No One Expects the Inquisition

My Adventures with Cardinal Burke & the ICKSP
CNS/Paul Haring

A little-publicized event with not-so-little significance took place recently in St. Louis. At a Catholic church near downtown, Cardinal Raymond Burke said the traditional Latin Mass on a Saturday morning for a youthful contingent rallying around him. Many of these youth are closely tied to a traditional religious order whose older members Burke also travels to St. Louis to shepherd. Burke is one of four cardinals openly contesting the wisdom of new church policies under Pope Francis.

For those who haven’t been following the debate, Burke (along with Walter Brandmüller, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner) has made public a question first posed privately to the pope in response to his recent revision of church practices regarding Communion and divorced couples. The changes allow more latitude to local bishops in setting policies that take greater account of individual circumstances. If, say, an abandoned spouse without an annulment wants to return to full participation in the church after having remarried, there may now be new pastoral options. Previously, such a person was banished from Communion unless she resolved to live as a celibate. In his apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis seemed to invite his fellow bishops to allow more wiggle room.

Burke and the other three cardinals asked whether or not this change, besides contradicting past church teaching, would make the faith too subjective and open to the vagaries of conscience. The pope refrained from answering directly, although other cardinals have criticized the questioners for undermining Francis. Pundits on the other side criticize the pope for his silence and for failing to rein in what they view as attempts to stifle discussion among church prelates.

But the real question goes beyond these ecclesial skirmishes: What is the nature of the institution we call the Catholic Church? And what is the proper relationship between the hierarchy and the laity? Are uniformity and top-down authority all-or-nothing propositions? Should the pope and bishops consider themselves engineers of a kind of machine built of interchangeable human parts? Or might it be better to think of the church as a living organism, whose human members exercise a certain latitude befitting their free will and personal circumstance? Which model does the clergy follow: Henry Ford or Jesus?  

Until the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s, the church tilted decidedly in the former direction, functioning much like a spiritual vending machine that dispensed everything from vouchers to heaven in return for reciting a specified number of Hail Marys, to writs of excommunication for overdue books at the Vatican library. Since that time, the church has sometimes lurched to the other extreme. In the era of Pope Francis, the question is all about balance. I do believe the post–Vatican II lurch went too far—many in the church would identify me as a “conservative”—but at this moment, I side with Francis and against Burke. In fact, as a parishioner of the church where Burke recently came to say Mass, I recently walked out in protest over his appearance. I know, alas too well, how he operates. I have an inkling of the sort of church he envisions, and it is even more depressing than the old spiritual vending machine.

Which model does the clergy follow: Henry Ford or Jesus?  

To understand Burke’s world, one must understand the religious order whose youthful sympathizers attended his recent Mass in St. Louis: the Institute for Christ the King, Sovereign Priest (ICKSP). Their ties could not be closer. While bishop of St. Louis, Burke invited this same organization to take over the second-largest church sanctuary in the diocese. Burke not only returns to say Masses for the institute and perform its ordinations, but also accompanies members on pilgrimages in Europe. ICKSP boasts that its Masses in St. Louis draw more attendants than any other traditional Latin rituals in North America. 

As its name suggests, ICKSP, like Burke, tilts toward the top-down vision of Catholicism. Only the model it emulates isn’t a Ford factory. It is the French aristocracy. The apex of Catholic culture, in the eyes of Monsignor Gilles Wach, ICKSP’s founder, was pre-Revolutionary France, when clergy ranked above the nobility in the social echelons. A priest belonged to the First Estate; and you’d bow in his presence as with the highborn. Among ICKSP priests, French is the official language, even in Missouri.

Before we had any inkling of what ICKSP was all about, my family and I ventured into its St. Louis citadel—the massive edifice of St. Francis de Sales. It was only a few blocks from our house. Enthralled by the beauty of the music and the setting, and willing to overlook almost anything to avoid tacky Masses, we got more involved. True, we never quite felt part of the group. Was it the exaggerated servility of many of the lay people? The high-handedness of the priests? The frilly frocks and regalia? (Burke, among high prelates, is also known for his luxuriant ermine cape).  

Outwardly, ICKSP (unlike the Society of Pius X) maintains unity with the larger, postconciliar Church. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been granted space in a building that used to serve as the cathedral of an archdiocese. It wouldn’t be able to gain entry in parishes across America’s major metropolitan areas, like Chicago, greater New York, and the Bay Area. It wouldn’t now be growing by leaps and bounds and inspiring dynamic para-organizations for young people. But when I privately asked one of the resident priests, Canon Karl Lenhardt, what he thought of the Second Vatican Council, he was dismissive. Privately and unofficially, ICKSP stalwarts scorn the postconciliar church, deny that the Vatican II carries doctrinal authority, and are, in essence, following through on these convictions by setting down the infrastructure for a sort of parallel or shadow church within the church.  

Uneasy about such intimations, I murmured my misgivings to a couple of other parishioners after one of them had first shared misgivings of her own. But having joined the choir, I still attended Mass at St. Francis de Sales twice a month to take part in the music. I also helped put together a homeschooling cooperative that met on Fridays in an adjoining building. It was not overseen by ICKSP but by parents who went to Mass at St. Francis de Sales, and it was the only option available to my home-schooled children for an organized social outlet anywhere near us in greater St. Louis. Although I wasn’t on board with the larger ICKSP agenda, I reasoned that we are all part of the same church, the same Christian family. I’d never been in perfect agreement with the policies of any parish I’d belonged to. Life is a trade-off. Aren’t Christians, in particular, called to bear with one another? What I still didn’t know was that ICKSP had (and may still have) an interesting way of handing out rewards and punishments. You rise in the organization by reporting on the disloyal. And if you are accused of disloyalty, well…

On a beautiful September evening, my wife and I were led into a lavishly adorned courtly chamber where a panel of accusers, a stenographer, and the presiding judge, Canon Lenhardt, sat in wait. The list of charges against us was long, bizarre, and highly debatable. But the deeper, unstated accusation was no doubt true: I was not one of them. The main two informants were the two people with whom I’d privately shared my misgivings. They’d done some embellishing.

I will admit to a few lapses on my part. When a bishop attends an ICKSP Mass, there is an additional preparatory rite, a kind of ritual dressing in which the altar boys lovingly drape His Excellency with lacy vestments. The first time it happened, I couldn’t contain myself. It went on for so long, it looked so fetishistic, that at last I choked back a guffaw. I sensed a ripple of disapproval spreading around me.

Another time I made a lame attempt at humor when conversing with the choir director. I forget now just how it came up, but I said that once I became elevated to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, I would redefine driving a car as a mortal sin. It was supposed to be a joke. The choir director knew I’m a bicycling fanatic. But somehow in that jokey moment, I had failed to factor in the obvious: the vast majority of ICKSP participants drive to church from great distances, typically in large vans. So does the choir director. She was not amused.

Under the home-schooling arrangements I had helped set up, every parent had a voice in policies and a role to play in its weekly sessions. Nothing could have been less consonant with the openly authoritarian governing policies of ICKSP, but somehow the plan had been allowed to go through. Yet all too predictably, after a semester of smoothly running classes and activities, Canon Lenhardt began simply telling us what to do, sometimes by direct fiat, sometimes in league with a parent who became his maidservant-in-waiting.

A family acquaintance who was a fixture of the surroundings when we arrived at St. Francis de Sales, broke down and bemoaned his intervention (the moment of murmured misgiving already mentioned). This acquaintance—let’s call her “Doris”—gave notice that, if Canon Lenhardt kept meddling, she would withdraw her family from the co-op. I admitted that I, too, was struggling with what to make of him. Then came a final, fateful lapse. Having learned from a well-placed source that Canon Lenhardt was about to be transferred, I tried to put Doris’s mind to rest. “The matter is already being handled,” I told her.

“What?” she cried. “Is Father Lenhardt being transferred?” She had read my mind just like that. I was mortified. I wasn’t supposed to say anything about the transfer. It was possible that Lenhardt himself did not yet know about it. I didn’t confirm anything, and Doris became angry. I asked her why she was upset. “You won’t tell me if Father Lenhardt is going to be transferred!” she wailed, and hung up the phone. I had dangled juicy information in front without letting her in on the secret. The offense would not go unpunished. 

At the hearing, Doris put her own complaint about Lenhardt in my mouth. She accused me of leaking news of the transfer. (Lenhardt didn’t find out for sure until weeks later, and since Doris shared her guess with others in the meantime, the wait was most awkward for him.) And the weekly co-op I’d helped organize and in which Doris had taken part was now described as an attempt on my part to subvert ICKSP. The commiseration I’d shared privately was transmuted into calumny. Some other charges were patently untrue or distorted the truth beyond recognition. As my accusers summarized their case, I was guilty of “undermining a priest in his own domain.”

When the recital of villainies was finished, I could barely breathe. I felt the wheels of doom inexorably turning. I tried to wheeze out a sentence or two in my defense but the words seemed strangely inane and, in any event, were overridden or shouted down. Whatever I said was a “lie.” My parting memory, as Doris’s husband lunged to evict us from the room, is of Canon Lenhardt, in the midst of the uproar, smirking as he solemnly declared, “I think this is just.”

We had been expelled from the home-schooling cooperative and, in effect, from the community. Soon thereafter, my accusers became the co-op’s co-leaders. 

At least the Inquisition allowed time for the accused to prepare a defense.

If ICKSP borrows its manners and language from France, it takes its judicial cues from old Spain. But at least the Inquisition allowed time for the accused to prepare a defense and an adequate opportunity to answer the charges. We weren’t even allowed to have a copy of the accusations when we asked for one shortly after the event. It was as if they had been written in disappearing ink.

In view of these procedural irregularities and Burke’s special relationship to this group, I made an attempt to bring the “trial” to his attention. It seemed an appropriate step. By then he was head of the church’s highest court in Rome, the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. (He would later be transferred by Pope Francis to the purely ceremonial position of head of the Knights of Malta). I knew Burke a little. When Pope Benedict assigned him to St. Louis, I heard he was interested in promoting the family farm. As a fan of the Amish myself—I’ve lived with and written extensively about them—I arranged to meet with Burke and present him with a book I’d written about their way of life and work. He seemed impressed. From time to time, while he was still bishop here, we kept up contact.

After an exchange of letters, Burke first assured me he hoped to achieve reconciliation. But later he let it be known through the new priest at ICKSP, Canon Michael Wiener, that he would let the ruling stand. Our heads could indeed roll. Curiously, Burke made a side note that he thought our accusers had “exaggerated” and that our punishment had been “disproportionate.” But in response to a second appeal on my part, he sent a message through the papal nuncio in Washington commanding us to “forgive” and move on. I needed to get the whole thing out of my mind. 

And Burke had probably wanted to get it out of his. It was he who had told me about Lenhardt’s transfer. I had made the mistake of meeting with him about the difficulties I was having with ICKSP. Sympathetic though he had been to my plight at the time, he couldn’t very well let it get out that he had shared sensitive information with a lay person about a priest’s transfer before the priest himself knew about it. Burke had his own reputation to think about.

And so a prince of the church, a man willing to face off publicly with the pope, was not willing to confer privately with his own followers to undo a misfortune that arose, in part, as the consequences of his own indiscretion. He cited technical reasons in canon law for not intervening. I now can state my inkling of Burke’s vision of ecclesial governance: the clergy are right even when they’re wrong. The machinery of the church must go on, and if its gears chew up a few unfortunates, too bad.

I’m afraid to report that what happened to me was hardly unique. I learned that shortly before my ordeal another active volunteer, who had donated even more of his time and talent to ICKSP, was removed from his position by means of a similar ambush with similarly questionable motives (those who angled for his demotion stood to gain from it). Of course, any community of any size will in time be beset by personality conflicts, misunderstandings, gossip, and estrangement. But ICKSP’s ad hoc inquisitions underscore my reservations about its agenda for the church and raise a few new ones. Authoritarian organizations are not known for their attention to procedural niceties—the right to defend oneself, the presumption of innocence, etc.—much less the willingness of a good shepherd to risk his and his flock’s comfort for the sake of a single lost lamb. Rather, it seems as though a lamb must be abandoned from time to time in order to shore up the community’s sense of identity.

Given the rapidly expanding, surprisingly youthful -entourage under the mantel of ICKSP, I fear that the machinery has taken on a life of its own, that a past we all thought had been laid to rest is now mindlessly replicating itself. Worse, as this shadow church grows, the unity implied in the very word “catholic” is jeopardized. It is even now giving way to an open breach that faintly corresponds to the present stand-off in American politics, each side staring down the other, unable even to speak to the other, constantly studying to thwart the other’s every move. The Catholic charism is being replaced by a chasm.  

On ICKSP’s side, I know, the gears will be hard to stop. Many like myself will continue to wander in, drawn by the desire for beauty and solemnity. It’s easy enough to take a step in the door. But not necessarily as pleasant to leave. 

Published in the June 2, 2017 issue: 

Eric Brende is the author of Better OFF: Flipping the Switch on Technology (now in its twenty-second printing), and has received a Citation of Excellence from the National Science Foundation for his research into the biological aspects of modern technology. He lives with his wife and three children in St. Louis.

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