Rorate Caeli

"The Boomerang Effect After the Burke Punishment: What if tomorrow a Pope of different orientation does the same?" - in Italian daily "IL FOGLIO"


The Pope-King takes away the home and salary of "divisive" cardinals, 

but the result will be to set the dust on fire

Matteo Matzuzzi
Il Foglio
December 5, 2023

The boomerang effect after the "punishment" inflicted on Cardinal Burke is just around the corner, especially in those United States where the rift between conservatives and progressives is increasingly wide and painful. And in the curia there are also those who say, "What if tomorrow a pope of a different orientation does the same to those in vogue today?"

ROME - In recent days the Pope confirmed, through his biographer Austen Ivereigh, that he had decided to sanction Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, taking away his home and salary because he was guilty of using such funds "to divide the Church." Francis himself made the announcement at the end of the Nov. 20 interdicasterial meeting (a sort of council of ministers of the Vatican curia), without giving further explanation. What he did want to emphasize, however, is that he never called Burke "my enemy," as appeared in various media. Cardinal Burke, a canonist of rank, was called to Rome by Benedict XVI fourteen years ago: for him the post of prefect of the Apostolic Signatura and the cardinal's purple. Francis, not long after his election, first excluded him from the then Congregation for Bishops of which he was a member - during the Ratzingerian pontificate his opinion was widely heard regarding episcopal appointments in the United States - then transferred him from the Signatura to the little more than honorific post of sovereign patron of the Order of Malta. From there, he was deposed as early as 2017, following an internal battle within the institution, with the Pope preventing him from doing anything despite having decided not to formally remove him. Only six years later, upon his 75th birthday, was news of the appointment of the new patron, 81-year-old Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda. Burke is thus an emeritus, out of the governing games of the curia, but he remains a central point of reference for traditionalist and conservative realities.

Especially in the United States, where he enjoys a sizeable and "noisy" following, not only among the Catholic faithful but also among many bishops who share with him ideas about the state of the Church and-in not a few cases-also owe him elevation to the episcopate. This very element raises the first question about Francis' move: does it not risk widening even further the rift that exists in American Catholicism, between a Church that follows the papal "agenda" and one that struggles to even recognize Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the successor of St. Peter? Rome has chosen a clear line: those who divide the Church are out. A month ago it was the turn of Tyler Bishop Joseph Strickland, relieved of the pastoral leadership of the diocese after refusing to leave voluntarily. 

Now the axe falls on Cardinal Burke, with a measure that - given the paucity of explanations, entrusted mostly to confidants and biographers - smacks very much of personal vendetta. It would have sufficed, perhaps, to explain articulately the genesis of the choices and their canonical reason. Not least because the punishment will, in the case, be purely symbolic: Burke will have no problem finding accommodation and funds to make up for the lost Vatican income. Indeed, Professor Massimo Faggioli told La Nación, "Burke will now receive even more private donations from wealthy American Catholic families." More, the risk is that he will become a martyr of "persecution," the most important symbol of a relativist Church that punishes those who dissent and - again in the reading that is already catching on in America - wants to remain faithful to the doctrine of all time. A boomerang, then. 

Even in the curia, there are not a few who have been perplexed: if - as reported by Argentine journalist Elisabetta Piqué, close to the Pope - several cardinals have said that the Pope has been far too good and that he should have acted sooner and more harshly.  And that is by depriving Burke of the rights attached to the cardinalate, as happened to his confrere Giovanni Angelo Becciu. Others put it on a different, more logical level: what if tomorrow a Gregory XVII took away the house and salary of a cardinal who promotes the blessing of homosexual couples in open contrast to his magisterium? 

In short, the risk is that the cardinalate will become a matter of contention on the basis of papal guidelines: a bit like in soccer teams when a new owner wipes the slate clean of coach and managers. If, however, one takes at face value the rationale delivered to Ivereigh, namely the need to punish those who undermine the unity of the Church, it is natural to wonder whether there is not a disproportion between the perennially dialogic attitude with German bishops manifestly disobedient to papal authority and what has been decided on Burke instead. Conservative Americans and progressive Germans "will take into account that if you criticize the pope you earn your dismissal, while apparent doctrinal disobedience deserves only a harsh letter" of reprimand, Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times. 

The most likely result will be a further hardening of the fronts on their respective positions. The removed bishops will enjoy a following on social media, write books, speak out everywhere. And the minority will feel persecuted, and moreover by the pope whom someone beyond the Tiber, comparing him to Pius XI, known for his sometimes irascible temper, calls "Rex tremendae maiestatis." These are no longer the days of Cardinal Louis Billot, who "invited" to renounce the dignity of cardinal in 1927, lived the last years of his life as a quiet Jesuit priest in Galloro.