Vatican politics is notoriously fickle, and media reports about who is in and who is out usually depend on the particular bias of the reporter. However, for months, reports from both the ecclesiastical left and the right were in agreement about the imminent demotion of the leading American cardinal in the Vatican: the Church’s chief justice, or, to give him his proper the title, the prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest judicial authority in the Church, after the pope — Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke. For once, it seems, the tittle-tattle over the evening limoncello was correct. Burke has been “promoted” downward to a position that is normally a sinecure for an elderly cardinal past his sell-by date. As the new cardinal protector of the Sovereign Order of Malta, Burke, a youthful 66, will now oversee the Knights of Malta, one of the oldest existing military orders in the Catholic Church. They are known today mainly for their works of charity.
Burke has been viewed by many as a spokesman for the “loyal opposition” to the somewhat frenetic leadership of the media’s darling, Pope Francis. After the recent synod on the family, when backroom attempts to force through dramatic changes in Church teaching and practice, seemingly with Francis’s tacit approval, were resisted by none other than Burke and the Australian “bruiser,” Cardinal George Pell, the understanding that Burke’s days were numbered was all but confirmed. His comments a few weeks later that the Church under Francis appeared to be like a “rudderless ship” were clearly the nail in this cardinal’s coffin.
Despite the image of Francis as a man of dialogue and compromise, he is regarded in Rome as the most authoritarian pope in decades. He is also a man known to settle scores. Immediately after his election as pope, he swiftly moved an Argentinian bishop known to have been his chief opponent when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires — another “downward” promotion — transferring him to an obscure position in the Vatican bureaucracy. In the space of just over two years, Pope Bergoglio has been removing, or not reappointing, many of the key men put in place by his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
Yet Burke stayed on as the “pope’s judge,” not least because he was seen by many as the most able man for the job. Meanwhile, Vatican watchers noted that he was the most senior figure to keep his position but not be confirmed in it by Pope Francis. Even Cardinal Burke’s enemies — and he has many, and they are all ideological — admit that he is exceptional in that he has never evinced ambition for higher office. But Francis brooks no opposition, so Burke had to go.
His crimes? Burke upholds traditional Biblical teaching on marriage and encourages devotion to the traditional Latin Mass. He is regularly seen in different countries celebrating a liturgy that Francis regards as a relic of the past, although the churches where these Masses are celebrated are usually filled with large young families, and they produce a wealth of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. (Buenos Aires was known to have hardly any vocations in the seminary during the time that Jorge Mario Bergoglio was archbishop.) But perhaps Cardinal Burke’s most glaring offense was that he declared that Catholic politicians who support abortion should be refused Communion.
The titular appointment of Burke to an apparently irrelevant ancient chivalric order looks like an effort to sideline him, but it might turn out to be the Argentinian pope’s greatest mistake. Burke himself, unlike many, is a true man of the Church, and he is unshakably loyal to the successor of Saint Peter. There is, in fact, no “opposition,” in the political sense, to Pope Francis; he is the validly elected pope and, as long as he does not lead the Church astray, must be respected and obeyed. However, in a tradition stretching back to Saint Paul and later to Saint Catherine of Siena, and to countless others, it is not disloyal to fraternally correct or question certain actions or statements of the pope. To paraphrase Chesterton, it is the difference between being a courtier and a patriot. A “patriot,” Chesterton said, “meant a discontented man. It was opposed to the word ‘courtier,’ which meant an upholder of present conditions.”
In today’s Vatican, the courtiers have the upper hand. It is as a patriot, a man discontented with yet loving his Church, that Burke in his new position will enjoy a freedom that until now he did not have. He will be able to travel and to celebrate the ancient Mass all over the world. He can lecture, preach, and write. And the Knights of Malta are not, as left-leaning devotees of liberation theology might believe, relics from a Dan Brown novel. Not only are their ranks filled with members of the aristocracy from every nation on earth but, far more significantly, the newer members are often wealthy and influential figures in industry, politics, and the media. The Knights — and Dames — of Malta run hospitals and charitable organizations throughout the world. Their annual pilgrimage with the sick and handicapped to Lourdes is one of the largest the shrine sees. The men and women admitted to the Sovereign Order of Malta, a state that issues passports, are devout Catholics, who both love their faith and act with generosity and commitment. It is this highly influential arm of the Church that Cardinal Burke has been “demoted” to lead.
What does this apparently inter-ecclesiastical dispute matter to the wider world? In the first place, it shows how the only large global institution that represents what might be called the traditional view of the family and society is divided, and that division is clearly bad for those who care about the future of the family and civil society. On a more positive note: This could mark the last rally of a certain Sixties mentality in rapid decline. Unless they are weathervanes tilting with the wind of ambition, the priests and bishops ordained since Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict have nothing in common with the bell-bottomed theology that, at least for a season, has been revived in Rome.
There is one possible final irony. Some have speculated that Pope Francis, who turns 78 next month, will follow the example of his predecessor and eventually step down from the Petrine office, perhaps at age 80. In any case, Raymond Burke will likely be a significant figure at the conclave to elect his successor, and already some observers are predicting that the courtiers’ foe will end up as the next king.
— Father Benedict Kiely is pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Stowe, Vt., and director of continuing education for clergy in the Diocese of Burlington. He is the founder of Nasarean.org, which supports persecuted Christians in Iraq, Syria, and around the world.