Almost as soon as Pope Francis became the head of the Roman Catholic church in 2013, Raymond Burke, an American cardinal, emerged as his leading critic from within the church, becoming a de facto antipope for frustrated traditionalists who believed Francis was diluting doctrine.
Francis frequently demoted and stripped the American cleric of influence, but this month, the pope apparently finally had enough, according to one high-ranking Vatican official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Francis told a meeting of high-ranking Vatican officials that he intended to throw the cardinal out of his Vatican-subsidized apartment and deprive him of his salary as a retired cardinal.
The news of the possible eviction was first reported by the conservative Italian newspaper La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, which is close to Cardinal Burke and recently sponsored a conference featuring the prelate criticizing a major meeting of bishops convened by Francis. The newspaper’s report comes only weeks after Francis removed another vocal conservative critic, Joseph Strickland, the bishop of Tyler, Texas, after a Vatican investigation into the governance of his diocese.
“If this is accurate, it is an atrocity that must be opposed,” Bishop Strickland said in a tweet on Tuesday. “If it is false information it needs to be corrected immediately.”
The Vatican did not correct it. Asked about the report on Tuesday, the Vatican’s spokesman, Matteo Bruni, declined to confirm or deny it, telling reporters that “I don’t have anything particular to say about that.”
He said questions about the report should be put to Cardinal Burke. An email to Cardinal Burke’s secretary was not returned.
Francis told the heads of Vatican offices last week about his decision to punish Cardinal Burke because he was a source of “disunity” in the church, according to The Associated Press, which based its report on an unnamed official who attended the meeting. Another official told The A.P. that Francis later explained that he removed Cardinal Burke’s privileges because he was using them in his campaign against the church.
Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper, also confirmed the report about the possible eviction with an anonymous prelate, who told the paper that the pope intended to take “measures of an economic nature and canonical penalties” against Cardinal Burke.
Some conservatives have attributed Francis’ disciplinary activity to the new head of the church’s office on church doctrine, the Argentine Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández. But supporters of Francis assert that he had exercised prodigious patience with criticism over the last decade, in the interest of opening up healthy debates, but that it wore thin as the critiques became ideologically tinged and, they say, seemed intent on dividing a church headed in a direction traditionalists did not support.
Cardinal Burke has seen himself as a loyal defender of the church’s doctrinal law and papal traditions against what he has called the “confusion, error and division” caused by Francis.
In the days before a major assembly of the world’s bishops and laypeople who had gathered to discuss some of the most sensitive topics in the church, Cardinal Burke and other traditionalist prelates made public an exchange of letters with Francis. In the letters, they aired grave doubts about the legitimacy about the meeting and urged Francis to slam the door shut on proposals that they believe would erode the doctrine of the church, including the blessing of same-sex unions.
Then Cardinal Burke recently sat onstage in a Rome theater and, at a forum sponsored by La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, inveighed against an assembly that has the “harmful goal” of reshaping the hierarchy of the church with radical, secular and modern ideas that included inclusivity of L.G.B.T.Q. people.
“It’s unfortunately very clear that the invocation of the Holy Spirit on the part of some has as its aim to push forward an agenda that is more political and human than ecclesiastical and divine,” he said at the time.
A favorite of Benedict XVI, Cardinal Burke, who was previously best known for denying communion to John Kerry during the politician’s 2004 presidential campaign, has clashed with Francis repeatedly, even in choice of vestments. Unlike Francis, who preferred more modest priests, Cardinal Burke occasionally wore a long train of watered silk, velvet gloves and extravagant brocades that once prompted Vatican officials to ask him to “tone it down a bit.”
On issues the two are far apart. Cardinal Burke opposed immigration as a threat to the West’s Christian values, vigorously opposed Francis’ softening on gay issues and church laws, and played in populist politics in Italy and abroad. He became a hero to the “Rad Trads,” or radical traditionalists.
For a vocal faction of conservative Catholics in the United States, the moves to rein in Cardinal Burke are a signal that Francis is cracking down disproportionately on dissenters to his right.
“If he’s being evicted from his apartment, this is a vicious act,” said Michael Hichborn, president of the Lepanto Institute, a conservative Catholic organization based in Virginia.
Other American observers described Cardinal Burke as a cleric who has consistently used his large platform, especially in the United States, to undermine Francis’ goals for the church. This year, he wrote in the preface to a book critical of the pope’s major global gathering on the church’s future that the event could lead to schism.
“This is like accusing the president of sedition,” said David Gibson, director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University and a commentator on Catholic issues. “They’re the most serious charges one can launch against the pope or any Catholic.”
Over the last decade, Cardinal Burke, 75, has expressed doubts about the pope’s grasp on church teaching and accused him of alienating church law-abiding conservatives with his inclusive stance.
A populist fan of European nationalists and former President Donald J. Trump, he rarely missed an opportunity to excoriate the pope’s politics, especially his welcoming of L.G.B.T.Q. people and immigration.
Cardinal Burke had twice joined other conservative cardinals in issuing a “dubia” letter to Francis, essentially a list of formal questions that call his vision into question. In 2016, after Francis signaled a pastoral path for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive holy communion, Cardinal Burke and other conservative cardinals sent him a letter demanding clarification. Francis didn’t respond.
Francis has not exactly given Cardinal Burke a pass in the past.
The pope moved Cardinal Burke out of his position in the powerful church office that helps nominate bishops, a post that gave him great influence in the United States. In November 2014, Francis removed Cardinal Burke from his position as the head of the Vatican’s highest court and instead named him to a largely ceremonial post for the medieval Roman Catholic chivalric religious order, the Knights of Malta.
During the pandemic, Francis seemed to take aim at Cardinal Burke during a 2021 news conference aboard the papal plane, when he lamented vaccine “negationists” among the cardinals. That came after Cardinal Burke had repeated a conspiracy theory that Covid vaccines were being used to implant microchips “under the skin of every person, so that at any moment, he or she can be controlled regarding health and regarding other matters, which we can only imagine as a possible object of control by the state.”
Shortly before Francis’ comments, Cardinal Burke contracted the virus and was placed on a respirator in an American hospital.
As news of the pope’s apparent remarks made it around the Vatican, conservatives expressed shock and dismay, while liberals suggested it was a long time coming. What was clear was that whether Cardinal Burke stayed in his apartment and received his salary or not, he was unlikely to lower his volume.
“That’s not going to stop him from talking,” said Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana.