The question most Catholics have in response to the decision of Pope Francis to remove the Vatican privileges of Cardinal Raymond Burke will not be, “why did he do this?” but “what on earth took him so long?” The Pope is an astonishingly patient man, and he loves to give people second chances. Anyone who has followed the activities, speeches, and shenanigans of the traditionalist American cardinal this past decade will have been amazed at how Burke has been allowed constantly to undermine the pope’s authority, setting himself against the papacy as a counter-magisterium, and building a lucrative career portraying himself as the true guardian of the tradition.
But while the Pope’s patience personally is virtually limitless, there is a point where he must act: in justice, and for the good of the Church. Burke’s antics at the start of the synod assembly in Rome to promote a traditionalist tract denouncing the synod as a heretical conspiracy were arguably of a piece with previous outrages. But with the world’s attention on the assembly, they were aimed to capture maximum publicity and to create confusion and doubt in the ordinary faithful about the most important process in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council.
A cardinal, in his oath, promises obedience “to blessed Peter in the person of the supreme Pontiff.” The wording is not accidental. Whoever is pope has the charism of authority which Jesus entrusted to the apostle Peter. It is not a matter of personal preference for this or that pope. To undermine, question, and to throw into doubt the legitimacy of the authority of the office of Peter by claiming that its occupant cannot be trusted with that office goes directly against the oath cardinals take. If a cardinal reaches this conviction in conscience, integrity demands he resign his office.
Yet not only has Cardinal Burke not done this, but he has also continued to draw a Vatican salary of around 5-6,000 euros a month while living in a spacious rent-free Vatican apartment of over 400 square meters (close to 5,000 square feet), probably worth a similar amount. It is hard to imagine any other organization allowing this. The injustice of an independently wealthy cardinal living at the expense of the People of God while touring the traditionalist circuit sowing suspicion and doubt about the successor of St. Peter should be obvious to anyone who doesn’t live in a world of their own confection.
I met with Pope Francis on the afternoon of November 27th. It was a short meeting because of his lung inflammation, which meant it took him some effort to speak. (The following evening his trip to Dubai was cancelled because it had not improved enough.) In the course of our conversation, Francis told me he had decided to remove Cardinal Burke’s cardinal privileges — his apartment and salary — because he had been using those privileges against the Church. He told me that while the decision wasn’t a secret, he didn’t intend a public announcement but earlier that day (Monday) it had been leaked.
After I came out from the Santa Marta I found it on a traditionalist news website, La Bussola Quotidiana. The meaning of this is obvious to anyone covering the Vatican: the leaker is motivated by animus against the Pope. Their story reported that at a meeting on November 20 with heads of the dicasteries, the Pope had told them: Il cardinale Burke è un mio nemico, perciò gli tolgo l’appartamento e lo stipendio (“Cardinal Burke is my enemy, so I am taking away his apartment and stipend”).
I knew this quote was pure fiction. Pope Francis would never conduct a personal vendetta. It was conveniently in line with the traditionalist narrative of a merciless, vindictive pope who recklessly and unreasonably “punishes” those who disagree with him. Anyone who knows or works with the pope knows how bizarrely untrue this is, yet it is a fiction promoted with great vigor by media and websites supportive of Cardinal Burke. It is a fiction meant to perpetuate their fantasy that they are innocent victims being punished merely for defending the Church’s unchanging tradition against a modernist usurper.
On Tuesday morning, I wrote Pope Francis a note alerting him to this quote and offering to correct it with the truth as he had put it to me. As it happened, others who were at the November 20 meeting had already done so, speaking on condition of anonymity to reputable journalists. One told Massimo Franco of Corriere della Sera that the Pope had informed them of “some measures of an economic nature, together with canonical penalties” he would be taking against the cardinal. According to a source present at the meeting cited by the Associated Press’s Nicole Winfield, this was because Burke was “a source of ‘disunity’ in the church.” A Reuters report by Philip Pullella quoted an official at the same meeting recalling the Pope saying that Burke was “working against the Church and against the papacy” and had sown “disunity” in the Church. The same official specifically denied that Francis had referred to Burke as an “enemy.”
On Tuesday evening I had a note back from the Pope. “I never used the word ‘enemy’ nor the pronoun ‘my.’ I simply announced the fact at the meeting of the dicastery heads, without giving specific explanations.”
He thanked me for making this clear.
Image: By Abraxham03 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81254560
Dr. Austen Ivereigh, a contributor to Where Peter Is, is Fellow in Contemporary Church History at Campion Hall, Oxford, the author of two major biographies of Pope Francis (The Great Reformer, 2014, and Wounded Shepherd, 2019) and his collaborator on the book Let Us Dream: the Path to a Better Future. Follow him on Twitter (@austeni) and his website (austeni.org).