Damian Thompson

Fear and loathing in the Vatican

Fear and loathing in the Vatican
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Here is a picture of Cardinal Raymond Burke, whose grand title of Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura is matched only by the magnificence of his ecclesiastical dress. He is famous for his willingness to don the cappa magna, the astonishingly long silk cloak often worn by bishops before the Second Vatican Council but now confined to traditionalist ceremonies. The mere sight of this garment is like a scarlet rag to Catholic liberals, and they especially resent it being worn by Burke, who is (a) very conservative in matters of faith and morals and (b) the most powerful American cardinal in the Vatican.

It's is true that, judging by those photographs of him looking as if he's just stepped off the set of The Borgias, one would not infer that Burke is personally the most humble of cardinals. But he is. There are few more devout and obedient priests in the Vatican than Raymond Burke, which makes it all the more distressing that this week he is being ritually humiliated.

The legendary Italian Vatican blogger Sandro Magister reported yesterday that Cardinal Burke is about to be 'decapitated'. He will lose his job as head of the Vatican's 'Supreme Court', which has the power to overrule unjust decisions by other curial departments. According to Magister, he will instead become patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, an honorary position normally reserved for ancient retired cardinals. Burke, a former Archbishop of St Louis greatly admired by Benedict XVI, is only 66 – a mere teenager in Vatican years. The ultra-traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli says this would be 'the greatest humiliation of a curial cardinal in living memory', and for once it is not overstating its case.

Why is this happening? The priest-blogger Fr Z, an ally of Burke's, warns us not to jump to conclusions: it's possible that the cardinal's department is being merged with another as part of Pope Francis's radical simplification of the Roman Curia. But we can't ignore two factors:

1. Burke has highly placed enemies, who use the 'progressive' American magazine the National Catholic Reporter to make fun of his elaborate liturgical style. What they really hate about Burke, however, is his pugnacious attitude towards politicians (including nominally Catholic ones) who subvert traditional Catholic teaching on sexual morality. In 2009, for example, Burke said the following about President Obama, then still an icon of the Catholic Left (click here for an example of Obama-worship at its most sycophantic):

If a Catholic knowingly and deliberately votes for a person who is in favour of the most grievous violations of the natural moral law, then he has formally cooperated in a grave evil and must confess his serious sin. Since President Obama clearly announced, during the election campaign, his anti-life and anti-family agenda, a Catholic who knew his agenda regarding, for example, procured abortion, embryonic-stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage, could not have voted for him with a clear conscience.

As soon as Pope Francis was elected, Burke's enemies seized their chance. They suspected that a pontiff who, as I noted in a recent Spectator article, deplored the Vatican 'court' would be unimpressed by the sight of the roly-poly Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura donning yet another set of antique vestments. Burke has always brought out the bully in his opponents: in 2009, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor invoked Canon Law in order to rescind the Latin Mass Society's invitation to then-Archbishop Burke to celebrate the Tridentine Mass in Westminster Cathedral. Burke accepted this humiliation with a good grace, as he did his dismissal from the Congregation for Bishops in January.

2. Cardinal Burke has become embroiled in the controversy surrounding the Synod on the Family in October. Conservative Catholic blogger Pat Archbold argues that his demotion would be

... in response to a book to which Cardinal Burke contributed, to be published soon by Ignatius Press, in which the propositions proffered by Cardinal Kasper in his keynote speech in preparation for the Synod on the Family are systematically dismantled. The book defends the traditional Catholic understanding of marriage, its history, and the praxis of withholding communion from those divorced and remarried as well as rebutting some arguments in favour of toleration of these arrangements.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, an old German liberal (and also a good and holy man) has proposed that although remarried Catholics aren't in a sacramental marriage, their partnerships possess 'elements' of the sacrament just as the Anglican Communion isn't part of the Catholic Church but possesses elements of it. Many cardinals think this is such a batty idea that they have publicly opposed it before the Synod starts. They include Cardinal Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Pell, newly appointed head of Vatican finances. These are heavy hitters by any standards: liberals think twice before picking fights with them. Cardinal Burke, though, is an easier target – and a visible one, thanks to his fondness for dressing up. (I'm sorry to keep mentioning this, but even his friends think he should have toned things down on the sartorial front.)

Anyway, rumours of a high-profile 'decapitation' against a background of confusion about the Synod have well and truly poisoned the atmosphere in the Vatican. Traditionalists who have been arguing (until now, on the basis of highly debatable evidence) that Pope Francis is engaged in a process of 'de-Ratzingerisation' are winning a wider audience. They include liberals, who hope this conspiracy theory is true.

The reality is, however, that anyone who claims to know how Burke's demotion or the agenda of the Synod fits into Francis's game plan is bluffing. The Pope likes Kasper; that doesn't mean he agrees with him. He is the first Jesuit pontiff, but certainly not the first Jesuit leader to allow radical ideas to be floated only to encourage someone else to shoot them down. If he is de-Ratzingerising the Church, then why did he today appoint Anthony Fisher, the most brilliant young conservative bishop in the Anglosphere, to succeed Cardinal Pell as Archbishop of Sydney? If only England and Wales had such a leader! As it is, I hear reports that the 'retired' Cardinal Cormac is still trying to get some of his 'boys', ambitious lefty monsignors blacklisted under Benedict, eased into English sees.

So we should not rush to judgment – except, perhaps, in the matter of Cardinal Burke's ordeal. Pope Francis loudly deplores gossip, yet he is watching one of his most loyal servants being crucified by rumour. The poor man has been briefed against like a doomed cabinet minister. This is the sort of curial backstabbing that Cardinal Bergoglio always despised; why is he permitting it to happen now?