- From: The Australian
- March 12, 2011
SIXTEEN thousand kilometres is a long way for the Vatican's highest judicial officer, second to the Pope, to travel for a lecture organised by students. But American Cardinal Raymond Burke was delighted to address the Australian Catholic Students Association on "The fall of the Christian West" in Sydney last night.He's passionate about the topic, being worried about shifting ideologies and increasing secularism in Western nations. He is also passionate about talking to young people, who he finds are searching for moral leadership.
Burke, 62, is Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, akin to a chief justice. Before his appointment by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, he spent five years as archbishop of St Louis, Missouri, and before that was bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin. His high profile in the US stems from two factors: his success in increasing vocations to the priesthood and his outspoken criticisms of Catholic politicians who support same-sex marriage, abortion, and embryonic stem cell research. "It gives scandal to other people if they hear a Catholic give an interview to the media saying that I am proud to be a Catholic but at the same time I hold these views," he tells Inquirer.
By the time of Burke's promotion to the Vatican, the Kenrick-Glennon seminary in St Louis had 112 students, with at least nine priests being ordained each year. That's a position many Western dioceses, including most in Australia, can only envy. He made the seminary his priority, emphasising a strong prayer life, clear, orthodox Catholicism and classical philosophy in the curriculum.
He also spent hours each week getting to know the students. "I used to go walking with them one at a time for an hour in the afternoons," he says.
"I'd just have to ask one question and I'd learn a lot. It was most helpful. I admired the students' honesty and openness."
In the public arena, Burke encountered intense controversy when he warned that the Democratic Party "risks transforming itself definitively into a 'party of death' because of its choices on bioethical questions". He argued that Catholics could not support Barack Obama "with a clear conscience" because of his stance on life issues. A generation ago, like many Irish-American families, the Burkes were Democrats. The cardinal's father, a dairy farmer, worked for the party.
Exasperated with the liberal-Left leanings of some in the church, Burke slammed the decision by Catholic university Notre Dame to grant a honorary doctorate to Obama as "a great scandal". He says he "has still not quite got over that".
He supports a thorough "cleansing" within the church after the abhorrent behaviour of sexually abusive priests. He wants uniform rules for reporting and dealing with the issue.
During his first visit to Australia, Burke is not commenting directly on the NSW election or the Greens' push for same-sex marriage and euthanasia. In principle, however, he believes such issues should influence how Christians vote. He supports "small government" assisting the needy but at the same time encouraging people to help themselves.
Burke believes Western nations are "renouncing their foundations on the Christian faith". There is, he told the students, "greater and greater fear that the church will be unable to carry out [its] educational, healthcare and charitable works in certain nations because the civil law requires that such church works co-operate in acts which are always wrong . . . Think, for instance, of the pharmacist who is compelled by the civil authorities to fill prescriptions for abortifacient drugs or the priest who is charged by civil authorities with the use of so-called 'hate language' because [he presents the church's teaching about homosexual acts]".
European nations that fail to reverse the population collapse, he says, are at risk of becoming Islamic states in the long term, losing the benefits that flow from the separation of church and state in democracies with Christian roots.
He regards that separation as vital, but wants religious leaders to play a vigorous role in the national conversation, as Thomas More, one of his heroes, did in Tudor England.
He warns that sharia law -- which Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggested could be allowed to operate for Muslims in Britain -- allows for no such separation and is nothing like Catholic canon law, which pertains only to church matters. "Sharia law governs every aspect of every day life," he says. "It is important that people make the distinction and understand that."
Burke is also conscious of the wider culture wars and the dumbing down of education.
As a bishop, he built a shrine to the Virgin Mary, only to find it criticised by journalists for being medieval. "I asked the journalist what he understood about one of the great periods of history and he mentioned Dungeons and Dragons [a fantasy game]."
In his view, Christian churches are crucial to the flourishing of Western democracy: "To the degree that we restore respect for the essential relationship between faith and reason, to that degree we are filled with hope for the future of a culture which otherwise can only be in decline."
Burke favours tightening up the liturgy of the mass, which will happen in Australia when the new translation of the mass is used from June 12. The mass, he has said, is about worshipping God and not primarily about the community.
Never one to mince words, he says: "Too many priests and bishops treat violations of liturgical norms as something that is unimportant when, in fact, they are serious abuses."
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