Cardinal Burke: I think I'm out; Update: "Who do you think?"

The departure of Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke from the Apostolic Signatura has been rumored for weeks, but nothing official had been forthcoming. Yesterday, Burke himself confirmed it in an interview with Buzzfeed — kind of. Actually, when one reads Burke’s response, it sounds as if he still hasn’t heard anything official about his future:

In the interview with BuzzFeed News, Burke confirmed publicly for the first time the rumors that he had been told Francis intended to demote him from the church’s chief guardian of canon law to a minor post as patron to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

“I very much have enjoyed and have been happy to give this service, so it is a disappointment to leave it,” Burke said, explaining that he hadn’t yet received a formal notice of transfer. “On the other hand, in the church as priests, we always have to be ready to accept whatever assignment we’re given. And so I trust by accepting this assignment I trust that God will bless me, and that’s what’s in the end most important.”

When the Pope first took office, his pivot away from an emphasis on questions of sexuality were more a matter of personal tone rather than changes in church policy or personnel. There were rumors that he was trying to oust the man chosen by Pope Benedict to head the church’s office responsible for doctrine, Gerhard Müller, but last winter he instead elevated him from archbishop to cardinal. When word that Burke was on his way out began circulating last month, it signaled that Francis would take major steps to reshape the church. It coincided with the selection of a new archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, who Catholic progressives celebrated for positions like breaking with the American church hierarchy when it withheld its support for President Obama’s health reform law over questions of abortion and contraception.

Internal discontent among conservatives inside church leadership began to simmer over in the weeks leading up to the synod. Just before it began, Burke, Müller, and other senior cardinals published a book in several languages attacking the ideas laid out by Cardinal Walter Kaspar on allowing those who had divorced and remarried to receive communion in a speech heartily praised by Pope Francis. It broke into open revolt at the midpoint of the synod, following publication of a document presented as a summary of discussions but that conservatives said misrepresented the debate by including passages on “welcoming homosexual persons” and discussing some of Kaspar’s proposal on divorce. The backlash appeared to have been especially strong from the English-speaking world, which includes a large number of African and American bishops; in an apparent attempt to mollify anglophone conservatives, the Vatican released a new translation of the report that changed the phrase “welcoming homosexual persons” to “providing for homosexual persons” and made other small changes, while leaving the versions in all other languages unchanged.

One reporter here in the press room at the Vatican pointed out that Burke’s response here isn’t much different than his other responses to the same rumors. The fact that he hasn’t been formally notified of a change means that this isn’t really a confirmation. On the other hand, no one here doubts it either, so … your mileage may vary.

Burke’s position on the Apostolic Signatura is somewhat analogous to being Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, only focused on issues of canon law within the Catholic Church. It has oversight over the Roman Rota, which handles (among other issues) appeals on annulments, a key issue in this synod. Burke has been outspoken against excessive reform of the annulment process, especially in suggestions for transforming it into an administrative process in certain cases. Burke also pushed back publicly, in speech and in writing, against the proposals of Cardinal Walter Kasper on admitting the divorced and remarried to the Eucharist. Interestingly, even while speaking out in sharp dissent to Kasper and the synod, Burke himself is one of its participants, leading one of the English-language circoli minori this week. (That group’s report can be found here.)

In his interview with Buzzfeed, Burke criticized Pope Francis for allowing the synod to “weaken the church’s teaching and practice,” particularly through the release of the draft relatio on Monday. Burke wanted the pontiff to speak out clearly after the relatio to correct the public impression that Catholic doctrine would be reversed:

“The pope, more than anyone else as the pastor of the universal church, is bound to serve the truth,” Burke said. “The pope is not free to change the church’s teachings with regard to the immorality of homosexual acts or the insolubility of marriage or any other doctrine of the faith.”

That may come as a surprise to those who think the church considers the Pope infallible, but that’s correct. Papal infallibility relies on a pope being in full solidarity with the bishops of the church, and this week solidarity is not easy to find. A synod such as this would be a poor vehicle for such an effort anyway. Plus, the last undisputed infallible declaration took place 64 years and six Popes ago, on the declaration of the Assumption of Mary as an article of faith for all Catholics. (A 1994 encyclical by St. John Paul II on the ordination of men only to the priesthood has been argued by some to be an instance of an infallible declaration, but it was not expressed ex cathedra.) The Second Vatican Council made it clear that infallibility relied on unity between the pontiff and the episcopacy:

And all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the meaning and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible magisterium, this Sacred Council again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful. Continuing in that same undertaking, this Council is resolved to declare and proclaim before all men the doctrine concerning bishops, the successors of the apostles, who together with the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ,(2*) the visible Head of the whole Church, govern the house of the living God.

The circoli minori reports mostly push back against the language in the relatio, which shows that the episcopacy is not unified, and is more opposed than supportive of those changes anyway. If this synod was designed to weaken the Catholic Church’s doctrine and practice on those issues, as Burke said, at least at the moment it doesn’t appear to have been effective.

As for Burke, this interview raises a few questions. Although not officially announced, it does now appear that Burke is heading for Malta, and that Pope Francis will appoint a new prefect for the Apostolic Signatura. Burke is still just one member among several on that court, though, and it’s not at all clear what difference that change will make. The move to Malta will sideline Burke in an organizational sense, but it may make him more free to offer open dissent — although it hardly seems as though Burke feels constrained at the moment, anyway. The move will boost mistrust among traditionalists within the church, and perhaps serve as more of a distraction rather than an opportunity for unity. Plus, it tends to make Pope Francis’ moves on much-needed reforms look more political than perhaps necessary, unless the move begins a process to realign the judicial processes in the Curia, which is certainly a possibility.

However, if this move was political, then how does one explain the elevation of Cardinal George Pell to the Secretariat of the Economy in February of this year? Pell is equally outspoken in favor of traditionalism, especially during this synod. Last month Pell was added to the evangelization effort, and he has been an adviser to Pope Francis on curia reform since the conclave. If anything, Pell has been more outspoken about this synod, declaring the questions raised by Kasper to be “a stalking horse” for the erosion of Catholic doctrine, and insisting that the Catholic Church would not give in to “a secular agenda.” Yet Pell seems in no danger of reassignment.

The interview raised another question in the briefing room this morning, too. “Why Buzzfeed?” more than one reporter wondered today. In fact, a few people asked me, “What is Buzzfeed?” Burke is usually careful about his choices for interviews, I have been told, and there have been some raised eyebrows that Burke would choose to “confirm” a change in that venue. Buzzfeed has good reason to be proud of its scoop, and probably would have enjoyed the reaction here, too.

Update: Joshua McElwee gets solid confirmation from Cardinal Burke for National Catholic Reporter, in a tart rejoinder:

In a brief interview with NCR Saturday at the Vatican, U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke confirmed that he has been told he will be removed as the chief justice of the Vatican’s Supreme Court. Asked who had told him he would be removed, Burke replied: “Who do you think?”

Well, all-righty then.