There is gossip galore in the little world of the universal church. American Cardinal Raymond Burke has been transferred from his powerful post as Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura to an honorary post of Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The secular press are having a heyday with this news, painting Cardinal Burke as the archconservative, gay-hating opposite of the genial and openhearted, nonjudgmental Pope Francis.
There can be no argument with the fact that Cardinal Burke is a conservative. A supporter of the old Latin Mass, and known for wearing the grand traditional trappings of a cardinal, Cardinal Burke would certainly appear to be the antithesis of the plain-dressing, plain-speaking pope from Argentina. The fact that Cardinal Burke was in the forefront of conservative reaction at the recent synod on the family, that he is an outspoken critic of the liberal faction led by Cardinal Kasper, and that Pope Francis already removed him from the influential Congregation for Bishops all feeds the frenzy that there is a feud between the two men.
The piece de resistance would seem to be Cardinal Burke’s apparent demotion by Pope Francis. Those who are excited to see a feud in the Vatican are both conservative and liberal. The liberal commentators are delighted to see the back of Burke, while some conservatives are retreating into victim mode, believing that there is a Vatican conspiracy against them which reaches right up to the chair of St. Peter.
In my opinion everyone should take a deep breath and gather all the facts. Does Pope Francis favor the more liberal view on some matters? The answer must be “yes.” Do his views clash with those of Cardinal Burke? It would seem so. Does his style of teaching and celebration of the liturgy clash with the more conservative and “high church” style of Cardinal Burke? Definitely. Are Pope Francis’s views on politics and economics at variance with Cardinal Burke’s? It’s possible. Is there a culture clash between the North American Cardinal from the suburbs and the South American from the slums? Probably. Does this mean there is a running feud between the two men? Is Cardinal Burke ready to lead a traditionalist schism? Is there a Francis-led plot to purge the church of conservatives? No, and here’s why:
Those who dispute the feud theory point out that, while Cardinal Burke is being transferred, this is not a reaction on the part of Pope Francis to Burke’s playing opposition at the synod. This Vatican re-shuffle had been on the cards for months. It may be part of a larger, intentional change of direction on the part of the pontiff, as Fr. Mark Drew observes in an excellent article here at the UK’s Catholic Herald, but set against this opinion is the fact that Cardinal Burke has just completed the usual five year term traditional for Prefects of the Apostolic Signatura. Those who shrug their shoulders at gossip about feuds say, “It’s no big deal. He was due for a transfer.” In answer to those who suggest that Burke’s transfer is a deliberate attempt on the part of Pope Francis to silence his enemies the shoulder shruggers would say, “Silence Burke? His new job as Patron of the Order of Malta gives him virtually no responsibilities, while providing him with a base in Rome and the time to travel, lecture, write and lead and make his point. Rather than silencing Cardinal Burke it could be that Pope Francis is giving him his voice and therefore encouraging the “loyal opposition” in a healthy way.
A further argument against the “purge of conservatives” theory is that other noted conservatives have not been sidelined. Cardinal Pell is a prime example. A key member of Pope Francis’ consultatory group of eight cardinals, Pell was hand picked by Francis to bring about reforms at the Vatican Bank. Cardinal Mueller, head of the powerful Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, is another conservative voice close to Pope Francis. Both Mueller and Pell were also outspoken on behalf of the conservative faction at the synod. Those who suspect that a feud between Pope Francis and Cardinal Burke is part of a larger purge must acknowledge that the evidence is slim. It is true that Pope Francis is attempting to forward his agenda of change, but it is not true that he is kicking out everyone who disagrees with him.
While Pope Francis undoubtedly has progressive opinions about some matters and enjoys “making a mess,” he understands the pope’s role. He has said memorably that he has to be “the pope for those who want to step on the gas and those who want to slam on the brakes.” His speech after the synod warned church leaders frankly of the dangers of both the liberal and conservative streams of thought. He thanked the synod fathers for an open and frank debate, acknowledging that (although tense) this was the way to make progress. He affirmed the traditional role of the pope and challenged to synod fathers to move forward while at the same time not abandoning the timeless truths of Christ’s gospel.
A feud between Pope Francis and Cardinal Burke? Surely both men are bigger than that, and the gossips, scare mongers and journalists driven by secular ideologies should try to see the bigger picture and realize that it is through the differing personalities, the clash of cultures and the opposition of opinions that we see old truths in a new way and so discover a fresh way forward.