My comments first: John Allen has a good article on Cardinal Raymond Burke and the tradition of prelates opposing some aspects of the leadership of popes.
My only suggestion to John Allen or corrective is that liberal prelates who have changed the Church in their dioceses to the extent that it no longer resembles the Catholic Faith or Church have dioceses that are dying, just as liberal religious orders are dying.
We simply hope and pray that the liberalizing winds of the Church and papacy today are not going to produce in the Church Universal what they produced in Religious Orders, especially women's orders. That would be a disaster.
More disastrous would be for the Catholic Church to pantomime the liberal Protestant denominations that have become irrelevant due to their excessive liberalization that now makes them post-Christian, such as the Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches. Do we want to become like them. Pray no!
Cardinal Burke and his discontents
by John Allen of Crux
In the language of the journalism business, Cardinal Raymond Burke
is always “good copy.” The phrase means that people may love or hate
what he’s got to say, but he never fails to stir things up.
Burke has a long history as a hero to the politically conservative
and liturgically traditional camps in the Catholic Church. Last October
he emerged as a leader of the conservative faction at the Synod of
Bishops on the family, taking a strong line against the idea of allowing
divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
The 66-year-old American prelate was at it again recently, saying in
comments to a men’s ministry project that the Catholic Church has become excessively “feminized” and blaming declines in priestly vocations on the growing use of altar girls.
Some observers wonder if Burke’s outspokenness means Francis miscalculated in November when he removed Burke
from his position as head of the Vatican’s Supreme Court and assigned
him to a largely ceremonial role as patron of the Sovereign Military
Order of Malta.
Under the heading of “keep your friends close and your enemies
closer,” the theory goes that Francis may have erred by freeing Burke to
become an even greater thorn in his side.
One sees the logic, but frankly there’s scant evidence that leaving
him in place would have made much difference. It’s not as if Burke has a
track record of muzzling himself because of his job title.
Appointment to his Vatican post by Benedict XVI in 2008, for
instance, didn’t stop Burke from blasting the Democrats in the United
States as the “party of death.” Nor did it stop him in 2009 from
claiming that no Catholic in good conscience could have voted for Obama,
or from insisting in 2013 that Irish priests should deny Communion to
any politician supporting liberalization of access to abortion.
The truth is, one of the most difficult things to do in the Catholic
Church, even for a pope, is to get a cardinal to be quiet who doesn’t
feel like it.
Moreover, Burke’s transition may at least contribute to a bit of clarity.
Over the years, it’s been common for newspaper headlines to claim
that “Vatican says X” whenever Burke speaks out, simply because he was a
Vatican official — even though he wasn’t speaking in any official
capacity, and even though his comments often didn’t reflect the majority
sentiment in Rome.
In Burke’s defense, he would usually clarify after the fact that he
wasn’t speaking as a Vatican official but simply as an individual
bishop, but that never did much to alter the narrative after it had been
Now, presumably, the headline will be “Burke says X.”
For the record, Francis and Burke had a sit-down Thursday, described
by the Vatican as a routine session anytime a cardinal gets a new job,
and one that was on the calendar well before Burke’s most recent
Perhaps so, but I suspect lots of folks who would have paid real money to be a fly on the wall in that room.
Anti-Francis backlash in context
The Burke saga has left some observers wondering if the internal
opposition Francis faces is unprecedented, especially at senior levels
of the Church.
To begin, let’s be crystal clear: According to tradition, Francis is
the 266th pope of the Catholic Church, and he’s also the 266th pope to
have problems with some of his bishops. The story goes all the way back
to the Acts of the Apostles, and a celebrated clash between Peter and
More recently, both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI
faced enormous internal opposition, both from the grassroots and from
sectors of the hierarchy. There are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world
and more than 5,000 bishops, and to think that at any given time some
share of both aren’t going to be unhappy with their leader is a
In sum, the notion that there’s anything terribly new about what we’re seeing today is, for all intents and purposes, hogwash.
During the John Paul II years, there was an axis of
moderate-to-liberal prelates that routinely cut in a different direction
from the pontiff, including Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, Godfried Danneels of Brussels, Basil Hume of Westminster, Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper of Germany, Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, and Paulo Arns and Aloisio Lorscheider of Brazil.
All those men either were, or eventually became, cardinals.
During a 1985 synod of bishops, Danneels took up the issue of
collegiality, meaning power-sharing and decentralization, insisting that
“it must be understood in a deeper way and put into effect in a fuller
way.” It was seen as a criticism of the pope, just like Burke’s comments
In 2000, when John Paul II issued the document Dominus Iesus
on the Church’s relationship with other religions, containing the line
that non-Christians are in a “gravely deficient” position vis-à-vis
salvation, Lehmann objected out loud that it broke with the “style” of
the documents of Vatican II.
(As a footnote, Dominus Iesus was prepared by the future Pope Benedict, who was then the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office.)
At times complaints even arrived from bishops en masse. During a 1998
synod, Asian prelates almost as a bloc complained of what they saw as
an over-concentration of power in Rome, not allowing them sufficient
flexibility to adapt the faith to Asian cultures, and also a basic
Vatican incomprehension of their situation.
At other levels, John Paul also faced stiff blowback.
The 1989 “Cologne Declaration,”
signed by 163 leading Catholic theologians from around the world,
complained of a “new Roman centralism” and rejected what it called
“intolerable” interference and “questionable forms of control” in
To take another example, when John Paul II visited the liberal
Netherlands in 1985, he drew tepid crowds in some places and angry
protestors in others. As one commentator wrote at the time, “Never
before were the streets so empty, and the stone-throwers so nearby.”
As for Benedict, arguably no pope in the last century faced such
intense internal opposition, both at the top and the bottom of the
For instance, blowback against Benedict’s outreach to the
traditionalist Lefebvrite movement and his liberalization of permission
for the Latin Mass proved so intense that in 2009 a coalition of French
Catholics launched an on-line petition in defense of the embattled
Some 38,000 people signed, but it was hard to miss the point that
only three of France’s almost 200 Catholic bishops joined them.
Shortly before he died in 2012, Martini, the liberal cardinal in
Milan, gave an interview to a Jesuit colleague in which he said that the
Catholic Church was “200 years out of date,” a line widely seen as a
shot at Benedict.
When Benedict traveled to the United Kingdom in 2010, the trip
overall was a success, but an anti-papal rally in downtown London
nevertheless drew 10,000 people, the largest street protest against a
pope in modern history.
So great was the unrest during the Benedict years that two respected
Italian journalists actually brought out a 2010 book called “Attack on Ratzinger,” chronicling a whole series of episodes that had whipped up protest, complaints and controversy.
It wasn’t just Benedict’s reputation for theological and political conservativism that drew opposition.
During those years, it was a favorite parlor game among
Vatican-watchers to try to figure out which Princes of the Church were
endeavoring to sabotage the pontiff, threatened by his calls for a
“purification” and his anti-corruption drive on Vatican finances.
After Benedict resigned in February 2013, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn
of Vienna, a protégé of the pontiff, told his fellow cardinals during a
meeting before the conclave to elect a successor that they should
perform an examination of conscience as to whether they’d failed to
support Benedict when he needed them most.
Two final points.
It might be tempting to say that what’s new about Francis’ opposition
is that it’s coming from the right rather than the left. Tempting, that
is, but wrong.
First of all, both John Paul II and Benedict had critics on the
right, too, just as there are some on the left who resist Francis’
charms. Moreover, the last time Catholicism had a basically center-left
pope, Paul VI in the 1960s and 70s, he also faced severe right-wing backlash.
For instance, when Pope Paul approved a more modern form of the Mass
using vernacular languages rather than Latin in 1969, one of his own
cardinals, an influential Vatican veteran, wrote the pontiff a lengthy
letter basically accusing him of heresy.
As Cardinal Francis George of Chicago once memorably put it, in the Catholic Church everything has happened at least once.
As for how Francis may cope with this resistance, one suspects it
won’t be markedly different from how most other popes have done it, with
varying degrees of success. The strategy boils down to ignoring it for
the most part, and, every once in a while, cracking a head or two to
remind people who’s in charge.
On that score, just ask Cardinal Raymond Burke.