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Archbishop Burke deserves the Laetare Medal

Charles Rice | Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Notre Dame should give the 2004 Laetare Medal to Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis. The medal is given to men and women whose lives have “illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.” Archbishop Burke is a profile in courage who fits that description.In Nov. 2003, when he was Bishop of La Crosse, Wis., Burke decreed that Catholic legislators in his diocese who “support procured abortion or euthanasia may not present themselves to receive Holy Communion. They are not to be admitted to Holy Communion, should they present themselves, until … they publicly renounce their support of these most unjust practices.”Burke had privately appealed to the three legislators involved but they essentially told him to get lost. “The duty of Catholic legislators to respect human life,” said Burke, “is not [a] personal opinion I have arbitrarily decided to impose. It is not … Burke’s law, but God’s law which Burke, as a shepherd of God’s flock, is bound to teach and uphold, also by admonishing … those who violate it. As bishop, I am a guardian of the faith and its practice. If I … remain silent while the faith, in one of its most fundamental tenets, is … openly disobeyed by those who present themselves as sincere adherents of the faith, then I have failed most seriously and should be removed from office.” Whether other bishops will take the same position is a matter for the pastoral judgment of each bishop. But Burke is a bishop who knows how to lead.Burke’s stand is politically incorrect, which may be the only sin in the “Church of Where It’s At.” But his action is in line with sound reason and the Constitution. He imposed no legal sanction on the legislators. They are free to continue their support for the legalized execution of the innocent by abortion and euthanasia. Burke is simply invoking the principle of truth-in-labeling. If you are going to present yourself to the voters as a Catholic you should act like one. And you should not give the public a scandal.Abortion and euthanasia are not wrong merely because the Church says so. Rather, the Church so teaches because the international killing of the innocent is always a grave violation of the natural law and of the Command-ments. Nor is Burke’s action an infringement on conscience. Conscience and freedom have an obligation to the truth. The bishop is obliged to teach that truth in order to assist Catholics of his diocese in the formation of their consciences.A legislator takes an oath to uphold the Constitution. But that oath cannot override his obligation, under the natural law and divine law, not to cooperate in the murder of the innocent. Indeed, when the Constitution has been perverted to authorize the execution of the innocent, fidelity to the Constitution requires the effort to restore the right to life. Similarly, Abraham Lincoln insisted on his moral duty to fight to reverse the Dred Scott decision, which had decreed that slaves were property and not persons.Legalized abortion is the epitome of an unjust law which, as Thomas Aquinas said, is “no longer a law but a perversion of a law.” Every legislator, Catholic or not, is morally obliged under the natural law to oppose, and to try to change, a law that authorizes the execution of the innocent. A Catholic legislator who openly and persistently favors legalized abortion and euthanasia not only fails in that duty, he also makes himself liable to denial of his right to receive the Eucharist which is the sign of unity in the faith.Canon Law requires that “those … who obstinately persist in manifestly grave sin are not to be admitted to the Holy Communion” (Canon 915). Burke did not excommunicate the politicians. Rather, he applied Canon 915 as an explicit regulation of the administration of the sacraments. Burke’s action, however, was not merely disciplinary. It was pastoral, born of concern for the spiritual welfare of the Catholic legislator as well as of the Catholic people who could be misled or scandalized if the legislator’s pro-death position went unchallenged.In 1962, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans announced that he was going to desegregate New Orleans Catholic schools. Segregationist activists Judge Leander Perez, State Senator E. W. Gravolet and B. J. Gaillot, all Catholics, opposed him. Gravolet threatened to cut off state support to Catholic schools and Perez urged Catholics to withhold financial support from the Church. After reminding them of the danger to their souls in rejecting the Church teaching, the archbishop excommunicated all three. Perez was an icon of the legal and cultural mainstream. Rummel was counter-cultural. But he was right. And so is Burke. He would honor Notre Dame by accepting the Laetare Medal.Professor Emeritus Charles Rice is on the Law School faculty. His column appears every other Wednesday. He can be contacted at plawecki.1@nd.edu.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.