Pope removes Cardinal Burke from Vatican post

Cardinal Raymond Burke leaves an Oct. 9 session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Vatican City — Pope Francis removed U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, 66, as head of the Vatican's highest court and named him to a largely ceremonial post for a chivalric religious order.

Burke, formerly prefect of the Apostolic Signature, will now serve as cardinal patron of the Knights and Dames of Malta, the Vatican announced Saturday.

The move had been widely expected since an Italian journalist reported it in September, and the cardinal himself confirmed it to reporters the following month.

It is highly unusual for a pope to remove an official of Burke's stature and age without assigning him comparable responsibilities elsewhere. By church law, cardinals in the Vatican must offer to resign at 75, but often continue in office for several more years. As usual when announcing personnel changes other than retirements for reasons of age, the Vatican did not give a reason for the cardinal's reassignment.

A prominent devotee of the traditional liturgy and outspoken defender of traditional doctrine on controversial moral issues, Burke had appeared increasingly out of step with the current pontificate.

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In December 2013, Pope Francis did not reappoint him to his position on the Congregation for Bishops, which advises the pope on episcopal appointments.

Burke expressed frustration, in a February 2014 article in the Vatican newspaper, that many Americans thought Pope Francis intended to change Catholic teaching on certain "critical moral issues of our time," including abortion and same-sex marriage, because of the pope's stated belief that "it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."

Insisting that the pope had "clearly affirmed the church's moral teaching, in accord with her unbroken tradition," Burke blamed perceptions to the contrary on "false praise" of Pope Francis by "persons whose hearts are hardened against the truth."

After Pope Francis invited German Cardinal Walter Kasper to address a meeting of the world's cardinals in February, Burke emerged as a leading opponent of Kasper's proposal to make it easier for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

Burke also warned that efforts to streamline the marriage annulment process -- the mandate of a commission that the pope established in August -- should not undermine the process' rigor.

During the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops on the family, Burke was one of the most vocal critics of a midterm report that used remarkably conciliatory language toward people with ways of life contrary to Catholic teaching, including those in same-sex unions and other non-marital relationships. The day the report was released, the cardinal told an American reporter that a statement from Pope Francis reaffirming traditional doctrine on those matters was "long overdue."

Burke made the news again late in October when he told a Spanish journalist that many Catholics "feel a bit of seasickness, because it seems to them that the ship of the church has lost its compass. The cause of this disorientation must be put aside. We have the constant tradition of the church, the teachings, the liturgy, morals. The catechism does not change."

A former archbishop of St. Louis, Burke was named by Pope Benedict XVI to lead the Apostolic Signature in June 2008. At the time of his dismissal, he was the highest-ranking U.S. bishop at the Vatican. That distinction now belongs to Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The new head of the Apostolic Signature is French Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, formerly secretary for relations with states, the Vatican's equivalent of a foreign minister.

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