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While traveling in France in May 2019 to promote his book The Day is Now Far Spent, cardinal Robert Sarah visited the Notre-Dame Cathedral. In the church’s collapsed vaults, which were destroyed in a fire watched the world over just a few weeks before his visit, he sees a “symbol of the situation of Western civilisation and of the Church in Europe,” adding that “faith is like a fire, but it has to be burning in order to be transmitted to others.” The Catholic Church has reproached the Guinean cardinal in the past for some of his personality traits, starting with his inflexibility, but one thing they cannot accuse him of is being lukewarm.
A charismatic leader of the Roman Curia’s most conservative wing and known for his passionate positions appealing to fundamentalists, at 74 years of age, Cardinal Sarah is caught up in the middle of a controversy that has shaken up the highest levels of the Vatican. At issue is From the Depths of Our Hearts, a book the cardinal co-authored with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the first excerpt of which was published on 13 January by French daily Le Figaro.
A small crisis
In the excerpt, the two men fervently defend priestly celibacy, which they feel is “threatened” by allowing Amazonian bishops the possibility of ordaining married men in response to the shortage of Catholic priests in their communities. Brought up at the October 2019 Synod on the Amazon, the proposal was warmly received by Pope Francis, who is expected – barring any surprises – to make the measure an official exception. His predecessor and Cardinal Sarah can proclaim their “filial obedience” to the supreme pontiff all day long; the book’s release comes off as an unprecedented act of defiance nevertheless.
According to Cardinal Sarah, “the ordination of married men is a breach, not an exceptional measure” and he warns against “the wrong-headed pleas, […] the diabolical lies and the fashionable errors that try to put down priestly celibacy.” The book’s virulence is not surprising given that the cardinal has never hidden his aversion to any attempt at modernising the Church, but his collaboration with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has provoked a small crisis in the Catholic community.
With this book, did the pope emeritus knowingly defy his successor’s authority? Or did the Guinean cardinal take advantage of the ninety-something former pope, who struggles with his health, during one of his visits to the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery?
After the first excerpt from the book was published, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s private secretary scrambled to indicate that he had requested “that his name be removed as co-author of the book” due to the fact that he “had not approved any project for a co-signed book, nor had he seen and authorised the cover,” which features photos of both men. The former pope’s entourage tempered that it was a simple “misunderstanding,” while Cardinal Sarah referred to the controversy as “despicable” and defamatory.
Many within the Church refuse to cast a stone at the Guinean cardinal and describe him as being more mystic than political, but there are some observers who do not hesitate to talk of a “manipulation” and his political ambitions. According to Christian Terras, the editor-in-chief of Golias Magazine who is known for being outspoken on the Catholic Church, “he got his media moment. Since Pope Francis was elected, Cardinal Sarah, with the backing of the most right-wing faction of the Roman Curia, has been preparing for battle against his papacy.” Terras also said that the African dignitary has a “powerful network” outside of the continent.
A son of Africa
Is the conservative Cardinal Sarah’s ultimate target the man at the head of the Holy See? Quite a few African bishops who are more ideologically close to the pope emeritus than to his successor could be influenced by a man who describes himself as a “son of Africa”.
Born in an animist family in Ourouss, a small town in northern Guinea, Cardinal Sarah rapidly rose in the Church’s ranks. Appointed archbishop of Conakry by Pope John Paul at the tender age of 34, he would go on to become cardinal in 2010 under Pope Benedict XVI. Today, he is the head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, an important body of the Roman Curia which still has very few African members.
Cardinal Sarah does not hold back about Africa’s role in the Church. In The Day is Now Far Spent, he expresses the need for “radicalness” in order to convert more Africans to Catholicism. Presenting himself as a moral bastion against a declining Western civilisation, he argues that “we can’t provide [the Amazonian people] with ‘second-rate’ priests.” In the book’s introduction, the cardinal claims to be a follower of Saint Augustine: “I cannot remain silent.” Now that Benedict XVI has gone back on his words, Cardinal Sarah will have to bear the responsibility of this book on his own.
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