In a recent interview with the National Catholic Register, Cardinal Raymond Burke once again criticizes an apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis. Querida Amazonia, the result of the most recent synod on the Amazon, summarizes Pope Francis’s vision of the Amazonian church.

Cardinal Burke particularly disapproves of paragraph 74 of Querida Amazonia, which says:

Similarly, a relationship with Jesus Christ, true God and true man, liberator and redeemer, is not inimical to the markedly cosmic worldview that characterizes the indigenous peoples, since he is also the Risen Lord who permeates all things.[105] In Christian experience, “all the creatures of the material universe find their true meaning in the incarnate Word, for the Son of God has incorporated in his person part of the material world, planting in it a seed of definitive transformation”.[106] He is present in a glorious and mysterious way in the river, the trees, the fish and the wind, as the Lord who reigns in creation without ever losing his transfigured wounds, while in the Eucharist he takes up the elements of this world and confers on all things the meaning of the paschal gift.

Burke claims to find here grave contradictions of theological truths. He says “there’s a very poetic passage in which, seemingly, the Pope is underlining the Lordship of Christ, but then he says that Christ is in the river and in the trees and so forth. This is classical animism, paganism, and it’s simply not true.” He recognizes that footnote 105 cites St. Thomas Aquinas, but he just repeats that it “can’t be true.” But since when has anything in Catholic theology been “simply” untrue? Certainly nothing in the work of Aquinas can be described as simply true or untrue. The great scholastic saint is famous for his subtle distinctions and his generous and charitable readings of the arguments of his opponents. If only the same could be said of Cardinal Burke. Anyone who knows anything about Aquinas knows that he taught that God is present in all things by his power. And of course we have it on the authority of St. John the Evangelist that nothing exists except in and through the Word.

Burke complains that he doesn’t “know what it means to say that he [Christ] ‘incorporated part of the material world’ into his person.” The footnote behind this quotation (footnote 106) that Burke claims not to understand is a reference to a passage in Laudato Si’, which says, “The Sacraments are a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life”. One has to wonder if Cardinal Burke has ever read the Church Fathers like Maximos the Confessor or St. John of the Cross, or Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy. Because if he has, he should know that for Ratzinger as well, “the sacrament, as the fundamental form of the Christian liturgy, embraces both matter and word, that is, it gives religion both a cosmic and historical dimension and points to cosmos and history as the place of our encounter with God.” Burke cites anecdotes about something cringey someone told him in the seventies about fulfilling their Sunday obligation by meeting God in the forest and the rivers. Would he also dismiss Ratzinger’s statement  that in the cosmic liturgy, “we join in with the praise rendered by the sun and the stars” as pantheism or animism?

What about any of this is “simply” true or untrue? To see these ideas as orthodox Catholic theology or as terrible heresy is a complicated matter that requires an understanding of the context and historical background, as well as precision in determining intentions and meaning. For all his championing of clarity of thought, when it comes to Pope Francis, Burke simply refuses to exercise any thought at all.

Likewise, in the face of Querida Amazonia’s defense of the process of enculturation, Burke doubles down on the Pachamama nonsense. Possibly in a direct message to Cardinal Burke and Bishop Schneider, Querida Amazonia advises us to “not be quick to describe as superstition or paganism certain religious practices that arise spontaneously from the life of peoples.”

The document also states, “It is possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry.”

To this common-sense advice Burke responds, “You have to determine whether the practice or symbol is an expression of the truth of human nature, or is idolatry.” So far so good! Querida Amazonia itself tells us we must distinguish between the wheat and the tares. But then he concludes: “The pachamama is a demon who demands human blood in order to be at peace with man.” Okay then! And when or where was this “determined”?

The so-called Pachamama is itself just a figure of a pregnant woman. It is not intrinsically a human-blood-demanding demon. Likewise, human gestures like bowing do not have any intrinsic meaning. They mean what they are intended to mean by the ones performing them. Symbolic objects, gestures, rituals–all these things are multivalent; their meanings change and are determined by their context.

A figure of a pregnant woman can represent a god, or the Blessed Virgin Mary, or just Mother Earth, or many other things. A person prostrating themself can be venerating a saint or worshipping an idol, or showing respect to another person. We can’t distinguish these things without context. Otherwise we could just as easily say that Pope John Paul II was worshipping Pachamama every time he got off a plane and knelt down and kissed the earth. The way we distinguish and determine from evidence is through context.

We didn’t find a bunch of Amazonian pagans in the middle of the jungle offering human sacrifice the day before the synod and ship them off to Rome to do their tree planting ceremony. These are Catholic people. Burke wonders why they carried their “idols” in front of St. Peter’s tomb. Indeed, why were they allowed in the Vatican at all? Why did they present their “idol” to the pope? Why were their canoes and statues present in churches? The obvious answer is that it’s because their ceremonies and sacred objects have a Catholic meaning for them. The woman presiding at the tree-planting ceremony referred to the pregnant figure as “Our Lady of the Amazon.” That proved the Catholic context of these gestures and ceremonies. Those who say otherwise are begging the question and have zero evidence of a pagan context.

Many other examples of ignorant and uninformed statements can be drawn from the Register interview. The real question is why Burke goes to such absurd lengths to depict Pope Francis as a villain every chance he gets? Why does he forget all of Catholic theology whenever he reads Pope Francis’ words? The real question is this: when Pope Francis says something that can be interpreted in an orthodox sense or a heterodox sense, and one consistently chooses the latter, has a hermeneutic of suspicion poisoned the well?

In this case, the answer is clear. Burke has apparently poisoned the well of his own judgement with his extreme suspicion of Pope Francis. His interpretations of Pope Francis’s words are becoming progressively more unhinged, irrational, and untethered from facts. G.K. Chesterton said that the purpose of an open mind was to close it on the truth. But what happens when one closes it on a lie (intentionally or not)? Perhaps Burke should instead adopt a hermeneutic of trust. Because when a hermeneutic of malice or suspicion has poisoned the mind, only reopening it to truth and charity can save it. 


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Husband, father of six, idea-tinkerer. Having briefly lived amongst the cacti and coyotes of Arizona, Brian now resides in the Canadian prairies.  Brian is a co-conspirator of Where Peter Is.

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