By Edward Pentin
ROME, OCT. 14, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Obedience to the magisterium and the demands of the natural moral law are not only important for salvation, but are especially required of Catholics if a culture of life is to be advanced in today’s world.
This was the thrust of an impassioned speech by Archbishop Raymond Burke to a major congress held in Rome last week hosted by Human Life International. It was a keynote address that was greeted with a standing ovation.
The American prefect of the Apostolic Signatura began by pointing out that society is experiencing “a period of intense and critical struggle” in advancing a culture of life, made worse by temptations to relativize the authority of the magisterium.
“Man is tempted to view the magisterium in relation to his individualism and self-pursuit,” he told the large gathering of representatives belonging to the pro-life movement. Referring to the popularly known phrase “cafeteria Catholicism,” he called first and foremost on bishops to uphold the natural moral law, reminding them of Benedict XVI’s exhortation to bishops “to be aware of the challenges of the present hour and have the courage to face them.”
Noting that the bishop, as chief teacher of faith and morals in the diocese, carries an especially “heavy and constant burden” in providing sound teaching that safeguards all life, he stressed that obedience to the magisterium is a virtue, one obtained “through the practice” of such obedience.
“When shepherds of the flock are obedient to the magisterium entrusted to their exercise, then surely the numbers of the flock grow in obedience,” he said. “If the shepherd isn’t obedient, the flock easily gives way to confusion and error.” Quoting the Prophet Zechariah, he said the shepherd can be “especially tempted” by the assaults of Satan who, “if he can strike him, the work of scattering the flock is made easy.”
“Faith is first of all personal adherence of man to God,” underlined Archbishop Burke, and recalled the words of a wise professor of canon law he knew who would often tell his classes: “Where there are problems of chastity, there are problems of obedience.” Rebellion against the moral truth, Archbishop Burke noted, “is a rebellion against God and all that he teaches us.”
As if God didn’t exist
He acknowledged that obedience to the magisterium is “difficult to master,” adding that “Satan does not sleep” and in the culture of today, he is tempting mankind to act “as if God does not exist.” Instead, Satan is “teaching us a radical individualism and self interest which leads us away from the love of God and love of one another,” he said.
The archbishop also stressed that today’s culture “teaches us to believe what is convenient and to reject what is difficult for us or which challenges us,” thus leading to a “cafeteria Catholicism” which “picks and chooses which parts of faith to practice.” He noted how this happened even among some bishops when they dissented from Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” The consequences of that dissent, he said, has “led many Catholics into habits of sin in what pertains to procreation and the education of human life.”
Earlier, he had highlighted a presupposition to the current battles to preserve a culture of life: namely that the attack on innocent and defenseless life of the unborn “has its corruption in an erroneous view of human sexuality which attempts to eliminate by mechanical or chemical means the essentially procreative nature of the conjugal act.”
He added: “The so-called contraceptive mentality is anti-life and the manipulation of the conjugal act, as Pope Paul VI prophetically observed, has led to many forms of violence in marriage and family life.” Once the sexual union is longer seen to be by its very nature procreative, he continued, “human sexuality is abused in ways that are profoundly harmful and in ways destructive of individuals and society itself.”
As an example, he drew attention to the “devastation which is daily wrought on our world by the multi-million dollar industry of pornography.” The answer, he said, was the advancement of the culture of life through the “proclamation of the truth of the conjugal union in its fullness and the correction of the contraceptive thinking which fears life, which fears procreation.”
Archbishop Burke then turned to the exercise of the magisterium in public life. He spoke of the tendency today to compartmentalize the faith, and the “hypocrisy” of some Catholics in politics, medicine, business or other human endeavors, who claim to personally hold to the truth of the faith regarding the inviolability of innocent and defenseless human life, yet cooperate in attacks on the unborn, the infirm, or those with special needs. He also cited “self-proclaimed” Catholics who support state recognition of same sex marriage.
“It is not possible to be a practicing Catholic and conduct oneself publicly in this manner,” he said to loud applause.
But Archbishop Burke made clear that the Church does not impose its confession. Rather it tries to “foster the teaching of upholding the moral law, common to all men and which is at the heart of every true religion.” This is why governments have in the past recognized the importance of religion in public life, he said: to protect the teachings and practice of religious faith for the sake of the common good.
He lamented that many have become confused about “the most basic truths,” namely the inviolable dignity of innocent human life from conception until natural death, and marriage of one man and one woman “as the first and irreplaceable” source of life and society.
But Archbishop Burke’s strongest words concerned the scandal wrought not just by disobedience to the magisterium, but the absence of public reparation for such disobedience. Such actions, or inaction, on laws that destruct innocent human life makes citizens in general “confused,” leading them into error “about the basic tenets of the moral law.” He noted that in our time, there is a great hesitation to speak about such scandal, as if in some way it’s a phenomenon among people of “small or unenlightened minds and therefore a tool of some persons to condemn others rashly and wrongly.”
He pointed out the presence of “pharisaic scandal,” in which there is a “malicious interpretation” of the morally good, but his main beef was with “true scandal” that leads others into confusion and error. The Lord’s admonition of people who lead others into sin was “nothing less than vehement,” he reminded listeners. For this reason, he said, the “perennial discipline of the Church [has] prohibited the giving of Holy Communion or the granting of a Church funeral to those who persist after admonition in the grave violation of the moral law.”
“It is said that these disciplines which the Church has consistently observed down the centuries presume to pass judgment on eternal judgment of a soul, a judgment that belongs to God alone, and therefore can be abandoned,” he explained. “On the contrary, [such] public action[s] of the soul are in violation of the moral law, and do[es] grave harm to all who are confused and led into error by these actions.” He added: “The Church invites every soul to the mercy of God which is great beyond all our imagining, but that does not excuse her from proclaiming the truth of the moral law, also by applying her age old disciplines for the sake of the salvation of all.”
To much applause, Archbishop Burke said: “When a person has culpably espoused and cooperated in gravely sinful acts, leading many into error and confusion over fundamental questions regarding respect for life and integrity of marriage and family, his repentance of such actions must also be public.”
He stressed that responsibility is “especially heavy” for political leaders. “To repair the scandal begins with the public acknowledgment of his own error and a public declaration of adherence to the moral law,” he explained. “The soul which recognizes the gravity of what he has done will understand immediately the need to make public reparation.”
He further noted that this danger has been heightened in our time because of confusion of the moral law found in public discourse. “It is particularly insidious that our society, which is profoundly confused about the most basic good, also believes that scandal is a thing of the past,” he said. “One sees the hand of the father of lies at work in the disregard of the situation of scandal or in the ridicule or censure of those who experience the scandal.”
Archbishop Burke also alluded to what he called “one of ironies of the present situation,” which is that a person who brings attention to the scandal of gravely sinful actions by Catholics is accused of a lack of charity and of causing division in the unity of the Church.
“In a society’s thinking, governed by the tyranny of relativism and where political correctness and human respect are the ultimate criteria of what is to be done, the notion of leading someone into moral error makes little sense,” he said. What causes unrest, he continued, is when “someone fails to observe political correctness and therefore seems to be disruptive of the so-called peace of society.”
Lying or failing to tell the truth, however, “is never a sign of a charity,” he said.
“A unity which is not founded on the truth of the moral law is not unity,” underlined the archbishop. “The Church was founded on speaking truth with love.”
In conclusion, Archbishop Burke called on those present to be obedient to the magisterium and engage with “new enthusiasm and energy” in the struggle to advance the culture of life in the world.
“The struggle is fierce and the contrary forces are many and quite clever,” he said, “but the victory has already been won, and the victor never fails to accompany us in our struggle.”
* * *
Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: [email protected]