News Analysis

Are tensions rising between the Vatican and Cardinal Burke?

Cardinal Raymond Burke (Getty)

The Italian journalist who helped Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò craft his searing “Testimony” now claims that Rome has quietly ordered American bishops to bar Cardinal Raymond Burke from their dioceses. Originally on his blog on November 6 and translated by the website OnePeterFive the next day, Marco Tosatti’s report says the Vatican ordered the US prelates (“always only orally, always by a nuncio”) to “not invite people like Cardinal Burke to their diocese, and, if it is not possible to prevent his coming, not to attend any event at which he is present”.

Some readers may question the validity of Tosatti’s allegations. The Pope’s defenders have accused Tosatti of being a propagandist; they claim he helped Viganò to circulate unsubstantiated rumours for purely partisan reasons. Cardinal Burke has not yet commented on the rumours, nor have any bishops. But, setting aside these particular claims, it’s fair to say that the cardinal has not always been in favour at the Vatican.

Following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the former Archbishop of St Louis emerged as one of the principal leaders of the Church’s conservative faction. This singular achievement is made even more impressive considering he’s an American: whereas our countrymen are often dismissed out of hand by their European counterparts when they arrive in Rome, Burke undoubtedly ranks among the top 10 most influential prelates in the Church today. Much of this influence has been used in unfashionable ways. Burke was among the four “dubia cardinals” who asked Francis to clarify certain points of his encyclical Amoris Laetitia, published in April 2016.

In September of that year, the cardinals asked for a private audience. Their concern was that Amoris used ambiguous wording on crucial questions, leading to very different interpretations in different quarters. One archdiocese said that adultery was always to be avoided and that the divorced and remarried could only receive Communion if they resolved to live “in complete continence”; another would say, in apparent contradiction with Church teaching, that adultery could be unavoidable.

Amid such confusion, the cardinals asked for a re-affirmation of Church teaching from the Holy Father. The cardinals received no reply, and took this as an invitation to continue the discussion in the public forum. That November, they published their letter to Pope Francis, with an accompanying theological document giving the background to the Church’s traditional doctrine. Two of the cardinals have since died; along with Walter Brandmüller, Burke is the only one still alive.

Yet such open confrontation is not Burke’s usual modus operandi. While he frequently differs from Francis, he seldom does so directly, which makes him immune to charges of undermining the Holy Father outright. This is especially evident on the question of Islam: Francis has repeatedly urged European nations to welcome more refugees from the Middle East, whereas Burke issues grave warnings about the spread of Sharia law in the continent.

Their was another public difficulty last year, however, during a row over the Knights of Malta. It had come to light that some of the Knights’ projects had distributed condoms; the then Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing dismissed Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager, who had previously had overall responsibility for the aid programmes.

Boeselager, who says he stopped the offending programmes when he learned of them, protested and a mighty row ensued. Pope Francis personally intervened, not only to reinstate von Boeselager but also to ask for Festing to resign. Francis also appointed a papal delegate to run the order; von Boeselager said that Burke was now “de facto suspended”.

Recently, tensions between the Pope and the cardinal have increased yet further. The immediate cause is Viganò’s “Testimony”. The archbishop claimed that Vatican officials had known about Archbishop McCarrick’s misdeeds, but kept him in positions of influence – and that Pope Francis, despite Viganò’s own warnings, had made McCarrick a trusted adviser.

Burke granted an interview to La Repubblica, Italy’s highest-circulation newspaper; when asked if it was wrong to call for Pope Francis’s resignation, he replied: “I cannot say it is wrong… I can only say that to arrive at this one must investigate and respond in this regard. The request for resignation is in any case licit,” he continued, “but the facts need to be verified”.

Then, speaking to The Wanderer towards the end of the Youth Synod, Burke called Viganò “a person of the highest integrity”. Although Viganò had revealed Vatican secrets, this was justified by the need to confront grave wrongdoing, Burke said: “The law of God in these matters is higher than, for example, the pontifical secret.”

So the Vatican has reason to feel that Burke is a difficult figure. Whether officials in Rome could, or would, try to stop him from making his usual travels – a sort of “no-platform” policy – is, of course, another matter.