Putting the official stamp on months of rumours and what LifeSite had confirmed on Sept. 17, the Vatican announced today that Pope Francis has removed Cardinal Raymond Burke from his position as prefect of the Vatican's Apostolic Signatura – the highest court of the Catholic Church.
Instead, the cardinal, who until today was the highest ranking American at the Vatican, will be sent to serve as the patron for the Order of the Knights of Malta.
The move to the largely ceremonial position is almost universally being reported as a demotion for the outspoken cardinal, who is widely viewed as the number one English-speaking defender of the Catholic Church's teaching on life and family issues.
However, the move by Pope Francis comes as little surprise to observers of Cardinal Burke's career. Within months of the pope's election, he removed the cardinal from his position as a member of the Congregation for Bishops, where he had been able to exert considerable influence on bishops' appointments worldwide. Instead, Burke was replaced by cardinals with a more leftist reputation, including Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington.
Pro-life and pro-family leaders reacted to that lesser demotion at the time with dismay, expressing concerns that it had the flavor of a purge aimed at lessening the cardinal's influence.
Vatican experts, including Crux's John Allen and Catholic News Service's Francis Rocca, are reporting that it is rare for a cardinal in such a high position at the Vatican to be removed without being assigned similar responsibilities.
For years, the pro-life and pro-family movements have looked to Cardinal Burke as their strongest champion at the Vatican.
In recent weeks, he led the charge against the push by some prelates, most notably Cardinal Walter Kasper, to liberalize the Church's pastoral practice relating to divorced and remarried Catholics, and the issue of homosexuaity.
In a series of interviews he strongly defended traditional Catholic teaching on marriage, and criticized the way the Vatican's recent Synod on the Family was conducted. Some of those interviews were also perceived as being critical of Pope Francis himself – although Cardinal Burke has decried such interpetations, saying, “I don't ever put myself in opposition to the successor of St. Peter.”
The cardinal is perhaps best known for his staunch insistence that ministers of communion have a duty to withhold the Eucharist from public and obstinate sinners – in particular Catholic politicians who have supported abortion or same-sex “marriage.”
Replacing Cardinal Burke at the Apostolic Signatura will be French Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, currently the pope’s foreign minister.