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Hey, Obama: Hands Off Burke

A reliable source tells me that someone representing the Obama administration is about to put pressure on the Vatican ambassador to the United States to get Archbishop Raymond Burke to be quiet. The Obama complaint is that Archbishop Burke, who is now head of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, has supported another bishop in his chastisement of Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius for her support of abortion.

A few days ago Archbishop Burke gave an interview to the San Diego-based organization Catholic Action for Faith and Family [1], during which he took the gloves off about Sebelius, who has been nominated to head the massive U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He noted her “public association with some of the more notorious agents of the culture of death.” This, of course, was a reference to her hosting a party for the late-term abortionist George Tiller, currently on trial in Kansas for nineteen infractions of abortion restrictions.

Burke commented on her fitness for office, saying that for Sebelius to be “placed in charge of the federal office with responsibilities for health and human services” is “sad for our nation” and a “source of great embarrassment.”

He also spoke about her relationship to the Church, and pointed out that Sebelius’s bishop in Kansas had properly instructed her about the dangerous ground she treads. Archbishop Joseph Naumann offered her pastoral counseling on the teachings of the Church related to abortion and urged her to accept them. She declined. Only then did Naumann instruct her not to approach the altar rail for Communion. Burke said this fulfilled “one of the most solemn duties as a pastor, namely, the care of the Most Blessed Sacrament and of the worthy reception of Communion.”

Burke closed the interview by issuing a challenge to his brother bishops, most notably Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C.: “Every bishop is held to the same universal discipline which has been in force since the time of St. Paul the Apostle and is stated in canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law.” And then this: “Whether Governor Sebelius is in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, or in any other diocese [italics mine], she should not present herself for Holy Communion because, after pastoral admonition, she obstinately persists in serious sin.”

You can see why the Obama administration might get upset about this. They played footsie with pet Catholics of left and right last year and thought they had this kind of problem covered, since some of them have already offered cover for Sebelius. Two groups created to offer such services, Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance, started a petition drive saying Sebelius was really pro-life.

And now there is word that someone who is well known among Republicans, and who has served in previous Republican administrations, is reaching out on behalf of the Obama administration to get the Holy See to quiet Burke, or at least to make it clear he speaks not for the Church, but only for himself.

Democrats may say that Burke overstepped his bounds by commenting not just on Sebelius and Communion, but her fitness as a nominee for HHS secretary. IRS guidelines, which are even now being tested by the Alliance Defense Fund, say Church officials may not comment positively or negatively on candidates for federal office. But Sebelius is not running for federal office. She has been nominated to a cabinet post by the president. And beyond a mere technical question of IRS guidelines, since when are bishops required to shut up about public policy or to speak only for themselves?

But it’s not just questioning her fitness for office that offends Obama and his Catholics. They are also offended about Burke questioning Sebelius’s fidelity to the Catholic Church, for this strikes at the heart of their appeal to Catholics in the pews. Catholics who believe the Democratic answer to health care is more important than the murder of a million children a year desperately need the fiction that someone like Sebelius is a Catholic in good standing. Burke gives the lie to that assertion.

By trying to stop a bishop from commenting on internal Church matters, the Obama administration wades into dangerous waters. Archbishop Burke is the head of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican office that is charged with interpreting the Code of Canon Law. The proper reception of Communion is proper to the Code of Canon Law, and therefore proper to any bishop, and especially to Archbishop Burke.

The pressure won’t work, of course. Burke is just too smart, and tough. But Obama and his representatives are coming dangerously close to interfering in internal Church matters. More than anything else, the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution was intended precisely to protect religious bodies from meddling by the state, even covert meddling by the White House like this. Obama and his pet Catholics should back off – and fast.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.