Shooting Synodality (and Cardinal Burke) in the Foot
‘What serious Catholics should be looking for in this era of unsettlement is a synthesis, a viewpoint that makes sense of change in the church but also maintains a deep continuity with the Catholic past that’s essential if the church is what it claims to be—an institution founded by God, entrusted with history’s most important revelation’
(Ross Douthat, The New York Times, June ’23).
The Synod on Synodality is all about Catholics listening together, growing through uneasy disclosures. Why then does Pope Francis persist in silencing Cardinal Raymond Burke, an excellent American churchman?
Maybe because Burke respectfully disagrees with Francis, and the nature of his disagreement makes Francis sick. In other words, we can walk and talk together only if we tolerate each other’s ‘otherness,’ which Francis apparently won’t do with Burke.
I get it. We all fancy ourselves inclusive until we see red. I just expect more of Francis who heads up a big, weird family whose members often clash over ‘what would Jesus do.’ Shouldn’t a good father broker a healthy tension between those clashes, thereby blending tradition and progress?
To be sure, Burke is traditional. And superbright, among the best canon lawyers in the Church. John Paul II made Burke an archbishop in 2003; before making him a cardinal in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him the head canon lawyer of the Church (Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura). You could say Burke represents orthodox aspects of Francis’ predecessors. ‘The pope is not free to change the Church’s teaching in regards to the immorality of homosexual acts and the indissolubility of marriage,’ says Burke, an apt representation of his immovability before Francis.
Francis no like. One tradition Francis does like is demoting Burke. In ’13—Pope boots Burke out of the Congregation of Bishops (those who help the pope choose global bishops). ’14—Pope ‘reassigns’ Burke—still in his prime at 66-years-old—from Apostolic Signatura post to Patron of the Order of Malta (benign assignment for retirees). ’23—Burke’s retirement high-fived by Francis (the pope decides which 75-years-old can stay on job) and informs Burke that he must start paying rent. His stipend is unclear.
The paradox? Burke shares Francis’ heart for the marginalized. I first met Burke through friend Fr. Paul Check who works for the cardinal. Prior to that post, Check directed Courage (Catholic best for same-sex attracted people) for years. At an event for Paul, Burke led out as perhaps the most patient and kind clergy man I ever met. We who are grateful to Jesus and Church for chastity considering our unchaste histories surrounded Burke. He was then 73 and still recovering from a near-death experience. For hours (in the rain) he conveyed Jesus’ tender care to us. He shamed my ‘I can do small talk for about 45-minutes’ limit. Burke is the real deal.
Yes, Burke tows a hard line. But he does so while pouring out huge drafts of mercy to sinners. Even ‘gay’ French author Frederic Martel, whose book In the Closet of the Vatican exposed Rome’s unchaste soul, noted of Burke: ‘I don’t like cardinals who practice double-speak. Burke is one of the few with the courage of his convictions.’
Perhaps Pope Francis could exercise the courage of his convictions with those who differ from him. He appears petty and contradictory in his dealing with Burke, especially for a pope who ushered in a season of synodality. It need not be that Catholics who disagree with each other act disrespectfully. We must do as Francis implores us: listen and learn from worthy church women and men. Burke is one of them.