Pope Francis has denied that removing American Cardinal Raymond Burke as head of the Vatican’s highest court was a “punishment” for his outspokenly conservative views at a recent summit of bishops, saying instead he wanted a “smart American” to serve as patron of the Order of Malta.

“It is not true that I removed him because of how he had behaved in the synod,” Francis said.

The pontiff said that the move was part of a broader restructuring of the Vatican bureaucracy that had been decided well before the October 5-19 synod of bishops on the family. The reason he waited until after the synod to make it official, he said, was so that Burke could still participate in the meeting as the head of a Vatican department.

The comments came in an interview with the Argentinian daily La Nacion, and was conducted by veteran Rome writer Elisabetta Piqué. In the same interview, the Argentine-born pope also talked about the continued need to find pastoral solutions to challenges facing divorced and remarried Catholics and gay Catholics; his ongoing curial reforms; and challenges facing the Church in Latin America.

The 66-year-old Burke, formerly the bishop of Lacrosse, Wisconsin, and archbishop of St. Louis, has become a symbol for many Americans of a perceived hostility from Pope Francis to more tradition-minded Catholic viewpoints.

One year ago, Francis removed Burke from his position as a member of the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for Bishops, which is responsible for recommending new prelates around the world to the pope.

Recently Francis also removed Burke as head of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s Supreme Court, assigning him instead to the largely ceremonial position of patron of the Order of Malta, which today functions largely as a philanthropic organization.

Many observers had assumed that Burke was being demoted at least in part for his sharp comments during the synod, including saying in a widely circulated interview that an explanation by Pope Francis of his views on doctrinal matters is “long overdue” because of the “confusion” that has been created.

In the new interview, Francis said that some time ago Burke asked him about his future, since he had not been formally reappointed as head of the Signatura, and the pope said he explained that there may be some restructuring of the Vatican’s courts as part of a broader project of reform being studied by his council of cardinal advisors.

“After that the issue of the Order of Malta cropped up, and we needed a smart American who would know how to get around, and I thought of him for that position,” Francis said.

“He thanked me in very good terms and accepted my offer, I even think he liked it,” the pope said. “Because he is a man that gets around a lot, he does a lot of traveling, and would surely be busy there.”

Burke has said that people have told him they feel the Church under Francis is like a ship without a rudder, but the pope said he doubts people feel this way.

“Those expressions strike me as odd,” the pope said. “I am not aware of anybody using them. The media quote them. However, until I can ask the people involved ‘have you said this?’ I will have brotherly doubts.”

More broadly, Francis acknowledges that resistance in some quarters to his agenda for the Church has become more evident since the October synod, but insists that’s a positive development.

“Resistance is now evident,” he said.

“That is a good sign for me, getting the resistance out into the open, no stealthy mumbling when there is disagreement. It’s healthy to get things out into the open, it’s very healthy,” the pope said.

The pope spoke at length about issues related to the synod, as well, including communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and the pastoral care of gay Catholics.

“Nobody mentioned homosexual marriage at the synod, it did not cross our minds,” the pope said. Rather, “the synod addressed the family and the homosexual persons in relation to their families, because we come across this reality all the time in the confessional: a father and a mother whose son or daughter is in that situation.”

He said that this “happened to me several times in Buenos Aires. We have to find a way to help that father or that mother to stand by their son or daughter.”

On the issue of divorce, the pope said that the synod had not considered changing the doctrine of marriage.

“In the case of divorcees who have remarried, we posed the question, what do we do with them? What door can we allow them to open? This was a pastoral concern: will we allow them to go to Communion? Communion alone is no solution,” he said.

He said the goal must be “integration,” and said the current prohibitions treat the divorced and remarried as excommunicated.

“Thus, let us open the doors a bit more. Why can’t they be godfathers and godmothers?” the pope asked, citing one example. “Things need to change, our standards need to change.”

Regarding the recent synod on the family, the pope said, “Two clear qualities are needed: courage to speak and humbleness to listen. And that worked very well.”

“The prevailing feeling was a brotherly one, trying to find a way to tackle the family’s pastoral issues,” he said. “The family is so beaten up, young people don’t get married.”

The pope said his ongoing efforts to reform the Roman Curia still have “a long way to go. A long way, a long way” and that he does not expect the process to be wrapped up by 2015.

He said some department heads should not be restricted to cardinals and bishops, but filled with “the fittest, whether man or woman, or even a couple.”

Francis said that he had actually begun the process of retiring upon the completion of the conclave that ultimately elected him pope, leading to a sort of pep-talk with himself.

“From the start I said to myself: ‘Jorge, don’t change, just keep on being yourself, because to change at your age would be to make a fool of yourself,’” he said. “That’s why I’ve always kept on doing what I used to do in Buenos Aires. Perhaps even making my old mistakes. But I prefer it like this, to be myself.”

The pope said the Church in Latin America is facing challenges both from without, including vigorous prosperity Gospel theology, but also from within.

“I wonder about ourselves, what is it that we ourselves do, what is within the Church that makes the faithful unhappy?” he asked. “It’s that people don’t feel we are close enough, it’s clericalism. Today, to be close means to reach out to Catholics, to seek people out and be close to them, to sympathize with their problems, with their reality.”

Pointing to his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis said the Church should not be engaged in proselytism, and reiterated his vision for the church to be a field hospital.

“[W]e need to set out to heal wounds, just as the good Samaritan did. Some people’s wounds result from neglect, others are wounded because they have been forsaken by the Church itself, some people are suffering terribly,” he said.

Pope Francis turns 78 on December 17 and though occasionally showing signs of fatigue, Francis says his health is basically fine.

“I do have some aches and pains, and at my age ailments don’t go unnoticed,” he said.  “But I am in God’s hands, up to now I have been able to work steadily.”

Select English translations are available here, and the remaining selections in Spanish here.