Raymond Burke

ST. LOUIS — An archbishop who tussled with singer Sheryl Crow, college basketball coach Rick Majerus and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry over their support for abortion rights has been named as the first American to lead the Vatican supreme court.

Archbishop Raymond Burke, an expert in church law and perhaps the most outspoken of conservative U.S. bishops, will likely be made a cardinal after his appointment Friday. The supreme court is traditionally headed by a cardinal.

Archbishop Burke's disputes with public figures drew attention to the archdiocese in his 4 1/2 years here, which seemed to surprise the affable church man who grew up in rural Wisconsin.

"I've been frustrated, and bothered that the impression of me has been quite negative ... as unpleasant, arrogant," Archbishop Burke said Friday, reflecting on his time here. "I've tried to be a good shepherd for the flock."

Archbishop Burke's new appointment shows that Pope Benedict XVI has a great amount of respect for U.S. bishops, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

It comes on the heels of Pope Benedict's naming William Joseph Cardinal Levada, former archbishop of San Francisco and Portland, Ore., as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"This is more power than Americans have ever had in Rome," the Rev. Reese said.

Roman Catholics in St. Louis clearly are split between those who are glad and those who are sorry he's going.

Some see him as a champion of orthodoxy who represents a refreshing return to church values. Others view him as sorely lacking as a pastor, an unbending stickler for the letter of the law. His targets said he fought them using arcane, medieval church codes they could barely decipher.

"I've been getting phone calls since 6 o'clock this morning from parishioners singing 'Ding, dong, the archbishop is gone,"' said the Rev. Marek Bozek, who, along with his parish board, were excommunicated by Archbishop Burke after a long-simmering dispute over control of St. Stanislaus Kostka's assets.

Archbishop Burke also excommunicated three women for participating in a women's ordination that is forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church.

"Catholics in St. Louis are exhausted after 4 1/2 years of constant scandal and control by Archbishop Burke," the Rev. Bozek added.

Yet other Catholics defended Archbishop Burke, who turns 60 on Monday.

"We're sad about it," said the Rev. Karl Lenhardt, who was invited here by Archbishop Burke to establish a place where the Latin Mass could be celebrated. "But we are convinced that work in his new capacity will be good for the universal church. We can't be surprised that the Holy Father has called him."

Archbishop Burke said he would move to Rome in late August to head the supreme court, which resolves jurisdictional disputes among various Vatican tribunals and hears procedural appeals on marriage annulments.

Pope Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, have complained for years that local tribunals grant an excessive number of annulments.

The Rev. Reese said the court has a very narrow focus on procedural issues and rarely tackles substantive issues.

In 2004, Archbishop Burke caused a stir by saying he would deny Communion to Kerry because of the Massachusetts senator's stance supporting abortion rights.

Last year, Archbishop Burke indicated he would so the same for then-Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani. He also protested Crow's appearance at a benefit for a Catholic children's hospital over her support for embryonic stem cell research.

In January, Archbishop Burke called on Saint Louis University, a Jesuit school, to discipline Majerus for publicly supporting abortion rights.

"Every pro-choice Catholic Democrat politician should be very nervous," the Rev. Reese said. "He made his name in the U.S. by denying Communion to pro-choice politicians."

"If he gets that view articulated strongly in Rome, he could become the voice for having that position for the universal church."

The Rev. Bozek, the Polish priest, said Burke could well be on his way to a future papacy.

"With this office, he will be named cardinal in the very near future, and as cardinal he will have the chance to run for pope two or three times in his lifetime," he said.

"He may well become the first American pope."