John Allen takes a look at Archbp. Burke

My friend John Allen, the fair-minded nearly ubiquitous columnist of the otherwise ultra-lefty fishwrap National Catholic Reporter, has an interesting piece about His Excellency Most Rev. Raymond Burke, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura.

When Archbp. Burke was brought to Rome to head up the Church’s highest "court", I was delighted.  I knew that he would therefore be contributing his voice in the meetings of other important dicasteries from that point onward, and would eventually be made cardinal.

My emphases and comments in this piece, which also talks a little about the process of making bishops.

Burke’s influence is set to grow
Vatican names pugnacious prelate to congregation
Nov. 06, 2009
By John L Allen Jr


Archbishop Raymond Burke’s Oct. 17 appointment to the powerful Congregation for Bishops offers an illustration of how in the Vatican, even the ordinary can be extraordinary.

The appointment means that the 61-year-old Burke, a frequently polarizing figure during his 12-year run as a bishop in the United States, is now in a position to put his stamp on the next generation of Catholic bishops all over the world.

At one level, Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to tap Burke for the role was the dictionary definition of pro forma. Of the 33 members of the Congregation for Bishops at the beginning of 2009, 25 were current or former Vatican officials, including Burke’s predecessor as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the church’s highest court. (Burke was actually appointed on Oct. 17 along with another recently installed curial official, Spanish Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, who heads the Vatican’s liturgical office.) 

That preponderance of Vatican prelates is partly because the Congregation for Bishops has to vet nominees from around the world, and Vatican officials control the archives where possible skeletons may lurk. In addition, the Congregation for Bishops meets for an entire morning every two weeks, and it’s simply more practical to expect prelates based in Rome to show up.

Yet seen through American eyes, Burke — who’s widely expected to become a cardinal in the next consistory, the event in which new cardinals are installed — is hardly just another Vatican official.

As the bishop of La Crosse, Wis., from 1995 to 2003, and then as archbishop of St. Louis from 2004 to 2008, Burke earned a reputation as a strong conservative voice on matters of both faith and politics. During the 2004 election, Burke publicly said he would not administer Communion to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a [pro-abortion] Catholic and at the time the Democratic nominee for president. He also once blasted a benefit concert by pop singer Sheryl Crow for a Catholic children’s hospital in St. Louis because she’s pro-choice. [pro-abortion… let’s call it what it is.]

Since being called to Rome in 2008, Burke has hardly gone quiet. In a September 2008 interview with an Italian newspaper, Burke said that the U.S. Democratic Party risks becoming the “party of death” because of its positions on bioethical questions. He’s also insisted that nothing can justify voting for a candidate who’s “anti-life” and “anti-family.

As a member of the Congregation for Bishops, Burke now has a seat at the table when possible new bishops are evaluated and proposed to the pope. (The Congregation for Bishops handles most appointments in the Catholic church, except for those in mission territories, which are prepared by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and those in the 22 Eastern rites in communion with Rome, which are handled by the Congregation for Oriental Churches.)

Burke becomes one of five Americans who sit on the congregation, the second largest national bloc after the Italians, who have 12 — nine cardinals, including Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the congregation’s prefect, and three bishops. The other four Americans are Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia; Cardinal Francis Stafford, former head of the Apostolic Penitentiary; and Cardinal Bernard Law, archpriest of Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major.

Like other important Vatican offices, the Congregation for Bishops has a staff that handles its day-to-day operations, but policy is set by the formal members of the congregation who are appointed by the pope. While many offices have full meetings of members only once a month or less frequently, the Congregation for Bishops meets more often because of the high volume of nominations to be reviewed.

When a diocese becomes vacant, it’s the job of the papal nuncio, or ambassador, in that country to solicit input on the needs of that diocese and to work with the local bishops and bishops’ conference to identify potential nominees. The nuncio prepares a terna, or list of three names, which is submitted to the Congregation for Bishops, along with extensive documentation on the candidates.

Members of the congregation are expected to carefully review all the documentation before meetings, and each is expected to offer an opinion about the candidates and the order in which they should be presented to the pope. Ultimately, it’s up to the pope to decide who’s named to any given diocese, but in most cases popes simply sign off on the recommendations made by the congregation.

To be sure, Burke’s nomination doesn’t mean he can single-handedly control who becomes a bishop, whether in the United States or anywhere else. For one thing, he’s simply one of five Americans on the congregation, and the least senior. At least initially, his input on American appointments is unlikely to be decisive. [Exactly.]

Most observers say that aside from the pope himself, the two most powerful players in determining who becomes a bishop in the United States today are the current nuncio, Italian Archbishop Pietro Sambi, and Rigali of Philadelphia. (Rigali is a longtime veteran of Rome himself, and a close friend of Re.) [That may be the case.]

By itself, Burke’s appointment doesn’t alter that calculus. Sambi in particular is believed to have reservations about the pugnacious, and occasionally partisan, episcopal style that Burke came to symbolize.

On the other hand, Burke’s influence may grow with time.

He’s by far the youngest of the current crop of Americans on the congregation (the next youngest, Levada, is 73, and Rigali is 74). Since appointments are for five-year terms and may be renewed until a prelate reaches the age of 80, Burke could be involved in bishops’ appointments for the next two decades. At some point he may well become the senior American in the process, with a correspondingly greater impact.

Whatever happens, one thing seems clear. If anyone suspected that the decision to bring Burke to Rome last year was a way of muzzling him, [I didn’t] or limiting his influence in the United States, [HA!] it certainly doesn’t seem to be playing out that way.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is

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  1. Peggy R says:

    FYI on Sheryl Crowe:

    She was also one of the celebrities who produced commercials for the pro-ESCR constitutional amendment in Missouri in 2006. Thus, she was a very public opponent of the Church’s pro-life anti-ESCR position in Missouri, where of course, Abp. Burke was strongly advocating for life. The concert was just a year or two later.

  2. TNCath says:

    I appreciate and applaud Mr. Allen’s recognizing Archbishop Burke as a key player in the Congregation for Bishops in the years to come. However, the sub-headline “Vatican names pugnacious prelate to congregation” as well as words such as “polarizing,” “partisan,” and “conservative” compromise Mr. Allen’s usual fair-mindedness. Anyone who has ever met Archbishop Burke will tell you that, while he is a formidable witness for and defender of the Faith, he is certainly not the ogre the anti-Catholic press (and yes, I include the NCR as anti-Catholic) make him out to be.

  3. Timbot2000 says:

    As for Burke’s influence, while he is the junior member of the congregation, he is also a personal friend of Benedict (remember he was the sole non-red hat to preview and review Summorum Pontificum).

  4. Athelstan says:

    John Allen, as usual, does a creditable job, but with a few niggles I might raise:

    “He also once blasted a benefit concert by pop singer Sheryl Crow for a Catholic children’s hospital in St. Louis because she’s pro-choice.”

    There was more to it than that. Crow was a highly vocal and active fundraiser for pro-choice/abortion groups, and similarly also for embryonic stem cell research. Her support for anti-life causes was, in other words, very energetic, very high profile, and very broad. That raised the level of scandal involved quite a bit.

  5. thereseb says:

    “ultra-lefty fishwrap”.

    Fr Z, for shame. Have you not considered the Health and Safety implications of this?

    Perhaps an exception might be made for lutefisk, however.

  6. chcrix says:

    It is worth looking at the comments on NCR on this story. People are gibbering.

    I admire Archbishop Burke’s spine. But in truth I thought he showed some pastoral issues in the St. Stanislaus business. I was really impressed when Pope Benedict moved him to Rome to his current position. This takes advantage of his legal abilities and convinced me that the Pope knows how to match a man’s talents to an appropriate position. This pope is not only wise but a good manager.

  7. P.McGrath says:

    We could use a few more pugnacious bishops everywhere.

  8. ssoldie says:

    Yea! lets do call it what it is,- for abortion, anti abortion, for life, anti life, for family, anti family, lets just drop the ‘pro’ and most especially the no brainer ‘pro-choice’ it means ‘for death’

  9. Random Friar says:

    I don’t know how this NCR works, but it is my understanding that in most periodicals and newspapers, the authors do not write the headlines/taglines. They submit the article, and editors add their own two cents (which is why sometimes you see odd disconnects between the headline and the article).

  10. MaryW says:

    Praying that Archbishop Burke will soon be Cardinal Burke.

  11. JPG says:

    I think anyone who think that Abp Burke was summoned to Rome to muzzle him is crazy. He is perhaps more pugnatious than His Holiness but they seem to my uneducated eyes cut of the same cloth so to speak. Certainly in terms of orthodoxy and in Liturgy with a strong appreciation of the Hermeneutic of Continuity both men seem very similar.

  12. “Whatever happens, one thing seems clear. If anyone suspected that the decision to bring Burke to Rome last year was a way of muzzling him, or limiting his influence in the United States, it certainly doesn’t seem to be playing out that way.”

    I know one who suspected it to be so…

    Richard McBrien.

  13. Central Valley says:

    Those of us in California look forward to Archbishop Burkes role in the Congregation for Bishops. 2010-2012 are years to watch in California as many See’s will be at retirement age. Los Angeles, Fresno, Orange are should be purged. Knowing Archbishop Burke will have influence on replacements puts many of us at ease. Pray that orthodoxy can return to California. Hopefully there will be no more Mahony retreads appointed bishops in California. We have suffered long enough.

  14. Patrick J. says:

    Where does one derive “fair and balanced” concerning Mr. Allen? I never have gotten that one. He writes for a horribly biased rag which signs his checks. Every turn of phrase literally wreaks with the modernist church ‘take’ on all things church related, especially on hard issues. Every once in a while, he throws the other side a crumb to be seen as F&B. I would say some (unnamed) give him far too much leniency for probably well thought out, perhaps ‘strategic’ reasons, (and here I allow my own trust in the judgment of the “unnamed” to ‘color’ my own opinion here).

  15. Patrick J. says:

    Corrections: “…rag which signs his checks.” — Here, I would be assuming, though in all probability does.

  16. Hugh says:

    “My friend John Allen, the fair-minded nearly ubiquitous columnist of the otherwise ultra-lefty fishwrap National Catholic Reporter”

    … “and Brutus is an honorable man”!

  17. oledocfarmer says:

    Has John Allen been keeping company with Rocco lately? The breathless reportage? The ridunkulous fixation on clerical gossip? The slow-death-by-innuendo style?

    That’s pure Rocco.

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