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False Mercy & the Integrity of Marriage

Raymond Cardinal Burke knows a little something about the Catholic Church’s marriage tribunals. A former archbishop of St. Louis, Burke is currently prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest ecclesiastical court, which is tasked with assuring that justice is served in the Church. In a March 20 lecture at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Cardinal Burke explained that arriving at an appreciation of the marriage-tribunal process — the one that grants annulments — “requires an understanding of the service of canon law in general to the saving mission of the Church and its role in the Petrine ministry.”

Cardinal Burke was addressing speculation that Pope Francis will make sweeping changes to the Church’s annulment process. That speculation has been fueled by comments coming both from the Pope himself — the Holy Father has said the annulment process needs to be “reformed and streamlined” — as well as from Walter Cardinal Kasper, who was invited by Francis to deliver the inaugural address to the consistory of the College of Cardinals this past February. Cardinal Kasper told the gathering that the divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholic needs a “life raft” in the form of the sacrament of Holy Communion (see “The Self-Fulfilling Prophet,” New Oxford Notes, March). He suggested that “other more pastoral and spiritual approaches” need to be offered as an alternative to the tribunal process — a process which, by the way, has often been criticized as too lenient, and scoffed at as a kind of “Catholic divorce.” According to Cardinal Kasper, the annulment process isn’t lenient enough. The Church needs a new way — a way that includes divorced-and-remarried Catholics somehow receiving Holy Communion, despite canon laws to the contrary.

Cardinal Burke’s response to these comments, and the ensuing speculations about reform, comes with some authority; he’s not just offering another opinion among many. As head of the Church’s highest court and armed with a doctorate in canon law, Cardinal Burke speaks as the Church’s foremost expert on the topic. The annulment process, he said, “is not a mere matter of procedure.” Rather, the process is “essentially connected with the doctrinal truth” of the Church. It is based not on opinions and pastoral proposals but on canon law and doctrine. Any changes to the annulment process, he said, should “be studied by a commission of experts” and considered with great care.

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