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The head of the Catholic Church’s highest court speaks to BuzzFeed News from the Vatican.

Cardinal Raymond Burke leaves meeting during Extraordinary Synod on the Family in Vatican City. Franco Origlia / Getty Images

Cardinal Raymond Burke leaves meeting during Extraordinary Synod on the Family in Vatican City. Franco Origlia / Getty Images

A top cardinal told BuzzFeed News on Friday that the worldwide meeting of church leaders coming to a close in Rome seemed to have been designed to “weaken the church’s teaching and practice” with the apparent blessing of Pope Francis.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who heads the Vatican’s highest court of canon law, made the remarks in a phone interview from the Vatican, where a two-week Extraordinary Synod on the Family will conclude this weekend. An interim report of the discussions released on Monday, called the Relatio, produced a widespread backlash among conservative bishops who said it suggested a radical change to the church’s teaching on questions like divorce and homosexuality, and Burke has been among the most publicly critical of the bishops picked by Pope Francis to lead the discussion.

If Pope Francis had selected certain cardinals to steer the meeting to advance his personal views on matters like divorce and the treatment of LGBT people, Burke said, he would not be observing his mandate as the leader of the Catholic Church.

“According to my understanding of the church’s teaching and discipline, no, it wouldn’t be correct,” Burke said, saying the pope had “done a lot of harm” by not stating “openly what his position is.” Burke said the Pope had given the impression that he endorses some of the most controversial parts of the Relatio, especially on questions of divorce, because of a German cardinal who gave an important speech suggesting a path to allowing people who had divorced and remarried to receive communion, Cardinal Walter Kasper, to open the synod’s discussion.

“The pope, more than anyone else as the pastor of the universal church, is bound to serve the truth,” Burke said. “The pope is not free to change the church’s teachings with regard to the immorality of homosexual acts or the insolubility of marriage or any other doctrine of the faith.”

Burke has publicly clashed with the pope since Francis took office in 2013, and he has come to represent the sidelining of culture warriors elevated by Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict and as the top doctrinal official under Pope John Paul II. Burke, who caused controversy while bishop of St. Louis by saying Catholics who voted for politicians supportive of abortion rights should not receive communion, went on Catholic television in 2013 to rebut remarks Pope Francis made to an interviewer that the church had become “obsessed” with abortion and sexuality to the exclusion of other issues, saying, “We can never talk enough about that as long as in our society innocent and defenseless human life is being attacked in the most savage way,” Burke said. While Francis famously responded to a question about homosexuality in 2013 by asking, “Who am I to judge?” Burke described homosexual “acts” as “always and everywhere wrong [and] evil” during an interview last week.

In the interview with BuzzFeed News, Burke confirmed publicly for the first time the rumors that he had been told Francis intended to demote him from the church’s chief guardian of canon law to a minor post as patron to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

“I very much have enjoyed and have been happy to give this service, so it is a disappointment to leave it,” Burke said, explaining that he hadn’t yet received a formal notice of transfer. “On the other hand, in the church as priests, we always have to be ready to accept whatever assignment we’re given. And so I trust, by accepting this assignment, I trust that God will bless me, and that’s what’s in the end most important.”

When the pope first took office, his pivot away from an emphasis on questions of sexuality were more a matter of personal tone rather than changes in church policy or personnel. There were rumors that he was trying to oust the man chosen by Pope Benedict to head the church’s office responsible for doctrine, Gerhard Müller, but last winter he instead elevated him from archbishop to cardinal. When word that Burke was on his way out began circulating last month, it signaled that Francis would take major steps to reshape the church. It coincided with the selection of a new archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, whom Catholic progressives celebrated for positions like breaking with the American church hierarchy when it withheld its support for President Obama’s health reform law over questions of abortion and contraception.

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