The Burke Lecture | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | May 11, 2009
The Burke Lecture | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | May 11, 2009
"Over the past several months, our nation has chosen a
path which more completely denies any legal guarantee of the most fundamental
human right, the right to life, to the innocent and defenseless unborn... Those
in power now determine who will or will not be accorded the legal protection of
the most fundamental right to life." — Archbishop Raymond Burke, Keynote Address at the National Catholic
Prayer Breakfast, Washington, D.C., May 8, 2009.
Raymond Burke is a canon lawyer, the Prefect of the Supreme
Tribunal of the Apostolic Signature, a technical name for head of the Holy
See's legal system. He was formerly the Archbishop of St. Louis. He was invited
to address the annual "National Catholic Prayer Breakfast," held on Friday, May
8, 2009, in Washington, D.C.
Archbishop Burke has the unusual quality of being very
clear. He minces no words. Some, I suppose, think we should never be clear and
always mince words, so that no one know exactly where we stand or what is going
on. We are, no doubt, to be "diplomatic," which too often means that we do not
say everything that needs to be said, or we say it in such convoluted language
that we need it de-codified.
The first thing Burke said in his Washington lecture was
that he was a patriot, that what brings "great strength to the country" is to
live a faithful Catholic life. We forget that a life faithful to the truth is a
strength, not a weakness, to the country. We should pray for the land. Yet,
Burke is deeply "concerned for our nation." Many are afraid to say just how
concerned they are at the new policies and movements of the present elected
government. Too few have thought about what these extraordinary measures of
government expansion really imply.
Not only is there concern about human life itself, but
"those in power propose to force physicians and other healthcare professionals,
in other words, those with a particular responsibility to promote and foster
human life, to participate, contrary to what their conscience requires, in the
destruction of unborn human lives, from their first embryonic stage of
development to the moment of death." Strikingly, Burke consistently uses
phrases like "those in power," not those who rule or govern legitimately
(Aquinas' phrase). Burke understands his Machiavelli, with his "revolutionary"
criterion of rule, namely, "to acquire and remain in power."
The legal and physical attacks on the unborn are related to
a new and radical understanding of the family. Burke attacks the first
principle of deviation from marital good. "At the root of the confusion and
error about marriage is the contraceptive mentality—which would have us
believe that the inherent procreative nature of the conjugal union can, in
practice, be mechanically or chemically eliminated, while the marital act
remains unitive." To this view, Burke simply says: "It cannot be so." Those
within and without the Church took their stand on the principle that
"contraception" was an act of unity and freedom. Chesterton had already said of
it that, in logic, it meant "no birth and no control." This is what Burke meant
when he affirmed: "It can't be so."
Burke might have added here that the further evidence of the
effects of this mentality is that "contraceptive" societies are quite literally
dying. They are aging. They do not have enough spirit and energy to reproduce
themselves. Their families are being replace by imported labor. The most
revolutionary movement in the world today arises through the replacements of
populations that have practiced abortion and contraception by the children of
those who do not practice it. There is no way to make this supposedly "private"
choice really private. The consequences are everywhere visible when there are
no or few children to be seen.
Burke, as I say, is blunt. Seldom do we like to hear the
truth. "With unparalleled arrogance, our nation is choosing to renounce its
foundation upon the faithful, indissoluble, and inherently procreative love of
a man and a woman in marriage, and, in violation of what nature itself teaches,
to replace it with a so-called marital relationship, according to the
definition of those who exercise the greatest power in our society."
Notice that phrase again, these "arrogant" proposals are
based solely on "the definition of those who exercise the greatest power in our
society." Power is not authority. It is coercion without reason.
These programs that "violate the integrity of marriage and
the family" are proposed by those who have "freely chosen to lead our nation."
That too is an interesting way to characterize national leadership. They were
not "forced" to make these choices. They freely chose them. That being said,
Burke turns to those who chose such leadership. What the leadership proposed
was no secret. They did not hide their intentions or proposals, though they did
not explain them.
"A majority of our fellow citizens, including a majority of
our fellow Catholics, chose the leadership which is now implementing it with
determination." From here on, our fate is a chosen fate. We have not been
conquered by some alien power to force it on us. This comment is a very
illuminating. We cannot escape responsibility for the choices we, as citizens,
made in making this selection. And our choices affect others around the world
with the same policies and doctrines which we not freely promote in foreign
I think the Pope knew his man when he brought this
archbishop to Rome. The president's choice of his staff, Burke observes, is
"remarkable for the number of major officials, including several Catholics, who
favor the denial of the right to life to the unborn and the violation of the
integrity of marriage and the family." There is, moreover, a "consistent
pattern of decisions by the leadership of our nation which is taking our nation
down a path which denies the fundamental right to life to the innocent and
defenseless unborn and violates the fundamental integrant of the marital union
and the family."
Is this just the "opinion" of a "conservative" bishop? Many
have tried to write Burke off in this manner in order to avoid the force of his
argument. What strikes me about his words, which we might wish other bishops
also to take note, is the logic found in them. He is not addressing himself. He
is addressing a truth that is open to every mind, including "those currently in
power," including the Catholics among them.
The Catholics "in power" obviously concern Burke more than
others. They are the ones from whom we might have expected in happier times to
take a stand on fundamental issues. The whole effort of Catholics in this
country was to be present within it with their faith intact. But when they
actually came to a position of power, we find that too many—evidently
seeking power and prestige—betray the very reasons why they might want to
"It grieves me to say that the support of anti-life
legislation by Catholics in public office," Archbishop Burke admitted, "is so
common that those who are not Catholic have justifiably questioned whether the
Church's teaching regarding the inviolate dignity of innocent human life is
firm and unchanging." This consequence, of course, is what scandal formally
means. Christ warned most solemnly about it. It is not a joke or matter of
indifference. It is the matter subject to the severest judgment of which
Benedict spoke so eloquently and soberly in Spe Salvi.
The meaning of the "change" that was spoken of during the
campaign is now quite clear. The "change" is the implementation by "those in
power" of the most ruthless anti-life program in human history. This result is
what the electors, if they now look back on their votes, freely chose. We must
be sobered in reflecting on the insight of Aristotle whose understanding of a
democratic liberty that meant whatever anyone wanted seems fulfilled in our
Burke is not a pessimist, but he is a clear-eyed thinke. He
recalls that certain devils can only be expelled by spiritual means. "Evil
cannot be overcome by our own forces alone." He adds, "If we are serious about
our patriotic duty, then we must pray everyday for our leaders, especially our
President, and our nation." As Cardinal George told the president himself,
these issues are not negotiable. The truth of what is at stake is not decided
by vote. It is the destiny of the Church to uphold the truth when the polity
denies it. Burke too recalls the old prayers after the Tridentine Mass and Our
Lady of Guadeloupe.
Burke is aware of the pornography industry and the "constant
anti-life and anti-family messages which constantly bombard us and our young
people." In this context, he next turns to the Notre Dame situation. "The
profound granting of an honorary doctorate at Notre Dame University to our
President who is aggressively advancing an anti-life and anti-family agenda is
a source of the gravest scandal. Catholic institutions cannot offer any
platform to, let alone honor, those who teach and act publicly against the
moral life." Catholics must face the truth of what they stand for, even if they
lose "prestige." They are the counter-cultural ones today. They will no doubt
suffer for what is true.
Burke does not speculate on the reasons why the President is
so anti-life. For all the talk of "dialogue" that comes up, there is never any
"dialogue" with this President about anything. He just gives speeches. He has
no paper trail explaining this position. It seems to have been there at least
since the beginning of his political career. Did he get it at Harvard, at
Chicago, in Hawaii, Indonesia, Kenya? It is already an extreme.
In Catholic thought (and in Plato too), the only hope for
such a man is recognition of what he is doing and repentance, with an
understanding of the scope of the issue. But something eerie is here in this
extreme position. Most abortionist and anti-live folks have what they call an
"argument" that can be tested and is tested by such articulate thinkers as
Hadley Arkes, Robert George, Raymond Dennehy, and others. But as far as I can
see, there is none of this intellectual presentation in the President.
Burke carefully spells out the so-called lesser evil
doctrine in politics. But that must never involve a positive cooperation in
actual evil acts. Moreover, the Church is not "imposing" its doctrine on
others. It is exercising its duty and freedom simply to state the truth in public,
whether agreed with or not. So-called "hate talk" legislation today seeks to
prevent even this statement on the grounds that someone living or practicing or
believing that abortion, same-sex marriages, euthanasia, and so forth are fine,
has his "rights" violated if someone else states the reasons why such
activities might be wrong. Therefore we seek to silence those who have reasons.
This silencing of free statements of truth is but one step
closer to that "democratic tyranny" of which John Paul II spoke. "When the
Church addresses her social teaching to issues of the common good," Burke
continues, "she has no intention of giving the Church power over the State or
to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of
conduct proper to faith. Her aim...is simply to help purify reason and to
contribute, here and now, to the acknowledging and attainment of what is just."
The basis of our civilization is the Socratic principle,
reaffirmed by Christ: "It is never right to do wrong." Recurrent within our
tradition of political philosophy is a persistent effort to "free" the
politician from the "restriction" of what is right. Thus, to remain and expand
"power," he can do evil or good as he thinks fit or "prudent."
However, even those who promoted this latter view generally
recognized that there was an evil and a good. We get the impression from those
who currently "exercise power," that they have never confronted the issue of
good and evil. But as Burke said, "what is always and everywhere evil cannot be
called good for the sake of accomplishing some other good end." Lots of goods
need to be promoted "but the concern for those goods can never justify the
betrayal of the fundamental goods of life itself and the family."
The obvious inability to attain all goods is sometimes used
as a reason to do evil things to promote other goods. This reasoning is also
used to permit voting for those who promote anti-life policies. Sometimes all
candidates are anti-life. We may have to decide the lesser evil. "But, there is
no element of the common good, no morally good practice, which a candidate may
promote and to which a voter may be dedicated, which could justify voting for a
candidate who also endorses and supports the deliberate killing of the unborn,
euthanasia, or the recognizing of same-sex relationships as legal marriage."
All of these policies undermine any real common good.
Should we give up our efforts to overturn "Roe v. Wade"
since after all these years it seems hopeless? Burke does not think so, even if
many want to insist that it is "settled doctrine." "As Catholics, we can never
cease to work for the correction of gravely unjust laws. Law is a fundamental
expression of our culture and implicitly teaches citizens what is morally acceptable....
We are never justified in abandoning the work of changing legislation and of
revamping decisions of the courts which are anti-life and anti-family."
We need to hear these clear arguments of Archbishop Burke,
even if we would prefer that they never be spoken. As I implied, the new
reality in public life is the rapid decline of free speech and public argument
that circles especially on life issues, but not them alone. These killings of
the innocent and the results of anti-family policies are so disordered that we
really refuse to think of them. What is behind the "hate-language" movement is
a refusal to face facts. It is a destruction of communication so that there can
be no real examination of what is wrong. Burke is right. The democracy is in
serious danger. It seems fitting that such things be said at a "prayer
breakfast" for Catholics in the nation's Capital.
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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and
Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!