News Analysis

Cardinal Burke’s week of controversy

Cardinal Raymond Burke (Getty)

Cardinal Raymond Burke broke his silence last week regarding the unfortunate appearance of his name on a list of senior prelates who received monetary gifts from Michael J Bransfield, the disgraced former Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston. Bransfield is accused of sexual misconduct with adults and financial impropriety, including the use of diocesan funds to reimburse himself for the gifts he made to clerics — many of them high-ranking churchmen. (Bransfield denies misusing the funds and the allegations of misconduct.)

This was the second such statement in recent weeks involving matters touching the life of the Church. The first came late last month. It concerned Cardinal Burke’s resignation of the honorary presidency of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI) – to which he had been named mere weeks before – and included a very public repudiation of the controversial political operative Steve Bannon.

The Bransfield issue is by far the more serious: a man who was a sitting judge and the head of the Church’s highest ordinary tribunal took gifts of money. Not only were the gifts from a cleric and a bishop, but from one who is now accused of sexual misconduct and of being a profligate spender of other people’s money.

“Any financial gifts which Bishop Bransfield gave to me were either honorariums on the occasion of the meetings with priests or Christmas gifts,” Cardinal Burke said in his statement on the matter.

“I believe that he also gave me a gift on the occasion of my becoming a cardinal,” he continued, adding that the gifts “were generous, but they were not lavish”.

Cardinal Burke also said he used Bransfield’s gifts to make charitable donations of his own. “A cardinal makes an oath not to accept any gift from someone seeking a favour pertaining to his office and work,” Burke explained in his statement.

“If someone had a case before the Signatura, and were to give me a cheque, I would never accept it,” Burke went on to say.

“In the case of the gifts of Bishop Bransfield,” he added, “I never had any reason to suspect that anything was awry.”

The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that a laywoman of Wheeling-Charleston, Kellee Abner, sent a 10-page letter via fax to Cardinal Burke, detailing some of her concerns over Bransfield’s administration, in particular about a priest, Fr James Sobus, who she said suffered under Bransfield. “I beg for help from you, Father,” She is quoted as writing in her February 2013 letter.

“We need to stand up for the Truth as Jesus would want us, but we also need those who will stand with us.”

The Post reported that Abner had no response. Through his spokesperson, Cardinal Burke told The Catholic Herald he does not recall the missive. Burke said if he received a signed letter accusing a Bishop, he would have forwarded it to the Congregation for Bishops.

The Post reports that Burke received 15 discrete cheques between 2008 and 2017, totalling $9,700.

It seems very few clerics who took what turned out to be Wheeling-Charleston’s money believed they ever had any reason to suspect anything was awry with Bransfield, who gave it to them. Most found nothing out of the ordinary, as apparently such gift-giving is fairly standard among the US hierarchy: a custom of long standing, so deeply a part of clerical culture as to render members of the US episcopate unaware that many find it unseemly.

In short, this part of the Bransfield Affair offers ample illustration of a general problem, and further confirmation — were any needed — of several facts already firmly established, chief among them that the bishops have not only lost, but squandered the benefit of the doubt: for at least a generation, perhaps permanently.

“Caesar’s wife,” the saying goes, “must be beyond suspicion.” So should a man who stands in the stead of the Church’s spouse. That is always true, even in the very best of times. These are not the very best of times. Failure to admit mistakes in a timely fashion and confront lapses in judgment with alacrity cannot fail also to show bishops’ insensitivity to the legitimate concerns of the faithful in these regards, and even add reason for suspicion of wrongdoing. This is a lesson that Church leaders need to learn well.

At present, the bishops appear to believe their choice to be between keeping quiet and riding out the storm, or making a show of some general acknowledgement coupled with protestations of innocent if not praiseworthy intent, sometimes accompanied by vague promises to do better.

Any reform that does not provide for such elementary common sense measures as basic financial disclosure, especially regarding gift-giving practices, will be worth neither the name of reform nor the paper on which the laws are written. Any renewal that does not involve a combination of house cleaning and soul searching, apt to produce among the hierarchical leadership of the Church a complete and genuine understanding of their failures, will be a farce.

The Dignitatis Humanae Institute and Bannon

When it comes to the contretemps with DHI and Bannon, the short version is that Cardinal Burke told DHI they had to choose between him and Bannon, and when they baulked, Burke walked.

“I have been involved with the Dignitatis Humanae Institute for some years because of its work to support Christians in public life who act with respect for the moral law and, therefore, promote the common good,” the cardinal said in his first and only statement addressing the matter.

“In recent time,” the statement went on to say, “the Institute has become more and more identified with the political programme of Mr Bannon.” Cardinal Burke says he had tried to discourage this development.

“While I have urged the Institute to return to its original purpose, it has not done so, as is evident in its involvement with this latest initiative of Mr Bannon,” Cardinal Burke explained. “I have, therefore, effective immediately, terminated any relationship with the Dignitatis Humanae Institute.”

The “latest initiative of Mr Bannon” is, by the way, a plan to make a movie out of French journalist Frédéric Martel’s salacious tell-all book about homosexuality in the Vatican.

Cardinal Burke had this to say about that: “I do not, in any way, agree with Mr Bannon’s assessment of the book in question. Furthermore, I am not at all of the mind that the book should be made into a film.”

Cardinal Burke said he disagreed “completely” with several of Mr Bannon’s statements regarding Catholic doctrine and discipline. “Above all, I find objectionable his statement calling into question the Church’s discipline of perpetual continence for the clergy, in accord with the example and desire of Christ, Head and Shepherd of the Church,” Burke said.

‘Optics’ and deeper issues

The business over Bannon and DHI made for a couple of juicy days in the press last week. Most coverage, however, tended to miss some of the deeper issues raised by the contretemps.

Cardinal Burke is the Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a cultivator of traditional teaching and worship, often described as the Anglophone leader of the opposition to Pope Francis. Bannon is a right-wing political operative with deep ties to populist-nationalist groups on both sides of the Atlantic, who served as a senior campaign adviser to US President Donald Trump and then spent nine months as senior strategist in Trump’s White House.

While Cardinal Burke has often professed his loyalty to the Pope and his repudiation of schism, he is characterised by unsympathetic voices as disloyal and silly: a malcontent and troublemaker — a picture of almost everything wrong with the Church. Since entering the spotlight in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election in the United States, Bannon has garnered a reputation for bomb-throwing antics, a ravenous appetite for publicity and questionable political links.

Thus, when word got out that Bannon had met and spoken to Cardinal Burke about areas of common interest and concern, it raised eyebrows. When it later emerged that Bannon was meeting politicians, moneymen and senior churchmen – Burke among them – apparently to plan a “gladiator school” for soi-disant defenders of Western civilisation, the allure of narrative was too strong not to embrace.

Whether cheering the resurrection of throne-and-altar alliances to save the Western civilisational project, or decrying the creation of an unholy axis of sacred and secular power in furtherance of a blood-and-soil populist nationalism (both imbued with nostalgia for a past order rightly discarded generations ago), partisans on both extremes of public opinion seized on the alleged Burke-Bannon alliance.

But the truth was more prosaic. Cardinal Burke is a diligent churchman, who goes where he’s asked to go and does what he’s asked to do. He wears a red zucchetto, but he has never been a powerbroker. Bannon talks a good game, but is long since removed from the centre of power.

As the Catholic Herald reported when the story of Cardinal Burke’s disavowal broke, His Eminence said he never worked with Bannon in his organisation – The Movement – a Brussels-based outfit Bannon founded to help channel and direct the energies of nationalism in Europe and build ties to groups of like mind in the US.

“I have met with [Bannon] on occasion to discuss Catholic social teaching regarding certain political questions,” Cardinal Burke went on to say, “but I have no part in his organisation.”

Cardinal Burke explained that he always considered his meetings with Bannon to be pastoral. “In meeting with him, as in meeting with other political leaders, I have tried to fulfil my mission as a priest to teach the faith and morals for the common good.”

So, how did this happen?

A ‘good’ story

Part of that is answered already: we love a good story.

One might praise Cardinal Burke’s willingness to speak of holy things to anyone who seeks his counsel, and yet note that he apparently failed to recall — in any case to practise — the first part of Our Lord’s admonition in Matthew 10:16: “Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves.” The attitudes are functions of one another. It is possible to be the former — ie cunning as a serpent — without the latter. In this fallen world, however, it is impossible to be the latter — simple as a dove — without cultivating shrewdness.

In any case, Cardinal Burke’s long willingness to be associated with Mr Bannon and his refusal publicly to address the rumours regarding the nature and extent of their association in fact protracted and arguably exacerbated a situation that was rooted in “optics”, but had real ramifications for political circumstances both ecclesiastical and secular, and baleful consequences for the peace of the Church in a time of grave crisis.