This weekend, the New York Times published portions of a lengthy interview of Cardinal Raymond Burke by columnist Ross Douthat.
Before going any further, I would like to acknowledge that in this interview, Cardinal Burke answered the question I posed in my September 24th post, “Does Cardinal Burke think Francis is an antipope?”
Douthat: You believe Francis is a legitimate pope?
Burke: Yes, yes. I’ve had people present to me all kinds of arguments calling into question the election of Pope Francis. But I name him every time I offer the Holy Mass, I call him Pope Francis, it’s not an empty speech on my part. I believe that he is the pope. And I try to say that consistently to people, because you’re correct — according to my perception also, people are getting more and more extreme in their response to what’s going on in the church.
I have amended the piece to include these remarks.
Thank God he isn’t as far gone as I’d feared. Cardinal Burke makes numerous troubling statements and remarks in his interview with Douthat, but at least he isn’t harboring secret sedevacantist thoughts.
As I wrote in the piece, “My sincere hope and prayer is that I am wrong, and that the cardinal will clarify the situation by publicly affirming his loyalty to Pope Francis and stating his religious submission of intellect and will to the magisterial teachings of the Holy Father.” While he did not publicly affirm his loyalty to Pope Francis or his submission to the teachings of the pope (very much the opposite, in fact), he did clarify that he is not a sedevacantist, at least.
It’s a start. Perhaps this acknowledgement, as well as his admission that his position (with regard to the official teachings of the pope) is unprecedented and not justified in Church history or by canon law, will spark deeper reflection on the damage and division he is causing to the Body of Christ. There’s still hope that he will embrace the Church’s teaching in its fullness and accept the pope, according to his calling as both a cardinal and a Catholic. It brings to mind the words of Pope Francis’s homily on Saturday, November 9, on the feast of the dedication of the Cathedral of St. John Lateran:
In a way that is often mysterious, but always real, the Lord opens new cracks, desires for truth, goodness and beauty that make space for evangelization.
It was interesting to hear Burke’s personal opinions on a variety of topics in this interview, including how he perceives Pope Francis’s feelings about him and how he reconciles what Douthat calls his “tenuous position” with Catholic orthodoxy.
There’s plenty to comment on here, but in this piece I would like to address one topic addressed by Cardinal Burke.
In the interview, Burke is asked about his standing in the eyes of the pope. This is an interesting question. It’s clear to any impartial observer that the cardinal is not in the good graces of the Vatican, or of Pope Francis specifically. They discuss it in this exchange:
Douthat: Going back to the Holy Father himself, you have said that people have accused you of being the enemy of the pope. Do you think Francis regards you as his enemy?
Burke: I don’t think so. He’s never said that to me. I don’t meet him frequently, but in the encounters I’ve had he’s never reprimanded me or accused me of having inimical thoughts or attitudes toward him.
Douthat: But he has certainly demoted you.
Douthat: Can you walk through your changing offices?
Burke: Well, in December of 2013 he removed me from the congregation of bishops. Then he removed me from the Apostolic Signatura, to name me Cardinal Patron of the Order of the Knights of Malta. And then in 2016, he took that away — he left me with a title, but I don’t have a function.
Douthat: So you are now a cardinal without portfolio.
Burke: Yes, that’s correct. It’s clear that the pope doesn’t want me in any leadership position, that he doesn’t see me as the kind of person he wants to be giving any strong direction to things. But I’ve never had the impression that he thinks I’m his enemy.
This presents an interesting dichotomy. In his responses, Cardinal Burke is clearly aware that Pope Francis didn’t remove him from multiple positions due to some kind of administrative oversight. He concedes, “It’s clear that the pope doesn’t want me in any leadership position, that he doesn’t see me as the kind of person he wants to be giving any strong direction to things.” And yet, in response to the question about whether Francis perceives Cardinal Burke to be an enemy, his answer is a clear “no.”
How can this be true? Certainly not in the “we are true friends of Pope Francis” way that he and Bishop Athanasius Schneider brazenly announced in one of their more recent open letters. Objectively speaking, Cardinal Burke is waging an active campaign to undermine Francis and his magisterium. Yet unlike many other Catholics who see Cardinal Burke as a Machiavellian and power-obsessed schemer, I actually believe he is sincere, not terribly political, and is following his conscience. Those who have met him, even his critics, have told me that he is–at heart–a kind-hearted and dedicated priest who deeply cares about the Church and the salvation of souls. In that way, he’s not an enemy of Pope Francis, even if the effects of his words and and actions against Francis have had significant negative effects on the Church.
Accepting that his motives may be pure certainly doesn’t mean that he isn’t surrounded by people and connected to organizations with nefarious intentions. The degree to which he’s been used, as opposed to being the instigator, of all the initiatives to undermine and destroy Francis’s papacy is something we may never know. What we do know is that he is the public face of this movement. His rank as a cardinal adds gravitas to every banquet, conference, and speaking engagement at which he appears. In the 1970s, the SSPX could only wrangle an archbishop. Today’s radical traditionalists have a cardinal. That’s no small upgrade.
I am sometimes concerned that Pope Francis doesn’t see the very real destruction that Cardinal Burke is causing in the Church, particularly in the United States. Prior to his election, many committed conservative Catholics here had a vague sense that he was a faithful, orthodox prelate. They might not have even known what he looked like, but his name was consistently rattled off in the list of orthodox Catholic bishops (Chaput, Burke, Olmsted, Gomez, etc.). I didn’t realize anything was off about his views until he told a French interview in early 2015 that if Francis taught something he disagreed with, “I will resist.”
It was fortunate that I had been studying papal primacy at the time because I was curious, having been influenced and confused by various strains of traditionalism, about how Catholics can be certain that a particular official teaching was orthodox. My studies led me to a CDF document from 1998, that summarizes the Church’s teachings on papal primacy. These words in particular struck me:
The Successor of Peter is the rock which guarantees a rigorous fidelity to the Word of God against arbitrariness and conformism
It’s simply not rational to hold, on one hand, that the Church teaches the pope is the guarantor of orthodoxy, while on the other, to believe (as Burke does), that it’s acceptable to call for resistance to his false teachings. It’s not only impossible, but it’s absurd. My study of the papacy has only reinforced the truth: Cardinal Burke’s circle cannot be squared.
But if I wasn’t knowledgeable about the papacy, if I hadn’t begun to understand the relationship between the papacy and the Magisterium, I might have simply accepted what Cardinal Burke said. And I think there are many well-meaning conservative Catholics who have fallen into that trap. They are in our families, our communities, and among our friends.
Since 2013, Cardinal Burke has been presented by the Catholic media as the voice of orthodoxy in contrast to a heterodox pope. And he’s done very little to dissuade his supporters from embracing all kinds of extremist positions and actions. For example, in the interview with Douthat, he says this about the man who stole the indigenous statues and threw them in the Tiber:
I can only express my respect for him and my gratitude for his courageous witness to the faith.
Additionally, he described Antonio Socci, the author of a book that denies the validity of Benedict’s resignation as a “saintly man.” Likewise, Burke called the barring of John Rist from Pontifical Universities (after Rist signed an open letter accusing the pope of heresy) as evidence of a “totalitarian mentality.”
It’s very difficult to find much of anything in Burke’s public record suggesting he’s actually helping Pope Francis or being a particularly good cardinal, much less a teacher of the faith.
But does Pope Francis see Cardinal Burke as his enemy? No. I don’t believe he does. He recognizes his faults, but he loves him. While Francis has demoted him from leadership positions, he has not removed his red hat, and has not restricted his speech. I don’t think at this point, either would stop Cardinal Burke, to be frank. It would likely strengthen his resolve and make his conversion less likely.
Francis also likely recognizes that Burke is suffering due to his demotions, as well as the ridicule and dismissiveness with which he is regarded by many in the Church. Certainly, Burke’s instincts and ideology fall into what the Holy Father regularly describes as fundamentalism and rigidity. But I think he is suffering for what he believes is right, and I think Francis knows this and regrets this. As Francis said in 2017, “People who have fallen into the temptation of rigidness, today, in the Church — some are honest; they are good. We must pray that the Lord help them grow on the path of gentleness.”
Pope Francis will never acquiesce to Burke’s demands. Burke is not the pope, and he does not have the authority to declare which doctrines are true and which are false, unless he’s teaching in communion with the pope. What he believes is right is contrary to the Magisterium of the Church, and therefore (as Burke himself intuits) he is unfit to wield power in the Church or serve in a leadership capacity.But we can accept that he’s wrong without seeing him as an enemy. As Francis described the situation to a Mexican interviewer,
I pray for them because they are wrong … I saw [them as] poor people [who are] manipulated by some. … Seriously, I looked at it with a sense of humor and, I would say, tenderness, paternal tenderness. That is to say, it did not hurt me at all. What hurts me is the hypocrisy, the lie. That hurts me. But a mistake like that, in which there are people whose heads have been filled…. No please. We have to care for them also, we have to take care of them.
And we must pray for them.
Image: Joseph Shaw, Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/josephshaw/17640915294
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.