Rome — Pope Francis' transfer of Cardinal Raymond Burke on Saturday from being the Vatican's "chief justice" to a mere cardinal-protector of the Knights of Malta has intensified yet more irresponsible talk of schism within the Catholic church.
And top prize for the person most responsible for being irresponsible goes to none other than the man wearing the long red train. Yes, to Burke himself.
In an interview with the news site Breitbart.com just days before he was officially removed as prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the 66-year-old American cardinal again stoked the fires. He said if bishops, in the months leading to next year's second gathering of the Synod of Bishops on the family, were seen to move "contrary to the constant teaching and practice of the Church, there is a risk [of schism] because these are unchanging and unchangeable truths."
In the same interview, he urged Catholics to "speak up and act."
If you look a bit more closely at the cardinal's surprisingly fast advancement up the hierarchical ladder, as well as the groups with which he's been most associated, you'll understand which Catholics he's talking about.
Sign up for NCR's Copy Desk Daily, and we'll email you recommended news and opinion articles each weekday.
Raymond Burke studied theology in Rome, where Pope Paul VI ordained him to the priesthood in 1975. He returned to his home diocese of La Crosse, Wis., and did a couple of years of chancery work and assisting at the cathedral before returning to Rome to get a doctorate in canon law. He then did another few years of chancery work and teaching in the diocese before being called to the Vatican in 1989 to work in the Apostolic Signatura. Five years later, at only 46 years old, Pope John Paul II appointed him bishop of La Crosse.
In the nine years as head of his home diocese, his credentials as a doctrinal conservative and his strange penchant for the pre-Second Vatican Council Mass became more and more pronounced. He reopened the diocese's long-shuttered high school seminary, set about building a retrograde shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and helped establish a weird neo-Tridentine religious community that had a special indult to use the Old Rite. This was a full decade before Pope Benedict XVI would eventually grant unfettered use of the Tridentine Mass throughout the church.
But already, Burke had established a strong connection with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, father of these so-called "Ecclesia Dei Afflicta" communities. They take their unofficial name from Pope John Paul II's 1988 motu proprio, which excommunicated Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the four bishops he illicitly ordained for his Society of St. Pius X. That document also appealed to Lefebvre's adherents to return to Rome, and Ratzinger, from the start, was a major force in facilitating the establishment of what are now dozens of small communities that were given special permission to use the Old Mass and live practically as if Vatican II never happened.
It was the mantle that Burke would eventually assume when Ratzinger became pope, and Burke arrived for his new job in Rome in 2008 after serving just less than five disastrous and divisive years as the archbishop of St. Louis.
John Paul II, already old and feeble, had appointed him to St. Louis in 2003. And with Benedict XVI on St. Peter's cathedra two years later, Archbishop Burke became even more brazen and canonically rigid. Eventually, the German pope called him to Rome in a move many Vatican watchers wrongly described as a "promotion in order to remove" him (promoveatur ut amoveatur), a move that would decrease his power and prevent him from doing any further damage. Instead, he gained more authority and influence in Rome. Not only was he now effectively the church's "chief justice" as head of its most important tribunal, but he was also made a cardinal in 2010. Benedict XVI named him a member of the Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation for Divine Worship, giving him a prominent say in who would be appointed to head dioceses around the world and in all matters concerning the liturgy. Pope Francis removed him from the Congregation for Bishops, but he remains a member of the Congregation for Divine Worship.
Burke, during these past six or so years in Rome, has emerged as perhaps the most liturgically and doctrinally "retrodox" prelate in the church. His name has become synonymous with the cappa magna and other outlandish ecclesiastical attire dating to a bygone era. He prides himself on being a fervent pro-life activist, though others would call him an overzealous anti-abortionist given his insistence that capital punishment and war, though rarely permissible, are not intrinsically evil. On the flip side, he makes his the loudest voice in the room -- as he showed during the last synod gathering -- in order to remind the whole world that sexual love between two people of the same sex is always an intrinsic evil.
The cardinal's fan base is made up mainly of Tridendine Mass devotees and proponents of the so-called "reform of the reform" of the liturgy, as well as other socially conservative Catholics. They all march (though some seem to just sleepwalk) under the banner of the "hermeneutic of continuity," a phrase they mistakenly attribute to Benedict XVI. (The retired pope actually espoused a "hermeneutic of reform," defining it as "a combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels" and "innovation in continuity.")
Fortunately, the Burke groupies are a tiny minority within the much, much wider church. But, unfortunately, a good part of this minority seem to be seminarians (especially in English- and French-speaking areas), and a good number of priests ordained in the last five to 10 years. And then there are the bishops. Lamentably, there seem to be no lack of them. At least the loudest ones. And the United States would seem to have more than its fair share.
Make no mistake: Fascination with the unreformed rituals that predated Vatican II is not just about aesthetics or style. It is fundamentally about ecclesiology; that is, what we believe about the church, the nature of its inner life, and its relation other faiths and the rest of the world. The liturgy was reformed and renewed after Vatican II to reflect the renewed ecclesiology that had been developing for decades and was then officially embraced and ratified at the great ecumenical council.
This is why Paul VI warned that once the Novus Ordo, or reformed rite, was in place, there could be no going back to that which preceded it. He knew that doing so would throw into question everything about the council, not just the way we worship. His successors, especially Benedict XVI, did not heed his warning. And, in turn, they have created a situation where a tiny, vocal minority -- with his patronage and the patronage of "great cardinals" such as Burke -- had become the tail wagging the dog. Though miniscule, they have been very noisy. Just as after the council, their Old Mass forebears bombarded sympathetic cardinals and Vatican officials with complaints and relentless letter-writing campaigns, so they have dominated the Internet to promote their desires for a further return to the past. In doing so, many of them have mocked and scorned anyone who does not agree with them.
And now Pope Francis has arrived, whom theologian Richard Gaillardetz has called "the pope of Vatican II ecclesiology." The "reform of the reform" group and fans of Burke have been deeply demoralized and even angered by the unfolding of pontificate, marked by its extremely welcoming, evangelical and informal style. It is within this group of Catholics that the dark prognostications of schism issue forth, despite the fact that questions of marriage and divorce that have prompted this veiled threat are not articles of faith and are not found in any creedal statements.
It is quite troubling that such a miniscule group of people has been gained far more prominence in the church than justified, even to the point that it has been able convince many people that an extreme centrist such as Cardinal Walter Kasper is a "progressive."
Those who really do consider themselves "progressive" or reform-minded Catholics, people who found it hard to keep hopeful during the last pontificate, need to be magnanimous with Burke and his supporters. This is not a time for paybacks. There should be no gloating over Catholic brothers and sisters who are now feeling angry and demoralized, not even if they are caustic.
They should be pitied rather than scorned.
[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]
Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Robert Mickens' column, A Roman Observer, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.