Since September, it seems nothing has been bigger news in the circles of ecclesiastical gossip and intrigue, especially for the aficionados of the Tridentine liturgy, than the rumored “demotion” of Raymond Cardinal Burke, a Wisconson native and former Archbishop of St. Louis, who has been serving as Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura since 2008.
Radical Traditionalists, already no fans of Pope Francis, immediately went into hyperbolic fits of indignation: Never has a cardinal been treated so badly! What disrespect! How ham-fisted! It’s a junta! You might as well decapitate him! Where is Pope Benedict? Or Pius X, better yet? This is all Kasper’s fault! Woe is us! The modernists are coming!
Naturally, the secular media picks this up from the conservative Catholic blogosphere and puts their own spin on it: Burke is demoted for opposing reforms in the Synod; Burke is demoted for calling the Church rudderless under Pope Francis; Burke is demoted for disagreeing with Pope Francis on LGBT issues, etc.
Though he confirmed the rumor himself in the midst of the Synod on the Family, the official appointment was only made on 8 November, when Burke was appointed as Cardinal Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta – a crusader-era hospitaller order that continues its millennium-long tradition of service and chivalry from its headquarters on Rome’s Aventine hill.
But the truth is, if Pope Francis were really interested in ungraciously demoting Burke, he could remove him from the College of Cardinals altogether, send him into cloistered retirement permanently, or appoint him as bishop of some small diocese somewhere (I hear Spokane is open).
The fact is that nearly all the cardinals working in the Roman Curia as heads of dicasteries lose their office when the pope that appointed them dies or resigns. The new bishop of Rome has complete freedom to either confirm them in their appointments, reappoint them anew, give them a temporary appointment, or let them go altogether. All cardinals are basically at-will employees of the Pope – more so than any other office in the Church, the Sacred College is tied directly to the personal prerogative of the bishop of Rome.
Cardinal Burke was never confirmed in his office as prefect, but was simply left there on an interim basis – even for longer, at 18 months, than several others in the curia. This happens with every single new pope. All the time.
Far more dramatic moves are common. Some quick examples:
- About ten months after his election, Pope Benedict XVI effectively combined two Pontifical Councils – Culture and Interreligious Dialogue – under the leadership of a single president, and sent the former president from Interreligious Dialogue out to the nunciature in Cairo, without the dignity of the red hat that usually goes with his former office.
- Pope St. John Paul II was known to be heavy-handed with bishops in a way that neither Francis nor Benedict can be said to emulate. In the 80’s he placed the Archbishop of Seattle in a bizarre power-sharing arrangement with a freshly minted auxiliary bishop (not a coadjutor) for a year. In the 90’s he appointed a French bishop to a diocese that has not existed for fifteen centuries, just to force him out of any pastoral responsibility.
- Pope Bl. Paul VI transferred one bishop who opposed reform efforts from being ordinary of a diocese to serving as auxiliary of another.
- Pope St. Pius X, of course, is rumored to have simply pulled the zucchetto off the head of a bishop he did not like, sending him off with a “Goodbye, Father” to indicate his demotion to presbyteral status. (which flies in the face of Catholic ecclesiology, after all: ordination leaves an indelible character, no?)
By comparison, Burke is being given a plum assignment. He gets a cushy residence, gets fêted and fed, gets to dress up in his beloved baroque wardrobe, and never has to worry about his livelihood. On top of that, he actually gets to work with an established and internationally respected humanitarian organization. I would not mind being “demoted” like this. Not at all. (Except for the garb, i suppose).
Cardinal Burke served for just over six years as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura – longer than any of his seven predecessors going back to the days of Paul VI.
It is true that he has become the poster-bishop for the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite – the Tridentine Mass. He is more widely known for his watered silk and lace ensembles than for his various canonical accomplishments. He is outspoken in his criticism of even the slightest suggestions at reform in the church, a voice for the status quo and the fortress-against-the-world approach to ecclesiology.
This is not the message the Church should be sending. Noble simplicity does not call for acting simply like nobility. The Church does not need princes in renaissance and baroque regalia, it needs shepherds and servants garbed like Christ the Deacon, ready to wash the feet of the disciples of God.
It seems somehow fitting to match Burke with the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. An affinity for flashy capes is perhaps not their primary charism, but it is a starting point that they share with their new patron. It can be done in context, not as an historical recreation or an exercise in liturgical nostalgia.
Does anybody think he would be better suited at Cor Unum or Christian Unity? Archpriest of Mary Major? Or perhaps as a diocesan ordinary back in the States somewhere? Personally, I wonder why there is not just a personal prelature for the devotees of the Extraordinary Form; make Burke the prelate. Or perhaps personal ordinariates might be more fitting; make him one of the ordinaries. If there is one bishop (in this case a cardinal) representing that movement in the church, it would be enough. If it is that ministry which gives him the most joy, and for which he gets the most support, would not that be just the place to put him?