VATICAN CITY (RNS) In demoting American Cardinal Raymond Burke from his powerful perch at the Vatican, Pope Francis has sidelined an outspoken conservative agitator — for now.
The pope moved the feisty former archbishop of St. Louis from his role as head of the Vatican’s highest court to the largely ceremonial position of patron of the Knights of Malta on Saturday (Nov. 8).
Francis has effectively exiled one of his loudest critics, but Burke’s supporters — and his opponents — warn that his position at the Catholic charity may actually give him more freedom to exercise greater influence and even rally opposition to papal reforms.
In other words, the stunning demotion may remake Burke into St. Raymond the Martyr, the patron saint of Catholic conservatives.
“His position as patron of the Knights of Malta is Rome-based and mostly ceremonial,” wrote Edward Pentin for the conservative National Catholic Register.
“He is nevertheless likely to continue and perhaps even step up his defense of the Church’s teaching in the face of continued efforts to radically alter pastoral practice in the run-up to next year’s second synod on the family.”
- READ: Cardinal Burke’s excellent Maltese adventure (Mark Silk)
Burke is well-known for his uncompromising stance on abortion, homosexuality and the sanctity of marriage, and his passion for doctrine is matched only by his passion for the elegant finery of his office.
Wearing the vibrant red robes of a cardinal for the first time on the day he was appointed by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2010, he used one word to describe the greatest threat to the church: “secularization.”
During the global bishops’ Synod on the Family held at the Vatican last month, Burke bitterly complained that conservative views were being stifled amid initial signs of a more welcoming approach to gays and lesbians.
But he raised the ante in an interview with Spanish Catholic weekly, Vida Nueva, at the end of October when he made a direct attack on Francis’ leadership.
“At this very critical moment, there is a strong sense that the church is like a ship without a rudder,” Burke said. “Now, it is more important than ever to examine our faith, have a healthy spiritual leader and give powerful witness to the faith.”
His departure is no surprise and observers say it had little to do with the conservative blowback that upended the synod or rumors that he snubbed the pope at the concluding Mass in St Peter’s Square.
Italian media began speculating about his demotion as early as September; Burke himself confirmed his imminent removal from the corridors of power at the Vatican in a recent interview.
Asked by a reporter who had told him of his pending departure, Burke shot back: “Who do you think?”
National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters welcomed his demotion, albeit with a warning.
“The downside of the appointment? By giving him a job with no real duties, Burke will be free to make more speeches and give more interviews,” he wrote in a blogpost.
The Rev. Dwight Longenecker, a South Carolina priest and conservative commentator at Patheos, predicted the move would “almost certainly prove to be disastrous for Pope Francis” because it will reinforce Burke’s position “as the figurehead for the conservative resistance.”
“Whether he likes it or not, and whether it is true or not, by transferring Burke in this way Pope Francis has created a media megaphone for his increasingly disillusioned conservative opponents,” he said.
Giuliano Ferrara, editor of the conservative Italian daily Il Foglio, gave Burke a full page of his broadsheet to air his complaints during the synod. Ferrara said the cardinal would remain a powerful figure in Rome.
“Cardinal Burke’s career has come to a stop, but cardinals do not have careers like others,” Ferrara told Religion News Service. “And the pope’s desire for his impulsive removal will make him an important voice of dissent regarding certain aspects of theology, liturgy and the pastoral approach of Francis. This is not exile.”
Burke’s departure means there are no Americans in charge of any major Vatican departments or offices in the Curia. But it would be wrong to suggest they are without influence.
Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley is a member of the pope’s advisory group or kitchen cabinet of nine cardinals, and also heads the Vatican’s child abuse commission. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, is an important adviser to Francis and on Monday was nominated to the board of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, the body which manages the Vatican’s vast property portfolio.
As for Burke, he has youth on his side. At a relatively young 66, he holds a vote in any papal conclave until he is 80. Chances are he may outlive the 77-year-old Francis, and could play a role in electing his successor, or even the pope after that.
But veteran Vatican observer and author John Thavis said Burke’s political power would be seriously diminished by his demotion.
“He is no longer the head of the Vatican’s top tribunal, which gave his statements added authority. In that sense, even as he turns into a hero of Catholic conservatives, he becomes a lesser figure on the Vatican’s political landscape,” Thavis said Monday.
Thavis said Burke’s uncompromising personal style would also work against him at a future conclave.
“It’s true that he has admirers because he speaks so openly and pointedly, but I don’t see him as the kind of figure who would engage in the gentle persuasion and consensus building of a papal conclave,” Thavis told RNS.
KRE/AMB END McKENNA