VATICAN CITY — When some American Catholics worry that the hierarchy is tilting toward the Republican Party, or taking the church back to the 19th century (or earlier), they often point to Cardinal Raymond Burke as Exhibit A..

That’s understandable, because love him or loathe him — and few are on the fence — Burke’s many pronouncements on politics and the culture wars have given both fans and critics plenty of ammunition for their respective views.

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.

Vatican observers saw Burke’s hand in the 2011 promotion of Archbishop Charles Chaput, whose conservatism closely tracks Burke’s, from Denver to Philadelphia. And they say Burke was key in Oakland Bishop Salvatore Cordileone’s recent move to San Francisco.

Blogger Rocco Palmo dubbed Cordileone’s promotion the “Bombshell by the Bay” — Cordileone is an outspoken conservative and leading supporter of California’s Prop 8 banning gay marriage, and will now be archbishop of the nation’s gay mecca. But he’s also a longtime friend of Burke.

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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