News Column

Pope Removes U.S. Archbishop from Powerful Post

December 17, 2013

By Jesse Bogan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Pope Francis removed a U.S. archbishop from a major post.
Pope Francis removed a U.S. archbishop from a major post.

Former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke has been bumped from the influential Congregation of Bishops -- a post that gave him say in the selection of bishops.

Some observers of the Roman Catholic Church said the move by Pope Francis is yet another example of his effort to tone down highly publicized stances on divisive social issues such as gay marriage, contraception and abortion, on which Burke has made strong remarks.

The announcement came Monday from the Vatican as Francis reorganizes the Congregation, which has considerable power because it recommends bishop candidates to the pope when vacancies occur. New bishops shepherd their local flocks, but some of them will be promoted down the road to high-profile church leadership positions.

Also gone from the Congregation is another former archbishop from St. Louis, Justin Rigali -- though that action was anticipated, because Rigali recently stepped down as archbishop in Philadelphia.

Catholic news reports have drawn contrasts between Francis and what many regard as the more conservative Burke.

Even so, Burke will retain his position as president of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican's highest court.

On the same day, Francis named Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who heads the Washington archdiocese, to the Congregation of Bishops, making him the only new member named from the United States.

National Catholic Reporter journalist John Allen said in an email that the "face-value reading" of the changes was that Francis wants more moderate bishops, fewer who are "heavily invested in culture wars."

Even outside of Catholic bubbles, Burke became well known in 2004 when he said he would deny Communion -- what Catholics believe is the body and blood of Christ -- to then-presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry for his stance on abortion.

Burke also dug in his heels over the control of finances at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, a Polish congregation in St. Louis, in a saga played up in national and international headlines.

More recently, Burke, in a radio report, seemed to disagree with Francis' comments that Catholic dialogue has been too narrow.

"One gets the impression, or it's interpreted this way in the media," Burke said in the report, "that (Pope Francis) thinks we're talking too much about abortion, too much about the integrity of marriage as between one man and one woman. But we can never talk enough about that."

In September, Francis said: "We have to find a new balance. Otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel."

Last month, Religion News Service reporter David Gibson wrote that much of Burke's influence centered on his position in the Congregation, predicting that if he remained in the seat he would play a key role in reshaping the Catholic church in the United States.

In a Monday blog-post after the news hit, Gibson described Burke as a "very conservative holdover from the Benedict XVI era and a fan of the kind of high liturgical finery that Pope Francis does not take to, at all."

Francis has grabbed headlines for choosing less formal wardrobes, transportation and housing than his recent predecessors.

Meanwhile, Jason Berry, author of the book "Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church," recently wrote about Burke's "elegant wardrobe."

"He is a divisive figure," Berry said in a telephone interview. "Frankly, he really symbolizes bishops as nobility when you look at the elaborate way he dresses."

Still, Berry and others say Burke maintains a good reputation as the Vatican's top canon lawyer -- one who doesn't always side with bishops on the emotional topic of parish closures.

"Given the trappings that he wears, all these elegant outfits, the fact that he has put his weight behind some of these decisions which have given people reopened parishes is ironic and demonstrates that he has a certain pastoral sensibility," Berry said.

Burke grew up in a single-parent household on a Wisconsin dairy farm and attended Catholic schools. He was ordained a priest in 1975. In 1989, he became the first American to be appointed by the pope to argue appeals at the church's high court.

After six years in Rome, Burke became bishop in La Crosse, Wis., where he was memorable to both conservative and liberal Catholics for his stance on anything from euthanasia to Harry Potter books.

In 2004, he was named St. Louis archbishop.

"What really distinguishes him is his willingness to take on issues that many others would rather not touch," Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz, a freelance writer who worked for Burke for four years as the editor of the La Crosse diocese's newspaper, told the Post-Dispatch then.

Original headline: Pope Francis removes former St. Louis Archbishop Burke from Congregation of Bishops



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