Earlier this month Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke announced to the world that he had contracted Covid-19 in a strangely triumphant August 10 tweet “Praised be Jesus Christ! I wish to inform you that I have recently tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.” By August 14 he’d been sedated and placed on a ventilator at an undisclosed Wisconsin hospital. Though so gravely ill that he was unable to breathe on his own, an updated tweet from his account insisted that “Doctors are encouraged by his progress.” Progressing to a ventilator within four days of Covid-19 diagnosis is not, in fact, encouraging, but like Trump, the prominent traditionalist bishop and vaccine skeptic doesn’t make mistakes, and like Trump his survival (as of this writing Burke remains hospitalized but no longer on a ventilator or in the ICU) thanks to extraordinary medical attention, is being attributed to his special mission as one of God’s chosen messengers.
Cardinal Burke, 72, was born in the small town of Richland Center, WI and served as the bishop of the small diocese of La Crosse, WI (his home diocese) from 1995-2004. He was elevated to Archbishop of St. Louis in 2004 before Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI summoned him to Rome to serve as prefect of the Vatican’s Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest judicial authority in the Catholic Church (apart from the pope himself).
He clashed early on with Pope Francis, expressing his displeasure in numerous media outlets with the agenda of the Pope’s synod on the family, which took place in October of 2014. Burke felt that the Synod was too accommodating to divorced Catholics seeking annulment and left room for them to receive Holy Communion “something that would, in fact, constitute a change in Church teaching, which is impossible.” After the Synod, in a highly unusual move, Francis quickly demoted Burke, naming him to the ceremonial position of Cardinal Patron of the Knights and Dames of Malta. Since then there’s been no love lost between these two men.
Much of Burke’s religious activity centers around the impressive Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, WI which Burke founded and which was built with the help of large donations of (largely unnamed) wealthy traditionalist Catholic donors. This shrine was not made in order to serve the spiritual needs of Mexican and Mexican-American Catholics (of which there are very few in that part of Wisconsin), but as a massive intra-Catholic identity shrine proclaiming the truth of Burke’s own version of traditionalist Catholicism.
In the last several decades, Our Lady of Guadalupe has been re-interpreted as “Patroness of the Unborn” by Pro-Life Catholic groups. Her slightly rounded stomach is interpreted by some as pregnancy and the “human sacrifice” of the native people who lived in Mexico before the arrival of Catholic Spaniards is cast as equivalent to the “human sacrifice” of abortion. Burke chose Our Lady of Guadalupe as the patron of his shrine for this reason—his opposition to abortion is a key to his identity, and to his response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Early on, in a May 2020 address to the Rome Life Forum, Burke said “It is never morally justified to develop a vaccine through the use of cell lines of aborted fetuses. The thought of the introduction of such a vaccine into one’s body is rightly abhorrent. At the same time, it must be clear that vaccination cannot be imposed upon citizens in a totalitarian manner.” While Trump was vowing that the vaccines would be developed in record time with Operation Warp Speed, Burke was already putting arguments in place to oppose them, seeing an opportunity to boost his anti-abortion bonafides among traditionalist Catholics.
Historic fetal cell lines were in fact derived from two elective abortions that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, these original cell lines have been used to create vaccines for many diseases including rabies, Hepatitis A and rubella. These historic fetal cell lines were also used in some of the developmental stages of the Covid-19 vaccines but no new abortions took place for these to be developed. A comprehensive list of vaccines in development and their relationship to historic fetal cell lines is available here.
Like many opposed to vaccines, Burke has also opposed efforts to stop the spread, including the closing of churches. In a letter dated March 21, 2020 he cited the need for the Church and the Sacraments as essential to life itself, and blamed “so called ‘gender theory” and “attacks on the innocent and defenseless unborn” for the pandemic crisis. In a December 2020 homily on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe Burke referred to Covid-19 as “the mysterious Wuhan virus”—long after the racist implications of that label were well understood—and warned of microchips and the advancement of Marxist materialism and the advancement of “evil agendas” and the “Great Reset”
Though he lives in Rome, during the months of July and August Burke was on his annual visit to the Guadalupe shrine in Wisconsin, this time to celebrate the anniversary of the Shrine Church Dedication on July 31st and to celebrate a Pontifical Solemn High Mass in the Extraordinary Form on Thursday, August 5th. At the last Mass on July 30, 2021, which is available to view on YouTube, neither Burke nor any of his concelebrants was wearing a mask. It was sometime during this period of time that Burke contracted Covid-19.
The news that he was ailing was met with a great deal of schadenfreude on social media with some expressing hope for his death. Sarcastic promises of “thoughts and prayers” abounded, as did more thoughtful tweets like this one by @Sisyphus1989: “I’m saying a prayer for those who lack access to necessary medical care because people like Cardinal Burke are taking up hospital beds due to the fact he refused to take a simple action to prevent getting seriously ill.”
I'm saying a prayer for those who lack access to necessary medical care because people like Cardinal Burke are taking up hospital beds due to the fact he refused to take a simple action to prevent getting seriously ill.
— Eldest Son (@Sisyphus1989) August 16, 2021
The Cardinal’s Twitter feed has given very few updates and the Executive Director of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe exhorted His Eminence’s followers to pray the rosary on his behalf, and “out of humility” not to demand too much information about the state of the Cardinal’s health. These updates have since been removed from the Shrine website. On August 21, 2021 the Shrine put out one short press release, which begins “Praised be Jesus Christ” and states that “His Eminence has come off the ventilator and will leave the ICU today to return to his hospital room.” There is no mention of the need for his followers to get vaccinated.
News of his apparent survival was met by some of his supporters as proof of his righteousness, not his recklessness. Dr. Taylor Marshall, a traditionalist Catholic YouTuber and author who identifies himself as a married Catholic layman and father of 8 shared a video after hearing that the Cardinal would survive, calling the unvaccinated Cardinal’s physical suffering “a righteous witness (against abortion)” and expressed the belief that “Cardinal Burke went to the Pearly Gates, and Jesus said ‘Cardinal Burke, your job’s not over, I’m sending you back, to end the chaos caused by Pope Francis Bergoglio.”
For his part, Pope Francis has urged Catholics, and all people of goodwill, to receive the Covid-19 vaccination. He’s called the vaccine a “moral responsibility” and “an act of love.” But for those who follow Cardinal Burke, only the cell lines of a human embryo aborted over half a century ago matter, not the lives of hundreds of millions of people the world over who can be saved by vaccination today.