Random Thoughts

Author: Msgr. Cormac Burke


Cormac Burke

For many years Msgr. Cormac Burke has been a favourite among "Position Paper" readers because of his clarity of thought and lucidity of expression. In the following wide-ranging interview with Rev Charles Connolly these characteristics are to the fore. Two points deserve special mention: i) spouses who, in the absence of serious reasons, decide to limit their family to what has become almost the norm in the Western World (two children, a boy and a girl) do themselves grave harm. They freely deprive themselves of true riches and place their married love in danger; ii) the Irish Constitution, based as it is on the natural moral law, is a powerful bulwark against the encroachments of the State on the personal liberties of the citizens of this country. It is not denominational in character (unlike the unwritten British Constitution which bears an inherent bias against Catholicism) but through its appeal to the natural law allows for the full growth and development of the human personality.

CC. We recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of Pope Paul's encyclical, "Humanae Vitae." Many people claim that it has proved prophetic, especially in the light of the consequences which ensue when people do not follow the Church's teachings. Have you any comments to make?

CB. In the context of outlining the Church's view of marriage one of the main points Pope Paul VI made was that contraception is opposed to conjugal love and to the of the husband and wife. It seems to me that this has been borne out over these last 25 years. It cannot be a matter of indifference that marriage breakdowns are on the increase. A cause for this needs to be sought. Obviously no couple planning to marry want their marriage to break down. Thus they would do well to read "Humanae Vitae," and to consider the reasons it gives why contraception tends to undermine mutual respect and love between the spouses.


CC. One of the common reasons used for promoting contraception is the apparent over-population and poverty in Third World countries. As someone who has spent many years working in Africa, could you tell whether people there consider large families a burden?

CB. No, quite the contrary, even though they obviously have to work harder and perhaps live in a materially less comfortable position, in order to maintain the upkeep of such a family. Africans have a strong sense that children are the first blessing and richness of married life. In the West we are fast losing or have already lost that sense. If people do not reflect deeply on family values, they can easily absorb the consumer mentality that things matter most for one's standard of life. Africans tend to put human values--the value of the child, the unique value of each existence--first. It is true that families in the Third World, being larger, tend to be 'poorer' than those in the West; but they also tend to be This points out alternatives and suggests options. Which is preferable: 'larger, poorer and happier', or 'smaller, richer and less happy'? Each couple must make their choice; one's human values are certainly put to the test in the choosing.

Marriage break-down CC. Through your work on the Roman Rota[1] you see many cases of marriage breakdown. Could you outline some of the common causes of problems in marriage and suggest how might they be avoided?

CB. There are many causes for marriage breakdown. Simple unreadiness to forgive--to to make up and forget--is perhaps the worst enemy of marital happiness and fidelity. People have to understand that the person they are marrying is someone (like themselves) with defects; and to be prepared to live with those defects: to love their partner with his or her defects. If they are not prepared to do that when they marry, it is not a real person that they want to marry--because every real person has defects.

Practically all the cases I have had to deal with have a history of pre-marital sexual relations. This too seems to be a main factor threatening eventual breakdown. There is a rather sad logic behind the point. If a couple do not show respect for each other before marriage--respecting the fact that they are husband and wife--then it becomes so much harder to find and maintain that respect over the years of married life together. Pre- marital chastity provides the framework in which love can grow. It is in itself a sign and guarantee of love, and gives it a special quality that powerfully helps it to endure.

I should also add that in my work as a Judge of the Roman Rota, I have unfortunately had to examine thousands of broken-down marriage cases. Practically all of these have been marked by the use of contraceptives. It is a point worth reflecting on. For me, it simply confirmed what I had learned from pastoral work for over thirty years before coming to Rome: that the use of contraceptives works as a major factor leading to the progressive loss of marital esteem between the spouses.


1. The Roman Rota is a 'Supreme Court' of the Church, a court of appeal dealing, among other things, with marriages and petitions for declarations of nullity.

CC. The traditional view of the Church has been that the end of marriage is procreation, but a more recent 'personalist' view is that it is the expression of human love. What is your own view?

CB. To say that marriage exists or for the 'expression' of human love is perhaps not quite adequate. I think that it exists in most people's minds for of the that human love offers. As I view it, marriage is designed precisely for that; and equally for having children, as the fruit of that love. In my understanding, a true personalist view of marriage sees it as designed for procreation for the 'good of the spouses'. In fact one finds this expressed as official Church teaching in the New Catechism (cf. "Catechism of the Catholic Church," no. 1660).


CC. The Church approves of the use of natural family planning for those whose marriage situation requires it, but it has been claimed that in many instances this method is being promoted as the for everybody. Do you think this is the correct line to take?

CB. To my mind, married love remains frustrated, in what should be the normal pattern of its growth, if it does not issue in its natural fruit of children. The new "Catechism," having said that 'married love tends naturally to be fruitful', adds: 'A child is not something external added to the mutual love of husband and wife, but stems from the very heart of their reciprocal self-gift, of which it is the fruit and fulfilment' (no. 2366). Material possessions, or an easy life together, do not fulfil the aspirations of married love (love is ready for sacrifice and grows through it), nor are they a condition for its maintenance and growth. Children normally are.

That is why family limitation is not very properly described as a right, and is wrongly thought of as a privilege. It is basically a It is meant for exceptional cases, for those couples who are obliged by serious reasons--by some powerful and over- riding factor--to deprive themselves of the fulfilling joy and the enriching value of children. A couple who, in the absence of such an overriding factor, choose not to have more children, are starving their conjugal love of its natural fruit and probably stunting its growth. They are lessening their mutual preparedness for sacrifice, and almost certainly undermining the mutual esteem that can bind them together.

This is not to question the value of natural family planning for those whose marriage situation is such that But it does seem to me that any presentation of it as an 'ideal', or even as a normal thing for couples, tends to obstruct the natural growth of married love and to set up obstacles to generosity, to the basis for mutual esteem, and to married happiness.


CC. You have written extensively on the questions of freedom and conscience. How do you see the relationship between the teaching authority of the Pope and the need for individuals to follow their own conscience?

CB. Two main principles should be borne in mind in moral teaching about conscience. The first is that one one's conscience (whenever it commands or forbids; not just when it 'permits'), because it is the proximate norm of morality. Since conscience, however, is not an infallible guide, then a second principle has to be added: one one's conscience, otherwise it may be leading one astray in its judgements. Just as one does not trust one's watch absolutely, for it may be giving the wrong time, and one checks it against some more reliable timepiece, so too conscience must be formed according to some more trustworthy criterion of truth. For a Catholic, that trustworthy criterion lies in Revelation (Scripture and Tradition) and in the Magisterium (the teaching of the Pope and of the Bishops in union with him). It is elementary to a Catholic mind to see the Church's Magisterium in this way: as a service to people, helping them to know the mind of Christ regarding what we need to do and to avoid in order to reach the goal he has established for us.


CC. Much publicity has been given to the Church 's new "Catechism." How is it being received in Europe and how do you see its role in the Church?

CB. The "Catechism" is selling like wildfire in Europe; already several million copies in French, Italian, Spanish and German alone. It is clear that people want to have an authoritative reference source, to know what exactly is the teaching of the Church on major matters of faith and moral conduct.

In itself, it provides that source. It is very complete, and easy to read by anybody from adolescence up. It is not a pre-adolescence catechism, but is rather meant to be a source book for other simpler catechisms, mainly for children, to be produced at local levels.


CC. Since the Second Vatican Council there has been a great deal of discussion about the proper role of lay people in the Church. What is your own view?

CB. Their proper role is to live their Christian life (rather than just within an ecclesiastical framework). In other words, to sanctify their work--job or profession--, their family and social life, their participation in public affairs, etc. This is their role clearly spelled out in the various Vatican II documents.

CC. One of the biggest concerns of all Christians is the question of social justice. How can ordinary lay people, who spend most of their lives working in a secular job and raising a family, contribute to the creation of a more just society?

CB. Precisely by practising justice themselves: being scrupulously honest in their own work, being just towards others, avoiding gossip and negative criticism, fostering tolerance and understanding, etc.


CC. Over the years you have spoken at many legal conventions. What is your main message to those in the legal professions?

CB. The aspect of the legal profession: how law is meant to be at the service of human rights: of their definition, defence and vindication.

The legal profession is in a special way at the service of justice; it seeks to defend individual and inter-personal rights, and in doing so serves to bring about and maintain the common good. This however is not always the case with the law today, because of the rapid undermining and loss of the sense of what is really due--or not due--to persons; because of the tendency in some legislatures to introduce 'rights' which do not correspond to what is truly human and due to each one. If the lawyer has not a clear idea of the common good and equally of the extent and limits of personal rights, he may find himself in the position of defending 'rights', beyond the measure of justice. Then of course he would not be following the true norm or justice, which is 'to each his due', but would rather be acting individualistically or allowing his client to be individualistic, with harm to others and to the whole social fabric.

CC. Would you care to comment further on the burgeoning of 'rights' terminology in modern societies?

CB. It is commonplace today to speak of the 'right' to contraception, the 'right' to abortion, to divorce, etc. Each person certainly has the to follow such practices; but he or she does not have the to do so. Human rights derive from what is truly due to the human person. If a State legislates 'rights' which are not so due, their effect is to dehumanize persons and society. This is a process only too well exemplified in many parts of the world; a fact that still leaves Ireland time to reflect.

Whoever exercises such a 'right', is almost certain to do wrong to others (the children, and very often the other spouse, in divorce; the unborn child in abortion, etc.). And, besides, he or she does wrong by undermining his or her possibilities of achieving personal fulfilment or happiness, even here on earth. Contraceptive spouses deny the intrinsic meaning of sexual intercourse, depriving it precisely of what makes it a unique expression of conjugal love. As a result, they do wrong to themselves, to their marriage, and to the likelihood that their relationship will prove lasting and happy.

I would invite those who propose 'rights' favouring contraception, abortion or divorce, to state if they consider that these contribute to the of persons; and, if they do, to give reasons in support of their stance. My reasons--not based on any dogma--for holding that they are destructive of human happiness and personal fulfilment, are given in my book "Covenanted Happiness."[2]

Everyone wants happiness; but it is not come by automatically or without an effort; it has to be earned. Life in general, and human relationships in particular, have their own in-built laws of happiness. If you follow these laws, you can be happy; if you do not, you certainly will not. If you demand happiness on your own terms, life may not deliver it.

"Covenanted Happiness" seeks to present arguments, based on natural reasoning, showing how this applies to marriage. It is not a work of theology, but a reflection on some of the vital options-- for or against personal happiness--facing married people today. The thesis of the book is simple: a very particular promise of happiness attaches to marriage, a promise that can be fulfilled by trying to live the married relationship in its natural integrity. Live marriage according to its laws, and it can bring happiness. Violate these laws--as is done through contraception, divorce, and (on a broader level) abortion--and happiness comes increasingly under the threat of selfishness, and can be completely lost. This is no doubt a debatable thesis; but, I repeat, it is not based on any dogma, Catholic or otherwise, and it certainly is not theological.

If the debate is about rights, I maintain that the 'rights' in question are wrongs--also to the person exercising them. It seems to me however that the more fundamental debate is about happiness. Those who exercise 'rights' that are wrongs also make themselves unhappy. Not everyone will agree; but then I think the public is entitled to hear their arguments showing that contraception, divorce, abortion, make people happier.


2. Cormac Burke, "Covenanted Happiness," Dublin 1990. Available from Four Courts Press, Kill Lane, Blackrock, Co. Dublin.


CC. In Ireland, at the present time, there is much speculation on the broader issue of the Irish Constitution. Some question its basis as being too narrow and too Catholic in outlook and call for its revision, if not for a totally new Constitution. As a member of the Irish Bar, would care to give us your views on this matter?

CB. The Irish Constitution is not a peculiarly Catholic document. Those who drafted it were not all Catholics. Nor were they bigots (the first President under the Constitution was a Protestant). As well as a great love for Ireland, they had a keen sense of the basic principles on which a free and human society can be built. Along with religious tolerance, fundamental values set forth in the Constitution include respect for life, for marriage, for the family. All of these are essential if both personal and social life are to retain their human character.

It is true that in some limited sectors of Irish society it is deplored that God appears in our Constitution. But the real question which must be asked is: what percentage of the Irish people would go along with that sentiment? For that matter, what proportion of the people of the North of Ireland would prefer to live under a State that acknowledges no God?

Nor am I sure what is meant by those who state that 'the God of our Constitution is very much a God'. I think he is the God of all of us, who wants us to be happy (with the relative but real happiness possible here on earth), and whose law--designed precisely for our happiness and fulfilment--is deeply and legibly written into our human nature. It can be read there.

CC. Am I right in suggesting by your use of the phrase 'whose law . . . is deeply and legibly written into our human nature' you are referring to the natural moral law?

CB. Indeed you are. At times one hears criticism of the very concept of the natural law, as if it were an outdated and purely Catholic notion. The notion of natural law is not defended just by Catholics, and it certainly is not outdated. The whole modern human rights movement, as must be evident, is based on a natural law philosophy. If there is no law of human nature--prior to and above the law of the State--then no one has any basis on which to invoke a right which the State itself chooses not to recognize. No one has any ground to appeal against the wisdom, or lack of it, of those who govern and hold power. For it should not be forgotten that a Constitution (certainly our Constitution) is intended not only to prevent individuals, but also to stop from performing actions or framing laws which violate the human rights and dignity of each citizen.

While my book on marriage makes little or no mention of the natural law, I certainly believe that its observance is the key to married happiness. But I would go further and say that the natural law is the safeguard of human fulfilment and happiness in all aspects of personal and social life--a thesis which I argue in another book: "Authority and Freedom."[3]

The abandonment of the natural law as the basis for legislation is a major factor explaining why modern societies seem to be generating more and more isolated and unhappy people. Those who reject natural law morality and who are prepared to jettison a Constitution based on this law should be ready to give evidence that people in countries with 'liberal' abortion and divorce laws live happier and more fulfilled human lives.

No doubt one can draw up a sizeable list of problems and deficiencies besetting Ireland. Having lived in (not just visited) all the major countries of the Western World during the last forty years, I would comment: and which country does not have problems and defects? My visits home leave me with the impression that people in Ireland, in spite of everything, are by and large happier than in other Western countries. If Irish society still holds together, I have no doubt that this is because it is supported by good fundamental laws. Introduce bad laws, and you create all the conditions for growing personal isolation and unhappiness, and for social disintegration.

Abortion is certainly a major example, though not the only one. Once abortion is 'liberalized', then, for no other reason than that someone considers another's existence to be 'unwanted', a principle of violence has been in society, and made a commonplace in everyday living. It will not stop there; other sorts of violence also become commonplace. The newspapers give daily confirmation of this.

The day may certainly come when the people of Ireland will have to choose whether they want themselves--and their legislators--to be guided by that natural law which is inscribed in the human heart (and is easily read there by those who choose to look); or whether they prefer to enter the ranks of modern states whose laws, grounded on no coherent philosophy of man and tending therefore to hold nothing sacred, seem every day less capable of holding society together, in dignity, mutual respect and peace.


3. Cormac Burke, "Authority and Freedom in the Church," Dublin 1988. Available from Four Courts Press, Kill Lane, Blackrock, Co. Dublin.