keep their own consciences well informed through the study of the Catholic faith — especially through participation in Sunday Mass and the other means that are given to deepen the Catholic faith. ... Our institutions of Catholic education should be very much directed to helping the students to develop a well-formed conscience.


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