Guinea’s Cardinal Sarah is a thorn in Pope Francis’s side
On his visit to the continent from 4 to 10 September the pope may have hoped to extricate himself – even temporarily – from the Vatican's internal struggles the Catholic Church's child-abuse scandals. But in Africa he has another thorn in his side: Cardinal Robert Sarah.
The Guinean cardinal’s strong opinions differ so much from those of the Argentinian supreme pontiff that traditionalist Catholic movements in search of high-ranking clergymen to promote their point of view have made him their champion. This is particularly the case in the US and France.
Who is Robert Sarah?
- Appointed Archbishop of Conakry in 1979 by Pope John Paul II, who called on him to work in the Roman Curia in 2001, he was made a cardinal by his close friend Pope Benedict XVI.
- He has authored three best-selling books which have been translated to English (God or Nothing, 2015; The Power of Silence, 2016; The Day is Now Far Spent, 2019), all three based on interviews with the French journalist and conservative publisher Nicolas Diat. Each of them condemns a Catholicism that is too secularised, in a Europe in decline that wants to export its turpitudes, especially to Africa.
A critic of Francis’s open church
When Francis called on Catholics to go to the “peripheries” of the church and the world, to the marginalised and the non-believers, the Guinean griped – in a March edition of Valeurs actuelles – that priests and bishops had been “literally bewitched by political or social questions” at the expense of teaching traditional Catholic doctrine.
“Above all, they want us to say that the church is open, welcoming, attentive and modern. But the church is not made to listen, it is made to teach,” he said.
The Pope denounces clericalism, which places the priest above the laity. He recalls that all are equal in baptism and says all the faithful should use their freedom of speech. Sarah, on the other hand, is in favour of strengthening the priest’s position and says the “destruction of the priesthood” is being pursued, particularly by those who are calling for an end to the obligation for celibacy.
When Francis encouraged Europe to help migrants and open its doors to them, welcoming Syrian Muslim refugees to the Vatican, Sarah called for border controls and praised Hungary’s and Poland’s positions on the subject. He has even said he is concerned about the danger of a “disappearance of Europe” under the migratory flow, of an “Islam that will invade the world” and of a change “in culture, anthropology and moral vision”.
‘Celebrate mass with your back to the people’
In 2016, he twice encouraged priests to celebrate mass with their backs to the people, as was done before the Second Vatican Council. Statements made without any consultation with the Pope forced the Holy See’s spokesman to explain that there were no new official recommendations on the matter.
In Maputo, Antananarivo and Port Louis, where the pope addressed issues of reconciliation (notably in Mozambique, after the peace agreement signed in August), environmental protection (all three countries are severely affected by global warming) and interfaith dialogue, he did not have to suffer the wrath of the Guinean cardinal. In 2014, shortly after his election, the pope withdrew Sarah’s presidency of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum (which dealt with charity and humanitarian relief) and entrusted him with heading the Congregation for Divine Worship – the ‘ministry’ of the Vatican liturgy. Francis keeps in mind that Sarah remains one of the most listened-to voices, both in Rome and on the continent.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.