Pope demotes highest ranking U.S. cardinal to position with 'no responsibilities'
Pope Francis celebrates Mass at Vatican (AFP)

In a move announced on Saturday, Pope Francis has demoted the highest-ranking American in the Vatican in response to the conservative cardinal's criticism of the pontiff's reformist agenda, reports the Catholic News Service.

The Vatican announced without comment the demotion of Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, 66, who previously had served as head of the Vatican's highest court. Burke has been reassigned to the largely ceremonial position of chaplain for the Knights of Malta, a charity group.

The chaplain position is normally given to a retired cardinal and, according to Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter, the job comes with "almost no responsibilities."

Winters called the demotion, "unprecedented and completely warranted."

The demotion of Burke has been expected after an Italian journalist first reported rumors of it in September, with the cardinal himself confirming it the following month.

In December Pope Francis chose to not reappoint Cardinal Burke to his powerful position on the Congregation for Bishops, which advises the pope on episcopal appointments.

The Pope was reportedly unhappy with the conservative cardinal's criticism of his reforms, as well as his criticism of the pontiff's stated belief that it is not "necessary" for the church to talk about issues like abortion or same-sex marriage "all of the time."

In a meeting in October with church leaders, Cardinal Burke rejected welcoming language about gay people in an early draft document that was released at the halfway point of the meeting. Burke along with other conservative bishops watered the language down in the concluding summary document.

In early October Burke criticized  a family that had invited their gay son and his partner home for Christmas, saying children  should be protected from “exposure” to gay relationships which he called “evil.”

In an interview last month Cardinal Burke criticized Pope Francis, comparing the church under his stewardship to “a ship without a rudder.”

“Now, it is more important than ever to examine our faith, have a healthy spiritual leader and give powerful witness to the faith,”  Cardinal Burke added.

Prior to being summoned to the Vatican, Burke served as archbishop of St.Louis.