The Francis pontificate appears to be entering a delicate phase, fraught with challenges both from within and without. While some of those issues clearly aren’t the pope’s fault, including the health scare with which he’s presently dealing, others do seem more self-inflicted.

To illustrate the point, nothing compares to rumors that have swirled of late about punitive measures Pope Francis has taken against Cardinal Raymond Burke, a senior prelate and former prefect of the Apostolic Signatura – basically the chief justice of the Church’s supreme court – who has never been shy about criticizing the pope.

Those rumors finally had confirmation – the substance of them, at least – from papal biographer Austen Ivereigh, who published a lengthy commentary on the affair to the Where Peter Is blog.

Ivereigh recounts a brief in-person meeting with Pope Francis on the afternoon of Nov. 27th, during which Francis told Ivereigh of his decision “to remove Cardinal Burke’s cardinal privileges — his apartment and salary — because he had been using those privileges against the Church.”

“[Francis] told me that while the decision wasn’t a secret, he didn’t intend a public announcement but earlier that day [Monday] it had been leaked,” Ivereigh wrote.

There’s no way Pope Francis didn’t expect news like that to leak from a meeting of Vatican big wigs.

Early stories had carried a quote that first appeared in the Italian blog, La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, according to which the pope supposedly said, “Cardinal Burke is my enemy, therefore I am taking away his apartment and his stipend.”

Ivereigh, however, quotes a note he received directly from Francis following their Monday afternoon meeting: “I never used the word ‘enemy’ nor the pronoun ‘my’,” Francis told Ivereigh. “I simply announced the fact at the meeting of the dicastery heads, without giving specific explanations.”

In case you need a bit of a refresher, Burke was one of the original dubia cardinals who took what many observers considered a reckless decision to publish their request to Pope Francis for clarification regarding Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried in the wake of questions arising from Francis’s 2016 post-synodal exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.

Burke was again among cardinals who questioned Francis in another set of dubia earlier this year, on a host of hot-button issues including blessings for same-sex unions. Pope Francis answered those questions, though he never responded to the first set from 2016.

Burke et al. didn’t care for the answers they got, so they reformulated their questions, resubmitted them, and published them. Francis then ordered the publication of his responses, which he had originally given privately through the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Burke has also given interviews and spoken at conferences, frequently levying trenchant – even strident – criticism of Francis. The natural comparison for the papal move against Burke will be to the recent ouster of Bishop Joseph Strickland, olim of Tyler, Texas.

That comparison, however, is inept for two related reasons.

The first is that Strickland was a bishop in charge of a diocese. Strickland had “care of souls,” to say it in the Church’s jargon, meaning that there were people, institutions and Church goods for which he was directly responsible.

Pope Francis knew he was going to take a hit over Strickland in conservative and traditionalist circles, but there was a prima facie case for Strickland’s removal from a position of responsibility and, anyway, Strickland was literally asking for it.

Burke doesn’t have that sort of responsibility just now. He is still a bishop, but as a cardinal he is basically a pensioner. In essence, Burke is a high-ranking Roman cleric in impressively active retirement, whatever you think of his activities. Pope Francis has already stripped Burke of every office of trust and responsibility he once held, and has been content until now to let His Eminence ride the conference circuit.

Measures such as stripping Burke of his Roman digs and cutting off his housing stipend are therefore tough to justify as necessary, especially as punishment for promotion of “disunity” in the Church.

This move against Burke is a tough sell, at least from a PR point view, while it is nigh on impossible to see the practical upside.

The second reason the comparison doesn’t sit well is that Strickland was more than merely frank or strident in his criticism of Francis, and in fact pretty much dared Pope Francis to remove him. Burke, on the other hand, has repeatedly and vociferously refused the mantle of quasi-schismatic leadership, and also refused to engage in the sort of incendiary personal polemics that became Strickland’s stock-in-trade.

If pressed, Burke likely would concede that he has made himself a thorn in Francis’s side for much of the current pontificate. Nevertheless, he has preferred to set himself up as the pope’s loyal opposition. A more sympathetic view of Burke’s comportment over the past several years would have it that he has practiced precisely the sort of parrhesia – frank talk – for which Francis has constantly called.

I recall a look of horror on Burke’s face when I asked him, point-blank, about the voices describing him as a dissenter and suggesting that he was – or ought to be – leading a schism. He called such things “a source of anguish” and abjured the notion.

“I will never be part of any schism,” Burke told me, “even if I should be punished within the Church for what I in good conscience am trying to do to teach the Catholic faith and to defend it as I am obliged to do, first of all as a Christian, but even more so as a bishop and a cardinal of the Church.”

Granted, Burke said that in 2018. A good deal of water has gone under the bridge since then. Still, he is not a fellow to abandon his convictions lightly. If he were, he likely wouldn’t be in anything like the predicament he’s in now.

Expect him to remain quiet on the current situation, with an equanimity that will consternate both supporters and opponents.

More broadly, the perceived sanction of Burke will make it very difficult for Francis to avoid other comparisons, for example to retired French Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard of Bordeaux. Ricard has confessed to the sexual abuse of a minor girl in the 1980s, yet got to keep his red hat and could, in theory, return to unrestricted ministry if he finds a bishop willing to let him live within his jurisdiction and exercise his orders publicly.

That apparent incongruity is likely the last thing to which Francis wants to call attention, now or ever.

Follow Chris Altieri on X@craltieri