The American Who Would Impeach Pope Francis, if Only He Could

In a move not seen in centuries, Cardinal Burke, Francis’s ultra-conservative critic, is forcing the liberal pontiff to spell out exactly where the church stands on divorce and LGBTs.

Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters

ROME—Apparently, Pope Francis has some explaining to do. At least that’s what four cardinals, led by American Raymond Leo Burke, say. Tired of the pontiff’s reliance on symbolism and individual interpretation of doctrine, Burke and his clan of clerics are demanding that Francis spell out what he really means on key issues like same-sex couples and divorced and married Catholics, essentially forcing him into a corner where he will be damned by one side or the other depending on what he says.

In September, the cardinals filed a list of dubia, or doubts, to Pope Francis and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about the pope’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) in which he eased up on the church’s traditional teachings about marriage, which these critics say is leading the church toward “grave disorientation and great confusion.” When it became clear that Francis had no intention of parting the clouds, the cardinals went public with their action.

If he doesn’t respond, they have threatened to initiate a “formal act of correction of a serious error”—which would be something like a congressional hearing in the Curia to see if the pope needs to be admonished in some way. Francis cannot be impeached (thanks to the Canon principle Prima Sedes a nemine indicator, or “the first See is judged by no one”), but such measures, which have not been enacted in centuries, still spell trouble for the popular pope.

Vatican expert Edward Pentin, who writes for National Catholic Register and others, broke the story, which has sent shockwaves around Rome. Not only is it the biggest crisis of Francis’s papacy so far, Pentin says it could cause a schism among conservative and liberal cardinals.

“The four cardinals certainly hope for clarification, however that may come. They are genuinely concerned that the ambiguities, leading to multiple interpretations concerning a crucial issue for the church, are divisive, gravely disorienting, and so dangerous for souls,” Pentin told The Daily Beast. “They feel they had no alternative but to fulfill their duty as cardinals to make what they call ‘deep pastoral concerns’ public when Francis decided not to respond. They also argue this is crucial not for conservative Catholics, but Catholics as a whole, as it deals with the most valuable treasure the church has: the Eucharist, which Catholics believe to be the real body and blood of Christ.”

Burke, no friend of the pontiff, is as ultra-conservative as they get, once declaring that Catholics John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi should be denied Holy Communion for their pro-choice beliefs. And as president of the advisory board of the Human Dignity Institute, he was also in charge when none other than President-elect Donald Trump confidant and chief strategist Steve Bannon gave a speech at the Vatican in 2014, during which he warned the church to stick to its conservative ideals or face apocalyptic repercussions. “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years,” Bannon said in his address.

Burke used to be the highest-ranking American at the Holy See, frequently seen in opulent vestments and hats, and dripping with large crosses, which are largely out of fashion under Francis. But in 2014, he was demoted from his top-of-the-hierarchy position as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura—essentially head of the Vatican supreme court—a few months after he called the church under this pope “a ship without a rudder.”

He now oversees the Knights of Malta from high on the Aventine hill in Rome, where his duties, while important, have little effect on the larger church. In what Vatican expert Sandro Magister called an exile when he was demoted, Burke is still hugely influential for conservative Catholics. “It is easy to predict that his definitive downgrading will provoke both a tumultuous reaction within the traditionalist world, where Burke is seen as a hero, and a corresponding wave of jubilation in the opposite camp, where he is instead considered a bogeyman,” Magister said. No doubt the pope sees him as a thorn in his side. The Daily Beast asked for comment both formally and in person on the street in Rome, to which Burke declined.

The Vatican has also refused to comment on the controversy so far, but when Francis crowns 17 new cardinals, including three Americans who would likely be in the bogeyman camp when it comes to Burke, at a consistory Saturday, he will be forgoing his usual meetings with the cardinals, who are in Rome in great numbers for the celebration. Some have suggested that he is skipping the meeting out of fear that conservative cardinals will demand clarification. In an interview published Friday in Catholic publication Avvenire, Francis didn't mention the growing turmoil but he dismissed critics, essentially challenging them to bring it on. “As for opinions of others, we always have to distinguish the spirit in which they are given. When not given in bad faith, they help with the way forward. Other times you see right away that the critics pick bits from here and there to justify a pre-existing viewpoint; they are not honest, they are acting in bad faith to foment divisions," he said. “You see right away that a certain ‘rigorism’ is born out of a lack of something, from a desire to hide inside the armor of one’s own sad dissatisfaction."

“These are uncharted waters, so I’m not sure the cardinals themselves really know exactly what action to take, but there are possible avenues they can try in terms of ‘fraternal correction’ in the hope that Francis will clarify matters and the divisions go away,” Pentin said. “That could mean more letters, or it could mean an admonishment of the pope, or a request for a retraction of controversial passages. But their chief concern right now is clarification, to know if Amoris Laetitia really is to be interpreted in continuity with previous papal teaching, or if there is a break from that doctrine, as some argue. The ball is firmly in the pope’s court.”