Pope Francis denied demoting a cardinal that has been critical of him in a recent interview with Argentinian newspaper La Nación.
The pontiff insisted that Cardinal Raymond Burke was simply the best person to serve as patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a largely ceremonial position within the charity.
"We needed a smart American who would know how to get around and I thought of him for that position," Francis said.
"I suggested this to him long before the synod. He thanked me in very good terms and accepted my offer. I even think he liked it because he is a man who gets around a lot. He does a lot of travelling and would surely be busy there," the Pope said. "It is therefore not true that I removed him because of how he had behaved in the synod."
Cardinal Burke was formerly the Cardinal Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest judicial authority in the Catholic Church. Many saw his reassignment to the Order of Malta on November 8 as a demotion in response to Burke's vocal opposition to some of Pope Francis' policies.
"One gets the impression, or it's interpreted this way in the media, that [Pope Francis] thinks we're talking too much about abortion, too much about the integrity of marriage as between one man and one woman," Cardinal Burke said in a December 2013 interview with Catholic news network EWTN. "But we can never talk enough about that."
Four days after that interview was published, Cardinal Burke was removed from the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops, an influential department that oversees the selection of new bishops.
On October 30, 2014, Burke made another series of inflammatory comments towards the pope.
"Many have expressed their concerns to me," he told the Spanish Catholic newspaper Vida Nueva. "At this very critical moment, there is a strong sense that the church is like 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.
"I have all the respect for the Petrine ministry and I do not want to seem like I am speaking out against the pope," he clarified. "I would like to be a master of the faith, with all my weaknesses, telling a truth that many currently perceive... They are feeling a bit seasick because they feel the church's ship has lost its way."
Burke was especially critical of Pope Francis' liberal stance towards homosexuality, and pounced on his controversial 2013 statement: "Who am I to judge?"
"The acts must be judged; I do not think that the Pope thinks differently," Burke told Vida Nueva. "They are sinful and unnatural. The Pope never said we can find positive elements in them. It is impossible to find positive elements in an evil act."
One week later, Cardinal Burke was reassigned to his current position. When confronted with the statements, Pope Francis expressed skepticism about their authenticity.
"Those expressions strike me as odd," he told La Nación. "I am not aware of anybody using them. The media quoted them. However, until I can ask the people involved, 'Have you said this?' I will have brotherly doubts."