The Burke Lecture | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | May 11, 2009The 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 parts.

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 be there.

"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 very midst.


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 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.

Related Articles, Excerpts, & Interviews:

Biblical Aspects of the Theme of Faith and Politics | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Illusion of Freedom Separated from Moral Virtue | Raymond Dennehy
Contraception and Homosexuality: The Sterile Link of Separation | Raymond Dennehy
Peanuts and Thomists | Raymond Dennehy
Human Sexuality and the Catholic Church | Donald P. Asci
Pope John Paul II and the Christ-centered Anthropology of Gaudium et Spes | Douglas Bushman
John Paul the Great | William Oddie
The Dignity of the Human Person: Pope John Paul II's Teaching on Divinization in the Trinitarian Encyclicals | Carl E. Olson
The Case Against Abortion | An Interview with Dr. Francis Beckwith
What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley

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 website.

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