Post Card From the Fringe: Right-Wing Dissidents Against Pope Francis

VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - OCTOBER 07:  Former archbishop of St. Louis cardinal Raymond Burke leaves the Synod Hall at the end o
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - OCTOBER 07: Former archbishop of St. Louis cardinal Raymond Burke leaves the Synod Hall at the end of a session of the Synod on the themes of family on October 7, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. In his 'Report prior to discussion' presented Tuesday morning to Synod Fathers and Fraternal delegates, the relator general Cardinal Peter Erdo, pointed to the 'privatization of love' as the greatest challenge to the family. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

The Catholic Church at this moment in history is faced with a rising chorus of right-wing dissent. This movement poses a threat to Pope Francis's reforms, but the threat should not be overblown. The self-proclaimed leader of the resistance movement has become Cardinal Raymond Burke. To understand both the nature of the threat, and its limits, a closer look at Cardinal Burke is warranted.

Born in 1948 in small-town Wisconsin, Burke is a man of obvious intelligence. Up to now, he has enjoyed a meteoric rise through the Church's hierarchy. He was made bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1994, at the youthful age of forty-six and eight years later was promoted to Archbishop of St. Louis. And in 2008, he was named Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, essentially the Chief Justice of the most important of the Vatican courts.

Burke built his career on highly public confrontations. In 2004, he declared that he would not give Holy Communion to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. Four years later, he called on St. Louis University, a Jesuit college, to dismiss its basketball coach, Rick Majerus, for endorsing Hillary Clinton and announcing that he was "personally pro-choice." (The college refused to follow Burke's advice). And in 2009, he attacked Catholics who voted for Barack Obama. No Catholic, he said, who knew of the President's positions on the family or on same-sex marriage "could have voted for him with a clear conscience."

And if in public Burke climbed the ladder of ecclesial success through increasingly hysterical attacks not just on politicians but on ordinary Catholics who did not share his political priorities, away from the limelight he was busy helping to construct a dense network of "traditionalists."

The traditionalist movement is not widely known. It is centered around devotion to the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass and a restoration of the elaborate liturgical rituals of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. During his time in La Crosse, Burke's most direct contribution to this movement was to found a traditionalist men's religious order, the Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem.

The Order is entirely pre-Vatican II. Now headquartered in West Virginia, the Canons celebrate the old pre-Vatican II Latin Mass and follow the pre-Vatican liturgical calendar. To take one small example: Even though the rest of the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of Christ the King in mid-November, Cardinal Burke's Order prefers to do it in late October, the way it was done before 1965.

Nor is this the only traditionalist movement Burke has supported. In St. Louis, according to one priest, he brought in "hermits . . . or consecrated virgins" who were "just not psychologically equipped" for the lives they vowed to lead, but who shared Burke's hostility and suspicions about the larger world.

Almost from the beginning of Pope Francis's pontificate, Cardinal Burke has used his position as Prefect of the Signatura to issue ever more incendiary, if not openly insubordinate attacks on the Pope and the whole modern Church. In July, 2013, he argued for a return to the old Latin liturgy, while denouncing contemporary liturgy as "strictly correlated with a lot of moral corruption." In December, 2013, he attacked Pope Francis for advocating the wrong agenda: "He thinks we're talking too much about abortion, too much about the integrity of marriage as between one man and one woman." "But we can never talk enough about that."

In that same interview, he attacked the Pope for a second reason, suggesting that it was constitutionally impossible for the Pope to reform the Roman Curia, a sixteenth-century bureaucratic invention: "The service of the Roman Curia is part of the very nature of the Church, and so that has to be respected." In March, 2014, he denounced the Pope for wishing to simply the annulment process. The Pope, he cautioned, was falling prey to "false mercy."

This crescendo of insubordination peaked at the Synod on the Family this past October. Making himself the public "face of the opposition to Pope Francis's reformist agenda," Cardinal Burke assailed the Pope's leadership as "like a ship without a rudder." One is legitimately entitled to ask: Just how loyal is Cardinal Burke to the Church of the last fifty years?

Pope Francis responded in the only way he could, by dismissing Burke from his position as Prefect. This was absolutely the correct decision, even though it was met with the predictable screams of discontent from right-wing websites like Rorate Caeli. On November 12, 2014, Rorate Caeli gave prominent place to an essay by the former Italian academic Roberto de Mattei. Five years ago, de Mattei became the center of controversy in Italy when he helped to obtain governmental funding for the publication of a book that denounced the theory of evolution. It was a flawed project that even drew the condemnation of Pope Benedict's Vatican.

This same de Mattei was now leading the charge for Cardinal Burke. The Pope, de Mattei alleged in histrionic language, has severed Burke's head like John the Baptist and served it on a platter to reform-minded cardinals. The implication is clear: Burke is the martyred prophet, the Pope is King Herod, and the reformers collectively are Salome. Nor is de Mattei alone. The right-wing American Catholic writer James Schall speculated just the other day about the best ways to deal with a heretical pope.

The circle gathered around Burke is a fringe movement. They are dissidents in the truest sense of that word. Cardinal Burke blames the modern liturgy for "moral corruption?" Really. Such allegations are best treated as a kind of bad joke. He has waged an eighteenth-month long campaign of vilification directed at the sitting Pope. It is unthinkable that a Cardinal should attempt to sow such discord in the Church.

In a misguided column in late October, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat warned Pope Francis against "reassign[ing] potential critics in the hierarchy." This was clearly a veiled reference to Burke's impending dismissal from the Signatura. Douthat's concern was that the Pope might thereby prompt a schism.

A schism is not going to happen. Raymond Burke and his tiny band of followers are not about to march into that wilderness. What is happening, however, is that Pope Francis is not indulging the traditionalists in the way Pope Benedict once did. The Pope knows well how few the traditionalists are in numbers and how self-referential is their focus. There are not many Catholics who are moved to tears at the sight of Renaissance vestments; or who long for a return to liturgies in a foreign tongue; or who wish to repudiate fifty years of development since Vatican II. Not many Catholic women want to return to the days of wearing scarves or head coverings at Mass. I can appreciate nostalgia within limits, but the Burkean project is nostalgia for a golden age, a romanticized past that never was and that cannot be recreated now.

Pope Francis, in contrast, wishes to have a Catholic Church that looks more like Jesus's earthly ministry. He wants the Church to reach out to the poor and the marginalized, a Church that shows love and solidarity with those whom society despises or discards. Pope Francis knows that Jesus did not retreat from the world behind a cloud of incense and lace, but engaged with it, in all its messiness.

This is the trumpet sound that Catholics should follow. For in the end, Burke's way is a dead end, a retreat into a clericalized grandeur, Catholicism transformed into grand opera, perhaps, or a museum exhibit. It is, in the end, spectacle, not a living faith.