God or Nothing

Our subject here is an important and inspiring book published earlier this year, God or Nothing. It resembles The Ratzinger Report, a record of conversations between a journalist and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI when the latter was still Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith. God or Nothing records conversations between a journalist, Nicholas Diat, and Robert Cardinal Sarah, for twenty-three years the Archbishop of Conakry, Guinea, and since November, 2014, a member of the Curia in Rome as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Context, including some history, is needed for understanding the book’s significance and why it was published when it was.

The undoing of Christendom in the West began in the sixteenth century in Germany. For the first time in history a large body of Christians arrogated to themselves individually a right that until then had always been recognized as belonging exclusively to the Church: to decide what is authentic Christian teaching. I speak of the revolt against the Church’s authority that is commonly referred to as the Protestant Reformation and which was sparked by the renegade German monk Martin Luther.

In doing so, I want to make clear I am not speaking of all Germans. There were ones, notably the Austrians and Bavarians, who continued to hew to the One True Faith, Catholicism. The Germans of whom I do speak were ones who earlier had lived outside the boundaries of the ancient Roman Empire and thus did not experience life lived in the light of Mediterranean Latin civilization. All they knew, both before and after the Empire became Christian and for a long time after its collapse in the West, were gloom, long northern nights, a jejune landscape, and barbarity.

After their defection from the Faith in the sixteenth century, they were epitomized in the eighteenth by the atheist homosexual Enlightenment despot Frederick (called “the Great”), King of Prussia. When the Germanies outside Austria were unified in 1870, it was under Prussian domination. It was that Germany that was later more responsible than any other single nation for the catastrophic self-destructiveness of Christian Europe we know as World Wars I and II.

Its avatars continued their dismantling work at Vatican Council II, as chronicled in well-known books like The Rhine Flows into the Tiber. If they remain at it today by welcoming into Europe millions of Muslim “refugees,” it was also apparent in 2014 at the notorious first assembly of the Vatican’s Synod on the Family. However, this past October, when the second gathering of the Synod convened in Rome, men from farther south than the Mediterranean, Africans, were ready for them. They had met beforehand in Ghana to strategize. Their face was Cardinal Sarah.

To be sure, he was not the only prelate at the Synod to rise in defense of the Church’s historical teachings against the revolutionary “pastoral” Catholicism promoted by the Germans, and as far as the Vatican Press Office was concerned he might as well not have been present. It completely ignored it when he spoke, galvanizing the assembly. However, the outside world soon learned of the speech when the president of Poland’s national bishops’ conference enthusiastically posted a summary of it on his website, a summary that was soon further summarized on several English-language websites.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, photo by François-Régis Salefran (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Cardinal Robert Sarah, photo by François-Régis Salefran (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The speech does not concern us here. What does is God or Nothing. Nearly as important as the book itself is the fact it was obviously purposely published in plenty of time to reach and be read by Churchmen who would attend the second assembly of the Synod. Other books were got out by publishers to the same end, but Cardinal Sarah’s stood a better chance of actually being read by Synod participants since it was produced by a colleague.

That the goal of timely publication was attained is testified by blurbs on the book’s jacket. Raymond Cardinal Burke hails the work as “A remarkable testimonial of the Catholic faith…” Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco sees that “the seed of the Gospel sown in the earth of Africa produces a rich harvest!” Pope Emeritus Benedict, expressing “joy and gratitude,” says that “all you have written on the centrality of God, the celebration of the liturgy, the moral life of Christians is especially relevant and profound.”

Visitors to the SBC website deserve to hear for themselves something of what these Churchmen are praising. Bear in mind, what you hear comes from one of the highest-ranking prelates in the Church today, one, in fact, who outranked any German at the Synod. Reflect also that His Eminence hails from a part of the world which, together with Latin America and Asia, is where most Catholics now live. He represents the Faith being lived as does no European or North American prelate any longer, a reality still not comprehended by U.S. Catholics who persist in seeing this country or their diocese or even parish as the center of the Catholic universe. Catholics to whom the Faith is more important than nationality will rejoice in hearing what now follows:

“Nicolas Diat: Last December [2014] Reinhard Cardinal Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, said: ‘Throughout the world, the search for a theologically responsible and pastorally appropriate way of assisting Catholics who are divorced or divorced and civilly remarried is one of the urgent challenges for pastoral ministry to families and married couples in the context of evangelization.’ What is your viewpoint on this subject, which figured among the questions at the last synod in October 2014?

“Cardinal Sarah: I have a lot of respect for Reinhard Cardinal Marx. But this very general statement seems to me to be the expression of mere ideology that they want to impose hastily on the whole Church. In my experience, specifically after twenty-three years as archbishop of Conakry and nine years as secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the question of ‘Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried’ is not an urgent challenge for the Church of Africa or Asia. On the contrary, this is an obsession of some Western Churches that want to impose so-called ‘theologically responsible and pastorally appropriate’ solutions that radically contradict the teaching of Jesus and the Church’s Magisterium….

“I solemnly state that the Church in Africa is staunchly opposed to any rebellion against the teaching of Jesus and of the Magisterium.

“If I may make a historical reference: in the fourth century, the Church of Africa and the Council of Carthage decreed priestly celibacy. Then, in the sixteenth century, that same African Council served as the foundation on which Pope Pius IV based his arguments against pressures from the German princes, who asked him to authorize the marriage of priests. Today, too, the Church of Africa is committed in the name of the Lord Jesus to keeping unchanged the teaching of God and the Church about the indissolubility of marriage: what God has joined, let no man put asunder….

“Today there is a confrontation and a rebellion against God, a battle organized against Christ and His Church. How is it comprehensible that Catholic pastors should put doctrine to a vote: the law of God and the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, on divorce and remarriage, as though from now on the Word of God and the Magisterium had to be sanctioned and approved by majority vote?

“Men who devise and elaborate strategies to kill God, to destroy the centuries-old doctrine and teaching of the Church, will themselves be swallowed up, carried off by their own earthly victory into the eternal fires of Gehenna.”

Cardinal Sarah was born in 1945 in a remote village of Guinea, then an overseas territory of France. It is where he spent his boyhood. His animist parents had been brought to the Faith by French missionaries who would also school him, see his potential and sponsor his secondary education at a minor seminary where he found his vocation. Repeatedly in his book, the Cardinal expresses gratitude for the sacrifices and faith of such European missionaries of yesteryear.

He might have had the career of an ordinary priest except that Charles DeGaulle decided that France would abandon its territories in Africa. Abandon is the word. I remember reading at the time that when the French pulled out of Guinea they even took their telephones with them. Their rule was replaced by that of a Marxist tyrant, Sekou Toure. Many native clergy saved their skins by forgetting their vows. Survival of the Church in the country depended on a few priests who were tough as well as smart.

It was during those years that Cardinal Sarah learned what he writes in God or Nothing: “Christians will never succeed in overcoming the challenges of the world by appealing to political tools, human rights, or respect for religious liberty. The only rock for the baptized is prayer and the encounter with Jesus Christ. Men whose strength is in prayer are unsinkable.”

Prayer is probably the subject about which the Cardinal speaks most often in his book. Of the very many passages on the subject that I underlined in my copy, here is one line: “I think that prayer calls somehow for an absence of words, because the only language that God really hears is the silence of love.”

Cardinal Sarah’s predecessor as archbishop of Conakry spent nine years being tortured and starved in one of Sekou Toure’s concentration camps. When Toure died, evidence was discovered that he had slated Cardinal Sarah not for arrest and imprisonment but assassination.

Can we imagine the courage that was required of him to keep functioning in such conditions? It must account for his readiness now to assign responsibility for evil in this world. He does not hesitate to name names. Thus: “When I see the astronomical sums promised by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which aims to increase exponentially access to contraception for unmarried African girls and women, thus opening up the way for abortion, I can only protest against such a lethal project.”

Thus also: “In Iraq, the results of Western and American policies have been catastrophic for Christians.”

The Cardinal also gives credit where credit is due, even if it is to schismatics: “Reversing the movement of insidious atheism that has carried off practically all of Western Europe, Orthodoxy has allowed the Russian nation to avoid the traps, so that now it is a country that makes significant room for God and faith.”

He is equally candid — in fact, politically incorrect — on other subjects. Feminism is an example: “The idea of a woman cardinal is as ridiculous as the idea of a priest wanting to become a nun,” he says.

At one point he speaks of many Catholics devoted in recent years to the “divine mercy” fad (my word, not his): “They think that because of the Lord’s infinite goodness everything is possible, while at the same time deciding to change nothing in their lives. Many expect, as something normal, that God should pour out His mercy on them while they live in sin.”

When it comes to politics, the means by which the life of society is governed, His Eminence is as sound as he is when speaking of so much else. For example, he refers to “the oppression of materialism and moral relativism, which is even more insidious than Soviet ideology.” Indeed, “modern relativism goes so far as to claim that it is the embodiment of liberty. In this sense, liberty becomes the aggressive obligation to believe there is no higher truth; in this new Eden, if man rejects the truth revealed by Christ, he becomes free.”

And what is the origin of this “freedom”? Cardinal Sarah knows and is unafraid to identify it. It is what he refers to as “the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ movement”. It is why “without a Christian reference, in ignorance of God, a democracy becomes a sort of oligarchy, an elitist, inegalitarian regime.”

The reader may wonder by now about Cardinal Sarah’s thoughts on liturgy. After all, he is the Prefect for Divine Worship. In fact, along with prayer, liturgy is the subject of which he most often speaks. I’ve looked for a line that might serve to sum up his thinking. Perhaps this will do: “We must never forget to unite the liturgy with the tragic event of the death of Jesus on the Cross.” (So much for the Mass as a “celebration”!)

There is much speculation these days about the possibility that Pope Francis, following the lead of Pope Emeritus Benedict, will step down from the papacy, perhaps as soon as this coming year, 2016. Whenever, the majority of cardinals at the next conclave will be from Africa, Latin America and Asia. In Francis we’ve had a pope from Latin America. If Their Eminences look toward Africa the next time, probably more than one will have Cardinal Sarah on his short list. Having read God or Nothing, I would.

Footnote: I see no evidence in the text that Cardinal Sarah was thinking of it, but his book’s title puts me in mind of something once said by Andre Malraux and that Pope Saint John Paul II quoted at the conclusion of his 1994 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope: “The twenty-first century will be the century of religion, or it will not be.”