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Robert Cardinal Sarah’s dilemma, and our own

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 23, 2019 | In Reviews

Nothing more perfectly illustrates the dilemma of Catholics high and low today than the manner in which Robert Cardinal Sarah has written the third volume of his commentary on the Church and the spiritual life, The Day Is Now Far Spent. The first two volumes were God or Nothing (2015) and The Power of Silence (2017). There are a few things to notice about this project before I come to the dilemma it poses.

Since I had not looked closely at the first two books, I was not aware of the degree to which they depended on Cardinal Sarah’s interlocutor, the journalist Nicolas Diat. In reading the third book, it became very clear that Diat has spent a great deal of time exploring the Cardinal’s written work and talking things over with him, and has shaped what must be nearly the entire corpus into a series of brief questions (Diat) followed by long answers (Sarah). The answers form a comprehensive disquisition on the crisis of the Church today, using an interview format that is not really an interview.

There is nothing wrong with this. Cardinal Sarah himself refers in his introduction to Diat, “without whom little would have been possible.” But it is a curious project, in that Cardinal Sarah seems almost to have wanted to get his every thought down on paper and into book form. (And yes, I get it: Those of us who do this sequentially online over a stretch of years may be victims of the same temptation. Not being Cardinals, however, we cannot quite create the illusion that we are speaking for the Church.)

Still, one good thing about this is that Cardinal Sarah has a great number of extraordinarily worthwhile things to say. Born in French Guinea (in Africa) in 1945, he was clearly very well educated in the French Catholic classics, and has obviously continued to read widely in French Catholic literature. His books were first published in French, and then translated and published in English by Ignatius Press. Cardinal Sarah is possessed of a deep and solid Catholic spirituality, which he communicates marvelously. But the fact that he wants to say so much—or feels that he must say so much—surely arises from the distress he feels at the wayward (and largely faithless) “spirituality” of the Church in the West, and the need to respond to it before the day is so far spent that it is already too late.

In Sarah’s own words:

Why speak up once more? In my last book, I invited you to silence. However, I can no longer be silent. I must no longer remain silent. Christians are disoriented. Every day from all sides, I receive calls for help.

The Dilemma

Yet there remains a dilemma. If silence is an important spiritual goal, a vital spiritual exercise, then in what sense can any of us waffle between the silence and receptivity we must keep at the core of our being and the frenetic declamations that the condition of the Church seems daily to demand? There is a sense in which his latest book, for all its value, sets Cardinal Sarah up for failure. It really is not quite right to enjoin people to silence in the second book and then in a third book to speak out loudly and decisively (and well) for 350 fully stocked pages.

But I want to emphasize that Cardinal Sarah is not alone in facing this dilemma. Each of us faces it, and it means we must be very careful about how we express our confidence in the various spiritual courses open to us, both in touting our silence (or the silence of others!) and in touting our speech. Moreover, if we examine the growing confusion and discouragement in the Church closely, we see a second aspect of Cardinal Sarah’s dilemma. For a great deal of the fresh confusion and discouragement arises from the extraordinarily bizarre speech and behavior of the current occupant of the See of Peter. And if you think that presents the laity with a dilemma, consider for a moment what it must mean for a cardinal!

Now we know that high-ranking prelates have responded to this dilemma in various ways. A great many have chosen silence, whether for good or bad reasons it is impossible to say. Some, like Archbishop Viganó, have gone down the path of open denunciation. Others, like Cardinal Burke, have chosen to raise critical questions through the prescribed ecclesiastical process of proposing dubia (doubts), for clarification—but to no avail. Still, others have tried to provide strong guidance through their own particular offices, men like Archbishop Chaput in Philadelphia and the successive prefects of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Francis. Finally, a few have apparently attempted to extend their offices to the instruction of the whole world, as seems to be the case with Athanasius Schneider, an auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan.

Cardinal Sarah appears to have chosen a variation of this last path, though with considerably more warrant. He was secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples under Pope St. John Paul II, was president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum under Pope Benedict XVI, and is currently Prefect for the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments under Pope Francis. Pope Francis tends to stick closely to the canonical five-year terms, so one expects Cardinal Sarah to be replaced soon. But this cardinal does have more warrant than most to find ways to make his voice heard around the globe.

A poor solution

Nonetheless, if the dilemma really does have Pope Francis at its center (and I do not see how any reasonable observer can doubt this), I have to say that the details of Cardinal Sarah’s solution are unworkable. For Cardinal Sarah always goes out of his way to indicate not only that he is not opposed to Pope Francis in any way but that in everything he writes he is echoing the Holy Father’s themes. Believe me, I get this; I understand why he chooses this path; but in the end, he pushes it too far and it just will not do.

It is true, of course, that Cardinal Sarah does not in any canonical or obediential sense “oppose the Pope”—a point which he makes with appalling sloppiness from time to time, even as recently as last week (see Cardinal Sarah: To oppose the Pope is to be outside the Church). And it is true that Cardinal Sarah works hard at creating the illusion that he is following up lines of thought proposed by Pope Francis himself. For example, he dedicates The Day Is Now Far Spent to Pope Francis and Pope Benedict (plus priests throughout the world): First (appropriately), to “Benedict XVI, peerless architect of the rebuilding of the Church”; second, to “Francis, faithful and devoted son of Saint Ignatius”.

But in fact, the grand alliance of what we might call “The Friends of Pope Francis” constantly tries to bring against Cardinal Sarah this charge of opposition to the Pope, precisely because it is so obvious that Sarah’s constant recommendations are seriously at odds with much of what Pope Francis says. And if we examine the footnotes to this latest book, what do we find? Why, we find that (on a quick count, which could be off by a couple) Cardinal Sarah draws his inspiration almost entirely from Pope Benedict, whom he cites 78 times, and that he cites even Pope St. John Paul II twice as often (14 times) as he cites Pope Francis (7 times).

What is clear to everyone in this is that Cardinal Sarah has tried mightily to find a few good quotes from Pope Francis—and, after all, there are many to be found if a student can survive the avalanche of intellectual and spiritual confusion long enough to dig them out—so that he can maintain the fictional aspect of his method throughout the book.

Conclusion

Do I blame Cardinal Sarah for this? Only absolutely minimally. Every faithful Catholic commentator today has to decide what to do about Pope Francis, who is the proverbial elephant in the room. My own solution is to call good and useful things that the Pope says to the attention of CatholicCulture.org readers on a regular basis, so that we might recall his position as our supreme pastor and benefit from his more trenchant insights—but at the same time to hide nothing of what is so terribly and frightfully wrong. Of course, it is far easier for me to do this (for example, in presenting Pope Francis’ weekly catecheses in our regular Insights messages) because of the news coverage and commentary we provide throughout each week, especially by Phil Lawler, which makes the whole picture abundantly and distressingly clear.

But though I do not much blame Cardinal Sarah, I do find that his particular resolution of the great dilemma is unworkable. It is not possible to truthfully ground his message in any significant overarching themes of this pontificate. Moreover, there is a danger in doing so. Indeed, in maintaining the illusion that he has embraced Pope Francis’ approach to the spiritual crisis of our times Cardinal Sarah must inescapably present this pope as a reliable guide. If the reader responds enthusiastically to Sarah, he ought—on this basis—to respond enthusiastically to Francis.

I grant that most people who read such a book will be capable of reading between the lines, as I have just done. But it makes the book in part fictional, and that is a significant strike against it. Moreover, all the pope’s horses and all the pope’s men know that it is fictional in this regard, which is why they keep saying that Cardinal Sarah opposes the Pope. Our ability to read between the lines puts my criticism in a limiting context, I suppose, but it remains a criticism for the very important reason that at least some readers will be not only misled, but strategically misled.

This lends a tendentious quality to the book—one more thing to be on guard against. It is a very good book in so many ways, and perhaps, owing to its depth, it is particularly appropriate for reading by priests. But, for me at least, this makes the price too high.


Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Day Is Not Far Spent, Ignatius Press, 2019, 350pp.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Retired01 - Oct. 27, 2019 3:33 PM ET USA

    Thank you for your perspective on Sarah's recent book. I read his God or Nothing and the Power of Silence and I found them excellent. I feel sorry for the saintly cardinal doing his best to see light in Pope Francis where I can see only darkness. I had thought of buying The Day is Not Far Spent, but I will not, I just don't feel like wasting money in reading something that is going to upset me.

  • Posted by: tamelynette6332 - Oct. 25, 2019 9:27 PM ET USA

    Cardinal Sarah had a very specific comment in The Day Is Now Far Spent, that must have been a prophetic insight to the Amazon Synod before it ever happened! He said on pg. 66 (English version), "No authority, no synod for any reason, or for any regional need, can claim the authority to separate purely and simply the priestood from priestly celibacy, for as Vatican Council II recalls, the celibacy of clerics is not "only... commanded by ecclesiastical law, but a precious gift of God."

  • Posted by: wacondaseeds4507 - Oct. 25, 2019 3:11 PM ET USA

    There is a time for silence and a time to speak. To speak/write with discretion is important for anyone holding an office in the Church. "Reading between the lines" with this type of speech is necessary, but to suggest that the author is disingenuous is unnecessary. Due to overexposure to political speech in the media, I believe we Americans seldom take anyone as honestly expressing the truth in their hearts, and this seems exceedingly dangerous when applied to respectable Church leaders.

  • Posted by: quasiperfect - Oct. 24, 2019 5:17 PM ET USA

    Is there a time for every purpose under heaven? A time to speak? A time to refrain from embracing?

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 24, 2019 8:20 AM ET USA

    This is not a new phenomenon. It is not an exaggeration to attach the term Orwellian to this ongoing phenomenon of many who have and continue to "maintain the fictional aspect" of reconciliation. Yet, the pontificate of Pope Francis is not the first in which this odd conflict has proven troublesome for those expressing fidelity and yet unable to reconcile with apparent- if not overt- departures from Catholic tradition. In looking around today, one might see that the price has been "too high."