Is Francis About to Decapitate Cardinal Burke? Or...Just Give Him a New Job?

Something outrageous is happening in Rome: a new pope who was reportedly elected with a clear mandate to reform the curia has, over the course of a year and a half in office, been reappointing curial officials and moving bishops around in order to assemble a team that shares his priorities and can help implement his program for reform.

What's that? You're not outraged? I must have put it wrong. Let me try again: an upstart newcomer pope with no respect for tradition is carrying out a reign of terror at the Vatican, virtually executing respected princes of the church by denying them their God-given right to a high-status curial berth for life -- right under the nose of the defenseless pope emeritus who appointed them. Madness!

Sandro Magister, Vatican journalist and gloomy observer of the Franciscan papacy, is taking the latter view, as evidenced by his breathless report on rumors that Cardinal Raymond Burke is about to be removed from his position as Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura and reassigned to a largely honorary post, Prefect of the Knights of Malta, at the tender age of 66.

You remember Cardinal Burke, formerly bishop of St. Louis and, before that, La Crosse. His Wikipedia entry has an extensive section on his "Notable Actions and Statements" that may jog your memory. (He has also come up at dotCommonweal now and then: see here, and here, and here, and here.)

He is, in Magister's telling, an eminent man of virtue ("With a very devout personality, he is also recognized as having the rare virtue of never having struck any deals to obtain ecclesiastical promotions or benefices") and an indispensible canon-law expert, now condemned to the "metaphorical guillotine" by a capricious pontiff. Where conservatives regard him as an upright defender of church teaching -- Magister describes him as "not afraid to follow [canon law] to the most uncomfortable consequences" -- others view him as prone to unnecessarily divisive grandstanding over things like giving Communion to politicians and Sheryl Crow benefit concerts. (Magister calls this being "free in his judgments.") He is known as a promoter of the Tridentine Mass -- you've no doubt seen photos of the man in his cappa magna -- and a supporter of the efforts to bring schismatics like the Society of St. Pius X back into communion with Rome. He is not, in short, much in sync with the Francis agenda, and that Francis should want to move him out of a position of influence is not surprising. (I think it's a very good idea, myself.)

We don't actually know yet that he won't get another job, one that would keep him a little busier than his duties with the Knights of Malta. But Magister is already convinced that this is a "definitive downgrading," a "grave demotion of one of the most untarnished personalities the Vatican curia knows." (Well, nobody ever said the curia was in great shape.) And this after Francis "humiliated" Burke by removing him from the congregation for bishops. The rumored reassignment is an "exile," an ignominous fate for a man who by rights should be moved, if at all, only to bigger and better things. That, Magister takes for granted, is how it is supposed to work.

Well, it has worked that way, for a long time. But Pope Francis has been clear that he believes part of reforming the church, and the curia in particular, must involve reforming the attitudes of bishops toward their work. Shortly after his election, in May 2013, he said: “Let us think of the damage done to the People of God by men and women of the church who are careerists, climbers, who 'use' the People, the Church, our brothers and sisters—those they should be serving—as a springboard for their own ends and personal ambitions. These people do the church great harm.” One way to protect against careerism in the hierarchy is to stop allowing the curia to serve as a tenured berth for bishops who fail up out of pastoral responsibilities and into administrative ones, and to stop assuming that a bishop who gets called to Rome to serve will stay there in perpetuity. The implication is that running a diocese is all right for ordinary bishops, but the really good ones can expect to be rescued from that drudgery in time. 

Is it possible that Francis is doing more than humiliating enemies here? Could he be trying to send the message to bishops that they should focus on being bishops, on serving and being close to their people, rather than on getting a lifetime high-status gig in the Vatican? Perhaps he thinks curial terms should be limited, to keep the focus on service, not status, and prevent the insularity he has so often identified as damaging to the church. That's the view of Andrea Tornielli at Vatican Insider regarding the recent reassignment of Cardinal Llovera from the Congregation for Divine Worship to the position of archbishop of Valencia. "Those who attempt to present his departure from the Roman Curia as a downgrade, or even a 'punishment' could not be more wrong," Tornielli wrote. "Firstly, because 'for a shepherd there is nothing better than being among his flock.' And also because it was the cardinal himself to ask Pope Francis to return to serving as bishop in a diocese."

Did Burke ask to leave the curia? Probably not. Will he get a diocese? We don't know. But surely a man of such great and incorruptible virtue will have no problem finding a way to serve God and his church wherever he ends up. I understand why traditionalists in particular would be dismayed to see Burke losing influence -- but Francis pretty clearly thinks Benedict's focus on mollifying and wooing traditionalists was an error. (This is one of those times it might be wise to remember that he comes from South America, and that his origins may influence his perspective on the trouble traditionalists and schismatics can cause... See also The Curious Case of Carlos Urrutigoity.) I think he's right about that. Opinions will differ. But the man is the pope; he's allowed to align his personnel choices with his priorities.

When the Guardian asked me to opine on what Benedict's successor -- whoever he might be -- could do for the church in the United States, I said:

he could develop new criteria for bishops, calling for men whose gifts and inclinations are more pastoral than political. The kind of bishops needed in the 21st-century church, especially in the rapidly changing church in America, will be dedicated to repairing divisions, not deepening them.

Imagine my surprise to watch as Francis has done exactly that. But, I also noted at the time, he'll have to work with the bishops and priests he already has. The least we can do, it seems to me, is allow Francis to move some people around. Finally, if I may quote myself once more, I said, "the ideal pope will find a way to tend to his main responsibility, the unity of the Church, while demonstrating to the world that the Church is concerned with much more than its own power and authority."

Is Francis the ideal pope? Magister would obviously say no. But if his making over the curia is perceived as ruthless bloodlust, then Francis's comments about the curse of careerism are, if anything, too mild. So I say, Viva la revolucion!

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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