When Pope Francis last year effectively demoted U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke by moving him out of a senior post in the Vatican to a largely ceremonial role as head of a Rome-based Catholic charity, it was viewed as a way to sideline one of the pope's most outspoken critics on the right.
But the move seems to have left Burke free to air his conservative -- and pointed -- views on efforts to change church practices.
Now the American churchman has spoken out again, telling an interviewer that gay couples and divorced and remarried Catholics who are trying to live good and faithful lives are still like "the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people."
"If you are living publicly in a state of mortal sin there isn't any good act that you can perform that justifies that situation: the person remains in grave sin," Burke said in an interview with LifeSiteNews, a U.S.-based web service focused on battling abortion and promoting other conservative causes.
"And to give the impression that somehow there's something good about living in a state of grave sin is simply contrary to what the [Catholic] Church has always and everywhere taught," said Burke, who spoke to LifeSiteNews in Rome.
Asked if being "kind" and "generous" and "dedicated" is enough, Burke replied: "Of course it's not. It's like the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people."
The lengthy interview was published Tuesday.
On the surface, Burke's comments break little theological ground; the church has always taught that sin is sin, and some sins are especially serious. For example, cohabitation, homosexual relations and adultery (which is how the Catholic church views the relations of a couple who are divorced and remarried without annulling the first marriage) are viewed as mortal sins, as is murder.
But comparing those situations in any context is unusual and certainly out of step with the pastoral tone that Francis has set in his papacy. Moreover, reformers argue that a murderer -- or almost any other sinner -- can go to confession, receive absolution, and take Communion in a state of grace. But there is no such option for a gay person or those who are divorced and remarried, except permanent celibacy.
The cardinal's comments take on added weight in the context of the increasingly heated debate that Francis opened over how the church should respond to rapid changes in family life in the modern world.
The issues were heatedly debated at a global summit of bishops and cardinals at the Vatican in October, and the debates have continued as both sides jockey for position ahead of a follow-up synod this October. Those who back reforms in church practices and attitudes -- especially toward gay couples and those who are divorced or cohabiting -- are opposed by those who see any changes as tantamount to undermining doctrine.
During last fall's synod, several high-ranking churchmen spoke about the lives of unmarried or remarried couples as having value that the church should recognize.
Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, for example, repeatedly stressed that the church should "look at the person and not the sexual orientation." He cited the case of a gay couple he knew in which one partner cared for the other through a long-term illness in a way that was "exemplary. Full stop."
Similarly, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, a senior adviser to Francis, said, "One simply cannot say that a faithful homosexual relationship that has held for decades is nothing."
"We just mustn't lump things together and measure everything with the same yardstick, but must differentiate and take a closer look, which doesn't mean that I endorse homosexuality as a whole," he said.
But such language sounded alarm bells for traditionalists like Burke, who after the synod was named to the largely ceremonial post of patron of the Order of the Knights of Malta. In his earlier post in the Roman Curia, Burke was automatically included in the synod discussions; he will probably not take part in this fall's meeting.
In this latest interview, he repeated his earlier claims that reformers were manipulating the synod discussions and waging a media campaign "to justify extra-marital sexual relations and sexual acts between persons of the same sex" that would undermine church teaching.
Burke, 66, has raised eyebrows and made headlines with previous comments. Earlier this year, he argued that the church has become too "feminized" and he blamed the introduction of altar girls more than 20 years ago for the decline in vocations to the church's all-male priesthood.
The cardinal also blamed gay clergy for the church's sexual abuse crisis, saying priests "who were feminized and confused about their own sexual identity" were the ones who molested children.