Sometimes the most perceptive observers of a society are outsiders. Perhaps the best analysis of America, for example, was penned by the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville following his travels throughout the United States between 1831 and 1832.
It was difficult not to be reminded of this when reading Cardinal Robert Sarah’s new book Le soir approche et déjà le jour baisse (2019; available on September 1st in English from Ignatius Press, titled The Day Is Now Far Spent). The title (It is almost evening and the day is now nearly over) comes from Luke’s Gospel (24:29) in which two disciples on the way to Emmaus ask Jesus to stay with them after he has spent time opening their minds to reality. While the Cardinal from Africa and his interviewer, the distinguished French journalist Nicolas Diat, seek to do many things in this book, one goal is clearly to awaken Western societies, especially Western European societies, to the truth about themselves. To be sure, that reality is not a pretty picture as Sarah doesn’t mince his words. But sometimes a thorough-going, even brutally-direct diagnosis is an essential prerequisite to identifying cures.
Offering such a diagnosis requires courage. That’s something the quietly-spoken Cardinal Sarah has in spades. A native of Guinea who combines deep knowledge of Africa and Islam, personal experience of suffering under a Marxist dictatorship, and years of living in the West, Sarah is well-positioned to discuss the multileveled crises in which Western countries find themselves.
Like anyone engaged in such a study, Sarah brings the insights of others to bear upon the problem. He particularly draws upon two of the twentieth century’s great minds: Joseph Ratzinger and, at greater distance, the Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac. That said, Sarah makes his own distinct contributions to his topic. Among other things, these include a profound knowledge of the great treasures of French Catholicism, but above all the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and an ability to read the significance of historical events in light of the biblical faith revealed within.
So what is Sarah’s subject? On one level this book addresses the shameful disarray presently characterizing much of the Catholic world. Yet Sarah is also advancing a broader thesis. And his theme is that the West, especially Western Europe, is running out of time. Despite what Sarah underscores as its enviable economic and scientific achievements, none of this compensates for Europe’s apparent penchant for cultural self-dissolution.
A West at war with itself
“Europe,” Sarah writes at one point, “seems programmed for self-destruction.” That will remind some readers of de Lubac’s famous description of how much of the Catholic world after Vatican II embarked upon an “‘autodestruction’ de l’Eglise et d’‘apostasie interne’.” It’s not a question of Sarah being opposed, holus bolus, to modernity. He’s not. Nor was de Lubac. The problem is a West that, in Sarah’s words, “seems to hate itself.”
By “the West,” Sarah means many things. On one level, he certainly means the West’s “racines judéo-chrétiennes” that have given unique shape to European culture. But Sarah also has in mind what might be called plurality in unity. By this, Sarah doesn’t mean “diversity” or “multiculturalism.” For him, those are ideological distortions of a very different idea of Europe. Like flowers in a garden, Sarah says, Europe’s nations have their own distinct beauties and fragrances. Nonetheless they are also part of a single whole. Together they amount to what Charles de Gaulle once called “une Europe des nations.” That Europe, however, is presently undergoing a leveling in the name of rampant political correctness and a sentimental humanitarianism that itself is a corruption of biblical faith.
It’s hardly any secret that some Europeans—particularly its political and intellectual leaders—are at best diffident about Europe’s religious roots. But the religious instinct is so wired into human nature that they cannot help but try and replace Europe’s specific religious heritage with what Sarah calls “un esprit utopie.” This consists of an amalgam of rights-talk, a determination to annihilate nation-states, aspirations to globalist governance, an essentially hedonist morality, and the simultaneous—albeit contradictory—exhalation of equality-as-sameness and autonomy-for-autonomy’s sake.
But like any utopia, the modern European version is bound to produce disappointment, not to mention incoherence. Europe, Sarah notes, exalts human rights, but many Europeans can’t give a rational explanation about why something is a right beyond the transitory will of temporary democratic majorities. Europe speaks of freedom but struggles to distinguish liberty from license. Europe preaches humanism but increasingly can’t move beyond merely materialistic conceptions of man. Europe celebrates the power of science, but some Europeans claim that 2 x 2 sometimes equals five.
That’s not to say that Europe doesn’t have things which should weigh on its memory. It most certainly does. Foremost among these, Sarah specifies, is the Holocaust or, as he is careful to call it, the Shoah. “The will to exterminate the Jewish people, God’s chosen people,” Sarah insists, “has branded the entire history of humanity.” As if to stress the point, he later adds, “I think that the Shoah was the greatest scandal of humanity, the greatest crime of modern history. Hatred of and the will to eliminate the Jewish people is an abomination.” Yet precisely such a project was attempted in the same continent which gave us Mozart, Michelangelo, and Moses Mendelssohn. Traumas on that scale are not so easily recovered from—nor should they be.
In Sarah’s view, the West’s response to this and other horrors has been effectively to embrace a type of nihilism, something that’s difficult to avoid once a transcendental horizon to human existence is lost. In this connection, Sarah makes particular reference to a 1992 speech given in Paris by Joseph Ratzinger to the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques. Here Ratzinger underscored the importance of Tocqueville’s observation that, unlike so much of nineteenth-century Europe, liberty and faith were not at war in America. Instead America’s experiment in freedom, Tocqueville demonstrated, was nourished with fundamental values infused by religion, which, in nineteenth-century America’s case, was Protestant Christianity.
It’s an open question whether religion functions the same way in contemporary America. Just when you think the Catholic Church’s credibility in America couldn’t go any lower, it manages to further demean itself. Sarah, however, is deeply concerned about the widespread rejection of Jewish and Christian religion as meaningful reference points in so much of Western Europe. This has, he believes, emptied the old continent of the type of moorings required to (1) stop freedom from collapsing into license and (2) help Europe withstand not just Islamist jihadists but also those radical secularists who, in their own way, want to transform Europe into something alien to the West’s fundamental roots.
It’s not, however, just outright rejection of Europe’s religious character that concerns Sarah. It’s also the spread of what John Henry Newman—also cited in Sarah’s book—famously denounced as liberalism in religion: the type of religious faith that, as Newman wrote in his 1848 novel, Loss and Gain, holds that “there [is] no truth or falsehood in received dogmas of theology; that they [are] modes, neither good nor bad in themselves, but personal, national, or periodic.”
Does anyone seriously question that this is the type of faith which characterizes, for example, much of contemporary German Catholicism? Who would really contest that many of its bishops and theologians hold beliefs largely indistinguishable from, say, the liberal wing of the Church of England, or that many German Catholic institutions essentially function as the vaguely religious arm of Germany’s welfare state? And if so, why should anyone especially care what they think about global Christianity’s future direction, let alone Europe’s?
The problem, Sarah comments, is that Europe does matter for the rest of the world—at least for the moment. The forms assumed by, for instance, democracy and capitalism in Western countries profoundly influence other nations. A market economy grounded in a culture shaped by Judaism, Christianity, and the better side of the various Enlightenments is very different from an economic system rooted in a society which exalts materialism and choice for its own sake. The latter, Sarah suggests, is what is being exported to continents such as his native Africa.
Is Cardinal Sarah a man without hope, someone possessed by an apocalyptic vision of a doomed West? The answer is no. Hope is after all a theological virtue, and Robert Sarah is without question a man of faith. Moreover, he offers his diagnosis as someone who clearly knows and loves the best of Western culture, recognizes the great benefits which it has bestowed upon humanity, and isn’t prepared to give up on it. No doubt some won’t like what Sarah says about the state of the West. But they are the ones who really need to hear his words, not least because they concern reality, and the truth is inescapable—even for Europeans.
Le soir approche et déjà le jour baisse
By Cardinal Robert Sarah with Nicolas Diat
Librairie Arthème Fayard 2019
Paperback, 444 pages
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