Cardinal decries 'feminized' Catholic Church in backlash against pope's reforms

Cardinal Burke's interview with the website Emangelization illustrate the wide gulf between Pope Francis and many US bishops at a time when the new pontiff has emphasized a radical new pastoral focus.

Tony Gentile/Reuters
Pope Francis leads the Epiphany mass in Saint Peter's basilica at the Vatican, January 6.

Even though he has been shunted to a ceremonial position, the formerly most powerful Catholic archbishop in the United States remains perhaps the most vocal critic of Pope Francis’s radical new pastoral focus and the direction of the modern Catholic church.

Cardinal Raymond Burke suggested that the pope’s views had “done a lot of harm” at a recent church synod on family life.

He went even further in a website interview when he spoke out, in no uncertain terms, against what he said was the “radical feminism which has assaulted the Church and society since the 1960s has left men very marginalized.”

Beyond the current controversy, his words illustrate the wide gulf between Pope Francis and many American bishops at a time when the new pontiff has emphasized ministry of the poor, simple living, and traditional moral teachings understood in the context of pastoring people’s needs.

In his almost two years at the head of the sprawling worldwide church, Pope Francis has shifted its public priorities from insisting on dogmatic moral teachings to proclaiming the saving love of God.

His shift in tone, however, roiled many conservatives and traditionalists, particularly Burke, the former top canon lawyer at the Vatican.

The “heroic nature of manhood” has been lost, the former archbishop of St. Louis told the online site The New Emangelization, a magazine whose pun decries what it terms the “man-crisis” in the Catholic Church today.

“Manly character” and “chivalry” have been obscured since the church has had “to constantly address women’s issues at the expense of addressing critical issues important to men,” Burke said.

“Apart from the priest, the sanctuary has become full of women,” Burke continued. “The activities in the parish and even the liturgy have been influenced by women and have become so feminine in many places that men do not want to get involved.”

Such statements, of course, have in turn roiled Church progressives and outside observers – as well as Catholic scholars and theologians.

“His words were startling, and one could also say that they’re ludicrous,” says Bruce Morrill, the Edward A. Malloy professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., who is also a Catholic priest.

When Pope Francis was chosen to lead the globe’s 1.2 billion Catholics nearly two years ago, he was hailed as the first pope from the Americas, the first from the southern hemisphere, and the first non-European in nearly 1,300 years.

The pope famously said early in his papal ministry, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” – a comment that quickly rippled around the world. At the church synod on family life last October, the pope appeared to stand behind a proposal to recognize that gay relationships, though morally problematic, often include “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” and constitute “a precious support in the life of the partners.”

As many have noted, Burke has been one of the most powerful American bishops in the past few decades. In 1989, Pope John Paul II appointed him as head of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s supreme court, and the highest ecclesiastical court official apart from the pope. And Burke in many ways led the conservative backlash against Pope Francis’s efforts to change the pastoral tenor of the church.

Last fall, the pope in effect demoted Burke to a ceremonial position as chaplain of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

“Burke was and is a leader of the ‘culture warrior’ wing – and there are still many culture warriors among the American bishops,” says Terrence Tilley, Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., Chair in Catholic Theology at Fordham University in New York. “But his interview was revealing, I think. He’s showing his paranoia, and my wife Maureen and I were talking about this, and she noted, ‘If you work for “emangelization” rather than evangelization, you’ve just substituted patriarchy for the gospel’ – which I think is what Burke is doing.”

The conservative cardinal, too, suggested that the child sexual abuse scandals that shattered dioceses around the nation the past 20 years, came as a result of “feminized men” entering the priesthood, rather than “manly and confident” men.

“It’s a very different kind of analysis from what most of the human population would find persuasive, let alone scholars and legal authorities,” says Father Morrill. “Yet that’s the kind of analysis you find over the last 20 years from many church authorities. 

“US Catholic bishops haven’t really pressed, or haven’t in any rigorous way, picked up on Francis’ priorities,” Morrill continues.

But the pope has the power to appoint the next generation of leaders, and many hailed the appointment of Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., as archbishop of the Chicago diocese, one of the most powerful chairs in the American church. Archbishop Cupich, like Francis, was known for living simply, forgoing living in the Gold Coast mansion residence for Chicago’s archbishops.

“Pope Francis doesn’t want cultural warriors, he doesn’t want ideologues,” Cupich said in 2013. “That’s the new paradigm for us, and it’s making many of us think."

Indeed, theologians note the basic style of thinking that Francis has brought the church, in contrast to his predecessors.

“You cannot hope for what you already know,” says Professor Tilley. “And if you know something, you cannot hope that it’s true and you cannot hope for anything different. Francis has injected hope. Where the Holy Mother, the Church, has always known all, and says, we’re going to tell you what it is – the line of the last two pontificates – Francis has left room for hope.”

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