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What an unbelievable two weeks! The activity, excitement and gravity of the Synod on the Family in the Vatican are difficult to absorb and will go down in the annals of history as a monumental time, akin to those of times of crisis in the Church and with heroic men and women of yesteryear such as St. Catherine of Sienna and St. Athanasius reappearing today with different manifestations but the same spirit.

The Synod saw an historic public calling out of the pope himself by one of the Church’s highest-ranking Cardinals. Convicted that the pope’s silence in light of the confusion generated by the controversial mid-term report was harming the faith, Cardinal Raymond Burke said a public defense of the Church’s teaching by the pope was “long overdue.”  Burke told Catholic World Report, “The faithful and their good shepherds are looking to the Vicar of Christ for the confirmation of the Catholic faith and practice regarding marriage.”

Days later the Cardinal repeated the sentiment to Buzzfeed noting that the pope’s “lack of clarity about the matter has certainly done a lot of harm.”

In his closing address to the Synod Fathers gathered in the Vatican Saturday, Pope Francis offered a perplexing vision.  In comments widely interpreted as referring to Cardinal Raymond Burke and other Cardinals at the Synod who fought to maintain the teaching of the Church on homosexuality and Holy Communion, Pope Francis spoke of the temptation of “traditionalists” with their “hostile inflexibility,” and their failure to allow themselves to be “surprised by God.”

The pope tried to paint for himself a middle ground between that which he perceived as “hostile inflexibility” and on the other hand the “temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness” which he called characteristic of “progressives and liberals.” Their problem, he said, was “that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots.”

Those aspects, he said caused “moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations” during the Synod.

While it is clear that he was referring to Cardinal Burke and others at the Synod as the ‘traditionalists’ it is less clear to whom he was referring when speaking of ‘progressives and liberals’.  While Cardinal Walter Kasper would seem the natural choice, the pope’s own vehement praise, support and promotion of Cardinal Kasper as part of the Synod and its initiation makes one doubt Pope Francis would be including Kasper in the overly progressive camp.

An Italian journalist (h/t Rorate Caeli) aptly summarized the pope’s problematic calculus in this way:

2 + 2 = 4 (too rigid)
2 + 2 = 6 (too lax)
2 + 2 = 5 (aaah, perfect!)

To paint Cardinal Burke and others of his mindset as lacking in mercy, of laying “unbearable burdens”, of casting stones at sinners and the weak is a gross misunderstanding.  Cardinal Burke is a man of great generosity and warmth, of humility and love and mercy.

In taking up his so-called ‘hard’ positions on homosexuality and Communion, he does these things animated by love, driven by true concern, and a willingness to accept the condemnation of the world (and his confreres) for the sake of his love for Christ in the Eucharist and indeed the souls of those he would refuse Communion.

Take for instance one of Cardinal Burke’s most well known controversies, his insistence that pro-abortion Catholic politicians must be denied Communion.  Whereas Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who was appointed by Pope Francis to the Congregation for Bishops after Cardinal Burke was removed from it, has railed against ever denying Communion, Cardinal Burke has insisted upon it — for the sake of love and mercy. 

Recalling both the reality of the Eucharist and St. Paul’s admonition that those who receive unworthily eat condemnation to themselves, Cardinal Burke has explained his position as one of love and mercy noting, that pro-abortion politicians have to answer to God for their crimes, “but why through our pastoral negligence add on to that, that they have to answer to God for who knows how many unworthy receptions of Holy Communion?”

It’s the same for Cardinal Burke’s ‘hard’ stance regarding homosexuality. As he explained in a recent interview with Buzzfeed: “out of her love for the person who’s involved in sinful acts, (the Church) calls the person to conversion, in a loving way, but obviously, like a father or mother in a family, in a firm way for the person’s own good.”

Despite all of the heated debate inside and outside the Synod hall, the pope suggests that what took place is all fine and good. “Many commentators, or people who talk, have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church,” said Pope Francis in his closing remarks.  He noted that he, as pope was the guarantee of unity and that all should be accepted with tranquility.

All that transpired in the Synod Hall he said, was done, “without ever putting into question the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of marriage: the indissolubility, the unity, the faithfulness, the fruitfulness, that openness to life.”

Various Cardinals who spoke out against the proceedings, however, did not share that view.

One of Pope Francis’ own top advisors, Australian Cardinal George Pell noted that the proposal of giving Communion to divorced and remarried couples was supported by “very few, certainly not the majority of the synod fathers,” adding “it’s only at the tip of the iceberg. It’s a stalking horse. They want wider changes: recognition of civil unions, recognition of homosexual unions.”

South African Cardinal Wilfred Napier was so perturbed by the mid-term report he lamented that the Synod was “working from a position that is virtually irredeemable.” The Synod’s Polish representative, Archbishop Stanislaw Gądecki of Poznań, said it departed from the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II.  Latvian Archbishop Zbigniew Stankiewicz said the document risks “dancing to the world’s music” and succumbing to secular influences. “The world truly does not need a counterfeit gospel,” he added.

In the end, the Synod on the Family forced the recognition of deep divisions within the Catholic Church’s leadership with respect to fundamental truths around human sexuality.  One of the biggest surprises was the formation of a loyal opposition of leaders of the Church willing to stick out their necks to defend the truth regardless of the price to be paid; the obvious leader of that group being Cardinal Raymond Burke.

Prior to this Synod, Cardinal Burke was relatively unknown beyond America’s culture war faithful, but now he has international recognition as a courageous and faithful Catholic leader ready to lay down his life, status and ranking to defend the truth in charity.