Cardinal Sarah and the Hermeneutic of Reform in Continuity

May 24, 2019

The latest work of Cardinal Robert Sarah, The Day is Now Far Spent (Ignatius Press), is, like the two previous ones, an book-interview written in collaboration with Nicolas Diat. The Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments writes a distressed analysis of the crisis shaking Western society and the Church after the Council.

The criticisms of the high prelate, without addressing himself to Pope Francis—he holds his own vigorously—cannot not be brought back in some way to the current pontiff, whether it is a question of mass immigration, ecology, the eventual opening of the priesthood to married men, etc.

Cardinal Sarah’s worry seems to be to not divide the Church further, this is why he “stays beside Francis,” and he says expressis verbis. He condemns the crisis and point out certain causes: he thereby excoriates some bishops and priests, because he recognizes that it is about a crisis that “is located at the head,” but he refuses to name who the head is.

He deplores that clerics are giving in “to the morbid and villainous temptation to align the Church with the values of today’s Western societies. They want above all to say that the Church is open, welcoming, attentive, modern.” (CNA, March 28, 2019). But he rejects all opposition between him and the pope. He wants to recall the truth, but does not want to compromise unity. Now it is not Cardinal Sarah who divides, but those who, by opposing the 2,000 year old truth, break unity.

Because Church unity rests on one truth, revealed by God. One truth gone, unity in truth gone, instead “unity in diversity,” the “polyhedron” or the “mosaic”…as they say today. Remember the unicity of truth, it is to defend Church unity and condemn the makers of division who employ themselves in “aligning the Church with the values of today’s Western societies.” In his book, Cardinal Sarah supplies a pertinent diagnosis, but prescribes remedies that treat only the symptoms, without getting to the source of the infection.


On the site Atlantico on April 8, 2019, the high prelate answered questions from Jean-Sebastian Ferjou. He condemned the pseudo-values of secularism, “French secularism is a perfect contradiction: you are essentially shaped by the Church. You cannot say that I am secular in society and I am Christian at church. It is ridiculous. A man cannot be divided: he is one from all points of view, in all circumstances. A Frenchman in church is also a Frenchman in politics. It is inconsistent to imagine the inverse. The Faith is an intimate reality but it must also be true in the family and in society in every sense.”

This secular neutrality, passed on by Conciliar religious liberty—which the Cardinal does not  point out—kills the missionary spirit and transforms priests into social workers; “If I receive someone, I give him the best of myself, the most beautiful of what I have. Now, if I give only a roof, work, medicine to migrants, and I hide from him what truly makes a man, his opening to the transcendent, I deprive him. Why not offer my Christian faith to the migrant? I am absolutely not imposing it upon him, I only tell him, ‘it is a very good opportunity for your salvation.’” [it is even a necessity!]

“Beyond what we are offering to migrants, I am troubled by the West’s renunciation of its own identity. Not only do we no longer know how to explain to others who we are, but we often no longer know it ourselves.”

“I think that the West could disappear if it forgets its Christian roots. The barbarians are already there, in its bosom. And they are imposing their culture on it; they are imposing their religion, their view of man, their moral views, however the West only has a weak stomach and avoids opposing them.”

On the website Boulevard Voltaire, in an interview given to Gabrielle Cluzel on April 8, the Guinean prelate emphasized his remarks on his personal experience, “I have received everything from the West. I received my formation and my faith. There is the impression today that the West is denying its origins, its history, and its roots. It seems to me that we are living as if we have nothing to do with Christianity. This is not true. When you open your eyes, you can see the architecture, the music, the literature…and all that is Christian. I cannot see why anyone can deny what is. To deny what is, is to lie to yourself.”

“I think that the West is in danger, if it denies it Christian roots. It is like a great river, it may be immense and majestic, but if it loses it source, it is no long fed and will dry up after a time. It is like a tree that no longer has any roots; it is dying. A West without Christian roots is a West threatened with death and extinction. It is being overrun by other cultures which do not renounce their history and fight to show that they have a culture to put forward. Other cultures are overwhelming Europe, like the Muslim and the Buddhist cultures. It is important that the West gets back the awareness that its beautiful, majestic, and noble values are being lost.”

“I do not claim to be the (only) missionary. We are all, through baptism, sent to make Christ and the Gospel known, and the new reality that it proposes. Today, Scripture tells us again: “I have made a new world.” This new world has been created by Christ Himself.

“I hope that this book can reawaken the Western conscience. I believe that the West has a special mission. It is not for nothing that God transmitted the faith to us through the West. God’s gifts are permanent, for always, and not for the moment. The West has a universal mission, because of its culture, its faith, its roots, and its personal connection with God. If the West forgets its roots, there will a an enormous and terrible devastation in the world. I hope that reading the book The Day is Now Far Spent will be a way to wake up the Western conscience, but also our Christian conscience.”

On Atlantico, Cardinal Sarah stresses, “I believe that if those who guide the West, those who want to steer it, do so without—even against—Christianity, then they will become lukewarm and drive the West to its ruin. Without this evangelical radicalness, which can change man’s heart and thus politics, the economy, and anthropology, they are open to its demise, even if this is not their intention.”

Regarding ecology, the high prelate said, “to save the planet while continuing to kill babies or to kill the aged when their weakness becomes displeasing to look at? But what are they saving? When you lose God, you lose man. God no longer exists, so save nature. But what is nature without man?


To Jean-Sébastiel Ferjou of Atlantico, the Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship shows that this general crisis equally affects the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church: “(in my book) I give a review of the crises in the Church. There is the impression that she no longer has sure doctrine, that she no longer has sure moral teachings. The Church’s teaching seems today to fade and become uncertain and liquid. Do we still believe that the Bible is revealed? Our attitude towards God has changed profoundly. In the Church, is God still considered as a person who seeks to build an intimate and personal relationship with each of us? Or is He only an idea, a far away being? The heart of our faith resides in the Incarnation of God, Who is close to us. There are Jesus-Christ, and the Father, Who in the Most Holy Trinity make only one with the Holy Ghost. Do we still truly have this faith for which so many martyrs have given their lives?”

According to the African prelate, this crisis of faith manifests itself also through a grave moral crisis in the clergy. “The crisis is also present at the priestly level. Indisputability, there are moments in history when the lives of priests have not been exemplary. Their lives do not reflect the Gospel, nor the holiness of God. And the Church tolerated a true casualness towards morality. But He always raised up figures like St. Francis of Assisi to correct it by opting for the radicalness of the Gospel, i.e., the Gospel in its purity and totality. There was also the Curé of Ars: a man of prayer and penance, because the devil persists against the priesthood, and often he cannot be driven away from us except through prayer, fasting, and a deep desire and will for conversion. But, what is happening today is incredible. We are obliged to recognize the grave and horrible sins of pedophile priests. Pretty much everywhere, men who were supposed to foster the growth of children in dignity and in their relationship with God, are now accused of corrupting and destroying not only their innocence, but also the most precious of their lives. Other priests proudly declare that they are homosexual and that they want to contract a ‘marriage’ with their friend. Some bishops and cardinals are implicated for the sexual abuse of minors. Never, I think, have we seen such horror and concentration of evil in the Church. The Church is marked by a great moral crisis, very painful.”

And this crisis in the Church has come out as division and general confusion, especially in these times on the question of priestly celibacy. “The Church is also marked by a great division regarding doctrinal and moral teaching. A bishop says one thing, another contradicts him; an episcopal conference says one thing, another says the opposite...confusion sets in everywhere, as perhaps never before. It is now often said that the celibacy of priests is an inhuman, unbearable reality, which cannot be assumed and lived serenely. And at the same time, the priest claims to be configured to Christ! For the priest is not only an alter Christus, another Christ, but he is especially ipse Christus, that is, Christ Himself. The priest pronounces the same words as Jesus when he says “this is my Body, this is my Blood.” He is configured and identified with Christ. He is the physical presence and the immersion of the Mystery of Christ on the earth. Perpetuating Christ is not compatible with the reality of a conjugal life. One cannot claim to identify oneself with Christ and at the same time claim to dissociate celibacy from the priesthood. However, a movement in this direction is working on the Church from the inside. The synod on the Amazon next October anticipates, it seems, taking up the question of priestly ordination of married men, viri probati. I very much hope that this will not happen, and that the higher authority, the pope, will never authorize such a break with the recent history of the Church.


How can this tragic situation be explained? In this interview given to Atlantico, Cardinal Sarah considers that the Church’s adaptation to the modern world is making her lose her identity. “We thought we needed to be dynamic, that we had to be active at all costs, to carry out more or less sophisticated projects, in short, to be an image of our society in perpetual motion. As a result, we have abandoned God, we have abandoned prayer, and some priests have became ‘social workers.’”

And a little later, “Yes, there are intelligent people who want to modernize or perfect the Church, perfect Christianity, make it more modern. But, we cannot modernize or perfect the Church. As Charles Péguy wrote, ‘It's a bit like perfecting the north, the direction north. The clever one who would like to improve the north. The smart guy...north is naturally fixed. Christianity is naturally fixed. Thus, the fixed points were given once and for all in one or the other world, in the natural world and in the supernatural world, in the physical world and in the mystical world.’

And all the work, all the effort is then against protecting them, keeping them, far from improving them, to the contrary.” We do not have to modernize the Church. She is driven by the power of the Holy Ghost and under the watchful eye of Peter. And what God makes is holy, pure, and perfectly ordered to realize His plan of salvation for humanity. I cannot undertake any transformation of the Church without consulting God, which I do in prayer. In prayer, I know that it is no longer my work, that I must follow the inspirations from God, and that these are not only those of today, but of the Church from its very beginning until our time. The Church has never been governed by a people, but by a hierarchy. At first it consisted of the 12 apostles, one of whom was Peter. The only and real transformation possible for the Church is that she tries her utmost to put the Will of God into practice. And the Will of God is that we become saints.”

On April 5th, to Arthur Herlin, of the IMedia agency, taken over by the website Aleteia, Cardinal Sarah asserts in no uncertain terms the heavy responsibility of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in this crisis.  “It is true that currently the crisis is located at the highest level. If we are no longer capable of teaching doctrine or morals, or setting an example and being role models, then the crisis has become extremely grave. Who will defend the sheep if, leaving them to their fate, pastors take fright and flee against wolves? Fear is the great weakness of the Church today. Everyone is, of course, terrorized because the Church is accused of all evil. But when someone is caught in fear, he is no longer master of himself. This is why the Church no longer dares to free herself and go against the current to show the world the direction it should go. Some bishops fear criticism because they are self-centered and have become too cautious, no long clearly explaining anything in the hope that they will not encounter opposition or martyrdom. But they must find God, focus on Him and trust in the power of His grace. Indeed, when you are really with Him, you are not afraid of anything.”


When the Atlantico journalist reminds Cardinal Sarah of the interfaith declaration of Pope Francis during his recent trip to Morocco (March 30-31, 2019), the answer is surprising:

Jean-Sébastien Ferjou: “Ecumenism and interreligious dialogue are very Western values. You say that they have been greatly transformed into irenism, into a sort of nonsense. Have you been struck by Pope Francis’ declaration, making an appeal with the King of Morocco for freedom of worship in Jerusalem, perhaps forgetting to say that freedom of worship should also be respected in Arab countries—especially in the Gulf? The pope consents to making Christians not proselytize to give a token of his peaceful will but does not claim the same from Muslims with whom he talks.”

Cardinal Sarah: “Let us stay beside Francis.” Later in the interview, he adds regarding a conflict between himself and the pope, “It is only those who know me by hearsay who express themselves in this way and try to stab me in the back. Faced with accusations or suspicions that are both unfair and fallacious, I remain calm. My answer to your question is clear, ‘Cardinal Sarah, an opponent of the pope? No, absolutely not, and that goes for the past, the present, and the future.’ When I open my mouth or when I write, it is to talk about my faith in Jesus, my fidelity to the Gospel which does not change, not one iota regardless of circumstances, the time period, or the culture.”

Earlier in this same interview, Jean-Sébastien Ferjou tried to define the Cardinal’s position, “What is striking in your book is that you are making yourself draw a line, on a subject in tension but not contradictory: you unambiguously denounce the excesses of the Church, but you also say that it must not yield to the demon of division, that division in the Church is the work of the devil. How can you bring off using such strong words, which can awaken consciences, without going so far as to fall into the political struggles?”

Cardinal Sarah answers him, “Jesus said, ‘My doctrine is not mine, but His that sent me. If any man do the will of Him; he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself’ (Jn. 7:16). Christ did not teach His own doctrine, but that of the Father. He did not come to contradict the Pharisees or high priests. His role was to proclaim the Word of God, to teach the doctrine of His Father, and nothing else. For me, I did not make the choice to fight or to contradict someone. I desire and only want to proclaim the word that I have received from the missionaries, the Word of Jesus, and to transmit the teachings of the Church. I have no desire to fight or oppose anyone. However, you tell me that by saying this, I will create divisions...on the contrary, I want to contribute to unifying the Church in her Faith so that she lives in love and communion. To teach the doctrine, to be faithful to the intangible teaching of the Church, is to contribute to the creation of the communion and unity of the Church. It is sad to see a divided family.”

—On the teaching of Jesus that did not contradict the Pharisees, turn to, among others, the Gospel according to St. Matthew, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you are like to whited sepulchers, which outwardly appear to men beautiful, but within are full of dead men's bones, and of all filthiness. So you also outwardly indeed appear to men just; but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Mt. 23:27-28). Let us add, according to the prophecy of old Simeon, that Christ is “set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted” (Lk. 2:34).


Basically, the question is whether Vatican II, which is the “compass” of all the pontificates since 1965, allows being “faithful to the intangible teaching of the Church,” as Cardinal Sarah wishes. To this, the high prelate answers directly in his book: “The Council does not have to be retracted” (p.118), and it is based on the affirmation of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, in his book-interview with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 1992),  “to defend the true tradition of the Church today means to defend the Council. It is also our fault if we have at times provided a pretext, (to the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ alike) to view Vatican II as a ‘break’ and an abandonment of the tradition. There is instead a continuity that allows neither a return to the past nor a flight forward, neither anachronistic longings, nor unjustified impatience. We must remain faithful to the today of the Church, not the yesterday or tomorrow. And this today of the Church is the documents of Vatican II, without reservations that amputate them, and without arbitrariness that distorts them” (p. 31).

The demarcation line that Cardinal Sarah clearly claims in his book (p.120) is none other than “the hermeneutic of the reform in the continuity of the one subject-Church,” as Benedict XVI said in his speech at the Curia on December 22, 2005.

Is this position a sufficient answer to the current crisis that he denounces with such force? Is it a remedy for the doctrinal confusion and the general division that he sincerely deplores? In his interview with Valeurs Actuelles, Cardinal Sarah rightly asserts, “Some have adopted the ideologies of today’s world under the false pretext of opening up to the world; but we should rather bring the world to open itself to God who is the source of our existence.” This is a prudent, diplomatic, conditional affirmation (it should be rather), and it is based on this hermeneutic of the reform in the continuity which is only an interpretation, i.e., the weakness of this position. Faced with the current collapse caused by the alignment of the Church with “the ideologies of today's world,” it takes more than a conditional and only interpretative response.

The facts are stubborn and they have a stubborn cause. The principle of causality is not a subjective interpretation, but a law of reality that imposes itself on everyone. There is no effect without cause, no smoke without fire. This cause is chosen by Cardinal Ratzinger, cited by Cardinal Sarah, but neither of them recognize it as the cause of the evils they denounce. For the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “Vatican II was right in its desire for a revision of the relations between the Church and the world. There are in fact values, ​​which, even if they originated outside the Church, can find their place—provided they are clarified and corrected—in her perspective [of the world]” (op.cit, p. 36). He stated elsewhere: “The problem of the 60s was to acquire the best values ​​expressed by two centuries of liberal culture” (Interview with Vittorio Messori, in the monthly magazine Jesus, November 1984, p. 72).

Archbishop Lefebvre affirmed, “The Church suffers everywhere and she suffers first—it must be said—by those who, in the Roman Curia, continue to propagate modernist ideas by maintaining, in spite of everything, those reforms that have been instituted after the Second Vatican Council and which are in the process of destroying the Church—the self-destruction of the Church, as Pope Paul VI himself said” (Homily of 29 June 1981).

In his History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches, Bossuet declared: “God laughs at the prayers that are made to him to avert public misfortunes, when we do not oppose what is done to attract them. What did I say? when we approve of it and subscribe to it, even though it be with repugnance.” Which the literary critic Jules Lemaître concisely transformed into practical advice, we must renounce “respecting the causes whose consequences we deplore.”