The tug-of-war over Ted Kennedy's soul seems to be eternal.
In a speech last Friday night to a gathering of Catholic conservatives at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, an outspoken American archbishop now heading the Vatican version of the church's Supreme Court said that politicians who support gay marriage or abortion rights cannot receive sacraments without publicly repenting their ways:
"It is not possible to be a practicing Catholic and to conduct oneself in this manner," said Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, whom the pope transferred to Rome in 2008 after Burke's often-stormy tenure as archbishop of St. Louis.
"Neither Holy Communion nor funeral rites should be administered to such politicians," Burke said. "To deny these is not a judgment of the soul, but a recognition of the scandal and its effects."
The remarks come from an account of the 50-minute speech
by Deal Hudson, director of InsideCatholic.com, a conservative Web site that hosted the Sept. 18 annual gala for some 200 supporters. (Among them: American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, the National Review's Kate O'Bierne, and Ed Whelan, head of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.) Hudson was an adviser to the Bush White House on Catholic issues.
Burke's blast is not exactly a surprise, given his track record of sharp criticism of pro-choice Catholic politicians -- he has said they should be barred from taking Communion and has encouraged ministers who distribute the Eucharist to withhold it on their own initiative. Burke has not been shy about exhorting fellow bishops he sees as too lenient, either, as he did in this March interview
with Operation Rescue's Randall Terry. (Burke later regretted that Terry had aired the videotape.) And he is a favorite speaker of Beltway conservatives, having given the keynote at last May's National Catholic Prayer Breakfast
But for Burke, now a prominent official in the Vatican's judicial system, to -- in effect -- openly oppose the judgment of Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley (and most other bishops) regarding sacraments for Kennedy and other Catholic pols, and to, in effect, give aid and comfort to a Catholic right that has stepped up criticism of the hierarchy to fierce levels, is remarkable. Burke did not just say that politicians like Kennedy should not be provided a private funeral; he advocates denying them a funeral Mass at all.
Cardinal O'Malley earlier this month rejected that course of action "in the strongest terms," as he wrote in a blog post
that was an unusually blunt response to critics of his decision to allow Kennedy a funeral Mass and to preside at it:
"We will stop the practice of abortion by changing the law, and we will be successful in changing the law if we change people's hearts. We will not change hearts by turning away from people in their time of need and when they are experiencing grief and loss," O'Malley wrote.
"At times, even in the Church, zeal can lead people to issue harsh judgments and impute the worst motives to one another. These attitudes and practices do irreparable damage to the communion of the Church."
In his well-received speech last Friday -- the standing ovation lasted seven minutes -- Burke rejected such an approach.
"We should have the courage to look truth in the eye and call things by their common names." He added that for a politician who support abortion rights and gay rights, for example, to return to the sacraments, "his repentance must also be public."
Burke also rejected concerns that speaking out as he has is fomenting divisions within the church, and at the highest levels.
"The Church's unity is founded on speaking the truth in love. This does not destroy unity but helps to repair a breach in the life of the Church."
Still, Pope Benedict XVI's exchange of letters
with Kennedy seemed to indicate a pastoral concern for the dying senator that contrasts with Burke's approach, and few bishops -- from Rome to Boston -- believed Kennedy should have been denied a funeral.
Yet during his Washington visit Burke also appeared on FOX News
to denounce the Baucus bill on health care reform as "certainly not acceptable" because he said it provides funding for abortions (that point is disputed). He also said the current proposals threaten a "subtle introduction into health care of euthanasia."
With the apparent push-back on health care reform from the Catholic center
, it seems clear there is a struggle for dominance inside the Catholic hierarchy in America, and one that does not appear to be ending anytime soon.