This just in: Burke not Episcopalian

BurkeWashington Post reporter Peter Slevin vented on St. Louis Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond Burke in this diatribe news article published today.

It’s a very curious read. Anyone wanting to know more about Burke or his theological approach to his office will be disappointed. Anyone wanting to know more about how some religious leaders balance concerns about public opinion and fidelity to doctrine will be disappointed. Anyone wanting a substantive debate about whether the church has the right to be, well, churchy in the public square will be disappointed. Anybody wanting a balanced look at how Roman Catholics in St. Louis feel about Burke will be disappointed. Fact is, I can’t think of a single group of people who would have any positive thoughts about this piece, other than folks who oppose church teaching on social issues.

Here’s how it begins:

When it comes to expressing his views of church values, Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond Burke has a habit of making headlines, not always to the satisfaction of his flock.

I’m not sure what to say in response to this. The idea that the reporter would take this approach to Burke’s behavior is just so . . . mainstream media, isn’t it? Oh, so the archbishop makes decisions that are not always to the satisfaction of his flock? Shocking! Name one church leader in the history of the world who has ever made decisions to the satisfaction of 100 percent of the flock. And what the heck kind of measure is that anyway? I think it might be just more honest to say that when it comes to expressing his views of church values, Burke hasn’t satisfied The Washington Post.

Anyway, the reporter goes on to discuss some of Burke’s more headline-inducing decisions, such as declaring he would deny Communion to Sen. John Kerry because he supports abortion. Or resigning his chairmanship of a hospital board because the hospital invited Sheryl Crow to headline a fundraiser. Crow had campaigned for embryonic-destroying stem cell research in Missouri and is a notorious supporter of abortion. Burke said turning a blind eye from her political activism would be scandalous. Slevin also mentions a case that I’m not sure Burke had anything specific to do with — the disinvitation of Sen. Claire McCaskill delivering a commencement address at a Roman Catholic high school on account of her support of embryonic-destroying stem cell research and abortion. He sums up:

At a time when significant segments of the Catholic population are breaking with the church on such issues as embryonic stem cell research and abortion, Burke is adhering to Vatican orthodoxy endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI — and he expects the same of all Catholics in his archdiocese.

Oooookay, Peter. As a Lutheran, I feel confident saying that Rome doesn’t exactly have a history of acting like a democracy. Or the faculty of UC-Berkeley for that matter. I understand that Burke is noteworthy for the manner in which he adheres to church teachings . . . but the language of this piece is just so one-sided and out of touch. It reads like Washington Post vs. Catholic orthodoxy rather than insight into Catholic struggles about the proper role for archbishop.

As one reader who sent along the story commented, “This article in the Post by Peter Slevin isn’t journalism; it’s trash-talk.” The reader said Slevin’s purpose seemed to be mocking Burke for how he doesn’t align his views with the rest of the world and how he’s supposedly driving everyone away from the Church.

The article’s headfake toward balance occurs with the quoting of Burke defender James Hitchcock, a professor at Saint Louis University who writes for the diocesan press. But the rest of the article — and particularly the explosive language used by Slevin — betrays the reporter’s bias. I’ve commented on his bias before — but at least then he was writing for the Style pages.

He says that Burke has “roiled the church” in St. Louis, but doesn’t shed any light on what that statement means or substantiate it with objective reporting. He mentions that Burke is like Benedict XVI, who spoke against Mexican lawmakers who voted to legalize abortion. This is a great line from the article:

In response, 18 Catholic members of Congress declared that “religious sanction in the political arena” violates American freedoms.

I’m confident that the head of the church in Rome feels chastened by the charge that he is not American. Even more so, who are these Congresscritters? A religious leader commenting on the political views of people within his religious community is not violating any American’s freedom. See, for instance: every Supreme Court decision ever made on the Establishment Clause. I make this point to note that Slevin isn’t really shedding light on any of the deeper issues here or illuminating the actual controversy.

Slevin quotes a pro-choice former Catholic who thinks Burke is awful and tells people how to live their lives. Excellent choice for a quote, Peter. A former Roman Catholic who thinks that church heads should not tell people how to live? Surely she does not represent the views of people who actually oppose Burke. Surely there’s something more substantive to this debate. Interesting note: Slevin uses the phrase pro-choice to describe the former Catholic. I’m curious: When was the last time the Post used the term pro-life to describe pro-lifers in a news story?

And then he mentions Rep. David Obey, an abortion-rights supporter. Obey took umbrage at Burke’s admonition that voting to have taxpayers pay for the abortions of female military members and voting to have taxpayers pay for the destruction of human embryos conflicted with church teaching. So I guess Slevin’s news hook is that Burke is not acting like an Episcopalian?

Slevin portrays Burke’s opposition to Crow as something that hurts little sick children and refers to a notable church property dispute and “Burke’s wrath” against the parish’s leadership.

There is no question that Burke is controversial. I can imagine all the wonderful stories exploring how St. Louisans are responding to his approach. Instead we get hit-piece journalism that serves no one. It’s a shame to waste the ink and trees.

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  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Thank you, Mollie! Slevin’s piece wasn’t journalism, at least not how I learned journalism. Why this got past the Post editors is beyond me. Well, except for the fact that the Post can’t read any life event or person except in terms of politics, and they don’t care if their religion reporters have any experience, and the press just doesn’t get religion. But beyond that, how did this piece of junk get into the Post?!?

  • Tim Drake

    Archbishop Burke isn’t alone in the press vs. bishop bias that’s become all-too-common. The St. Paul Pioneer Press recently used its pages for some “character assassination” of a Bishop who hadn’t even quite “started” yet.

    Read the article to see their hatchet job. This article, and another one on the Twin Cities’ new coadjutor, described Bishop Nienstedt as “doctrinaire,” “conservative,” and “hard-line.” Commentators in the article go on to describe him as “direct,” “a micromanager,” “self righteous,” “hectoring,” “not on our level,” “not reaching out,” and “a spiritual bully.”

    And keep in mind that he hasn’t really done anything in the archdiocese yet. So much for un-biased journalism. It’s as if these reporters just woke up and realized that these bishops were Catholic. What is it they expect?

  • Irenaeus

    Mollie rocks! If Mollie printed and sold T-Shirts with Mollie’s likeness and the GetReligion logo on them, Irenaeus would by one and wear it proudly. I’m actually serious.

    A second serious point: In so many of these sorts of stories, reporters seems to operate with the assumption/story line/action line that a church must accommodate to culture or die. This is simply sociologically false. It’s when a church tries hard to become relevant that it becomes irrelevant, because in accommodating to culture it loses anything distinctive. It becomes superfluous, lacking a distinct message or posture.

  • holmegm

    It’s when a church tries hard to become relevant that it becomes irrelevant, because in accommodating to culture it loses anything distinctive. It becomes superfluous, lacking a distinct message or posture.


    I mean, I don’t expect non-Christians (functional or avowed) to see these disagreements as anything but politics.

    But even if it *were* mere politics, why the heck would we get up early Sunday morning to hear the Washington Post’s views?

  • Martha

    Oh, noes! Catholic bishop reminds Catholic school and Catholic charity for Catholic hospital about Catholic teaching!

    I think we get the whole thing in a nutshell in this one sentence: “Burke is adhering to Vatican orthodoxy endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI”

    Note that it is “Vatican orthodoxy”, not “the teaching of the Roman Catholic faith over its entire history and by the way a lot of Protestant churches also used to teach this stuff until quite recently”. No, it’s that wacky Vatican doing its own funky thang once again!

    I liked having the ex-Catholic comment. Can we also get ex-Lutherans, ex-Republicans, ex-Boston Red Sox fans and the like to comment on points of interest in news stories? Unless he means that she is now an ex-Catholic solely because Archbishop Burke drove her out of the church, her opinion on this is no better or worse than asking the local Rabbi what he thinks of the Archbishop.

    Actually, asking the local Rabbi what he thinks of the Archbishop would be interesting, informative and involve a bit of research and not writing the story first then finding accommodating sources to give you quotes to back up your point of view.

  • Martha

    Clarification, please?

    Describing the Missouri embryonic stem cell research bill, he says “Voters approved the measure in November by about 50,000 votes out of 2.1 million cast.”

    Er – what does that mean, exactly? It was passed by a majority of 50,000? 50,000 voted in favour of it? (But if so, and 2.1 million votes were cast, how could it pass?) Only 50,000 votes were deemed valid? What? How many ‘no’ and ‘don’t know’ and ‘no to this particular bill but i’d vote yes for a slightly different one’ votes were there?

    I suppose providing factual information would just have gotten in the way of describing how the jackbooted Bishop is crushing the spirits of the hapless flock in St. Louis with his iron rule.

  • Mollie


    I assume the reporter means that 2.1 million people voted on the issue and 50,000 more voted to enshrine embryonic stem cell research into the state Constitution than voted not to.

    I don’t see a problem with that particular line.

  • Katherine

    It was a poor piece of journalism following the too common practice of using two extremes (Burke and those quoted responding to him) rather than mainstream Catholicism. The Pope, most bishops and most of the lay faithful find the act of abortion gravely wrong. But few find it necessary to shun every individual who has regrettable views regarding abortion public policy. A few weeks after the Crow incident the Pope had abortion rights supporter Henry Kissinger speak at the Vatican. And while Burke asked the rhetorical question as to the propriety of having a racist sing at the Glennon fundraiser, more informed Catholic realized that his predecessor and the man the hospital was named for – Archbishop Glennon – held the very views and actions on race that Burke suggested were out of bounds. Yet did the Post quote from the many faithful, pro-life Catholics who do the patient work of building a culture of life rather than separating oneself from the culture? No. They were left out of the commentary.

  • Joseph Fox

    Have you considered the Washington Post may be structuring its articles to generate reader’s responses in its comment section.

  • Edward Peters

    Terrific essay. Abp. Burke is a great bishop, period.

  • Str1977


    actually no – Burke and Benedict are mainstream Catholicism, at least when it comes to bishops.

    It is hardly the same whether you completely shun someone socially or whether you reinforce the fact that someone is acting grievously wrong, committing or facilitating mortal sin (in this case: mass murder) by denying them communion.

    The problem is not what you make it out to be but that the WaPo thinks these wrongs are right and that the Church should just shut up.

    The WaPo didn’t ask about a culture of life because it espouses its opposite. Quoting people on this would be hurting the cause.

    And as for racism in the past: two wrongs don’t make it right. Still, today the WaPo would probably cry foul about such racism today (however, I have no clue whether your take on the event is correct). Racism is bad, but killing human beings on mass is just fine … according to the WaPo.

  • Kyralessa

    The reporter said “50,000 votes” because it sounds like a bigger number than “just over 2%”. The vote was extremely narrow, and the only reason it passed is because a lot of people were deceived about what it meant. Here are two links:

    The first is the full amendment. The second is the so-called “fair ballot language”, which is what voters see on voting day. Note that in the full amendment, cloning is banned right up front, but much further down cloning is redefined in such a way that SCNT is no longer considered cloning. Note also that the “fair ballot language” tacitly assumes this redefinition.

    A number of theoretically pro-life people voted for this amendment because it was so deceptively written. Still, its margin of victory was only about 2%.

  • RP Burke

    What the story misses, of course, is not the substance of Archbishop Burke but his style. From all the evidence, he is a my-way-or-the-highway authoritarian in the style of, say, the notorious early 20th-century archbishop of Boston, William Cardinal O’Connell. Though his back story is probably nothing like O’Connell’s (see O’Toole: Militant and Triumphant for details), his approach to managing the church in St. Louis appears, from this remove, to be exactly like O’Connell’s.

    The contrast of this very late appointment of John Paul II with the first big U.S. appointment by Benedict XVI — Archbishop Donald Wuerl, who is just as conservative but not such an authoritarian — appears totally lost on the writer and the editors.

  • Tom

    One man’s “authoritarian” is another’s pastoral.

  • Katherine

    Burke and Benedict are mainstream Catholicism, at least when it comes to bishops.

    I think you are right on Benedict but wrong on Burke. of course, the Pope has allowed people like Henry Kissigner speak at the Vatican even though he is not in line with the Catholic view on abortion policy and has given communion to (Italian) politicans who are Catholic but not in line as well. The Pope speaks forcefully and firmly on the dignity of the unborn and the need for public policy upholding this dignity (and, may I say, the Pope has not been a friend of the Republican Party philosophy which says “we are against abortion and support any legal restriction against it unless it results in a tax increase.”)

    But I appreciate your statement that Glennon’s racism was a wrong. Now if it can just be explained how Burke seems to have no qualms about this hospital continuing to be named for a racist.

  • Eli

    Beyond the issue of whether one has a bone to pick with Burke because he’s such a big grouch or not, I think a more fundamental issue is at stake here. If one looks to the heartland of moral clarity that France is I think it becomes apparent how revolts like they saw in 1968 leads to depression, ennui and despair. Which is why I thought it was so interesting when their new President Sarkozy was reported to have said in a stump speech that the “events” of 1968 had “made the difference disappear between good and evil, between true and false, between the beautiful and the ugly, undermining authority, courtesy, respect, ethical and moral values—”. This is France we’re talking about. *And* he got elected.

    While it’s currently fashionable in the MSM to look to Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Sheryl Crow to help set our moral compasses one can’t help but respect those people like Burke who stand up for their doctrine. But I also think that a drastic redefinition of what is “interesting” is in order as a criterion of value by reporters and that the doctrine of someone like Burke or Benedict is infinitely more “interesting” in a much more important sense than whether Lindsey Lohan is going back into rehab — again.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Katherine, you’ve been making your point on Catholic blogs all over the place, and as my friend Deacon Scott Dodge said in reply, it’s a classic red-herring argument.

    RP Burke, I know Archbishop Burke personally and he’s not a “my way or the highway” kind of man. Anyone who’s met him knows he is humble and personable.

    I’ll never forget a meeting he had with journalists in the Jubilee Year when he was still bishop in his native diocese of La Crosse, Wis. This is a large diocese, land-wise — it’s three and a half hours from La Crosse to the northeastern most part of the diocese, so the interaction he has with the press in that are isn’t that often. He also isn’t one to watch a lot of television. He had met a TV journalist from that area once before and this man had told him about some situation with his mother and aunt, both of whom were ill. At this meeting, then, he went up to this journalist, called him by name, and asked how his mother and aunt were doing, much to the surprise of the journalist.

    Archbishop Burke is a man who cares about people, and he cares about their immortal souls. That’s his job. Even more, that’s what the Lord has called him to do, and he has taken on that calling with a willing heart.

    And there are two different people he has to care about here — the first are those who are being killed in the slaughter of the innocents known as abortion and embryonic stem cell research. The second are those who are perpetrating these evils, either by doing it themselves or by voting to allow them to happen.

    That the first suffer at the hands of the second grieves him. That the second know — or, at least, should know — what they’re doing and know that it’s wrong, frustrates him. Still, he knows that since they act as if they don’t, he has to tell them that what they’re doing is wrong. And he has to tell them that there are certain consequences to their wrong actions. And then he has to impose those consequences.

    Now, what most people don’t realize is that Archbishop Burke always, and I do mean always, confronts the people he has to confront on a private basis first. It’s only when either they go to the press to complain (like Rep. David Obey and his colleagues in Wisconsin), or when they don’t do what he asks them to do in a very important matter such as the Cardinal Glennon benefit, that it becomes a matter of public knowledge.

    That other bishops fail to carry out their duties and warn those people for whom they are responsible that their immortal souls are imperiled is not Arcbhishop Burke’s fault. That Archbishop Wuerl doesn’t take on this issue in the way he should doesn’t make Archbishop Burke an authoritarian bishop. It shows up Archbishop Wuerl and his all-too-many like-minded brethren for what they are — men who act like the fleeing hired hands, allowing the wolves to run rampant through the flock.

  • Martha

    See, Mollie, that’s what I mean. If 2 million voted and 50,000 more voted, then was that two different votes? Two votes on the one referendum? How many people voted? By what majority – and was it a close one or not – did this pass?

    If he’s going to quote figures, then I’d like to see a bit more substance, particularly if he’s using them to bash the Archbishop. I imagine Missouri is not 100% Roman Catholic, so out of those 2 million voters (or 2,050,000 voters, whichever it was), how did the RC vote stack up? Support for the Archbishop? Open defiance? Can’t tell either way? The way he uses it, it’s only dropped into the story as a kind of ‘gotcha!’ about Archbishop Burke: ‘see, he wanted this banned, but they passed it anyway, nyahnyah!’

  • Martha

    Ah, I see Kyralessa has answered my question for me.

    Yes, saying it was a 51% in favour to a 49% against vote sounds much more like a very closely fought result and less like a ‘free-minded Catholic people follow own consciences in best American tradition and deliver stunning rebuke to dictatorial, authoritarian, mediaeval Vatican-zealot Archbishop’.

  • Str1977


    you might be a bit obsessive about reducing that former bishop to his supposed racism. And still, I have no clue whether he was racist in any way, knowing nothing about him. I read that he failed to foster racial integration, which is not quite the top notch of racism. As bad as racism is, killing humans is worse.

    Whatever prompted you to bring in the “stupid party” (to use Mark Shea’s phrase) is beyond me.

  • Str1977

    BTW, the hospital was opened and named in 1956.

    Renaming institutions is a recent and stupid innovation.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    What bothers me in stories like this in the Wash. Post is that far more Catholics will see the lies, distortions, invectives, and insults of the Post than will hear the other side from Catholic Media or at Catholic Mass.

  • Raider51

    This is another example of why we, the general public, tends to view journalists with such distain.

    Or, to put it another way — why Rita Skeeter seems to be a true reflection of journalists.

    The thing is, there are some really good writers and researchers out there. This kind of thing makes them all look like attorney scum.

    (as a member of the bar, I can say that.)

  • Eli

    Didn’t somebody smart once say:

    Anger is a good thing if it destroys bad things

    …and if they didn’t then they should of.

  • dpt

    “Name one church leader in the history of the world who has ever made decisions to the satisfaction of 100 percent of the flock.”

    No…wait a minute…ok, I’ll need more time to thing of someone…give me a moment here…