Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke attends a news conference by the conservative Catholic group Voice of the Family in Rome on Oct. 15, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Cardinal Burke insists he is serving Francis, not opposing him

(RNS) Ever since Pope Francis was elected in March 2013, he has faced strong opposition from traditionalists unhappy with his push for church reforms -- and the face of that opposition has often been Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American prelate who has worked in senior positions in Rome for most of the past decade.

Francis eventually moved Burke out of key Vatican jobs and into a more ceremonial post as patron to the Knights of Malta, an apparent downgrade that both Burke and the pope insist wasn’t tied to the cardinal’s criticisms.

But Burke, a former archbishop of St. Louis who has a devoted following among conservatives, has continued to use his Roman platform to speak his mind.

He did that again most recently in a book-length interview in which he hits many of the themes that have drawn attention in the past: critiquing “radical feminism” and homosexuality (“a wounding of nature,” he calls it) as well as the “secularization” and moral relativism that he says have infected society and the Catholic Church.

The reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s are also a recurrent target, as he again champions a return to the old Latin Mass and voices nostalgia for the Catholicism of his boyhood (Burke says that he first felt a tug to the priesthood at the age of 8). The cardinal also has a provocative new take on Islam, which he said “wants to govern the world.”

READ: US cardinal says ‘Christian nations’ must counter Islamic influx

Notably absent from the book, however, and from direct criticism, is Francis himself. Throughout the extended interview with French journalist Guillaume d'Alançon, which was published under the title, “Hope for the World: To Unite All Things in Christ,” Burke approvingly and frequently cites Saint John Paul II, the pope who named him a bishop back in 1995, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who brought him to Rome in 2008 and made him a cardinal two years later.

He even praises Saint Pius X, the pope who a century ago was famous for his campaign to expunge the heresy of “Modernism” from the church -- errors that the cardinal says “are still current.”

But Francis is mentioned only in passing, which seems just fine by Burke.

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“I know about all these depictions. People call me ‘the enemy of the pope’ and so forth. I have never been and I am not presently the enemy of the pope,” Burke told RNS by telephone recently from his home state of Wisconsin, where he was spending time this summer.

“I have never, in anything I’ve said, shown disrespect to the papal office, because the Catholic Church doesn’t exist without the office of Peter,” he said, referring to the apostle who Catholic tradition views as the first bishop of Rome and therefore the first pope in an unbroken succession up to the present day.

“I’ve said to the pope himself, in conversations with him -- and these by the way are friendly conversations -- I told him, ‘Holy Father, the only way I can serve you is by speaking the truth in the best and clearest way possible.’ His response to me is: ‘That’s what I want.’”

The cardinal said that his own critics -- his outspokenness has left no shortage of those -- “would like to construe my relationship with the Holy Father as some kind of ongoing hostility or war between this reform of the church, this revolutionary reform (that Francis is promoting), and these old die-hards who resist it. That simply is not the case.”

During the course of a half-hour conversation, Burke did continually return to his commitment “to simply speak up to defend what the church has always taught and practiced.”

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That commitment means that Burke will continue to push hard against the heart of Francis’ reformist approach, and that he will continue to be seen as, if not an enemy of the pope, at least his counterweight, and a favorite of those who would love to see the 68-year-old Burke one day succeed Francis, who turns 80 in December.

One of the chief targets for Burke of late has been the pope’s controversial document, “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love,” in which Francis synthesized the intense debates about church teachings and the modern family that took place across two major meetings of bishops from around the world that Francis convened in Rome in 2014 and 2015.

READ: Will papal document settle the controversies?

The pontiff’s lengthy exhortation, as it is known, was viewed as enshrining a new, more welcoming approach to Catholics who do not fit the textbook ideal of the catechism -- single parents and gays, for example, and divorced and remarried Catholics.

“The Joy of Love” seems to leave open the possibility that divorced and remarried Catholics could receive Communion, for example. It has opened the door to the kind of discernment and appeals to conscience that critics say are misguided and in fact undermine long-standing Catholic doctrines and practices, and that’s why it has become a focal point for conservative dissent.

Burke is one of those critics. One of his main arguments of late is that the papal exhortation is not an expression of the “magisterium,” that is, authoritative church teaching, but that parts of it may be correct but others are not. “A mixture of opinion and doctrine,” as Burke put it in his interview with RNS.

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“We can’t understand this document to be magisterium in the way other documents have been because Pope Francis simply has a different approach to the papacy,” the cardinal said. “In his documents he mixes his own thoughts and approaches, which are personal, with questions of doctrine.”

Burke says he knows some disagree with him, but he said that he and “many serious-minded people” in the church hierarchy are calling for Francis to issue a follow-up document.

“I trust that something will have to happen also because some very formal calls for clarification are in process and they simply will demand a response,” Burke said, “not in any kind of hostile or aggressive way, but simply for the sake of souls because people are getting confused.”

READ: Cardinal: ‘Feminized’ church and altar girls caused priest shortage

Indeed, “confusion” is the word that Burke said he would use to describe the mood in Rome these days over “what direction the church is going.”

“And then with confusion comes division, and so you get people accusing one another back and forth,” he said ruefully. “I do believe very strongly that we need to have a clearer direction, a clearer enunciation of the faith and its practice. That way would also help to settle down this confusion and the division which follows from it.”

But when asked directly, Burke is equally firm that whatever happens, he has no intention of leading a breakaway, schismatic movement, an option some on the Catholic right have contemplated.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I will never leave the Catholic Church. No matter what happens I intend to die a Roman Catholic. I will never be part of a schism.

“I’ll just keep the faith as I know it and respond in the best way possible. That’s what the Lord expects of me. But I can assure you this: You won’t find me as part of any schismatic movement or, God forbid, leading people to break away from the Catholic Church. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the church of our Lord Jesus Christ and the pope is his vicar on earth and I’m not going to be separated from that.”


  1. Spin. Spin. Spin.
    Everything is hunky dory and a blossoming “New Springtime”.
    Aren’t the Emperor’s New Clothes smashing!
    Wait a minute… Why did they close those churches and schools in my archdiocese and shut down the seminary?
    “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

  2. This is encouraging:

    Burke says he knows some disagree with him, but he said that he and “many serious-minded people” in the church hierarchy are calling for Francis to issue a follow-up document.
    “I trust that something will have to happen also because some very formal calls for clarification are in process and they simply will demand a response,” Burke said[.]

  3. As a conservative, I empathize somewhat with his nostalgia for formalism, though that can be taken to extremes. What is not extreme is his contention that Islam (at least some subsets) “wants to govern the world.” On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church took a fair stab at it in the Middle Ages. In comparing and contrasting the two, my worry lies with the extremists of Islam, but I may have a Western bias. Additionally this fracas is not without precedent, but in the modern era it appears to occur more frequently, albeit diplomatically. I think, and I will get into trouble here, his description of homosexuality as a “wounding of nature” is an apt one, though I have no desire to disparage or insult those in the gay community, we all have our particular woundings or sins to bear. I prefer to keep my powder dry on the question of Feminism.

  4. What are you “conserving” Edward? If it is your flawed, indifferent view of religion, then you are conserving nothing but your rot.

    And you go ahead and “keep your powder dry” regarding “F”eminism. Just wait until they do something really egregious. Then you can unleash your massive intellect.

  5. You were doing great until you got to “wounding of nature” you may not have intended disparagement or insult to gay people, but I’m not wounded, nature is not wounded, nor is society, marriage, children, the family, faith, freedom, or western civilization by the fact that we exist. FACT says says that gay people have always existed in every culture and time.

    THAT’S what nature is.

  6. This website continuously makes an insignificant man seem important as a foil to cast the pope as a “liberal.” Burke’s “key Vatican jobs” were obscure.
    Yes, the pope wants to “welcome” more to fill his empty pews and collections.
    But he continues to oppose abortion to save the life of the mother as an “abominable crime,” “horrific,” part of a new “throwaway culture” and “what the Mafia does – throw someone away to save another.”
    The pope has called same sex marriage an “anthropological regression” and compared transgender people to nuclear weapons saying both do not “recognize the order of creation” and just last month in Poland “the epoch of sin against God the Creator” and “a moment of annihilation of man as image of God.”
    The pope has never removed a bishop for aiding, abetting and covering-up child sex abuse or persecuting the victims as he himself did in Buenos Aires.

  7. Betty Clermont, almost everything you have in quotes is ABSOLUTELY TRUEl Abortion IS an abominable crime. Same sex “marriage” IS an anthropological regression (well, really MUCH worse than that). Transgender people (and those who support their delusion) ARE ones who do not recognize the order of creation. Etc, etc, etc.

    And this man whom you call “insignificant” , Burtke, IS one of the most significant men in the Church these days.

    Unfortunately, you just don’t recognize the truth of what you have written.

  8. Pope Francis is doing a good enough job casting himself as a liberal.

  9. No, it is the US media that does that because a “superstar” pope generates more readers/viewers, thus more advertising revenue.
    See “World’s most admired 2016: Putin and the Queen up, Pope Francis and Malala down.” In the rest of the world the Dalai Lama is the most admired religious figure.

  10. Burke needs to learn obedience and respect for Pope Francis and stop hiding behind the robes and intellect. Get with the program or get out.

  11. Burke spends more on his clothing than on feeding the poor. he seems to enjoy all the Roman aspects and not as many as the Catholic aspects of the faith. has he uttered one word about trump and his anti catholic policies the way he railed against john kerry and obama??

  12. Betty gets through the hype, the PR, feel good, happy clappy stuff to get down to the nub of this multi-billion ( trillion?) dollar business scam known as the RCC. It’s a sad state of affairs.

  13. I’m afraid with what you wrote, based upon ignorance and prejudice, that you are in desperate need for a mirror.

  14. Thank you so much, Cardinal Burke, for standing for the faith once delivered to the saints! We are praying for you. The watering down of the faith by Francis and his neo-liberals will not take the faith anywhere. Many continue to leave the Church in Germany. Heresy converts no one to the faith. Continue to persevere, Cardinal Burke. The history of the Church has been saved by a faithful remnant. We are praying for you.

  15. Do you have your cheerleader costume on too? The RCC is in an ongoing process of twisting and distorting via people like Burke. What’s being saved is bigotry and a betrayal of Jesus’ teaching.

  16. My view of religion is hardly indifferent, as to its flaws I will leave God to judge. I find myself attacked so often, first from the Left, then from the Right, which is often the price of striving to navigate a middle course between extremes, particularly as regards language. Personally, I take a quite conservative view on most issues, but a bomb throwing monologue accomplishes absolutely nothing. I’m always looking for a civil exchange of views. My perspective of Feminism is highly jaded, but I’d rather address that with respect to an article where that is the main point of discussion. As to my intellect I suspect it is about average.

  17. I did try to frame it carefully, even as I alluded to the fact that there would be those, you among them, who would not be pleased by my endorsement of the Cardinal’s phrasing. Yet, I thought his comment was a relatively gentle one considering the harsh and hateful language of those who in condemning homosexuality fail to remember their own sins. I know that you do not view homosexuality as a sin, and you know as well that I do, but I don’t intend frame all my thoughts on spiritual things around that question.

  18. They must have come to an agreement about Burke’s couturier.

  19. There is a world of difference between believing something is a sin, and using a frankly pejorative labeling that has no connection to the reality of my life, or the reality of the lives of any gay person I know. I may be sinning– we don’t agree on that, but sure– but I am not broken, not sick, not acting against nature, certainly not acting against my nature, not disturbed, not hurting (except as I deal with Antigay people intent on harming me).

    You may have been considering this as relatively gentle, but it is not. Sadly Kern, former Oklahoma legislator, called My existence a cancer on society. This kind of comment is just a kinder, gentler version of that.

    This is what I was referring to the other day when we were talking about the firing of the transgender person working at the funeral home. When do you start listening to us, instead of sitting on high in your place of judgment, assuming that you don’t need to?

    I say this with all kindness intended, because I think you are a kind man.

  20. “Neo-liberalism refers primarily to the 20th century resurgence of 19th century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism.” Wiki It is the political/economic theory that has ruled Washington since Reagan. The Pope is not a neo-liberal. The word you are searching for is “Christian.”

  21. Cardinal Burke is the kind of leader that would strictly preach what Jesus stands for and not what the time changing, follow follow bad apples in Rome want the church to become.
    May God uphold this fearless cardinal as he continues to speaks against ills infecting the church.

  22. I know the difficulty that lies in any attempt to bridge the differences in our views, and I will not list those differences here because I don’t think that will forward our interaction. I’m always prepared to listen, unfortunately, I as anyone else have the human tendency to counter argument with argument. I honestly don’t know how to frame what I believe to be true about homosexuality in a way that would find resonance with you. However, there are a myriad of other difficulties in this world where we may find common ground. When the subject of an article calls for it I will continue to express my perspective from the point of view of the New Testament, but I will always endeavor to do so while respecting the human dignity of those with whom I disagree.

  23. No one could ask for more, and I thank you for it. But I also hope that you will make an attempt to understand what my point was. there is nothing wrong with me or my life nor the lives of any of the gay people I know. We’re not sick, we’re not broken, we,re not damaged Or missing out, or rebelling against God, or any of the other things that people say to make us less than.

    I’m not saying that was your intention, but that was what came out.

  24. I understand where you are coming from absolutely, however, since it is my contention that at base we are all broken and damaged, and by nature rebels against God, that doesn’t bring us any closer together in the context of the present conversation

  25. “I have never, in anything I’ve said, shown disrespect to the papal office, because the Catholic Church doesn’t exist without the office of Peter,” Burke said. He’s clever by half — always the mark of a dishonest person. As if we’re too dumb to realize he’s hiding behind the expressions, “the papal office” and “the office of Peter”, to camouflage his UTTER DISRESPECT FOR AND ARROGANT DISDAIN OF the Holy Father. But the WORST aspect of his rebellion — other than the astonishing ignorance of ecclesiastical history, theology, and canon law that his comments betray — is the SIN OF BAD EXAMPLE he is giving younger, conservative clergy who do NOTHING to hide their own disdain and ridicule of the Pope. NEVER — in my 45 years of Priesthood — did I EVER express myself in anything approaching the manner of these otherwise dedicated and devoted young clergy. Should Burke’s rebelliousness continue, I would not be surprised if — indeed, I look forward to the day that — the Holy Father has had enough and strips him of the cardinalatial honor, which he has full right to do.

  26. Oh, he HAS “uttered one word about Trump”: he has expressed the conviction that this imbecile and misogynist will return our country to her Christian values.

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