Back when he was archbishop of St. Louis in 2004, for instance, Burke touched off a fierce debate by declaring that Catholic politicians such as John Kerry who support abortion rights should be denied Communion. Voters who supported them were in grave peril too, he added.
Burke doubled down on those views after Pope Benedict XVI appointed him to a top Vatican job in 2008, saying that under President Obama the Democratic party “risks transforming itself definitively into a ‘party of death’.” In 2009, Burke fueled another controversy when he said that the late Sen. Edward Kennedy should have been denied a church funeral for his support of abortion rights and gay rights.
“They can’t say anything about me that would surprise me,” Burke said with a soft laugh when asked in a recent interview about the passionate reactions sparked by his public stands.
“To be honest with you, I’m the sort of person who would be very happy not to have to speak out. I’m not a person who by nature likes to do that. But I believe it’s my obligation,” said Burke, who is always affable and remains accessible to the media. “It’s a responsibility that’s been given to me. I try to do it, though certainly not perfectly.”
The 63-year-old prelate — in his workaday attire of black cassock with red piping and a scarlet sash with matching skullcap — was speaking in his gilded offices on the upper floors of the 16th century Palazzo della Cancelleria, one of the most famous Renaissance palaces in Rome that now houses the Catholic Church’s highest court.
The Apostolic Signatura handles canon law cases from around the world, from marriage annulments to parish closings; since 2008 Burke has effectively served as the chief justice of the church’s supreme court. It’s a platform that he has used to great effect — and to the consternation of his critics.
Indeed, when Burke was called to Rome after just four tumultuous years in St. Louis, many suggested that he was getting “kicked upstairs” in order to get him out of the U.S. spotlight. A case of “promuovere per rimuovere,” as the Italians say — to remove through promotion.
But if that was the plan, it hasn’t worked out so well.
In his four years in Rome, Burke has continued to speak his mind — he is a favorite on the conservative Catholic speaking circuit in the U.S. — while also becoming a player in Vatican politics in ways that extend his influence well beyond the occasional rhetorical broadside.
Benedict elevated Burke to cardinal in 2010, giving him a vote in a conclave that would elect the pontiff’s successor, and put him on the Congregation for Bishops, the Vatican body that vets candidates for bishops in the U.S. and around the world. That gives Burke a key role in shaping the hierarchy for years to come, which he seems to be doing.