Bishop Burke Releases Pastoral Letter, Notification on Political Responsibility

Author: Dan Rossini


Dan Rossini
Editor, The Catholic Times

 LA CROSSE – On Jan 8 Bishop Raymond L. Burke of the Diocese of La Crosse published a pastoral letter to Catholics in his Diocese on their political responsibility in upholding the value of human life, and issued a canonical notification that Catholic lawmakers who continue to support procured abortion or euthanasia may not receive Holy Communion.

The release of the two documents follows last month’s reports in the secular press that Bishop Burke had sent private letters to three Catholic legislators in the Diocese, warning them of the spiritual dangers of their votes against human life. The reports came closely on the heels of the announcement that John Paul II had appointed him the next archbishop of St. Louis, a post he will assume Jan. 26.

The 10-page letter, entitled “On the Dignity of Human Life and Civic Responsibility,” is addressed to all the faithful of the Diocese of La Crosse. It is intended to set forth a number of guiding principles that should aid Catholic voters in forming their consciences and making political judgments.

Key among these principles is the inviolability of human life. “As Catholics, we are always held to defend human life from conception to natural death,” the letter says. “The Church teaches that human life should be protected at every stage of development, whether in the womb, in the wheelchair or on the death bed.”

The letter points out that the defense of human life has been compromised by a mistaken notion of the separation of Church and state. It also addresses positions adopted at least tacitly by some Catholic politicians that their efforts to help the poor and marginalized “make up” for not voting consistently in favor of life, and that legislators in a democracy are bound to vote according to the will of the majority of their constituents.

The four-paragraph canonical notification, published in the Jan. 8 edition of The Catholic Times, the newspaper of the Diocese of La Crosse, calls upon Catholic legislators in the Diocese “to uphold the natural and divine law regarding the inviolable dignity of all human life.” “To fail to do so is a grave public sin and gives scandal to all the faithful,” it says.

The notification bases its authority in part on a passage from the Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life, released by the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in January 2003. That passage cites Pope John Paul II’s teaching, reflecting the constant doctrine of the Church, that “those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.”

“Catholic legislators who are members of the faithful of the Diocese of La Crosse and who continue to support procured abortion or euthanasia may not present themselves to receive Holy Communion,” the notification states. “They are not to be admitted to Holy Communion, should they present themselves, until such time as they publically renounce their support of these most unjust practices.”

According to Bishop Burke, the notification became necessary as an outcome of his correspondence with Catholic legislators. None of the three lawmakers he wrote to had accepted his invitation for a private meeting to discuss their voting records, and their letters revealed that they were not open to changing their positions.

“After several exchanges of letters, it became clear in all three cases that there was no willingness to conform to the teaching of the Church,” he explained. “So the notification became a necessity in order that the faithful in the Diocese not be scandalized, thinking that it is acceptable for a devout Catholic to also be pro-abortion.”

The bishop said that the simultaneous release of the two documents was a coincidence, since the pastoral letter had been in the works for months. “I’d been thinking about it for a long time, and working on it with the help of others, and we finally got it into its form,” he said. “I’ve come to understand as bishop that there is a real confusion on the part of many people in the Diocese with regard to the relationship of the moral law to our civil laws. So I wanted to write a letter to clarify this.”

In the letter, the bishop states that many Catholics misunderstand the meaning of the so-called “separation of Church and state,” taking it to mean that the teachings of the Church have no application to political life. The letter affirms, on the contrary, that Catholics have the obligation to form their political judgments from Church teachings, “especially in what pertains to the natural moral law, that is the order established by God in creation.”

“If the Catholic Church insisted to legislators that they vote for laws that punish people who steal, no one would find anything objectionable in that,” said the bishop, explaining his point in the document. “People all recognize that to take someone else’s property is a crime. The natural law teaches us that. So also, it teaches that human life is inviolable.”

Arthur Hippler, director of the Office of Justice and Peace for the Diocese of La Crosse, concurred that the relationship between Church and state is at the heart of the pastoral letter’s message.

“While the bishop is addressing our responsibility to defend innocent life, he does not frame it as if it were an issue, or a set of issues, the way people refer to pro-life or abortion as an issue,” said Hippler, who is primarily responsible for promoting the letter in the Diocese’s 167 parishes. “The bishop sees that this is an indication of a larger and more fundamental matter, namely, the relation of our civic responsibility to the moral law.”

Hippler explained that the letter was necessary because many Catholics “take their bearings from society at large,” expecting the Church simply to ratify what the rest of society already believes. “The very reason that the life issues scandalize them,” he said, “is because society is telling them something else than what the Church is telling them.”

For Hippler, this is a sign that they do not consider the Church’s teaching to be authoritative. “That’s why even though it’s the life issues that are coming up, it’s a sign of the bigger problem,” he said. “If this were 100 or 150 years ago, it’d be the racial issues – slavery, segregation – those kinds of things. That would be the friction.”

Bishop Burke affirmed that both the letter and the notification carry the full weight of his authority as bishop of the Diocese, even though his current capability to act is one of a diocesan administrator. Both were signed Nov. 23, the Solemnity of Christ the King, well before the official announcement of his appointment to St. Louis on Dec. 2.

Editor’s note: Both the pastoral letter and the notification can be viewed from the website of the Diocese of La Crosse,

Used with permission.

Eternal Word Television Network
5817 Old Leeds Road
Irondale, AL 35210  


Terms of Use      Privacy Policy