The Gentle Lion of Wisconsin– An Appreciation of Cardinal Burke

Regular StAR columnist Fr. Benedict Kiely wrote this heartfelt appreciation of Cardinal Burke, which is published in the latest issue. Breaking our usual protocol, I’ve decided to publish his column on the Ink Desk too:


On the desk of Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, sits a statue of St. John Fisher. Fisher’s last days were lonely; abandoned in the Tower for his fidelity to the Catholic faith, and abandoned by all of his cowardly brother bishops. Yet St. John Fisher went to his execution with tranquility, calm in the knowledge that it would not be the number of witnesses that mattered at his death – but the single act of witness itself – martyrdom.

King Henry VIII had been livid with rage on hearing that the Pope had named Bishop Fisher of Rochester a Cardinal while imprisoned in the Tower. Was it the honour given to the faithful bishop that enraged the King, or the symbolism of the office of Cardinal? The College of Cardinals are the closest advisors of the Pope and their red vesture implies their willingness to shed their blood for the truth of the faith. Fisher stayed true to both the honour and the office, choosing, like his friend St. Thomas More, to remain the “King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Those who are privileged to know Cardinal Burke would not be surprised that he has a devotion to the sainted martyr of Rochester. The media, rather in the same way they falsely caricatured the gentle and humorous Pope Benedict as “God’s Rottweiler,” have taken to portraying the equally gentle and kind Burke as a harsh, intolerant legalist. He is pitted, in the mind of the press, if that doesn’t sound oxymoronic, as the Pharisee, opposing all the openness and generosity of the “new Church.” That this caricature bears little resemblance to reality does not matter to an almost completely secular and liberal media. For them, there can be only conflict – using political terms which are meaningless in the Church – between “conservative” versus “liberal” – “intolerant” versus “open”.

In the life of the Church, there are only two labels which matter: orthodox or heterodox. Cardinal Burke takes his position as an advisor to the Pope with great seriousness. Like his hero, St. John Fisher, truth is the overwhelming guiding force in his life. Decades ago, the theologian Romano Guardini, interestingly a favourite of both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, wrote that the real purpose of the Church is to “hold out to man the final verities, the ultimate image of perfection, the most fundamental principles of value,” and that she “must not permit herself to be confused by any passion, by any alteration of sentiment.”

Throughout his life as priest, bishop and now Cardinal, Raymond Burke has sought to hold to these “verities” and, precisely because they are so often challenged by “passion and sentiment,” he has been subject to unjustified and irrational anger and attack. He was unafraid, as a diocesan bishop in the United States, to challenge his brother bishops (a “hapless bench,” as another bishop described them) to withhold Holy Communion from Catholic politicians who supported abortion. Like Fisher, their support for him was underwhelming.  Recently, like the great prophets of the past, Belloc and Chesterton, he has defied the totalitarianism of political correctness to point out the danger of militant Islam. There is “no question,” he has said, that “Islam wants to govern the world.” It simply requires a reading of the Koran to verify the truth of that statement, unfortunately those who cry “Islamophobia” have usually no idea about Islam or its teachings.

Great leaders, like Winston Churchill, have always had the ability to surround themselves with advisors who often do not agree with them on particular points. In that exciting back and forth, the truth usually emerges. Pope Francis has specifically asked for that kind of dialogue and openness. It is unfortunate that such dialogue is now being characterized as disloyal and divisive. Service to those “final verities” implies, for Cardinal Burke, “caritas in veritate” – speaking the truth in love, especially speaking the truth to power. It is upon those verities that the entire structure of the Church stands or falls. For Cardinal Burke, it is actually an act of charity to point out error, as every parent would know intuitively.

Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke actually embodies Chesterton’s description of a patriot – someone who loves his country – or his Church, so much that he is a “discontented man.” The opposite, Chesterton said, is a “courtier,” an “upholder of present conditions.” Just like in the time of St. John Fisher, it might appear that the courtiers have the upper hand, but who remembers the names of the bishops who trembled with fear in their palaces, while Fisher stood alone? Although Wisconsin is known for its production of cheese and not yet for lions or martyrs, maybe, when the smoke of battle has cleared, people will say – “there was only one Cardinal Burke – the Lion of Wisconsin.”

Joseph Pearce
Joseph Pearce is a Catholic author and biographer who has written about subjects as various as GK Chesterton, economics, and Shakespeare. His latest book, Race with the Devil, chronicles his conversion from racial hatred to Catholicism. He is also the Director of the Center for Faith & Culture and Writer-in-Residence at Aquinas College in Nashville as well as the editor of St. Austin Review.


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  1. He was our Archbishop and then moved to St. Louis where we continued to maintain contact with him. Then he was blessed to become a Cardinal and we were so very proud and grateful for his leadership and teachings. But most of all I think the greatest gift he gave us was to be a model of a servant of Christ himself. God bless Cardinal Burke!!!!

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