The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pope Francis demotes conservative cardinal who took on John Kerry and Sheryl Crow

Just a few years ago, former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Leo Burke was riding high. A conservative leader in a conservative Catholic Church under a conservative pope, he seemed to fall into the Vatican’s favor after taking a few high-profile stands against the godless.

The fights he picked always managed to make headlines. In 2004, the Wisconsin native said he would refuse to give pro-choice Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) communion. In 2007, he resigned from the board of a Catholic hospital after it invited Sheryl Crow, who is pro-choice, to play a benefit concert. And in 2009, he let the University of Notre Dame have it for giving President Obama an honorary degree.

“The proposed granting of an honorary doctorate at Notre Dame University to our president, who is so aggressively advancing an anti-life and anti-family agenda, is rightly the source of the greatest scandal,” Burke said.

The reward for this holy work? In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI made Burke head of the Vatican’s supreme court. In 2010, he made Burke a cardinal.

These were the good times. Then along came Francis — the freewheeling Argentine pope who loves gays, loves divorcees and hates income inequality. After a few high-profile disagreements with Burke, Francis made him patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a charity. The Associated Press called the office “largely ceremonial.”

It was as if Chief Justice John Roberts had been sent to call balls and strikes at a little-league game. The Catholic News Service expounded upon the seriousness of Francis’s diss of the 66-year-old cardinal:

It is highly unusual for a pope to remove an official of Cardinal Burke’s stature and age without assigning him comparable responsibilities elsewhere. By church law, cardinals in the Vatican must offer to resign at 75, but often continue in office for several more years. As usual when announcing personnel changes other than retirements for reasons of age, the Vatican did not give a reason for the cardinal’s reassignment.

When it came to the Holy See, Cardinal Burke and the Argentine pope didn’t see eye-to-eye. Last year, after Francis contemplated streamlining the Vatican bureaucracy, the cardinal wasn’t shy about taking on the pontiff.

“One gets the impression, or it’s interpreted this way in the media, that he thinks we’re talking too much about abortion, too much about the integrity of marriage as between one man and one woman,” Burke said. “But we can never talk enough about that.”

Especially after the great deference Burke gave Pope Benedict, this rankled. When Benedict got into hot water in 2010 over comments about possible Church acceptance of condom use, Burke didn’t just clarify — he maintained that the pope was the boss.

“The pope is the principal and foundation of the unity of the Church,” Burke said. “That can’t be carried out by a group of people. That is the function of Peter as the head of the apostolic college, the Prince of the Apostles. To put it very plainly, that’s the first task. He is the bishop of the universal Church … but one can’t be faithful to Catholic teaching and say that the Roman pontiff is simply one more patriarch.”

Apparently, that didn’t apply to Francis — and Burke ultimately found himself removed from a Vatican committee that selects bishops. But his dismissal didn’t stop him from speaking out. If anything, he went further.

“Many have expressed their concerns to me,” Burke said last week, as USA Today reported. “There is a strong sense that the church is like a ship without a rudder.”

Zoinks. For Francis, this seems to have been the last straw. Working for the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Burke will still be in Rome — but will have to lob his criticisms of the pope from outside the Vatican’s inner corridors of power.

This may not bother the now-diminished cardinal. As one source told The Washington Post when Burke was still an archbishop, outspoken opposition is part of his character.

“He sees himself as being obliged to do what he thinks is the right thing, and he’s not too concerned with strategy or how he might finesse the thing,” church scholar James Hitchcock, a professor at St. Louis University, said in 2007. “There are quite obviously deep divisions within the church. Archbishop Burke is one bishop who has chosen to confront them directly, as opposed to other bishops who may prefer to minimize them.”