Pope Francis sidelines — but probably can’t silence — conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke (ANALYSIS)

Cardinal Raymond Burke no longer heads the Vatican's highest court. He was moved out on Nov. 8, 2014 to an honorary post as patron of the Order of the Knights of Malta. Photo by Cathy Lynn Grossman

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.

Cardinal Raymond Burke no longer heads the Vatican's highest court. Nov. 8 he was moved out to an honorary post as patron of the Order of the Knights of Malta. Photo by Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cardinal Raymond Burke no longer heads the Vatican’s highest court. He was moved out on Nov. 8, 2014 to an honorary post as patron of the Order of the Knights of Malta. Photo by Cathy Lynn Grossman

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.”

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.


About the author

Josephine McKenna

Josephine McKenna has more than 30 years' experience in print, broadcast and interactive media. Based in Rome since 2007, she covered the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis and canonizations of their predecessors. Now she covers all things Vatican for RNS.


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  • The current times may provide a lesson to Catholic communicants more explicit than any one would want. As we speak, we see the possibility of a crisis, in which the protection the Holy Spirit provides the Church is manifested or is not.

    Francis himself appears to lack any sense that he is the custodian of the Church and its teachings and that it’s all not a ball of playdough for him to amuse himself with (in the case of Francis, by adopting the priorities and preferences of the zeitgeist) .

    This is not going to end well. This train-wreck of a synod is the warm up act. The shirttail relations of the Pope Emeritus would be well advised to prepare living arrangements for him so he can be extracted from the Vatican ‘ere the svengalis in charge attempt to coerce him into acting as a prop blessing whatever their next scheme is.

  • Nice to hear Burke is getting his come-uppances. The arrogant snot. We were happy to see him exiled from St. Louis – he has all of the compassion and charisma of Dick Cheney. St. Louis has been riddled with pedophile priest scandals, cover-ups, and downright out-of-touch church leaders. Burke can steadfastly hold his idelological line somewhere else than St. Louis. Now, hopefully, he will be stripped of the ability to cover up more scandals, wherever the good Pope chooses to assign him.

  • Eleven uses of the descriptive “conservative” to describe positions or people who are orthodox. Zero uses of the descriptive “liberal” to describe pundits such as Michael Sean Winters. Must be a disciple of David Gibson.

  • Burke’s demotion was confirmed in September before he made any critical statement about the pope. Burke was booted off the tribunal because accused pedophile nuncio Wesolowski had to be brought in to the Vatican to avoid arrest by Italian authorities in September and the pope doesn’t want a loose-cannon like Burke messing up the staged arrest and upcoming show trial of Wesolowski.

  • These are VERY hard times for Catholic Christianity these days. Literally unprecedented hard times.

    Catholic author, Ralph Martin, once wrote a book called “A Crisis Of Faith.” But that situation was an ice cream social, compared to the ABSOLUTE CODE-BLUE MESS that’s going down right now with Caholicism.

    Catholics have picked the WRONG Pope, and now both Catholics and non-Catholics will PAY the price!

  • he has all of the compassion and charisma of Dick Cheney

    I’m sure your parish benefits from the presence of rude Democratic Party press agents.

  • Unfortunately, there are very few reporters who have any concept of what the word ” orthodox” means and its importance in Christian history.

  • Orthodoxy was never even suggested by Jesus, much less advocated. It is purely an invention of the clergy.

  • Thavis, of course, has his lib ideological ax to grind. When he says that Burke’s words will have less authority and less weight because he no longer heads a curial department he conveniently neglects to mention that the Pope’s man Kasper, whom Francis has sent around the world since February being his mouthpiece on his “radical” (Kasper’s own words at CUA) agenda no longer holds a position, either. So I agree. Let’s not pay attention to Kasper.

  • Samuel is correct.

    Orthodox means, “The Correct Faith”
    This is a pure invention of clergy by their own imaginings.

    there (of course) is no way for any faith to be ‘correct’. They are all incorrect according to Orthodoxy. Religion is a joke on fools.

  • Comments of a Christian nature from Christians will not include name calling. God’s will is being done.

  • Just like McKenna’s last article about Cardinal Burke, if there is anything this article shows, it’s her bias. Again, read the actual words of the cardinal from the interview she quotes, and you can see how selectively she is quoting him so as to present a more malicious picture of the cardinal than reality dictates. Vatican Insider has a good article which simple presents the text of the interview; Google: “Vatican Insider Vida Nueva” and it’s the first hit.

  • His so called “demotion” has less to do with being conservative than with that he is a Gringo. As a South American, this pope does not want Gringos at the highest levels of the Vatican

  • I am speechless at the thought of any Cardinal publicly challenging the authority of the Pope. Seems Burke’s feisty personality and seemingly mega ego are the overriding factors here not the well-being of the Church and its people. Unfortunately, too it has to be a U.S. Cardinal who is putting on such a spectacle. Just when the Pope is beginning to regain some of the moral authority that the Church had lost through its gross mishandling of the child abuse scandal in the US.

  • I am sad that Cardinal Burke lost his position, but I am sure he is fine with that. He is a “son of the Church”. He knows The Lord, he is happy “in The Lord.”

    All that Cardinal Burke says is true – he is a wonderful teacher – and, in Catholic faith matters, there is no one that can dispute him. The media is attacking him, as expected. They want the Catholic Church to change. Well, the Church will not change, doctrine will not change. And remember, Cardinal Burke is only 66 years old, he may be elected Pope, so be careful what you say….

  • From what I’ve read about Cardinal Burke is that he is a pastoral and caring man, not at all like the cartoon character portrayed by the looney left. I fear Pope Francis is not the man I thought had been elevated to the Chair of Peter. He starting to sounds vindictive, judgmental, and lacking in basic Christian charity, i.e., a typical modern day “liberal.”

  • “Burke bitterly complained that conservative views were being stifled” – probably getting a taste of his own medicine!

  • Is your statement that there is no way for faith to be correct itself a correct statement? If so, then, by the same logic, how?

  • Jesus did teach that there was a correct understanding of what was to believed as revealed in scripture. He told the Sadducees “You are quite wrong” when they tried to apply an erroneous understanding of the resurrection to a question they were posing him (cf. Mark 12:27). He also had very harsh words for the Pharisees whenever they tried to hold him to their own distorted understanding of the Torah, especially with regard to whether Jesus should heal on the Sabbath (cf. Lk. 13:14-15). When the Pharisees confront Jesus about whether divorce is lawful, Jesus invokes a correct understanding of what God intended for marriage when he recalls the image of marriage “in the beginning” (Mt. 19:8), that God made us male and female and that the two would become one flesh, “thus, what God has joined, let no man put asunder” (Mt. 19:4-6). In all of these instances, Jesus corrects his interlocutors by invoking a correct understanding of what is to be believed through God’s revelation in scripture, versus an incorrect way of understanding of what is to be believed. So, though the word “orthodoxy” cannot be found in the words of Jesus in the gospels, he did indeed suggest that there is a correct way of understanding God’s revelation, and did not parse words with those who insisted on working from an incorrect way of understanding it.

  • @Richard,

    Tell me which Christian faith you think is the correct one (orthodox) and I will show you why it isn’t correct.

    There are no ‘correct faiths’.

    Why is this?
    Because religion is all made up. And each person has made up his own idea of what he has constructed in his head – and no other person shares it in the same way.

  • This thread has all the elements of a political exchange: exaggerated misunderstandings on both sides, taken as personal affronts, devolving into personal attacks, with attention finally wrested by a complete outsider to religion, all with defensive egoism at the top of the agenda, a lot of ignorance or distortion or selective bible quoting out of context, with a few rational, sincere people wondering why they bothered. It’s really too bad that, whether left or right, even religious sites parallel the Obama hater / Obama lover,, gun control supporter/gun nut reactive comments that we all are so darned tired of, and so depressing to see. Francis, like Jesus, creates discomfort fo the set-in-our-ways self-absorbed ‘Christians’ we are, so that we can start to open our heads and hearts and go back to see what Jesus was trying to tell us about love and forgiveness. It seems many of us prefer to be sicarii, or to leave the donkey in the ditch because it is Sunday and we might spoil our pious self-images. The letter of the law is only that. The spirit of the law and the lesson given by His example is what Jesus taught. Look in the mirror (as I have to, time and again) and ask yourself if you are acting in the Spirit, or out of your own emotional needs and frustrations. No man, no Pope, no Church is perfect because these are human and subject to weakness, pride and error. God and God’s Spirit are perfect, and if you are a believer in orthodox belief, then remember that it is the Spirit that has kept the Church, despite some bad popes, bad ethics, power seekers, and all the other human frailties.

  • What is it about people with Burke derangement syndrome that makes them lie about the man. Really, you need to seek professional help. Nothing that you say is true.

  • Your comment is full of thought.
    Unfortunately, you seem not to understand that this is the RNS website, where the reporters are deeply biased and love to twist the facts in service of their advocacy of certain views. Engendering hatred towards the other side is their stock in trade.
    This approach attracts commenters who seem to be borderline disturbed or have problems of one sort or another. It is a small little world of no import. Hopefully in future you will spend your time on a site that is more deserving of your efforts.

  • Good for Burke! Please keep poking those effete, free-spending, homosexual watering hole visiting, “clergy” in the eyes. The most telling information here is that both O’Malley and Wuerl remain “close” to the pope. Remember Wuerl suspended a priest for following church rules on distribution of the Eucharist to openly practicing homosexuals. Wuerl the Girl? About as close to an open homosexual in the clergy as one could imagine? O’Malley is an insult to every Catholic in the U.S. Send him to Ebola country to minister to those immigrants he pretends to clasp to his bosom.

    Point of fact: the “National Catholic Reporter” has been told not to use the word “Catholic” as it does not accurately report or disseminate Catholic teaching. Sloppy, sloppy reporting!

  • Well Ray just like at any other job if u mess with the boss long enough you pay the price.He should put u in a monastery practicing the vow of silence without the “net”,tweeting,and texting.

  • @Richard,

    When I was a Catholic I was rather liberal. And I justified my leftist Catholicism on my decision that Jesus was more about love and acceptance than wrath and punishment.

    “Love thy neighbor”
    “forgive them they know not what they do”
    “My peace I give you”

    Sounds nice enough until you realize that reading the entire New Testament and the Old Testament the overall message is so profoundly incoherent it can only be man made:

    “Bring to me those enemies of mine and execute them in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)
    “Avoid Them” (Romans 16:17)
    “have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” (2 Thessalonian 3:14)
    “If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed! Come, Lord!” (1 Corinthians 16:22)

    And how can someone ‘love your neighbor’ if you must also follow this disgusting, racist nonsense:

    “Don’t waste yourself….on the people who are unholy. Don’t throw your pearls to pigs!” – JESUS (Matthew 7:6)

    Jesus is a harsh, miserable creature.
    He speaks out of both sides of his mouth (profoundly unfair to all of us) and his message is damaging to society.

    I do not say these things because of ‘my ego’.
    I say them to call attention to the damage we are doing to each other by giving Jesus some kind of blank check over our lives.

    Christians should question these preachments with vigor.
    I would not call attention to it if I did not care about people!

    For Peace, Humanity and The Separation of Church and State

  • Of course this false Pope removed Cardinal Burke. It’s hard to unmake the Church and abandon it’s sacred teachings with an inconveniently moral man in the Vatican.

    Benedict is my Pope.

  • Sorry, friend. You can not believe in his divinity, if you like. But Jesus’ existence is a historical fact.

  • Turth,
    Could you give us some examples of where you think we try to engender hatred toward the other, or twist the facts in service of advocacy? Thanks,

    Kevin Eckstrom
    Editor-in-Chief / RNS

  • “But Jesus’ existence is a historical fact.”

    Oh, no it isn’t.
    There is every reason to think Jesus was entirely made up – or that the things attributed to him are really a compilation of many supposed messiahs running around at the time.

    The hand full contemporary comments such as those seen in Josephus have been dismissed as forgeries.
    And the Bible is completely contradictory which further supports a montage of infuences – not a real person.

    No reason to think any of it is real.

  • “Benedict is my Pope”

    More proof that you don’t need Atheists to argue against the tenets of religion.
    Just ask any Christian, Muslim or Jew and they will do it for you.

  • Interpretation of scripture is a delicate and confusing pastime. I’m as likely to think outside the box as the next person, but I do try to temper my perceptions in the kiln of convention wisdom.

  • Note how the language used here parallels that used by American conservatives to attack Obama. “There is a sense” that the church is “leaderless”, “rudderless”. Weasel-language (who has this sense?), and if rendered honestly (‘I believe the church is leaderless’) would have much less impact.

    But because Burke is invoking the authority of his office and claiming to speak for the good of the Church, his pronouncements have added weight.

  • None of the references in Josephus are “dismissed as forgeries.” It is thought that the line which is found in it “He was the Christ” might be an interpolation, but there is absolutely no reason to think that the references themselves are not authentic, since no copies of Josephus exist which do not contain the Testimonium Flavinium, to which you are referring.

    There is almost no support in academia, whether secular or religious, for the notion that Jesus did not exist.

  • Did Jesus exist?
    Nobody knows.

    It is speculation.

    Josephus (a devout Jew) would not have referred to Jesus as “the Christ” – it is ridiculous for a Jew to do so – and the entire paragraph sticks out like a sore thumb. I remain convinced that it was a made-up paragraph inserted by early church liars.

    There is no reason to believe in Jesus,
    There is no price for ignoring it
    and no benefit for pretending it to be real.

    Jesus doesn’t matter.

  • Nov 7, 2014. I bet Raymond Burke will remember this date…Malta. With his depature maybe Pope Francis can find a closet for Robert Carlson. he like burke
    need’s attitude adjustments on the subjects of St. Stanislous it’s parishioners and Pedophile Priests he has shielded in his tenure. Real Property Ownership
    should be a subject of his intrest.

  • Pope Francis might actually be the first time since Pope John Paul I, that the Roman Catholic Church has actually had a moral compass. Thanks GOD for that!