Cardinal Raymond L. Burke is good canon lawyer. So good, in fact, that this former bishop of La Crosse, Wis., and former archbishop of St. Louis has since 2008 served at the Vatican as prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. That’s something like being chief justice of the United States.
It was no surprise, then, that recent remarks by Cardinal Burke on Church communications raised a few eyebrows here and there. News accounts suggested that the cardinal, speaking at a conference for Church communicators in Rome, had taken a notably restrictive view of his subject.
But it’s important to realize what his subject actually was. In a talk titled “Communication and Justice: When Legal Cases Become News,” Cardinal Burke discussed sections of the Code of Canon Law that concern “instruments of social communication” together with the role of Church communicators in explaining the nature and function of judicial processes in the Church.
Within that framework, there was little or no reason to question what his paper said.
Granted that, however, it would be wrong to imagine that a strictly canonical treatment like this one exhausts larger subject of communication and the Church. There are many important topics here that Cardinal Burke didn’t attempt to cover. That is clear in relation to three themes in particular: the Church, the communication process, and public opinion within the Church.
Start with the Church.
The section of the Code of Canon Law that speaks of media is part of Book III of the Code on the teaching office of the Church. Working from that perspective, Cardinal Burke understandably spoke of the Church as a “hierarchical structure” in which the Magisterium — that is, the pope and the bishops in union with him — teaches with authority. In this model of the Church, the responsibility of the Catholic faithful is to listen and obey (see Canons 749-750).
But note that the Code was adopted in 1983, 18 years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, and in many ways expresses the council’s teaching, though in canonical terms. That includes Vatican II’s understanding of the Church as “communio” — a community of faith whose members are joined in communion with God and also with one another.
In this understanding of the Church, it’s no less a hierarchical structure. But along with being hierarchically organized, all members of this communio Church also have a fundamental equality — arising from the sacrament of baptism — in regard to their dignity as well as their right (and duty) to participate in the Church’s mission.
Here is how Canon 208 puts it:
“In virtue of their rebirth in Christ there exists among all the Christian faithful a true equality with regard to dignity and the activity whereby all cooperate in the building up of the Body of Christ in accord with each one’s own condition and function.”
Depending on which aspect of the Church someone emphasizes — hierarchical structure or communio — it will be reflected in the view taken of the communication process itself. And where the Church is considered as a hierarchical structure within which those with authority instruct and govern the faithful, the emphasis naturally will be on one-way, top-down communication.
But the Vatican II understanding of the Church as communio gives rise to a different vision of communication as a two-way, interactive process. This also is expressed in the Code of Canon Law, in Canon 212.
That important canon has three parts.
The first part says Catholics are “bound by Christian obedience to follow” the teaching and decisions of their pastors. The second says they are at liberty to tell the pastors “their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.”
And the third part strongly affirms the right of public opinion in the Church. In line with their “knowledge, competence and preeminence,” it says Catholics have: “the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and … a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful.” (That must be done, the canon carefully adds, “with due regard for the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons.”)
Official recognition of the importance of public opinion dates back to Pope Pius XII (1939-1958). The Fathers of Vatican II made it part of the dogmatic constitution on the Church. That constitution further suggests that public opinion be expressed “through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose” (Lumen Gentium, 37).
But what “institutions” are those? Pastoral councils? These bodies exist in some parishes and dioceses, don’t exist in others, and in still others operate largely out of sight. Letters to the editor and, today, officially sanctioned blogs may serve the purpose in part. In which case it’s troubling to find that many Church periodicals don’t publish readers’ letters.
Public opinion in the Church should not be understood in merely sociological or political terms. It is closely linked to communio itself. A pastoral instruction published in 1992 by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications makes that point.
Creating and sustaining a healthy public opinion, it says, is partly a matter of “maintaining and enhancing the Church’s credibility.” But it also is something more — “one of the ways of realizing in a concrete manner the Church’s character as communio, rooted in and mirroring the intimate communion of the Trinity. … [E]quality necessarily will express itself in an honest and respectful sharing of opinions” (Aetatis Novae, 10).
The model of the Church that someone chooses to emphasize also has a strong bearing on what communication-related issue or issues he chooses to discuss. Cardinal Burke’s paper, for instance, devotes nearly three of its 14 pages to secrecy.
“In the world of social communications,” he says, “secrecy is often characterized as a means of concealing evil situations or protecting wrongdoers.” But where the secrecy enjoined in Church law is concerned, he adds, that’s a mistake. “In fact, the obligation of secrecy respects the nature of certain communications which are understood to be communications between God and the person.” The confession of sins in the sacrament of Penance is the clearest and best-known example of this.
As with other points he makes, Cardinal Burke’s defense of secrecy makes excellent sense in regard to the matters he’s discussing. But the communio model of the Church also points to the value of openness in areas of Church life where secrecy isn’t needed.
If all members of the Church have a duty and a right to participate, as Canon 208 puts it, “in the building up of the Body of Christ,” access to a continuing flow of accurate, up-to-date information will obviously be a need for getting the work done.
One argument that’s sometimes made against involving lay people in Church decision-making is that ordinary lay Catholics don’t know enough about many matters of concern to the Church to have anything useful to say. But that has the character of a self-fulfilling prophecy: The less people know, the less they will be able to contribute to solving problems. Plainly, the best way of dealing with this undesirable situation is to share information, not withhold it.
Vatican II apparently understood that point. In the Constitution on the Church, the council said:
“A great many benefits are to be hoped for from this familiar dialogue between the laity and their pastors: in the laity, a strengthened sense of personal responsibility, a renewed enthusiasm, a more ready application of their talents to the projects of their pastors.
“The latter, for their part, aided by the experience of the laity, can more clearly and more suitably come to decisions regarding spiritual and temporal matters. In this way, the whole Church … can more effectively fulfill its mission for the life of the world” (Lumen Gentium, 37).
Against this background one can only say a hearty amen to Cardinal Burke’s concluding words to his audience of Church communicators: “Presenting the Church as the mirror of justice, you … will illustrate her obedience to the truth which is the condition of the relationship of each of her members with God and with each other.”
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor, and the author of "Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church" (Ignatius, $13.95).