Friday, June 27, 2008

The "Chief Justice": A St Louis Cardinal

So... the foreseen "other shoe" has dropped.

This morning, Pope Benedict named Archbishop Raymond Burke of St Louis as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura -- in effect, the church's "chief justice" as head of its top court. The Wisconsin-born prelate, who turns 60 on Monday, succeeds Cardinal Agostino Vallini, whose long-expected appointment as papal vicar for Rome was also announced in today's moves.

The first non-European named to head the historic tribunal, which dates from the 15th century, the archbishop's appointment to the prestigious post -- which, in keeping with tradition, will see Burke receive the cardinal's red hat at the next consistory -- is recognition of the top-shelf canonist's legal chops, but also serves to reflect the dominance of Signatura's docket by cases from the English-speaking world. On the more practical side, the return to the Vatican's top tribunal of the first US cleric to hold a senior post within its ranks -- the second consecutive instance of an archbishop of the onetime "Rome of the West" being called out of town to a cardinalatial post -- removes the American bishop most affiliated with the so-called "Communion Wars" from the domestic fray in advance of another presidential election season.

Born in Wisconsin's rural diocese of LaCrosse, Burke was ordained a priest by Pope Paul VI on 29 June 1975 -- one of 359 clerics ordained together in commemoration of the Holy Year. Distinguished from early on by his canonical aecumen, after serving at home and studies in Washington and Rome, the onetime Basselin scholar -- whose legal studies specialized in ecclesiastical jurisprudence -- was called to the Curia as defender of the bond at the Signatura in 1989. Five years later, at 46, he was named bishop of his native diocese, where he served until his appointment to St Louis in late 2003.

As a diocesan bishop, Burke's record has mixed solid conservative credentials and significant success in recruiting seminarians with a penchant for stoking controversies that've made ripple effects far beyond the boundaries of his charge.

In early 2004, the newly-arrived archbishop -- who had exhorted pro-choice politicians to refrain from receiving Communion in LaCrosse -- rocked the Stateside church by replying that he would "give a blessing" to the then-Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, opening the door to a national firefight that polarized church circles and continues into the present. In April 2006, after Missouri voters narrowly defeated a constitutional amendment forbidding the use of state funds to support embryonic stem-cell research -- a result which, he said, "shows how deeply the culture of death is rooted in our society" -- Burke resigned the chairmanship of the city's Catholic children's hospital in protest over the booking of the singer Sheryl Crow for its major annual fundraiser, citing Crow's public stances in support of abortion and ESCR.

Beyond these, the dominant showdown looming over Burke's St Louis tenure has been the archdiocese's collision with the independent board of St Stanislaus Kostka parish, as the church sought to regularize the Polish parish's status and end its long-standing arrangement of lay governance. In 2005, the archbishop invoked the canons to announce the board's automatic excommunication (and that of the priest it hired) on grounds of schism; after the parish -- which continues to function independently -- appealed to Rome, last month the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith upheld the decision. Along the way, Burke revoked the local faculties of Dominican Fr Thomas Doyle after the cleric -- a prominent, longtime advocate for survivors of clergy sex abuse -- provided canonical counsel to the board.

In recent months, a separate flare-up over the attempt of two local women to be ordained to the priesthood was joined with equal force. After claiming orders, Burke summoned the women to defend themselves before him; when they didn't, they were excommunicated. And just yesterday, a Sister of Charity found to have encouraged and participated in the rites was declared guilty of three canonical crimes, placed under interdict and forbidden from exercising "any mission" in the archdiocese.

While the canonical reasoning behind his decisions has been roundly affirmed as unassailable, most observers concluded that the new prefect's reputation as a "lightning rod" steered the US bishops to choose Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Chicago over the St Louis prelate for the chairmanship of the bench's Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance at last November's plenary in Baltimore. Also a respected canonist, the junior prelate bested Burke with 138 votes to the archbishop's 95. Given today's news, however, it could be said that, where it counted, Burke still won out.

Speculation tipping the archbishop's Romecoming began in earnest early last month after Burke -- already one of the Signatura's 18 prelate-judges -- was named to two influential Roman dicasteries: the Congregation for the Clergy and the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. An international leader in the church of the restoration of the 1962 Missal and the growing vocation to lifelong consecrated virginity lived in the world, late July will see the completion of the LaCrosse project he championed during his tenure as its bishop: the Romanesque Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, its cost believed to hover in the $30 million range.

In accord with the norms of canon law, the 560,000-member St Louis see fell vacant with the publication of this morning's appointment; until his departure for Rome in August, the prefect-designate will serve as archdiocesan administrator. Then, the archdiocesan consultors will be charged with the choice of another administrator from within pending the appointment of the Gateway City's ninth archbishop.

A press conference has been called for 11am local time.