The Conspiratorial Cardinal

A rough timeline of the relationship between Cardinal Burke, Covid, and the pandemic’s conspiracy theories.

You may be aware that Cardinal Raymond Burke has been diagnosed with COVID and is now in the hospital. The unveiling of information and misinformation regarding his case took a winding path, in ways mirroring the Cardinal’s approach to COVID generally. He’s been actively involved in spreading conspiracy theories and in promoting skepticism towards medical and scientific findings. And, like his rhetoric, his falling victim to COVID has been characterized by half truths and conjecture.

Here’s a rough timeline of the relationship between Cardinal Burke, COVID, and the pandemic’s conspiracy theories:

March 21, 2020: the start of the pandemic

In the early days of the pandemic, when Italy is being ravaged by the virus, Cardinal Burke urges his followers to exercise caution. While insisting on the need for Catholic churches to continue to safely serve the laity, he says: “It is a fundamental act of charity to use every prudent means to avoid contracting or spreading the coronavirus.”

This perspective will not be practiced or maintained over the course of the pandemic.

He also says, “In combatting the evil of the coronavirus, our most effective weapon is, therefore, our relationship with Christ through prayer and penance, and devotions and sacred worship.”

May 20, 2020: conspiracy theory #1 (the microchip)

When lockdowns start, conspiracy theories begin to spread like viruses themselves. The Cardinal and organizations he supports start giving voice to them, and thus give them legitimacy in the eyes of many. In a speech for the Rome Life Forum, Burke says:

“There is a certain movement to insist that now everyone must be vaccinated against the coronavirus… and even that a kind of microchip needs to be placed under the skin of every person, so that at any moment he or she can be controlled by the state.”

The microchip conspiracy theory had originated on Reddit. Bill Gates had pledged $1.75 billion towards pandemic aid and was answering questions on Reddit. One user asked, “What changes are we going to have to make to how businesses operate to maintain our economy while providing social distancing?” In his response, Gates said, “Eventually we will have some digital certificates to show who has recovered or been tested recently or when we have a vaccine who has received it.” The next day, a Swedish website that advocates for human implantable microchips, wrote on its page, “Bill Gates will use microchip implants to fight coronavirus.” And that’s where the conspiracy came from. No person in a position of power or state leadership is actually arguing for such a microchip. But the Cardinal uses his position of power and authority to spread the falsehood.

In the same speech, Cardinal Burke states that 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.”

September 30, 2020

The Charlotte Lozier Institute confirms that abortion-derived cell lines were not used in the design, development, or production of the Covid vaccines by Pfizer, Moderna, or Novavax. (See also this piece on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and Catholic responses.)

December 12, 2020: conspiracy theory #2 (the Great Reset)

In a homily for the celebration of the Solemnity of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Cardinal Burke gives credibility to another conspiracy theory. He says:

“There is the mysterious Wuhan virus about whose nature and prevention the mass media daily give us conflicting information. What is clear, however, is that it has been used by certain forces, inimical to families and to the freedom of nations, to advance their evil agenda. These forces tell us that we are now the subjects of the so-called ‘Great Reset,’ the ‘new normal,’ which is dictated to us by their manipulation of citizens and nations through ignorance and fear.”

“The Great Reset” was a term first coined by Prince Charles of Wales in partnership with the World Economic Forum (WEF). In June, they had launched an initiative for a “Great Reset” of how we approach the economy. Prince Charles said, “The pandemic represents a rare but narrow window of opportunity to reflect, reimagine, and reset our world to create a healthier, more equitable, and more prosperous future.” They wanted the WEF to lead initiatives under “the Great Reset” to encourage corporations and governments to voluntarily make positive economic changes. Other world leaders started to use the phrase "the Great Reset” when thinking about how the economic challenges posed by the pandemic could be reframed as an opportunity to imagine more humane economic systems.

But the conspiracy theory promoted by Burke and others holds that the “Great Reset” was an elaborate plot to rule and manipulate the citizens of the world through the overthrow of national economies and the establishment of a single global economy controlled by elites. It further holds that lockdowns and other restrictions were not put in place because of COVID, but because of the plotters behind the “Great Reset.”1

December 17, 2020: the Vatican speaks

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states that the COVID vaccines may be taken morally, even “Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.”

January 1, 2021: conspiracy theory #3 (the one-world government)

In his homily for the Feast of the Epiphany, Burke says:

“It seems, in fact, that universal vaccination is a significant first step towards achieving a one-world government.”

There is nothing “in fact” to support the theory that vaccine mandates are intended or tend to lead to a “one-world government.” This seems to be Burke’s elaboration on some version of the “Great Reset” conspiracy theory.

Burke also argues that the decision to take vaccines should not be mandated and should be subject to personal choice. He criticizes the view that “vaccination is imposed on us by the very charity of Christ,” emphasizing that personal choice should be the primary determinator for whether one is vaccinated. And he continues to refer to COVID as the “Wuhan virus,” a term associated with increased violence against Asian Americans.

January 10, 2021: the Pope speaks

In an interview, Pope Francis says he believes “that morally everyone must take the vaccine.”

July 10, 2021: contra the Pope

Cardinal Burke has yet to make any positive comments about the COVID vaccine or confirm whether he has received one. Instead, he has voiced thinly-veiled opposition. In a presentation on “Keeping the Catholic Faith in Times of Great Turmoil in the Church,” he takes the time to argue that priests cannot require the vaccine. He says:

“[I]f a pastor teaches that the faithful are bound by the theological virtue of charity to receive a certain vaccine, then the faithful, while duly respecting his person as pastor, are not bound by his teaching or command.”

In this comment, he seems to set himself in opposition to the Pope’s January remarks. Also, remember that in March of 2020, Cardinal Burke had said, “It is a fundamental act of charity to use every prudent means to avoid contracting or spreading the coronavirus.”

August 2021: the Cardinal’s conference

But the Cardinal goes further in disregarding these “prudent means.” He helps lead a conference at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin. At Mass, cards in the pews state that communion must be received on the tongue. In addition, there is a sign above the holy water fonts asking attendees to use them, as they have “a special blessing against contagious viruses.” These were probably his decisions, as he was the conference sponsor and highest-ranking cleric. He later becomes one of the many attendees of the conference to test positive for Covid.

After the conference, he then celebrates a Pontifical High Mass at the Shrine and a Confirmation in Wausau, Wisconsin, unwittingly exposing more people to Covid. (Presumably, he requires attendees who wished to receive communion to allow him to stick his hands in their mouths). He then travels to the Twin Cities to stay with a friend.

August 10, 2021: testing positive

Rumors start to come out that Cardinal Burke is gravely ill, but a communication from that friend says that he just had a “sinus infection” and “HAS NOT been diagnosed with Covid.” The communication expresses no concern to warn people that they may also be ill or have been exposed to the virus by or with the Cardinal. What the Cardinal and his friend are most worried about, apparently, is trying to “put an end to the rumors.”

Later that day the Cardinal himself announces that he has tested positive for the virus. He says he is "resting comfortably and receiving excellent medical care."

But then later that night, a posting in the Sisters of the Franciscan Congregation of Divine Mercy Facebook group asks for prayers. It says that Burke is "developing blood clots and they expect tonight is going to be a very rough night for him."

August 11, 2021

Catholic Culture reports that Burke "has downplayed reports that he is gravely ill."

August 14, 2021

The Cardinal’s Twitter account shares that he has been admitted to the hospital and “is being assisted by a ventilator.”

Today

We should pray for the Cardinal. I don't want any more people to die from Covid, even people who refused to follow best practices or who contributed to misinformation campaigns. At the same time, I am astounded that no one at any of the events presided over by the Cardinal while he had or contracted Covid has been warned about or received an apology for exposure. To my knowledge, no announcements have been made. In addition, over the course of the pandemic, Cardinal Burke has attended large events without wearing a mask, including the recent conference.

This is a bad state for Catholicism. I often come back to Augustine’s argument why Christians should be careful not to spread false scientific theories. Augustine warns that if non-Christians “find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well… how are they going to believe those books [in our Scripture] in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven?”

If Christians boldly spread demonstrably false scientific claims, why would non-Christians trust our religious claims? And if non-Christians can’t trust us to take easy and obvious steps to care for their bodies, why would they entrust us to take care of their souls? It’s a scandal that lends credibility to atheism.

Catholics can respond by acting as leaders in providing good information and being proactive in charitably clarifying when falsehoods arise. That’s why I think it’s important to acknowledge it when even our Cardinals become mouthpieces for deadly ridiculousness.

Coming up: stay tuned for the bi-weekly newsletter coming Wednesday! In it, I’ll share a bit about maintaining an intellectual life after school, how a theology of the body might elevate Netflix, a shopping list for a feminist’s bathroom, and more. If you haven’t already, subscribe now to get it delivered directly to your inbox.

1

The theory failed to notice that American capitalism already led to a single national economy controlled by elites who have concentrated their power, increased unemployment, destroyed non-national businesses, decreased wages, and censored the national citizenry