The Corner

Dumbing Down Cardinal Burke

I appreciate a punchy headline as much as the next reader, but whoever wrote this one was trying too hard: “Cardinal Burke: Gays, remarried Catholics, and murderers are all the same.” It’s childish and not just overstated but false. It announces an article by David Gibson and was used verbatim by several outlets, suggesting that it originated with the Religion News Service (RNS), the agency that distributed the piece.

Gibson writes about the interview that Cardinal Raymond Burke gave to Jeanne Smits, the Paris correspondent for LifeSiteNews.com. The published text is 4,800 words. The headline that LifeSiteNews gave it is “Cardinal Burke says confusion spreading among Catholics ‘in an alarming way.’” RNS has spread a little more.

Let’s look at the primary source, the interview itself. Smits at one point asked Burke about the argument that Catholic teaching on homosexuality and on the indissolubility of marriage should be discounted in light of the obvious kindness, generosity, and other virtues of many people who violate the Church’s understanding of the moral law:

LSN: Among the viewpoints of Cardinal Kasper and, more recently, Bishop Bonny of Antwerp, and others, was the consideration that “faithful” homosexuals, “remarried” divorcees and non-married couples show qualities of self-sacrifice, generosity and dedication that cannot be ignored. But through their choice of lifestyle, they are in what must be seen by outsiders as an objective state of mortal sin: a chosen and prolonged state of mortal sin. Could you remind us of the Church’s teaching on the value and merit of prayer and good actions in this state?

CB: If you are living publicly in a state of mortal sin there isn’t any good act that you can perform that justifies that situation: the person remains in grave sin. We believe that God created everyone good, and that God wants the salvation of all men, but that can only come about by conversion of life. And so we have to call people who are living in these gravely sinful situations to conversion. And to give the impression that somehow there’s something good about living in a state of grave sin is simply contrary to what the Church has always and everywhere taught.

LSN: So when the man in the street says, yes, it’s true these people are kind, they are dedicated, they are generous, that is not enough?

CB: Of course it’s not. It’s like the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people . . . 

 . . . like the oddly sympathetic character of Don Corleone, I immediately thought. But I hear the howls of protest already, so let me suggest another analogy.

Let’s say you work for Planned Parenthood and do so with great moral conviction. And let’s say I work for the pro-life movement. I recognize that you’re warm and well intentioned, but that doesn’t change my view that your work has the effect of promoting injustice. You’re wrong. You’re nice. Those two facts coexist.

Distinguishing between sinner and sin is usually easy: The sin doesn’t define the sinner, and neither does the sinner define the sin. The David who committed adultery with Bathsheba was still, after all, David the apple of God’s eye. But the adultery he committed was still adultery.

Our ability to think both thoughts simultaneously may be waning, although some people only pretend that they don’t understand. Their aim is to dumb down the conversation to the point that thinking has no place in it anymore. If their opponent has won the debate intellectually, what can they do? Ignore his ideas, deplore ideas generally (oh, those “doctors of the law,” those “Pharisees”!), and push sentiments (cheap “mercy,” the Catholic version of cheap grace) that they hope will appeal to the soft-headed child in us all.

Burke’s very point was to stress the importance of maintaining the sinner–sin distinction. The headline writer blurred it and ascribed the blurring to Burke.

No one even remotely familiar with Catholic culture would find credible the assertion that a cardinal said that “gays, remarried Catholics, and murderers are all the same,” and no one with reading comprehension above the Mendoza line would see in the interview any evidence that Burke said it. He said that any virtues possessed by the person who violates moral laws pertaining to sex and marriage no more justify the violation of those laws than the virtues of a murderer justify the murder. It’s hardly click bait, but it’s what he said.

Those who, on the left and on the right, are accused of misrepresenting Pope Francis in the media might be doing so knowingly in many cases, but representing him in a way that is indisputably fair is hard because his words are so often ambiguous. Burke is a straight shooter, by contrast. His thought and speech are linear — and, to the minds of many, compelling. If his adversaries in the media were confident that we would think his message was outrageous if we only knew what it was, they would be content to quote him accurately.

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