Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday said he would elevate two dozen churchmen to the influential rank of cardinal, a rank that for 20 of them includes the power to vote on a successor to the 83-year-old pontiff after his death. Among those tapped is an American archbishop who has become one of the harshest critics of President Obama and pro-choice politicians -- and of bishops he feels are not sufficiently hard line.
The pope's appointment of Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, formerly head of the Archdiocese of St. Louis and currently the top judge on the Vatican's supreme court, was balanced by the nomination of Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, a churchman of moderate temperament who has resisted calls by conservatives to police the altar rail by denying communion to pro-choice Catholic public figures in the capital.
Burke and Wuerl are the only two Americans among the 24 prelates who will be made cardinals at a pontifical Mass at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome next month. Of that group, four are over the age of 80 and thus are not eligible to vote in a conclave, which will now include a total of 121 cardinal-electors, one above the customary ceiling of 120 voters.
Of the 20 vote-eligible cardinals-elect, Italians and Vatican officials predominate, leading Vatican-watcher John Allen to describe the appointments as "another chapter in the 're-Italianization' of the government of the church under Benedict XVI."
Eight of the new voting-age cardinals are Italians, which means Italians will account for one-fifth of the electorate for the next pope, Allen noted. Moreover, half of the new cardinals are Vatican officials, so that a total of 40 cardinals, or fully one-third of the electors, would be current or former Vatican officials, who generally have a very conservative worldview.
In addition, the church outside of Benedict's European homeland -- he was born Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria, Germany's Catholic heartland -- also got short shrift in Wednesday's announced slate.
"Two-thirds of the Catholics in the world today live in the global South, but only one-third of Benedict's new cardinals are from the southern hemisphere," Allen wrote
But it is the appointment of Burke that will draw the attention of many American Catholics.
Burke is just 62
and will have a long run as an elector if he lives to 80. He was also promoted ahead of other American candidates, such as New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan.
Burke is also one of the most controversial Catholic bishops, even among an increasingly conservative hierarchy.
While heading the St. Louis archdiocese for several years, he pushed hard to use the denial of communion -- the central Catholic sacrament -- as a means to discipline Catholic politicians with whom he disagrees, and he has continued to press that position since his appointment to the Vatican in 2008.
In 2009 he told the anti-abortion activist Randall Terry that Catholics who voted for Obama engaged in "a form of cooperation" with evil and he chided his fellow bishops for not taking a harder line in denying communion to pro-choice politicians or those who support gay marriage. That was seen as an implicit criticism of Wuerl, 69, who issued a statement reiterating his own, more moderate views on the issue.
Burke later apologized
for granting the interview because Terry used it for publicity purposes and in a way Burke did not appreciate.
But last September, Burke was at it again, saying
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy should not have been given a Catholic funeral -- an especially harsh stance that had already been publicly and strongly rejected by Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, who told critics that Kennedy merited not only a Catholic funeral, but a public funeral as well.
And earlier this month, in an impassioned speech
to an anti-abortion conference in Rome, Burke again said that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights or same-sex marriage should not only be denied communion but also a Catholic funeral when they die. And he added that he didn't think the American bishops were doing a good job of imposing penalties.
"When shepherds of the flock are obedient to the magisterium [church teaching] entrusted to their exercise, then surely the numbers of the flock grow in obedience," Burke told members of Human Life International. "If the shepherd isn't obedient, the flock easily gives way to confusion and error."
Quoting the Prophet Zechariah, he said the shepherd -- meaning bishops -- can be "especially tempted" by the assaults of Satan who, "if he can strike him, the work of scattering the flock is made easy."
Burke and Wuerl and the others will be formally made cardinals in the Vatican on Nov. 20.