The news circulating about possible sanctions against Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, guilty of being an “enemy” of the Pope, has yet to receive official confirmation. The sources – more than one, including papal biographer Austen Ivereigh – have it that Pope Francis himself announced them, starting with a salary cut (more likely, the so-called piatto cardinalizio or “cardinal’s plate” because Burke no longer has any positions in the Vatican, and hasn’t had any real office for some time) and also the revocation of the rent-free privileges Vatican apartment he lived in, unless the Cardinal will pay a market-priced rental for it.
The Pope reportedly said it at the end of the Nov. 20 regular meeting of the heads of Vatican dicasteries. If things were just connected to the new Cardinal’s status (he turned 75 on June 28, so he is considered retired and no longer in activity), the measures would not be a punishment, but an adequation to the Cardinal’s new status. However, the fact the Pope wanted to speak about them in a public event made them seem like a punishment, which makes all the difference.
If the initial report were confirmed, then, it would be in essence a sentence to exile and an exemplary punishment for a cardinal who has always tried to bring the themes of faith and doctrine back to the center without ever denying loyalty to the pope.
The problem is not whether this news is accurate, but the fact that everyone considered the rumors plausible, right from the get-go.
That says a great deal about how Francis’s pontificate is perceived. Dialogue, transparency, and parrhesia – frank talk – are the buzzwords and would-be hallmarks of this pontificate. Punish cardinals outside the scope of justice, merelyfor speaking their minds, is tough to square with that.
Even when Pope Francis uses the law, he is willing to put his hands on the scales of justice. Think of the process Pope Francis ordered against Cardinal Angelo Becciu and other defendants.
The Pope asked Cardinal Becciu to resign and renounce his cardinalatial prerogatives because he had – in the pope’s view of things – proved himself untrustworthy. The pope’s decision was communicated with a sharp statement before Becciu could even cross the door of his house upon returning from the interview with the Pope.
There was no canonical trial, and the Pope did not formally impose the punishment. He asked the Cardinal to obey and resign. Now, Becciu is facing judgment from a Vatican City criminal court.
Something similar happened with Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, former secretary of Benedict XVI. The pope asked Gaenswein to leave Rome and return to reside in his diocese of Freiburg. There are only two cases in which the Pope can ask an archbishop to live in a specific place: if this archbishop has an office or if there is a canonical sanction. In the case of Gaenswein, the pope basically applied a sanction without a canonical trial.
Even in the case of the Chilean bishops, Pope Francis asked that they all resign after the abuse crisis in their country exploded in worldwide scandal. The Pope summoned the bishops of Chile to Rome only after he noticed the enormous media impact of his decision to move Bishop Juan Barros to the diocese of Osorno.
Barros had been a student of Fernando Karadima, Chile’s most notorious abuser-priest, who was found guilty of multiple acts and condemned by a canonical court to a life of prayer and penance. The victims who denounced Karadima claimed that Barros had known of Karadima’s crimes against them and others, and said Barros protected Karadima. Pope Francis accused those victims of calumny. Only after a global outcry and intense media pressure did Francis order an investigation.
More recently, there was the case of Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler. In that case, however, there had been an apostolic visitation, and perhaps this had laid the foundations for a removal, which appears exaggerated and very harsh in any case.
In this context, a sanction that could be imposed on Cardinal Burke appears particularly likely. The climate has become incandescent.
Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has used the work of commissions a lot, at the cost of finding personalities within the Vatican who then found themselves entangled in at least two trials. Even today, when there is a transition from one dicastery to another or from one administration to another, Pope Francis sends a commissioner. When the commissionership becomes more extended, or when the Pope wants to give greater authority to the commissioner, Pope Francis appoints the commissioner archbishop, as happened with Monsignor Rolandas Mackrickas, called as commissioner of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
The archbishops are, therefore, the Pope’s colonels, while the cardinals are the generals called to put Pope Francis’s vision for the Church into practice. Otherwise – and the case of Cardinal Burke demonstrates this – the pope can take away some or all of their rights, privileges, and dignities for “working against the unity of the Church” defined in this last period, above all, by a harmony of intent with the Holy Father.
All these decisions are symptomatic of a pontificate that has eliminated intermediate bodies, marginalized the Secretariat of State, and ultimately created a series of informal courtiers who speak directly to the Pope’s ear, suggesting decisions, fueling gossip, preventing some information from reaching the Pope.
All this, ironically, on the back of a desire to eradicate the so-called papal court.
Then there is the personality of the Pope, who has amplified his media presence with interviews, prefaces to books, and even a book on his life and how he experienced the signs of the times he had to face. Pope Francis ultimately found himself at center stage and opened the succession debate again now that he is ill.
The debate, not the race, because hardly anyone wants to be pope after this pontificate. The next Pope will be called to face enormous media pressure – if Pope Francis was open, why didn’t he open to some issues? If Francis desired decentralization, why didn’t he decentralize? – and the need to give order to a series of decisions of the pope which remained suspended.
The Apostolic Constitution reforming the Curia, Praedicate Evangelium, which was the first objective of the pontificate, was published in 2021 after years of discussions. In 2023, it was already superseded by a series of ad hoc provisions, motu proprio, and Apostolic Letters, which have redefined major roles and laws.
A lot of work will have to be done on canon law, the harmonization of social doctrine, and a new diplomatic doctrine that is not linked to the extemporaneity of the Pope but rather is fueled by a clear vision not entirely dependent upon the person and personality of the pope. All this does not please the media, who want results and slogans and who want a Church that is “poor for the poor,” not in the sense of Pope Francis, but in the mind of the institutionally weak.
The next Pope will have to heal many situations, and, at the same time, he will have to preserve the unity of the Church by trying not to make choices that appear as a rupture and a repudiation of his predecessor.
Above all, the next Pope must be a guarantor of unity. In the era of parrhesia, Francis’s pontificate has created deep divisions and rifts. It’s easy to say it’s the fault of the conservatives or the progressives. It is more complex to analyze the profound reasons for both. It is even more complicated to realize that it is precisely this division that has weakened the Church.
The antidote to division is not sanctions. It is instead communion. This seems to be missing from today’s pontificate. And so, what may seem like a test of strength could quickly become a sign of weakness.