Why Cardinal Sarah terrifies his critics

A growing crowd wants Cardinal Robert Sarah’s head on a platter. Open a liberal Catholic periodical and you are likely to find a call for the dismissal of the Guinean cardinal who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship: “It’s past time for [Pope Francis] to replace Cardinal Sarah” (Maureen Fiedler, National Catholic Reporter); “New wine might be needed at the Congregation for Divine Worship” (Christopher Lamb, the Tablet); “Curia officials who refuse to get with Francis’s programme should leave. Or the Pope should send them somewhere else” (Robert Mickens, Commonweal); “Francis must put his foot down. Cardinals like Robert Sarah … may feel that with a papacy heading in the wrong direction, foot-dragging is a duty. But that does not mean Francis has to put up with them” (The Editors, the Tablet).

Sarah was not always treated as the most dangerous man in Christendom. When he was appointed to his post by Pope Francis in 2014, he enjoyed the goodwill even of those who criticise him today. Mickens described him as “unambitious, a good listener and, despite showing a clear conservative side since coming to Rome … a ‘Vatican II man’ ”. Lamb was told by his sources that Sarah was someone liberals could like, the kind of bishop who was sympathetic to “inculturation”. John Allen summed up the consensus around the Vatican: Sarah was a low-profile bishop, “warm, funny and modest”.

All that changed on October 6, 2015, the third day of the contentious synod on the family. The synod fathers were riven by the seemingly competing demands of reaching out to people who felt stigmatised by the Church’s sexual teaching and boldly proclaiming truth to a hostile world. In what has come to be known as the “apocalyptic beasts” speech, Sarah insisted that both were possible. “We are not contending against creatures of flesh and blood,” he told his brother bishops. “We need to be inclusive and welcoming to all that is human.” But the Church must still proclaim the truth in the face of two great challenges. “On the one hand, the idolatry of Western freedom; on the other, Islamic fundamentalism: atheistic secularism versus religious fanaticism.”

As a young priest, Sarah studied at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem and planned a dissertation on “Isaiah, Chapters 9-11, in Light of Northwestern Semitic Linguistics: Ugaritic, Phoenician and Punic”. So it is no surprise that he employed biblical language to make his point. Western freedom and Islamic fundamentalism, he told the assembly, were like two “apocalyptic beasts”. The image comes from the Book of Revelation, which describes how two beasts will attack the Church. The first comes out of the sea with seven heads, 10 horns, and blasphemy on its lips. The second rises out of the land performing great wonders, and persuades the world to worship the first.

This strange dynamic – one monstrous threat leading men to embrace the other – is what Sarah sees at work in our own time. Fear of religious repression induces some to worship an idolatrous freedom. (I recall the time I found myself the only man left sitting when Ayaan Hirsi Ali ended a speech by asking her audience to give an ovation “To blasphemy!”) On the other hand, attacks on human nature tempt some to embrace the false reassurance of religious fundamentalism, which has its most horrible expression under the black flag of ISIS. Each evil tempts those who fear it to succumb to its opposite. As with communism and Nazism in the 20th century, both must be resisted.

Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, head of the Polish bishops’ conference, wrote that Sarah’s intervention was made at a “very high theological and intellectual level”, but others seemed to miss its meaning altogether. Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane decried the use of “apocalyptic language”. (One wonders what he makes of the rest of John’s Revelation.) “The boys don’t like to be reminded of judgment,” quipped one cardinal after Sarah spoke.

A prominent Vatican watcher wrote to me from Rome: “He stepped in it today by talking about the two beasts of the Apocalypse. His popable stock took a hit.” Fr James Martin SJ claimed that Sarah had violated the Catechism, “which asks us to treat LGBT people with ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity’ ”.

One sometimes wants to ask whether, for Catholics like Fr Martin, there are any words in which the Church’s sexual teaching can be defended – since they seem never to employ them. Still, the reaction to Sarah’s speech probably had more to do with simple illiteracy than any difference in principle. Cardinal Wilfred Napier of Durban said in the run-up to the synod that Europeans suffer from a “widespread ignorance and rejection not only of Church teaching but also Scripture”. He was right. Those who do not live in Scripture and know its figures first-hand are more likely to view biblical language as irrelevant or inflammatory.

On October 14, a week after Sarah’s speech, Cardinal Walter Kasper complained about African interventions at the synod. “I can only speak of Germany where the great majority wants an opening about divorce and remarriage. It’s the same in Great Britain, it’s everywhere.” Well, not quite everywhere: “With Africa it’s impossible. But they should not tell us too much what to do.”

Kasper’s dismissal of Sarah and the other Africans prompted an immediate outcry. Obianuju Ekeocha, a Nigerian Catholic who campaigns against abortion, wrote: “Imagine my shock today as I read the words of one of the most prominent synod fathers … As an African woman now living in Europe, I am used to having my moral views and values ignored or put down as an ‘African issue’.”

Cardinal Napier agreed: “It’s a real worry to read an expression like ‘the Pope’s Theologian’ applied to Cardinal Kasper … Kasper isn’t very respectful towards the African Church and its leaders.”

Kasper’s statement was like the breaking of a dam. Since then, a great wave of abuse has poured over Sarah. His critics have described him as uppity, uneducated and possibly criminal – or at least in need of a good beating.

Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter reminded Sarah of his role (“Curial cardinals are, after all, staff, exalted staff, but staff”). La Croix’s Fr William Grim called his work “asinine … patently stupid … red-capped idiocy”. Andrea Grillo, a liberal Italian liturgist, wrote: “Sarah has shown, for years, a significant inadequacy and incompetence in the field of liturgy.”

In the Tablet, Fr Anthony Ruff corrected Sarah. “It would be good if he could study the reforms more deeply and understand, for example, what ‘mystery’ means in Catholic theology.” Massimo Faggioli, a vaticanist who haunts Rome’s gelaterias, innocently observed that Sarah’s apocalyptic beasts speech “would be subject to criminal charges in some countries”. (Having ministered for years under the brutal Marxist dictatorship of Sékou Touré, Sarah hardly needs reminding that open profession of Christian belief can be a crime.)

After Pope Francis rejected Sarah’s call last year for priests to celebrate mass ad orientem, contempt for Sarah broke out in a shower of blows: “It is highly unusual for the Vatican to publicly slap down a Prince of the Church, yet not entirely surprising given how Cardinal Sarah has operated…” (Christopher Lamb, Tablet); “the Pope slapped down Cardinal Sarah quite strongly, with only a bit of face-saving spared him,” (Anthony Ruff, Pray Tell); “Pope slaps down Sarah” (Robert Mickens, on Twitter); “Pope Francis … slapped him down” (Mickens again, in Commonweal); “a further slap-down” (Mickens once more, a few months later in La Croix). Added up, it makes for quite a beating.

Exchanging charges of insensitivity is probably not the best way to settle doctrinal disputes, but the rhetoric of Sarah’s critics reveals something important about Catholic life today: in disputes doctrinal, moral and liturgical, liberal Catholics have become ecclesial nationalists.

Traditional Catholics tend to support consistent doctrinal standards and pastoral approaches regardless of national boundaries. If they do not actually prefer the Latin Mass, they want vernacular translations to track the Latin as closely as possible. They are not scandalised by the way Africans speak of homosexuality or Middle Eastern Christians of Islamism.

Liberal Catholics, meanwhile, campaign for vernacular translation written in idiomatic style and approved by national bishops’ conferences, not by Rome. Local realities require truth to be trimmed whenever it crosses a border. Catholic doctrinal statements should be couched in pastorally sensitive language – sensitive, that is, to the sensibilities of the educated, wealthy West.

One of the advantages of ecclesial nationalism is that it allows liberals to avoid arguing on direct doctrinal grounds, where traditional “rigorists” tend to have the upper hand. If truth must be mediated by local realities, no man in Rome or Abuja will have much say over the faith of Brussels and Stuttgart (this was the point behind Kasper’s dismissal of Africans).

One sees this in writers like Commonweal’s Rita Ferrone, who says that rather than heeding Sarah, English speakers should be “trusting our own people and our own wisdom concerning prayer in our native tongue”. The “we” behind that “our” is not global and Catholic, but bourgeois and American.

What if instead of being put back in his place, slapped down and locked up for violating Western speech codes, Sarah becomes pope? This is what his critics fear most. Mickens writes of the dark possibility of a “Pius XIII (also known as Robert Sarah)”. Lamb says that Sarah may turn out to be “the first black Pope”. (That would be a beautiful thing – Sarah’s parents, converts in the remote Guinean village of Ourous, assumed that only white men could become priests and laughed when their son said he wanted to go to seminary.) The same well-connected Vatican watcher who told me that Sarah’s stock fell during the synod now says his fortunes are improving. “People have noticed all the attacks, and his gracious refusal to respond in kind.”

It is indeed remarkable that Sarah has suffered this hail of abuse with such grace. In his newly published book The Power of Silence, we hear his stifled cry of anguish:

I painfully experienced assassination by gossip, slander and public humiliation, and I learned that when a person has decided to destroy you, he has no lack of words, spite and hypocrisy; falsehood has an immense capacity for constructing arguments, proofs and truths out of sand. When this is the behaviour of men of the Church, and in particular of bishops, the pain is still deeper. But … we must remain calm and silent, asking for the grace never to give in to rancour, hatred and feelings of worthlessness. Let us stand firm in our love for God and for his Church, in humility.

Despite it all, Sarah is a man unbowed. His book reiterates his call for Mass ad orientem and the rest of the “reform of the reform”: “God willing, when he wills and as he wills, the reform of the reform will take place in the liturgy. Despite the gnashing of teeth, it will happen, for the future of the Church is at stake.”

If Sarah has refused to make himself pleasing to those who run Rome, he is not about to serve any other party either. In this wonderfully individual book, he tells old Islamic folktales, dotes on the suffering and weak, and decries military intervention: “How can we not be scandalised and horrified by the action of American and Western governments in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria?” Sarah views these as idolatrous outpourings of blood “in the name of the goddess Democracy” and “in the name of Liberty, another Western goddess”. He opposes the effort to build “a religion without borders and a new global ethics”.

If that seems hyperbolic, recall that six days after missiles hit Baghdad, Tony Blair sent George W Bush a memo saying, “Our ambition is big: to construct a global agenda around which we can unite the world … to spread our values of freedom, democracy, tolerance.” Sarah views this programme as something close to blasphemy.

He has equally pungent views on the modern economy: “The Church would commit a fatal mistake if she exhausted herself in giving a sort of social face to the modern world that has been unleashed by free-market capitalism.”

War, persecution, exploitation: all these forces are part of a “dictatorship of noise”, whose incessant slogans distract men and discredit the Church. In order to resist it, Sarah turns to the example of Brother Vincent, a recently deceased young man whom Sarah dearly loved. Only if we love and pray like Vincent can we hear la musica callada, the silent music the angels played for John of the Cross. Yes, this book shows that Sarah has a great deal to say: on the mystical life, the Church and world affairs. But for the most part he keeps silence – while the world talks about him.

Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow