No wonder longtime Vaticanista Marco Tosatti anointed Burke as “the’great puppeteer’ of American appointees” to the U.S. hierarchy.
Burke was also believed to be one of the instigators of the controversial Vatican crackdown on a major group of American nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, who Rome viewed as straying too far from orthodoxy and spending too much time on social justice issues.
In the interview, the cardinal acknowledged that he was consulted about the LCWR takeover, but he argued that it was “logical” to seek his input given his long experience in the U.S. church. He also reiterated his view that the Vatican had every right to undertake the investigation, even as he stressed that he was not involved in carrying out the actual overhaul.
Burke said his opinion “is certainly heard” on a range of matters at the highest level of the Vatican, even if his views are not always followed. “I don’t have any pretenses about being some powerful figure, no,” he added. “But it is heard, and respectfully.”
The cardinal also said that many American bishops naturally turn to him as “a friendly contact” in Rome who can advise them “on matters large and small,” and that he tries to convey those views to his colleagues in the Vatican bureaucracy.
Yet whatever his success since coming to Rome, Burke’s rise hasn’t been without its stumbles.
Another of his U.S. proteges, Bishop Robert Finn of Missouri, was found guilty in September of covering up for a priest suspected of child abuse — the first bishop ever convicted in the long history of the clergy abuse scandal. When asked to comment about Finn at a September meeting with journalists, Burke demurred. “It wouldn’t be proper,” he said.
Burke is also a leading advocate of a restoration of the church’s older rites and traditions, like the Latin Mass, which he argues were heedlessly cast aside in the liberal “euphoria” after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
But Burke has been celebrating so many old-style liturgies and donning the most ornate regalia — long trains of watered silk, velvet gloves and elaborate brocades — that several Vatican officials said he had been asked to “tone it down a bit.”
Whether he will is another matter.
“The vestments, everything, are part of a tradition,” Burke says in his defense. “We need to understand that and not just discard it and say, well, it was all just an ugly accretion.”
Burke also got into hot water in 2009 when he taped an interview for anti-abortion activist Randall Terry in which he chided his fellow bishops for not taking a harder line in denying Communion to pro-choice politicians or those who support gay marriage. Those bishops, he said, are “weakening the faith of everyone.”
Burke later apologized, but he has continued to press fellow bishops to speak out as strongly as he does. “If the shepherd isn’t obedient, the flock easily gives way to confusion and error,” he said during a 2010 speech to an anti-abortion group.
For Burke, the risks are too high to remain on the sidelines. Obama’s presidency and the advancement of issues like gay marriage and abortion rights have made it imperative for Catholic bishops to speak up, he says, though he realizes that the president is ahead in the polls and could well win. “I don’t know what would happen if that would be the case,” he said, shaking his head.
But he said he has been encouraged that a growing number of bishops appear to be joining the campaign for religious freedom that has targeted White House policies on contraception coverage, because he believes that Christians in the U.S. could well face direct governmental persecution for their beliefs.
“These are definitive moments and the stakes are as high as you can get,” Burke says. “That really pleases me, that more bishops are speaking out on their own.”
In the end, that kind of activism by the bishops he helps appoint may be Raymond Burke’s true legacy.
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