Editor’s note: The following is the first half of a March 27, 2019, interview with Robert Cardinal Sarah, originally conducted in French by Laurent Dandrieu; it is reprinted here with kind permission of Culture à Valeurs Actuelles. The second half of the interview can be read here.
On the occasion of the publication of his new book, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, one of the strongest voices in the Church, met with us in Rome for an exclusive interview.
Fans of NewSpeak, read no further! Although books by Catholic prelates often inspire the same polite annoyance as lukewarm tea, The Day is Now Far Spent, the new book-length interview of Robert Cardinal Sarah with Nicolas Diat, looks like strong drink. In recalling that a world forgetful of God is headed for ruin, dismissing both “materialist barbarity” and “Islamist barbarity”, exhorting the Church to put Christ back at the center, denouncing the Marrakesh Agreement supported by the Vatican or warning against the ordination of married men that some would like to experiment with on the occasion of the upcoming Synod on the Amazon Region, Cardinal Sarah invites his readers to participate in a genuine spiritual resistance, recalling that Christ alone is the Hope of the world.
Why did you choose such a somber title, which might frighten the reader? [The full title of the French edition is: It is Toward Evening, and the Day is Now Far Spent.]
This book is first of all a call to clarity and clear-sightedness. The Church is going through a major crisis. The winds are extraordinarily violent. Days without scandals, real or fake, are rare. The faithful can therefore legitimately wonder about it. I intended this book for them. I hope that they can come out of reading it with the joy that Christ gives: “Stay with us, Lord, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent” (Lk 24:29). The resurrection of the Son of God is what gives Hope in the darkness.
Was your choice of this verse from the Gospel passage about the travelers to Emmaus a way of pointing out that the Church does not sufficiently put Christ and prayer at the center?
I firmly believe that the situation that we are experiencing within the Church resembles in every respect the situation of Good Friday, when the apostles abandoned Christ and Judas betrayed him, because the traitor wanted his own style of Christ, a Christ preoccupied with political issues. Today many priests and bishops are literally spellbound by political or social questions. In reality, these questions will never find answers apart from Christ’s teaching. It makes us more capable of solidarity and fraternity; as long as we do not have Christ as our older brother, the firstborn of a multitude of brothers, there is no solid charity, no true otherness. Christ is the only light of the world. How could the Church turn away from this light? How can she spend her time getting bogged down in purely materialistic issues?
Certainly, it is important to be sensitive to persons who are suffering. I am thinking in particular of people who leave their country. But why do they go away from their land? Because their nations have been destabilized by unbelieving authorities who have lost God, for whom money and power are the only things that count. These difficulties are immense. But, I repeat, the Church must first restore to people the ability to look toward Christ: “When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:32). The crucified Christ is the one who teaches us to pray and to say: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It is by looking to the Son of God that the Church will be able to learn to bring people to prayer and to forgive as Christ does. This book means to try to restore to the Church the sense of her great divine mission. So that she can bring people to Christ who is Hope. This is the meaning of the title of our book: today everything is somber, difficult, but whatever difficulties we may be going through, there is only one person who can come to our aid. It is necessary for there to be an institution to lead to this person, and that is the Church.
To call the Church back to her true mission: that is a way of saying that she sometimes strays from it. You go so far as to denounce the shepherds who betray their sheep, which many Catholics find difficult to believe….
Your comment is not specific to our age: look at the Old Testament, which has an abundance of bad shepherds, those men who like to make a profit on the meat or the wool of their sheep, without taking care of them! There have always been betrayals in the Church. Today, I can say without fear that some priests, some bishops and even some cardinals are afraid to proclaim what God teaches and to hand on the doctrine of the Church. They are afraid of disapproval, of being seen as reactionaries. And so they say fuzzy, vague, imprecise things, so as to escape all criticism, and they espouse the stupid evolution of the world. That is a betrayal: if the shepherd does not lead his flock to the restful waters, toward the green pastures that the psalm speaks about, if he does not protect it against the wolves, that shepherd is a criminal who abandons his sheep. If he does not teach the faith, if he revels in activism instead of reminding people that they are made for prayer, he betrays his mission. Jesus says: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (Mt 26:31). That is what is happening today. People no longer know where to turn.
Nowadays isn’t there for some people the temptation to align the Church with the world’s values so as to stop being a sign of contradiction to it?
Obviously, there is a large majority of priests who remain faithful to their mission of teaching, sanctifying and governing. But there is also a small number who give in to the morbid, wicked temptation to align the Church with the current values of the Western societies. Above all they want people to say that the Church is open, welcoming, attentive, modern. But the Church is not made for listening, she is made for teaching: she is Mater et magistra, mother and teacher. Of course a mom listens to her child, but she is there in the first place to teach, to guide and to supervise, because she knows better than her children what path to take. Some have adopted the ideologies of today’s world under the fallacious pretext of being open to the world; but instead we should bring the world to be open to God, who is the source of our existence.
In your book you talk about a crisis of moral theology: isn’t this above all the temptation to sacrifice doctrine to pastoral care, in other words, the content to the container, and a false concept of mercy, which is so concerned about vaunting its understanding that it thereby forgets to recall the rules for living well?
All pastoral care is like a house: if there are no foundations, the house collapses. Pastoral care must be built on the teaching of the Church. Too often people forget doctrine so as to focus exclusively on pastoral care; but then it is an empty, puerile, stupid sort of pastoral care. You cannot sacrifice doctrine to a pastoral practice that was reduced to congruent part of mercy: God is merciful, but only to the extent to which we acknowledge that we are sinners. In order to allow God to bestow his mercy, it is necessary to return to Him, like the prodigal son. There is a perverse tendency to falsify pastoral care, to pit it against doctrine and to present a merciful God who demands nothing: but there is no such thing as a father who demands nothing of his children! God, like any good father, is demanding, because he has immense ambitions for us. The Father wants us to be in his image and likeness.
Your speak about the faith of believers becoming insipid, what Benedict XVI called a “bourgeois Christianity” or what Pope Francis calls the “paganization of Christian life”. Aren’t these Christians, who no longer want to be the salt of the earth but prefer to be its sugar, an even bigger challenge than the heresies of the past?
This sort of softness or insipidness is part of contemporary culture: it is necessary to be tolerant, to respect people, to evolve with them. Certainly, we have the duty to be understanding, to walk alongside people, but at the same time it is necessary to help them to strengthen their muscles. It takes muscles to be a mountain climber. The same qualities are required to climb the mountain of God: it takes the muscles of faith, of will, or hope, of love. It is important not to deceive the faithful with a soft, undemanding, amoral religion. The Gospel is demanding. “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out! If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off!” (cf. Mt 5:29-30). Our role is precisely to bring people to this evangelical requirement.
You write that “the West is experiencing the radical, deliberately willed solitude of the damned.” How do you talk about God to people who, as you write, “do not feel the need to be saved”?
Look at Christ: do you think that the people whom he had in front of him wanted to listen to him? Opposition to God, to the Truth, has always existed. In the West it is difficult to talk about God, because the mollifying society of comfort thinks that it has no need of Him. But this material comfort is not enough. There is a hidden happiness that people are seeking confusedly without knowing it. The Church must reveal to man these interior needs, these riches of the soul that make him fully human, which make him fully happy. Saint Irenaeus says that “God became man so that man might become God”; the Church’s mission is to guide man in this ascent toward God. But if the priests are bogged down in materialism, they will not be able to guide the world toward true happiness.
True reform concerns our own conversion. If we do not change ourselves, all structural reforms will be useless. Laypeople, priests, cardinals—we must all return to God.
Catholic leaders often tend to blame this disaffection with the Church on the prevailing materialism or other developments in society. Wouldn’t it be more helpful for the Church to ask herself about her responsibilities too, about how she might have turned the faithful away by desacralizing the liturgy, by turning her back on popular piety or by making her preaching insipid?
I am convinced that the primary responsibility for this collapse of the faith must be taken by the priests. In the seminaries or in the Catholic universities we have not always taught doctrine. We have taught whatever we liked! Catechizing children was abandoned. Confession was disdained. Besides, there were no longer any priests in the confessionals! We are therefore partially responsible for this collapse. In the 1970’s and 1980’s in particular, each priest did whatever he liked during Mass. No two Masses looked alike: that was what discouraged so many Catholics from going to church. Pope Benedict XVI says that the crisis of the liturgy caused the crisis of the Church. Lex orandi, lex credendi: as we pray, so we believe. If there is no longer any faith, the liturgy is reduced to a show, a folklore display, and the faithful turn away. We have probably been guilty of negligence. The desacralization of the liturgy always has serious consequences. We wanted to humanize the Mass, to make it comprehensible, but it remains a mystery that is beyond understanding. When I say Mass, when I give absolution, I grasp the words that I say, but the intellect cannot comprehend the mystery that these words bring about. If we do not do justice to this great mystery, we cannot lead the people to a true relationship with God. Even today we still have an excessively horizontal pastoral practice: how do you expect people to think of God if the Church is occupied exclusively with social issues?
A reform of the Roman Curia is expected any day now. In your book you are rather skeptical about these structural reforms….
True reform concerns our own conversion. If we do not change ourselves, all structural reforms will be useless. Laypeople, priests, cardinals, we must all return to God. History witnessed two reformers: Luther, who wanted to change the face of the Church and ended up leaving it, and Francis of Assisi, who transformed the Church by living the Gospel radically. Today, true reform is a radically evangelical life. Mother Teresa discreetly and humbly reformed the Church by tirelessly proclaiming to the world: “Care for the poor, but before that, care first for God.” She knew by experience that we are too poor to care for the poor. As long as we are not enriched by the presence of God in us, we cannot care for the weakest among us.
There’s a lot of talk too about synodality, collegiality. In your book you point out the risk of bishops’ conferences contradicting one another. Do you fear that a reform of the centralism of the Roman Church endangers its unity?
Christ founded one Church; its mode of government is hierarchical. The first person responsible for the Church is the Pope. The first person responsible for the local Church is the Bishop in his diocese, and not the Episcopal Conference, which is helpful for exchanging ideas, but not for setting a course of action. I think that it is necessary to rediscover this primary responsibility of the Pope and of each bishop. The great bishops of history, for instance Ambrose or Augustine, did not spend their time planning meetings on the one hand, forming committees on the other, and traveling continuously. The bishop has to be with his people, teach his people, love his people.
An Episcopal Conference has no canonical authority, and no competence of its own in the area of doctrine. Moreover, I am sad to note that there are already contradictions among the episcopal conferences, which does not promote the peace of mind of Christians. “That they may be one,” the Lord said, so that this unity might inspire faith. If we continue along these lines, undermining doctrinal and moral unity, we will contribute to the growth of unbelief.
(Translated by Michael J. Miller with the permission of Culture à Valeurs Actuelles, which published the interview in French. The Day is Now Far Spent by Robert Cardinal Sarah with Nicolas Diat is available September 1, 2019 from Ignatius Press.)
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!