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 this month 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.
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 mean more freedom to 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.
Edward Pentin, blogger at the conservative National Catholic Register, expected Burke to “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.”
The eighth World Meeting of Families is a follow-up to last month’s Rome Synod on the Family, which saw strong backlash against efforts to recast the church’s approach to gay and cohabiting couples and others in positive terms.
While Francis is viewed warmly by millions inside and outside his faith, many conservative churchmen denounced the reforms as dangerously confusing or as a threat to doctrine and vowed to lobby against them.
When more than 200 American bishops this month chose a mixed slate of delegates for the 2015 gathering, they included Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, another leading conservative who has voiced concern about Francis’ lack of attention to his right flank.
The others were Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez. Only one alternative delegate is clearly in the pope’s corner, the new archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, a moderate and a strong social justice proponent.
Notably, the slate did not include Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, reportedly one of the nominees. O’Malley is considered the American prelate closest to Francis, and it’s highly possible the pope could simply appoint him a delegate himself.
“If they wanted to send the people closest to the pope they would have elected Sean O’Malley and Blase Cupich. But they didn’t,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, an analyst for National Catholic Reporter who first reported the slate of names.
“It is just where they are right now,” Reese said. “The majority of the conference doesn’t know what to do with the pope. The bishops are like deer in the headlights, and they don’t know which way to jump.”
Since then, Francis has confirmed that he is coming to Philadelphia in September 2015 for the summit. The pope is expected to visit New York City and Washington, D.C., where he may address the U.N. and Congress.
One thing for sure, Burke is not on the pope’s manifest for Philadelphia.
During the Rome synod, 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.
Said the Rev. Dwight Longenecker, a conservative South Carolina priest:
“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.”
Giuliano Ferrara, editor of the conservative Italian daily Il Foglio, added: “Cardinal Burke’s career has come to a stop, but cardinals do not have careers like others.”
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 John 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.”