Pope cancels trip to Dubai for UN climate conference on doctors’ orders while recovering from flu

Francis punishes leading critic Cardinal Burke in second action against conservative American prelates

Pope Francis leads the weekly general audience in Saint Peter's Square, at the Vatican, November 8, 2023
Pope Francis leads the weekly general audience in Saint Peter's Square, at the Vatican, November 8, 2023.GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE (REUTERS)

Pope Francis canceled his trip to Dubai for the U.N. climate conference on doctors’ orders Tuesday, even though he is recovering from the flu and lung inflammation, the Vatican said.

Francis, who turns 87 next month, was scheduled to leave Rome on Friday to address the COP28 meeting first thing Saturday morning. He also was supposed to inaugurate a faith pavilion Sunday on the sidelines of the conference before returning home.

The pope revealed Sunday that he had lung inflammation but said at the time that he still planned to go to Dubai, where he was to become the first pontiff to address a U.N. climate conference. Care for the environment has been a priority for Francis, and presidents and patriarchs alike have welcomed his moral leadership on the issue.

Until the announcement late Tuesday, all of the information from the Vatican indicated the trip would proceed. The Vatican spokesman held his traditional pre-trip briefing earlier in the day and fielded questions about Francis’ planned bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the Dubai conference. The Vatican travel agency accepted payment for journalists to fly on the papal plane, and the Vatican press office finalized accreditation details.

The announcement marked the second time the pope’s frail health had forced the cancellation of a foreign trip: He had to postpone a planned trip to Congo and South Sudan in 2022 because of knee inflammation, though he was able to make the journey earlier this year.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Francis was improving from the flu and inflammation of his respiratory tract that had forced him to cancel his audiences Saturday. But “the doctors have asked the pope not to make the trip planned for the coming days to Dubai.

“Pope Francis accepted the doctors’ request with great regret and the trip is therefore canceled,” he added.

Francis had part of one lung removed as a young man and has seemed increasingly prone to respiratory problems. He has also had mobility problems from strained knee ligaments that have required him to use a cane or wheelchair.

Francis came down with the flu late last week. After cancelling his audiences Saturday — including with the visiting leader of Guinea Bissau — he went to the hospital for a CAT scan, and the Vatican said the test had ruled out pneumonia.

On Sunday, he skipped his traditional appearance at his studio window overlooking St. Peter’s Square to avoid the cold. Instead, Francis gave the traditional noon blessing in a televised appearance from the chapel in the Vatican hotel where he lives and asked a priest to read his written daily reflections out loud.

He coughed and spoke in a whisper, and sported the cannula in which he was receiving antibiotics intravenously. Recruiting a substitute speaker was a first for this pope and recalled how St. John Paul II frequently had other prelates read his remarks in his final years as he battled the effects of Parkinson’s disease.

People who saw Francis this week said his health was improving but he still spoke in a whisper.

In April, the pope spent three days at Rome’s Gemelli hospital for what the Vatican said was bronchitis after he had trouble breathing. He was discharged after receiving intravenous antibiotics.

Francis spent 10 days at the same hospital in July 2021 following intestinal surgery for a bowel narrowing. He was readmitted in June of this year for an operation to repair an abdominal hernia and remove scarring from previous surgeries.

When asked about his health in a recent interview, Francis quipped in reply what has become his standard line — “Still alive!”

Earlier Pope Francis decided to punish one of his highest-ranking critics, Cardinal Raymond Burke, by revoking his right to a subsidized Vatican apartment and salary in the second such radical action against a conservative American prelate this month, according to two people briefed on the measures.

Francis told a meeting of the heads of Vatican offices last week that he was moving against Burke because he was a source of “disunity” in the church, said one of the participants at the Nov. 20 meeting. The participant spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal the contents of the encounter.

Francis said he was removing Burke’s privileges of having a subsidized Vatican apartment and salary as a retired cardinal because he was using the privileges against the church, said another person who was subsequently briefed on the pope’s measures. That person also spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to reveal the details.

Burke has not received any notification of measures being taken, his secretary said in a text message Tuesday to The Associated Press.

Burke, a 75-year-old canon lawyer whom Francis had fired as the Vatican’s high court justice in 2014, has become one of the most outspoken critics of the pope, his outreach to LGBTQ+ Catholics and his reform project to make the church more responsive to the needs of ordinary faithful.

Twice, Burke has joined other conservative cardinals in issuing formal questions to the pontiff, known as “dubia,” asking him to clarify questions of doctrine that upset conservatives and traditionalists. In the first, they asked Francis to clarify his outreach to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, and Francis never replied. In the second, they asked whether same-sex couples could receive church blessings — and received a conditional maybe in response.

Then, on the eve of Francis’ big meeting of bishops last month, known as a synod, Burke presided over a counter-synod of sorts just steps away from St. Peter’s Square. There, Burke delivered a stinging rebuke of Francis’ vision of “synodality” as well as his overall reform project for the church.

“It’s unfortunately very clear that the invocation of the Holy Spirit by some has the aim of bringing forward an agenda that is more political and human than ecclesial and divine,” Burke told the conference titled “The Synodal Babel.”

Burke has always defended his actions as being of service to the church and the papacy, saying it was his obligation as a cardinal and bishop to uphold church teaching and correct errors.

“The sheep depend on the courage of pastors who must protect them from the poison of confusion, error and division,” he told the Oct. 3 conference, prompting applause from the crowd.

Burke, who spends much of his time in the U.S. at the Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine he founded in his native Wisconsin, is the second American prelate to face punishment in what appears to be a new phase of Francis’ pontificate. This reform-minded period seems to have accelerated with the arrival in September of Francis’ hand-picked new doctrine czar, Argentine Cardinal Victor Fernández.

Earlier this month, Francis forcibly removed the bishop of Tyler, Texas, Joseph Strickland, another conservative who had also become one of Francis’ critics. Strickland was removed after a Vatican investigation into governance of his diocese.

In a tweet Tuesday, Strickland expressed shock at reports that Francis had taken action taken against his fellow American, which was first reported by the conservative Italian newspaper La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, the main sponsor of “The Synodal Babel” conference.

“If this is accurate it is an atrocity that must be opposed. If it is false information it needs to be corrected immediately,” Strickland said.

Asked Tuesday about word of Francis’ decision, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni didn’t deny the reports but referred questions to Burke. “I don’t have anything particular to say about that,” Bruni told reporters.

Pope Benedict XVI had made Burke a cardinal in 2010, after he appointed him prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s high court. After Francis removed him from that position in 2014, he made Burke the cardinal patron of the Knights of Malta, a prestigious but limited role.

But there too, Burke and Francis clashed over Burke’s involvement in a governance crisis at the chivalric order. Francis pushed him aside and named two subsequent envoys to essentially replace him.

More recently, the two seemingly were at odds over Covid-19 vaccines. Francis had been a big proponent of the vaccines and had lashed out at vaccine skeptics, who included some conservative Catholics.

During a 2021 airborne news conference, Francis lamented the vaccine “negationists” in the College of Cardinals, an apparent reference to Burke, who had just been hospitalized in the U.S. and placed on a ventilator with a serious bout of the virus.

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