Journalists and liberal Roman Catholics are making much — perhaps too much — of Pope Francis' decision to remove a conservative American cardinal from the congregation that helps choose bishops. The New York Times said that the pope "moved … against" Cardinal Raymond Burke by not reappointing him to the Congregation of Bishops. That makes the decision to (in effect) replace Burke with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., sound more punitive than it might be.
It's true, however, that Burke is the darling of "rad trad" (radical traditionalist) Catholics and a bete noire for liberals. In 2004, Burke made it clear that John F. Kerry, a Catholic who supports abortion rights, wouldn't be welcome to take Holy Communion in his archdiocese; Wuerl (and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony in Los Angeles) took a more accommodating position on the Communion question. Burke is also known (and in some quarters ridiculed) for his fondness for the Renaissance finery of his office, in contrast to Francis' preference for drab vestments.
And Burke recently gave an interview in which he seemed to question Francis' comments about the church speaking too often and too obsessively about social issues. "One gets the impression, or it's interpreted this way in the media, that [the pope] thinks we're talking too much about abortion, too much about the integrity of marriage as between one man and one woman," Burke told EWTN, the conservative Catholic media outlet. "But we can never talk enough about that."
So maybe Francis decided to settle a score with Burke and the rad trads who idolize him. Or maybe he just wanted fresh thinking on the Congregation of Bishops. Or maybe he thinks Burke has his hands full as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican's highest canonical court.
One sign that the pope is taking aim at ultraconservative American prelates could come in February, when he will hold a consistory to appoint new cardinals. Second only to Burke in the rad trad pantheon is Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who went to Houston in 2010 to give a speech taking issue with John F. Kennedy's defense of the separation of church and state. (Chaput said JFK's speech, widely regarded as an antidote to anti-Catholicism, was "sincere, compelling, articulate — and wrong.")
Traditionally, the archbishop of Philadelphia is expected to get a cardinal's hat. A complication for Chaput is that his immediate predecessor, Cardinal Justin Rigali (also purged from the Congregation of Bishops) won't be 80 and ineligible to vote in a papal election until 2015. Often, archbishops whose predecessors can still vote are denied the red hat — but not always. In 2012, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York was named a cardinal even though his predecessor, Edward Egan, hadn't turned 80 yet (though he did soon after).
So if Chaput is passed over for a red hat next year, his supporters can insist that no snub was involved. Liberal Catholics are likely to offer a different spin.