Cardinal Burke’s transfer from being the Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura to be patron of the Knights of Malta is a startling move which will almost certainly prove to be disastrous for Pope Francis.
Whether he likes it or not, Cardinal Burke has emerged from the recent synod on the family as the figurehead for the conservative resistance to Pope Francis. Burke rejects the charge that he is anything but loyal to the Holy Father in this interview at Aleteia, but this is not the perception which either the media pundits on either the progressive or conservative sides are seeing. Burke has said the church seems to be “rudderless”. He has emerged as the most outspoken critic of the Kasperite modernizers and both Michael Sean Winters here and Fr Z. here agree that Cardinal Burke’s new, largely ceremonial role, rather than silencing him, actually frees Burke from real responsibility thus giving him the freedom to become the voice of resistance to what many perceive as an increasingly progressive agenda within the Vatican.
Burke will probably continue to criticize the “Kasperites” like Cardinal Baldisseri–the Secretary of the synod on the Family and the progressive Archbishop Bruno Forte, and his apparent demotion will give him the global megaphone and status as a media figure. The media loves a conflict and they love figureheads and personalities who represent a particular stance. Whether he likes it or not, and whether it is true or not, by transferring Burke in this way Pope Francis has created a media megaphone for his increasingly disillusioned conservative opponents.
Damian Thompson has written a particularly acerbic piece this week saying Watch Out Pope Francis the Catholic Civil War Has Begun while New York Times columnist Ross Douthat reports here on the chaos that took place in the synod and hints of rebellion in the ranks and a looming schism.
All of this is disastrous for the church’s mission, and by seeming to demote Cardinal Burke Pope Francis has not only given the conservatives a clear leader, but he has made Burke a cause celebre and a kind of martyr. Many conservatives who already see emeritus Pope Benedict as their “real pope” will rally around Cardinal Burke. There is nothing that unites a faction more than the sense of being persecuted, and there is little that rallies those who feel marginalized more than the idea that they are being persecuted by a cabal of shadowy figures behind the scenes who are conspiring against them. If it is a Vatican insider circle all the more tantalizing.
Whether this is what is actually happening or not is beside the point. Whether Cardinal Burke sees himself as a latter day Archbishop Lefevbre or not is beside the point. Whether Pope Francis and a gang of cronies really are secret progressives intent on destroying the Catholic Church from within or not–all this is irrelevant.
Burke’s transfer first from the Congregation of Bishops and now from the Apostolic Signatura will appear to be not only a demotion, but one which is very personal in nature. No one has suggested that he has done either job badly and there is no whiff of scandal or impropriety. Therefore people will conclude, rightly or wrongly, that Pope Francis didn’t like the guy so he fired him. Whether this is true or not, does not matter.
What matters is that this is how many conservative Catholics will perceive what is happening, and it is this perception that will drive their reactions and future events in the Catholic Church.
Furthermore, this is also how the progressives will interpret the transfer. They will rejoice at Burke’s departure, and their chortles of triumph will add to the division in the church causing conservatives to circle the wagons and load their muskets.
In practical terms the actual effect of moving Cardinal Burke from the Apostolic Signatura may be insignificant.
However, the symbolic impact will be huge, and it is difficult to see how it can be anything but a disaster for both Pope Francis’ papacy, the reforms he wishes to introduce, and the church at large.
I may be wrong, and I do not profess to be any kind of expert in Vatican goings on, but if a good number of conservative Catholics do read the events in this way, then as Ross Douthat has observed, Pope Francis may find himself trying to shepherd not a flock of submissive sheep, but a herd of stubborn oxen–not just dumb oxen, but angry bulls with heads down, pawing the ground and ready to charge.