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Archbishop's hard line divides St. Louis Catholics

His adherence to Vatican orthodoxy praised, criticized

Decisions by Archbishop Raymond Burke have roiled the church in St. Louis, home to more than 500,000 Catholics. (Tom Gannam/Associated Press/file)

ST. LOUIS -- When it comes to expressing his views of church values, Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond Burke has a habit of making headlines, not always to the satisfaction of his flock.

Burke memorably declared that he would deny communion to Senator John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, because the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee supports abortion rights. He fought unsuccessfully to keep singer Sheryl Crow, who supports embryonic stem cell research, from headlining an April fund-raiser for the Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center, then resigned from the hospital foundation's board in protest.

Just this month, Burke's office pushed St. Joseph's Academy, a Catholic high school, to renege on its invitation to Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, to deliver this year's commencement address because of her abortion rights position, even though McCaskill's daughter was in the graduating class. McCaskill was uninvited.

At a time when significant segments of the Catholic population are breaking with the church on such issues as embryonic stem cell research and abortion, Burke is adhering to Vatican orthodoxy endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI -- and he expects the same of all Catholics in his archdiocese.

He tells his critics that he has "no agenda but the church."

Burke's decisions -- and their very public nature -- have roiled the church in St. Louis, home to more than 500,000 Catholics. While some praise Burke for firmness in an era of moral laxity, others complain the church under his direction seems out of touch.

There are certain parallels with Benedict's own experiences. The pope recently questioned the propriety of legislators who support abortion rights accepting Communion and told reporters that he agreed with excommunication for Mexican lawmakers who voted to legalize abortion.

In response, 18 Catholic members of Congress declared that "religious sanction in the political arena" violates American freedoms.

Burke "has relatively little concern for, let's say, negative reaction," said James Hitchcock, a professor at St. Louis University who writes for the diocesan press and calls Burke "a very humble man in his personal life."

"He sees himself as being obliged to do what he thinks is the right thing, and he's not too concerned with strategy or how he might finesse the thing," Hitchcock said. "There are quite obviously deep divisions within the church. Archbishop Burke is one bishop who has chosen to confront them directly, as opposed to other bishops who may prefer to minimize them."

Following the dispute over Crow and the hospital benefit, Geri Redden, who describes herself as a pro choice former Catholic, said she considers Burke "archaic and kind of an embarrassment. He seems to think he is back in the old days when he could really tell people how to live their lives."

Burke, 58, is a canon specialist who warns that Harry Potter books are "irreligious." He took a strong stand last year against a Missouri constitutional amendment designed to protect embryonic stem cell research, a high-profile political fight that pitted social conservatives against the likes of Crow, actor Michael J. Fox, and former senator John C. Danforth, a Missouri Republican . Burke called it a moral crisis for Missouri and said taxpayer money would be spent on "intrinsically immoral research."

Voters approved the measure in November by about 50,000 votes out of 2.1 million cast.

The leaders of St. Stanislaus Kostka church know Burke's wrath. They ran afoul of the archbishop by insisting that their property remain independent of diocesan control, as it has for decades. Burke responded by evicting the church from the diocese and excommunicating the parish leadership, which has appealed the decision to Rome.

"From his point of view, we are nonexistent," said the Rev. Marek Bozek, the church's pastor. "I find it wrong to perceive the world in white and black colors only. Unfortunately, he does. And we are wondering why the church is losing its people?"

But when Burke declared the church out of line and parish leaders stood firm, membership more than doubled, Bozek said. And when St. Stanislaus celebrated its first Christmas Mass after 17 months without a priest, 2,500 people came.

"From the purely pastoral point of view, it's been nothing but good for us," Bozek said. "It has revitalized the parish. We are growing because people can't stand this any longer."

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