Updated — 6:01 p.m. ET
A top cardinal told BuzzFeed News on Friday that the worldwide meeting of church leaders coming to a close in Rome seemed to have been designed to "weaken the church's teaching and practice" with the apparent blessing of Pope Francis.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who heads the Vatican's highest court of canon law, made the remarks in a phone interview from the Vatican, where a two-week Extraordinary Synod on the Family will conclude this weekend. An interim report of the discussions released on Monday, called the Relatio, produced a widespread backlash among conservative bishops who said it suggested a radical change to the church's teaching on questions like divorce and homosexuality, and Burke has been among the most publicly critical of the bishops picked by Pope Francis to lead the discussion.
If Pope Francis had selected certain cardinals to steer the meeting to advance his personal views on matters like divorce and the treatment of LGBT people, Burke said, he would not be observing his mandate as the leader of the Catholic Church.
"According to my understanding of the church's teaching and discipline, no, it wouldn't be correct," Burke said, saying the pope had "done a lot of harm" by not stating "openly what his position is." Burke said the Pope had given the impression that he endorses some of the most controversial parts of the Relatio, especially on questions of divorce, because of a German cardinal who gave an important speech suggesting a path to allowing people who had divorced and remarried to receive communion, Cardinal Walter Kasper, to open the synod's discussion.
"The pope, more than anyone else as the pastor of the universal church, is bound to serve the truth," Burke said. "The pope is not free to change the church's teachings with regard to the immorality of homosexual acts or the insolubility of marriage or any other doctrine of the faith."
Burke has publicly clashed with the pope since Francis took office in 2013, and he has come to represent the sidelining of culture warriors elevated by Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict and as the top doctrinal official under Pope John Paul II. Burke, who caused controversy while bishop of St. Louis by saying Catholics who voted for politicians supportive of abortion rights should not receive communion, went on Catholic television in 2013 to rebut remarks Pope Francis made to an interviewer that the church had become "obsessed" with abortion and sexuality to the exclusion of other issues, saying, "We can never talk enough about that as long as in our society innocent and defenseless human life is being attacked in the most savage way," Burke said. While Francis famously responded to a question about homosexuality in 2013 by asking, "Who am I to judge?" Burke described homosexual "acts" as "always and everywhere wrong [and] evil" during an interview last week.
In the interview with BuzzFeed News, Burke confirmed publicly for the first time the rumors that he had been told Francis intended to demote him from the church's chief guardian of canon law to a minor post as patron to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
"I very much have enjoyed and have been happy to give this service, so it is a disappointment to leave it," Burke said, explaining that he hadn't yet received a formal notice of transfer. "On the other hand, in the church as priests, we always have to be ready to accept whatever assignment we're given. And so I trust, by accepting this assignment, I trust that God will bless me, and that's what's in the end most important."
When the pope first took office, his pivot away from an emphasis on questions of sexuality were more a matter of personal tone rather than changes in church policy or personnel. There were rumors that he was trying to oust the man chosen by Pope Benedict to head the church's office responsible for doctrine, Gerhard Müller, but last winter he instead elevated him from archbishop to cardinal. When word that Burke was on his way out began circulating last month, it signaled that Francis would take major steps to reshape the church. It coincided with the selection of a new archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, whom Catholic progressives celebrated for positions like breaking with the American church hierarchy when it withheld its support for President Obama's health reform law over questions of abortion and contraception.
Internal discontent among conservatives inside church leadership began to simmer over in the weeks leading up to the synod. Just before it began, Burke, Müller, and other senior cardinals published a book in several languages attacking the ideas laid out by Cardinal Walter Kasper on allowing those who had divorced and remarried to receive communion in a speech heartily praised by Pope Francis. It broke into open revolt at the midpoint of the synod, following publication of a document presented as a summary of discussions but that conservatives said misrepresented the debate by including passages on "welcoming homosexual persons" and discussing some of Kasper's proposal on divorce. The backlash appeared to have been especially strong from the English-speaking world, which includes a large number of African and American bishops; in an apparent attempt to mollify anglophone conservatives, the Vatican released a new translation of the report that changed the phrase "welcoming homosexual persons" to "providing for homosexual persons" and made other small changes, while leaving the versions in all other languages unchanged.
The report is now being revised with feedback from small-group discussions held this week, and a final version is scheduled to be voted on on Saturday. Burke said he hoped that the committee writing the new report will produce a "worthy document," but said his "trust is a little bit shaken" by the language in the interim draft he said lacks "a good foundation either in the sacred scriptures or in the church's perennial teachings."
But there seems to be little middle ground between Pope Francis' worldview and Burke's. Francis was president of the Argentinian bishops conference when that country passed a marriage equality bill in 2010 and reportedly tried to convince his colleagues to support a civil union proposal instead. He lost the internal battle and gave voice to the hard-line consensus that the law was "sent by the devil." The fight over the bill left the church appearing out of step with the beliefs of many in Argentina, a country where 76% identify as Catholic but only 38.2% went to church in 2005, per the most recent data available from the Association of Religious Data Archives. While Francis has shown no sign he supports overhauling the church's teachings that homosexuality is sinful, he seems to have taken from this experience a desire to downplay conflicts over sexuality in order to broaden the church's message.
But, Burke said, the church must always call a "person who's involved in sinful acts … to conversion in a loving way, but obviously, like a father or mother in a family, in a firm way for the person's own good." There cannot be "a difference between doctrine and practice" on questions like homosexuality or anything else, Burke said.
"The church doesn't exclude anyone who's of goodwill even if the person is suffering from same-sex attraction or even acting on that attraction," said Burke. "If people don't accept the church's teaching on these matters then they're not thinking with the church and they need to examine themselves on that and correct their thinking or leave the church if they absolutely can't accept. They're certainly not free to change the teaching of the church to suit their own ideas."
At the request of several readers, BuzzFeed News has printed a transcript of the section of the interview wherein Cardinal Burke talks about leaving the Signatura.
BuzzFeed News: I should ask you about the reports that you're being removed from the Signatura. What message is that sending? Do you think you are being removed in part because of how outspoken you have been on these issues?
Cardinal Burke: The difficulty — I know about all the reports, obviously. I've not received an official transfer yet. Obviously, these matters depend on official acts. I mean, I can be told that I'm going to be transferred to a new position but until I have a letter of transfer in my hand it's difficult for me to speak about it. I'm not free to comment on why I think this may be going to happen.
BFN: Have you been told that you will be transferred?
BFN: You're obviously a very well-respected person. That must be disappointing.
CB: Well, I have to say, the area in which I work is an area for which I'm prepared and I've tried to give very good service. I very much have enjoyed and have been happy to give this service, so it is a disappointment to leave it.
On the other hand, in the church as priests, we always have to be ready to accept whatever assignment we're given. And so I trust that by accepting this assignment, I trust that God will bless me, and that's what's in the end most important. And even though I would have liked to have continued to work in the Apostolic Signatura, I'll give myself to whatever is the new work that I'm assigned to...
BFN: And that is as the chancellor to the Order of Malta, is that right?
CB: It's called the patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, that's right.
Cardinal Raymond Burke is being removed from the position as the chief of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. An earlier version of this post mischaracterized that position in one instance.