Damian Thompson Damian Thompson

Fear and loathing in the Vatican

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.

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