Most days during the coronavirus pandemic, Cardinal Raymond L. Burke could be found strolling down the streets of Rome maskless and carrying rosary beads. The 73-year-old conservative cardinal was an early critic of social distancing and, later, an unabashed skeptic of the vaccine.
Last Tuesday, Burke announced he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Now, the cardinal is in a hospital bed in his native Wisconsin, breathing with the help of a ventilator.
“Doctors are encouraged by his progress,” Burke’s press team tweeted Saturday night. “[His Eminence] faithfully prayed the Rosary for those suffering from the virus. . . . Let us now pray the Rosary for him.”
The Vatican did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Sunday.
A former archbishop of St. Louis, Burke made a name for himself as an outspoken conservative figure in the mid-2000s. In 2004, he refused to give Communion to then-Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry because the Democrat was pro-choice. In 2007, Burke resigned from the board of a Catholic hospital in protest of its invitation for Sheryl Crow, who is also pro-choice, to play at a benefit concert.
Two years later, he excoriated the University of Notre Dame for giving former president Barack Obama an honorary degree. In an interview, Burke said that Catholics who voted for Obama “collaborated with evil.”
During the global pandemic, Burke spoke out against vaccine mandates, claiming the practice “violates the integrity of its citizens.”
“While the state can provide reasonable regulations for the safeguarding of health, it is not the ultimate provider of health. God is,” he said during a May 2020 address.
Burke also repeated false information about vaccines, claiming that some believe there should be a “microchip . . . placed under the skin of every person so that at any moment he or she can be controlled by the state regarding health and about other matters which we can only imagine.”
The cardinal further condemned the use of abortion-derived cells in vaccine development as “rightly abhorrent,” saying it is “never morally justified to develop a vaccine through the use of the cell lines of aborted fetuses.”
Burke’s comments were misleading – both Pfizer and Moderna used cell lines derived from fetal tissue taken from elective abortions in the 1970s and 1980s to test whether the vaccines worked. In a statement last December, the Vatican called the vaccines “morally acceptable.” Pope Francis received the Pfizer vaccine, and in February, the Vatican City governor said employees who do not take a vaccine could be sanctioned or fired.
Burke did not reveal whether he got the vaccine.
The cardinal’s conservative opinions propelled his career in the past, catching the attention of then-Pope Benedict XVI, who appointed Burke to run the Vatican’s highest court in 2008, making him the church’s most senior-ranking American. Benedict promoted Burke to cardinal in 2010.
Burke’s influence in the Vatican was ephemeral, though. He soon clashed with Francis, who is known for his liberal beliefs. In an interview with BuzzFeed News in October 2014, Burke criticized Francis, claiming he had “done a lot of harm.” He noted Francis’s comments on homosexuality: “The pope is not free to change the church’s teachings with regard to the immorality of homosexual acts.”
In an interview that same month with Vida Nueva, a Spanish Catholic publication, Burke questioned Francis’s leadership.
“Many have expressed their concerns to me. At this very critical moment, there is a strong sense that the church is like a ship without a rudder,” Burke said.
By November 2014, Francis demoted Burke from overseeing the high court and gave him a ceremonial title as the patron of the charity Knights of Malta.
Burke continued to speak out on controversial topics. In 2015, he criticized the modernization of the church and said he feared that the church was becoming too feminine. He said men had been alienated by decisions to let women take part in ceremonial activities, such as the move to allow female altar assistants starting in 1983.
“The activities in the parish and even the liturgy have been influenced by women and become so feminine in many places that men do not want to get involved,” he said. “Men are often reluctant to become active in the church. The feminized environment and the lack of the church’s effort to engage men have led many men to simply opt-out.”
In 2015, Burke said in an interview with LifeSiteNews, an anti-abortion website, that homosexuals and divorcées are as bad as “the person who murders someone.”
“If you are living publicly in a state of mortal sin there isn’t any good act that you can perform that justifies that situation: the person remains in grave sin,” he continued.
During a homily last December, Burke called covid the “Wuhan virus,” a phrase referring to the city where covid originated and made popular by former President Donald Trump and his allies that are now considered derogatory. Burke also claimed, “it has been used by certain forces, inimical to families and to the freedom of nations, to advance their evil agenda.”
He went on to criticize fellow members of the church for not believing they’d be protected from the virus by believing in Jesus.
Burke, who lives in Rome, was visiting Wisconsin when he contracted the virus. In his tweet announcing the diagnosis, the cardinal asked for prayers.
“Thanks be to God, I am resting comfortably and receiving excellent medical care,” he wrote. “Please pray for me as I begin my recovery. Let us trust in Divine Providence. God bless you.”
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