"Sometimes the primacy of the conscience is misunderstood. If you mean that the conscience has primacy — in the sense that whatever I feel or think becomes then the right thing to do — that’s false. The primacy of the conscience is related essentially to the primacy of the truth. In other words, your conscience has primacy in as much as it is conformed to the truth, and as much as it is properly informed.
For example, let’s say there is someone who espouses a position on procured abortion — that isn’t right. He can’t say that it is right simply because he holds it in his conscience. He has a duty to inform his conscience about the fact that here we are speaking about a human life. And, therefore, the only response we can make to that human life is to safeguard it and protect it. The primacy of the conscience is strictly correlated to the primacy of the truth. "
Archbishop Raymond Burke (former Bishop of La Crosse) was interviewed by his diocesan newspaper, The St Louis Review, after his encounter in the press with the St Louis University basketball coach, Rick Majerus, on the latter's public pro-abortion stand:
Why were you concerned about responding to the comments made by St. Louis University basketball coach Rick Majerus that he favors abortion rights and is pro-embryonic stem-cell research?
There are two levels of concern that I had in addressing the issue. Here is someone who makes a point to identify himself as a Catholic and then takes positions that are contrary to some of the most sacred teachings of the Church — teachings with regard to the inviolable dignity of every human life from the moment of its beginning. It gives scandal to other people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, if they hear a Catholic give an interview to the media, saying that I am proud to be a Catholic but at the same time I hold these views. Then there is a second level, which is that (Majerus) represents a Catholic institution. He is a very prominent member of the St. Louis University community. Whatever his personal positions may be in regard to procured abortion or embryonic stem-cell research, he’s obliged as a public figure from a Catholic university to show respect for the teachings of the Church. For him to say these things brought my concern to a new level.
If he had been of another faith, would this have been different for you?
No, in a certain sense it would not have been different. He still represents a Catholic institution, and so even though he might belong to some faith or belief that accepts procured abortion, he would be obliged to respect the fact that the Catholic Church — and really, this pertains to the natural moral law — teaches that abortion is an intrinsic evil; and therefore he would not publicly espouse such positions.
So it comes down to the fact that he made these public statements. But let’s say for example he was of another faith and he said, "I’m for abortion rights," but he was talking among his friends and family. That would be a different scenario, right?
Of course it would. But take for example, what would you think as Catholic parents who have a son or daughter who goes to a Catholic university, and one of the real personalities of the university, a person who is seen to represent the university, is publicly espousing abortion rights? You’d say to yourself, well, this isn’t just.
There are some other things that have come up in the media about you and Mr. Majerus. The Review wanted to provide you the opportunity to set the record straight on this issue. The first issue was whether he should be denied Communion or even excommunicated. Did you bring up any of those things with the members of the media?
I did not raise the questions of denying him Holy Communion or excommunication, but representatives of the media raised them with me. When it was brought up to me, I said that is a matter that first has to be dealt with pastorally with the individual.
So are you suggesting he should speak with you or another priest about the matter? Would you be open to meeting with him?
Oh, of course. The question was asked, "This person who is a prominent figure at a local Catholic university has made these declarations. What do you think?" And I simply said it’s not possible to hold these positions, and I’m deeply concerned about it. But I also said I was confident that the university would address the situation and correct it. I also did not mix myself into the administration of the university. I expressed confidence that the university would do the right thing.
Comments have been made that you were angry or spoke out strongly about what Mr. Majerus had to say. What were you feeling when you heard what he said to a reporter while attending a political rally?
What I felt most of all was just a profound sadness. At a time when in the Church we need to give such a strong witness to the dignity of human life and the Respect Life Apostolate, this counter witness is being given. I was very sad. Did it upset me? Yes, it did. And my main concern was to correct any perception that it’s acceptable for Catholics to be in favor of procured abortion or embryonic stem-cell research. And above all, no Catholic institution could have its representatives espousing such positions. When people take a position at a Catholic institution, there’s a certain sacred trust involved there.
People say it’s a matter of freedom of speech. It’s not a question of freedom of speech. Academic freedom is something quite different. It gives you a freedom to make declarations within your particular area of competence, and according to the canons (laws) for investigation of the truth. It doesn’t give you a kind of heightened freedom to make declarations that are contrary to the truth.
I’d like to use this situation with Mr. Majerus as a springboard to talk about Catholic identity in general. We hear it in other scenarios, like, "I don’t want to be told how to vote." Or, "Why is it so important that we speak out against abortion?" What do you think a Catholic should have done in this kind of a situation, where a Catholic was presented with an opportunity to say something publicly?
First of all, it can be a wonderful occasion for someone from the media to ask you to give a witness to the truth about the inviolable dignity of unborn human life and the dignity of the infant in the womb. If there is a Catholic who for some reason is struggling with his or her adherence to this, then the correct thing to do is to be silent — certainly not to expound error or to air doubts that you’re trying to resolve in your own mind. But to seek the help of a spiritual director to clarify these things.
What if a Catholic were to say, "Archbishop Burke, I’m not struggling with it. I think abortion rights are important." How do you respond to that?
My response to that is you are in a very serious state of error and that you need to get the help to rectify your conscience. Your conscience is wrongly formed. And you need to get whatever help it takes to form your conscience properly in accord with the Church’s teaching, and in this case, with the natural moral law.
What do we need to believe in order to be Catholic? For example, when we recite the Nicene Creed at Mass, that’s something fundamental to our faith. But beyond that, are there other elements of our faith that we are bound to believe in?
We are held to believe whatever has been taught by the Church and declared by the Church to be a doctrine of the faith. All of those doctrines are connected in some way with the fundamental articles of the faith, which we profess in the Profession of Faith. Of course, the Nicene Creed doesn’t contain any of the moral teaching of the Church. Those are all things handed down either in the natural moral law or divine revelation, and further defined by the Church.
Can you give some examples of some of those teachings that go beyond the Creed?
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception for instance; the moral teaching on the intrinsic evil of procured abortion; or the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts.
Catholics who seem to hold beliefs that go against the Church’s teachings often say that they are "doing the right thing," or "following their conscience." Does this come down to an issue of free speech?
Sometimes the primacy of the conscience is misunderstood. If you mean that the conscience has primacy — in the sense that whatever I feel or think becomes then the right thing to do — that’s false. The primacy of the conscience is related essentially to the primacy of the truth. In other words, your conscience has primacy in as much as it is conformed to the truth, and as much as it is properly informed.
For example, let’s say there is someone who espouses a position on procured abortion — that isn’t right. He can’t say that it is right simply because he holds it in his conscience. He has a duty to inform his conscience about the fact that here we are speaking about a human life. And, therefore, the only response we can make to that human life is to safeguard it and protect it. The primacy of the conscience is strictly correlated to the primacy of the truth.
Should Catholics make public statements against Church teachings, such as speaking at a rally?
When you make a public statement at a rally for instance, or any other kind of public forum, you lead other people astray with regard to what the Church teaches. You can lead astray Catholics, and you also can lead nonCatholics into error about what the Church teaches. And you even can influence them to do things that are gravely wrong. And this is what we call scandal: when you do something which leads other people into error or even into committing a sin. This is a very serious matter when a Catholic publicly espouses a position contrary to the faith.
And how does that differ from private statements made to friends and family?
With regard to conversations with family and friends, there, too, one must be careful if a person is having doubts or questions about something and is discussing this privately with another family member whom he trusts and can help him to deal with this doubt. But if you’re in a family gathering, and say there are young people there for example, and you espouse a teaching or a moral doctrine contrary to the Church, you can lead other people astray — either influence them to think wrongly about either a doctrine or a moral issue, or even lead them to do something wrong. We have to be very attentive in all of our conversations — that our words give glory to God and express our love of God and neighbor at all times. And if something we are saying is not giving glory to God and not expressing the love of God and our neighbor, then it shouldn’t pass our lips.
What do you think about the responsibility of Catholic public figures when speaking in the public arena?
Public figures, they really have so much more possibility to give a strong witness and an effective witness to the truth of the faith. I think for instance during the battle to defeat Amendment 2, those (Major League) baseball players took out an ad to say this isn’t fair to treat human embryos in this way. It had a terrific impact. Or the physicians who went around the state and talked to people, explaining to them what’s involved in embryonic stem-cell research. This is so important, because we look up to our public figures.
It seems now, more than ever, it’s difficult to be a Catholic. I think people are now starting to see that, especially with your presence here. Do you want to speak on that?
Oftentimes, members of the faithful have commented to me that it’s really a challenge these days to be a Catholic. For instance, they’ll be in social settings, even settings where a greater part of the people are Catholic, where there’s some discussion that is contrary to the Church’s teaching. And it isn’t easy for them to speak up and to defend the Church’s teaching. And yet, that’s what they’re called to do. I have had doctors, lawyers, workers of all kinds who say in their workplaces that people come in and say, ‘What is this about the Catholic Church?’ They might be the only person in the conversation who is upholding the Church’s teaching. And it isn’t easy.
I think many people are beginning to reflect on the fact that these are precisely the moments to give witness to Christ and his teaching. And maybe the people at the time ridicule you or simply reject what you say or even say that your position is medieval, but nevertheless you have given a witness. And that witness remains.
People sometimes say to me, ‘I’m not very eloquent,’ or, ‘I never studied theology,’ and these people are talking about things like the ordination of women for example. I say to them to use whatever words you have, but defend what you understand to be the Catholic faith. That’s what you’re called to do. That’s how witness is given to Christ, and that’s how people hear the truth and are led to change their thinking. It isn’t easy, and I understand that.
People laugh when I say this, but basically, I’m a quiet person. I’m not a person who likes to be making all kinds of public declarations; and yet I know that as archbishop that’s my responsibility. If I, who am supposed to be a sentinel for the faithful and to guard them against error, don’t give a warning when gravely wrong things are being said in public, I have a lot for which to answer. All of us, we have occasions in our homes, in social settings, in our work, to give this witness. It’s critical today, because the world is so confused about so many of the most fundamental truths. And if we as Catholics remain silent, we’re failing at a service we’re called to give the world — to speak the truth with love.
Finally, you mentioned it’s your responsibility as the shepherd of your flock to guide situations where there’s some kind of confusion about the teachings of the Church. We don’t always see that with all of our bishops. I know a number of people who have said, "Why is our archbishop saying this, but another bishop somewhere else isn’t doing anything at all?" What do you say to that?
I don’t know what all those other situations are (personally), and that’s strictly speaking not my business. I think what we ought to do in the archdiocese and I have to do as archbishop is say, ‘Are these situations that need to be addressed in our archdiocese?’ If they are, the archbishop better be addressing them, or he’s failing in his duty. And he shouldn’t worry about whether he appears to be different from some other bishops. We don’t know what all those situations are and what judgments those bishops are making. But sometimes people say to me, you seem to be unusual, and I’m not. I don’t think I am. I say to myself, let’s look at the situation. Is there something unusual about a bishop saying that it’s wrong to be in favor of procured abortion? I’m a Roman Catholic priest and bishop. What else would you expect me to say?