The Slandering of Cardinal Burke

One of the more colorful figures along the route of this year’s March for Life was a passionate eccentric of some sort – probably a fundamentalist or pentecostal – who was carrying a large anti-Catholic sign and shouting through a bullhorn. I only caught a bit of it – the usual stuff about the pope being the anti-Christ and Catholics “worshipping Mary as a goddess.” Poor man. But give him this much: beneath the craziness, he really believes that the forms of Christian leadership and the contents of faith matter. I heard him say to another marcher: “This is serious stuff, man!”


On Friday, in Washington, we got something not very serious from The Washington Post: a silly smear of Cardinal Raymond Burke under the heading “How Pope Francis Can Cleanse the Far-Right Rot from the Catholic Church.” It was written by a journalist, Emma-Kate Symons, with about as much sense of fact and context in the Church as the guy with the bullhorn. Here’s the opening sentence: “Pope Francis needs to take tougher action against the United States’ most influential Catholic in Rome, Cardinal Raymond ‘Breitbart’ Burke.”

Breitbart once interviewed Burke – on Islam no less – you see. So now Breitbart is his middle name.

People disturbed by orthodox Catholicism exist, and always will. But this “journalist” wasn’t ranting on some street corner or alt-left blog, but at the once-moderate Post. There’s been a hard turn to port since Amazon’s Jeff Bezos bought it. But any editor, whatever his ideological leanings, should have taken one look at this op-ed and known it was nonsense. Nonsense on stilts.

But the Post is not alone in letting political passion get the best of professionalism. Earlier last week, The New York Times carried a front page “news” story – actually an ill-sourced hatchet job – by Jason Horowitz along much the same lines: “Steve Bannon Carries Battle to Another Influential Hub: The Vatican.

This whole nutty thing hinges on a meeting that took place in 2014 between Cardinal Burke and Steve Bannon, the White House brawler. In its hysteria over President Trump, the media loves to portray Bannon as some kind of storm trooper. I’m not a fan of Bannon or of Breitbart, which he used to run. (I once turned down an appearance on Breitbart radio to talk with Bannon about Catholics critical of Trump because I knew he would simply trash me. He promised not to. But then did precisely that to the person who went on: Robbie George.) Still, the truth is the truth. Bannon’s MO is sometimes self-defeating, in my view, but the media are simply discrediting themselves with McCarthyite tactics about him, and the whole Trump cabinet, for that matter.

But back to Burke. The Post story goes on from mentioning that 2014 meeting to weaving together a truly insane narrative: that Burke is part of a global anti-Muslim, anti-woman, pro-nationalist, pro-everything-bad movement that came to power with the victory of The Donald and is being masterminded by Bannon. But as our astute friend Phil Lawler has noted, the meeting took place in 2014, which is to say nearly two years before Trump began his run. And long before anyone thought Bannon might work for Trump. So how exactly did that one meeting, years ago, so mark Burke that Francis now needs to clean out “the far-right rot from the Catholic Church”?

Cardinal Burke

Well, Bannon also spoke at a 2014 conference sponsored by the Dignitatis Humanae Foundation in Rome. Burke is on DH’s board. Ergo, the thrice-divorced politico and the doughty defender of marital indissolubility must be interchangeable. No?

And, not incidentally, our intrepid op-ed writer has discovered that another Cardinal on the DH board signed the dubia on Amoris laetitia as well. The implication, of course, is that opposition to Communion for the divorced and remarried is of a piece with “far-right rot.”

Like much in the mainstream media, there’s a fictional line between the two being drawn here, as anyone who really knows anything about the situation would discount. Bannon, as noted, is a brawler – the world sometimes needs the right kind of brawler. Burke, by contrast, is the mildest of men – the world needs them, too. If you don’t know that, you don’t know Burke. Bannon has spoken about the threats of Islam and cultural Marxism to the West and how they need to be combated politically. Burke, too – as have many of us – but as might be expected for somewhat different reasons, and with a very different tone.

Burke has long mostly concerned himself with doctrinal matters in the Church and – let’s not forget – served as the prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. Brainy technical stuff; not partisan or populist politics. In fact, he often speaks – something that, at least to me, expresses his deepest passion – of how the failure of Catholic education for a half-century has wounded the Church and obscured the teachings entrusted to Her by Jesus for our salvation. He’s said little that could, in any normal sense of the word, be called political.

But link Bannon and Burke in guilt by association and you have an alt-left, two-birds-with-one-stone bonanza. The Cardinal was already on the outs with Francis over the firing and rehiring of the Grand Chancellor of the Order of Malta. That incident, too, was confusion worse confounded. But the upshot is that Pope Francis has now appointed a personal delegate to Malta and the Cardinal Patron (Burke) now seems without portfolio. The Post story won’t help.

And then, of course, there’s that matter of Burke and three other Cardinals publishing the dubia about Amoris laetitia – questions not only about whether now, contradicting previous Catholic history, it permits Communion for the divorced and remarried, but also whether it’s shifted moral theology itself about conscience, exceptionless norms, intrinsic evils, and the very theology of the Holy Eucharist.

You may believe that Burke et al. were wrong in publishing their dubia (they’d earlier presented them to the pope privately). Or you may think that Burke himself has been wrongly treated (as have others in the Curia) by being dismissed from office without explanation. But you have to be barking mad to equate a mild-mannered prince of the Church with everything the mainstream media finds repugnant – and worse – about our new administration.

Just one more sign of how unhinged things in the Church and the world have become.

One of the moral categories that has disappeared, along with much else in Western culture, is slander. It’s worse than lying. It’s lying to harm. Look it up. And, please, recognize it when you see it.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.