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Government, Politics & Issues

Archbishop Burke will leave St. Louis to lead church high court

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 27, 2008 - The pope has reassigned St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke to Rome to be the top administrator of one of the Catholic Churches three courts, its court of last appeal, according to an announcement by the Vatican press office.

He is the first American to hold the post, though Americans have served on the court. Burke has been on the tribunal for two years, commuting to Rome from St. Louis.

The new job means that the next time the pope gives out red hats, Burke likely will become a cardinal, an official adviser to the pope.

Pope Benedict XVI named Burke, a passionate canon lawyer by education, as prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura.

The post is an important Vatican desk job, although the leader is not much in the public eye -- barring a rare hullabaloo over a case. Until 2002, this tribunal mostly handled appeals of marriage annulments.

Until Pope Benedict XVI names a new archbishop for St. Louis, Bishop Robert J. Hermann, a Weingarten, Mo., native will serve as administrator. Bishop Hermann is now the highest authority in the St. Louis Archdiocese. From the moment the announcement was made a noon Rome time today, Burke ceased to have authority in St. Louis. However, he expects to take until August to move out of his Lindell Boulevard residence and clear his desk.

Hermann was selected Friday by the archdiocese's college of consulators, a group of about 12 parish priests. Such a temporary appointment was made when Archbishop John L. May was ill and after Rigali left St. Louis for Philadelphia. No administrator can make permanent assignments during his tenure.

The much revered Hermann would not be considered for the permanent post of archbishop since he turns 74 in August. Bishops must offer the pope their resignations when they reach 75.  

As a member of the Congregation for Bishops, Rigali will influence who is the next St. Louis Archbishop. No one would be more popular than native son, Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan, but Benedict likely has the leadership of larger dioceses planned for him.

For the first time in the history of the St. Louis archdiocese, its archbishop has been assigned to a job in the Vatican leadership, its curia in Rome, removing him from pastoral work with the laity. Burke was installed as the St. Louis archbishop in January 2004, coming here from his home diocese of LaCrosse, Wisc. There he had studied as a seminarian, been ordained a priest and after more studies to become a canon lawyer in Rome became its bishop. He was named to St. Louis after its former archbishop Justin F. Rigali, now a cardinal, was transferred to Philadelphia.

Burke is warmly regarded by seminarians, by cloistered nuns and some St. Louis priests; he is wildly popular nationally with traditional Catholics grateful that he has promoted the Mass in Latin. However, he has not been popular with some priests and nuns here.

"Oh, my gosh, that is marvelous news," said one parish priest on hearing the news Friday morning. He declined to allow his name to be used. "The priest morale here has been so low."

Though warm and charming one-on-one with the laity and on pilgrimages he led, his official communications and actions with church members have often left them stunned because his efforts to help them understand his actions failed.

What is the Signatura?

The Signatura is the court of last resort within the church, its Supreme Court. Its prefect is its administrator and something like a chief justice who has one vote along with the 20 other judges. Appointing an American to that post seems like common sense. Since 2002, many of the cases being appealed are brought by priests from the U.S., Ireland and Australia. They are men whose bishops want to laicize them -- take away their rights of ministry -- because of sexual abuse of minors. An English speaker who has seen how the scandal has ravaged the church and dispirited both the clergy and laity would have an advantage.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, author of  “Inside the Vatican” and a Jesuit priest, cautions that no one should assume that the Signatura annually gets anything like the number of cases that the Supreme Court is asked to review. And the Signatura does not change or expand church law the way the U.S. Supreme Court rules on constitutional issues

"It is not a busy court," he said.

Before the sex abuse scandal, it received about 30 cases typically each year. Of those, the Signatura chose to consider about half, Reese said.

The court does not rule on the merits of the case but, like most appeals courts, decides whether the officials, judges and the canon lawyers, righteously handled all details of cases in lower church courts, he said. If a case was mishandled, if some church law equivalent of the victim not being read Miranda rights, for example, the Signatura tosses out the lower decision no matter the merits of the case, no matter whether the offense was committed or not, Reese said.

Nearly all of the Signatura's cases before the sex abuse scandal were appeals of decisions on marriage annulments made by the Roman Rota, the court where Burke worked for five years before becoming a Wisconsin bishop.

The Signatora also handles cases that are jurisdictional issues within the church.

One of the courts few widely known American cases happened in the 1990s. Bishop Donald W. Wuerl -- then leader of Pittsburgh's Catholics and now Washington, D.C.'s archbishop -- permanently suspended a Pittsburgh priest for sex abuse. Wuerl's decision was upheld by the Vatican's Congregation for Clergy, an administrative body which included some Americans. The priest appealed to the Signatura, then mostly European clerical canon lawyers. That tribunal over turned the congregation's decision figuratively putting the clercial collar back on the priest.

A shocked Wuerl himself went to Rome to the Signatura and explained the sex abuse to the bishops on the tribunal. In a rare move, the Signatura reversed its  decision and allowed Wuerl to keep the man out of the  ministry. That was before the scandal of 2002 broke. Since then, the court has turned down several criminal priests' appeal cases, a Roman secretary said.

Catholics who understand the letter of the church law easily comprehend many of his actions, including the excommunication of the priest and board of St. Stanislaus Church in St. Louis -- although that, and his continued fund-raising efforts for a $25 million shrine to Mary in his former diocese in Wisconsin, upset many St. Louisans. His most visible success was at the seminary where he recruited and nourished vocations to the priesthood. He set aside much time for individual sessions with young men preparing for ordination. They talk about seeing his informal, joyful side.

"Something St. Louisans can look at with great pleasure is that Archbishop Burke, in the short time he has been here, has encouraged seminarians," said Helen Hitchcock, founder and director of Women for Faith and Family and a member of St. Roch Parish.  "It has drawn men to the priesthood."

Burke ordained nine men to the priesthood last month, some of whom were from outside the St. Louis archdiocese and moved here as seminarians because of him. Other young men he had mentored are in the pipeline to become priests.

She looks at the national picture with fewer ordinations than that in even much larger dioceses and finds much hope for St. Louis, she said.

Burke has been the most outspoken American bishop on not giving Holy Communion to public figures and politicians who support abortion rights and public financing of embryonic stem cell research. In January 2004, shortly before the Missouri presidential primary, within a week of becoming St. Louis' archbishop, he told this reporter on KMOV-TV that he would refuse Holy Communion to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, a Catholic, because Kerry did not uphold the church's position on abortion. Last year, he said the same thing about then-Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani.

"The appointment is going to make every pro-choice Catholic politician very worried,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of  “Inside the Vatican” and a Jesuit priest. “After all, he made his name as a canon lawyer denying communion to pro-choice politicians."  

Now that Burke has been promoted to Rome, it  will make some American bishops “much more sympathetic”  to Burke’s efforts, Reese said. "Burke now will become a  voice in Rome for cracking down on pro-choice Catholics." 

“The appointment shows Pope Benedict has reached deep into the American church to find people to help run the Vatican," Reese said. 

Burke will replace Bishop Agotino Vallini, a native of Naples and former bishop of Albano, Italy. He's been at the prefect of the tribunal just since 2004 and was made a cardinal in 2006. Now he has been been named to be the vicar for Rome.

It is not a joyful post, but it is in Rome, a place where Burke enjoys living. He speaks excellent Italian and studied to be a canon lawyer there as a young priest. Beginning in 1989, he worked in another of the Vatican's three courts, the Roman Rota. Pope John Paul II named him Defender of the Bond, the lawyer who must defend the validity of the marriage in annulment cases. He left that post only when John Paul named him LaCrosse's bishop in 1994.

The assignment also returns him to a mostly clerical world where he will have scant interaction with lay people except when he says public Masses.

Rumors of Burke's appointment to Rome have been circulating in the Vatican and among some U.S. bishops since earlier this spring when Benedict XVI named Burke to two time-consuming Vatican desk jobs: the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, which interprets canon or church law, and the Congregation for the Clergy, which oversees and regulates the training of priests and deacons in diocese. The latter is an area in which Burke has shown much success and energy during his St. Louis tenure. The Council for Legislative Texts is one of 11 Curia pontifical councils. Burke is said to enjoy pouring over texts and has been a leader in reviving the Latin Mass, founding two Latin oratories: churches where Mass in Latin is said that are not regular parishes.

Patricia Rice of St. Louis is a freelance writer who has written widely on religion. 

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