In the Synod’s Wake, a Word of Thanks to Cardinal Sarah

Among the entitlements that apply to every Catholic, there is one whose violation in recent years has become all too frequent, and that is the right to remain secure in the faith we received in baptism. How else are we to confront our persecutors? Unless we are made to feel, on the strength of a secure and coherent set of beliefs, serene and confident in the exercise of a common faith, we are powerless to resist. And when it comes to persecutors, they assume all sizes and shapes, from the armies of ISIS in the Middle East, to CCD instructors in the local parish. And while the latter may not be brandishing swords, those who flatter themselves with the latest fashions in liberal theology pose a far greater threat to the soul than the Islamist fanatic who merely wants to cut off heads.

“There is no slavery more complete,” warned Chesterton, “than to be a child of one’s own age.” Falling into the arms of the Zeitgeist, whose embrace means death, cannot be an option. Only if there is something stable and unchanging about one’s faith, if its structures remain fastened to the rock of divine Revelation, are we free to escape the enslavement of the child bound by the fixations of his own age. Indeed, it is a matter of simple justice that this should be so. What other weapons have we got with which to disarm and disabuse our enemies? Confronted by those well-practiced in the art of manipulation, like that counterfeit clergyman Dr. Johnson famously complained about, who tended to unsettle everything without ever settling anything, we are entitled to know what is permissible Catholic doctrine and what are the disasters that loom when it is blithely set aside.

How relevant this all is can be seen in the aftermath of the recent Synod on the Family, at which not a few of our Spiritual Lords appeared to be driven more by the Spirit of the Age than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And that, we are assured on weightier authority than the power presided over by mere bishops, can no more be countenanced than the geometer’s vain attempt to square the circle. Even if there are those who, in looking tenderly upon the plight of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, honestly wish to welcome them to Eucharistic Communion, the Church is simply not at liberty to jettison the teachings of Christ. So do we submit to God’s will, however much it may affront the sensibilities of certain factions within the Church, or do we fall down in supine submission before the howling winds of relativism that blow through the world?

No Synod member, it seems to me, has expressed with greater eloquence or precision the two polarities, between which there is no room to maneuver, than the outspoken cardinal from Africa, Robert Sarah, who has repeatedly refused to split the difference.   Accosting his brother bishops early on, he warned against “the temptation to yield to the mentality of the secularized world and individualistic West.” The cost of conceding on that front, he bluntly told them, is too high a price for the followers of Christ to pay:

Recognizing the so-called “realities of life” as a locus theologicus means giving up hope in the transforming power of faith and the Gospel. The Gospel that once transformed cultures is now in danger of being transformed by them.

“We must,” he went on to exhort, “proclaim the truth without fear, i.e., the Plan of God, which is monogamy in conjugal love open to life.” And insisting upon the sheer urgency with which the Church, “at its summit, definitively declare the will of the Creator for marriage,” he exclaimed how great numbers of people, “of goodwill and common sense would join this luminous act of courage carried out by the Church!”

In his acute analysis of the problems we face, Cardinal Sarah identified “two unexpected threats,” which only in the last few years have begun to spread their mischief; since then, of course, they have dangerously metastasized. He describes them “almost like two apocalyptic beasts located on opposite poles.” In the West, he says, there is an understanding of freedom that is ever more idolatrous, while in the Muslim world too often the understanding of almost everything is steeped in fundamentalism. “Atheistic secularism versus religious fanaticism. To use a slogan, we find ourselves between gender ideology and ISIS.”

And these days, wherever front-page news is being made, both themes dominate the stories being told. Whether it is the violence of Islamic aggression, or unrestricted libertarian appetite, the world’s attention has been effectively co-opted by these two developments. “From these two radicalizations arise the two major threats to the family: its subjectivist disintegration in the secularized West through quick and easy divorce, abortion, homosexual unions, euthanasia, etc.” And, at the other end, “the pseudo-family of ideologized Islam which legitimizes polygamy, female subservience, sexual slavery, child marriage, etc.”

Never mind the proportion of iniquity between the two, the origins of both are equally demonic. “We are not contending against creatures of flesh and blood,” he insisted, but forces that, in the very finality of their hatred and division, are bent on the complete destruction of the world God made and his Son set about redeeming.  And while the Church has always sought to be inclusive of all that is human, “what comes from the Enemy cannot and must not be assimilated. You cannot join Christ and Belial! What Nazi-Fascism and Communism were in the twentieth century, Western homosexual and abortion Ideologies and Islamic Fanaticism are today.”

In doing battle against these forces, he concludes, the Church will mount her most comprehensive defense of the sacredness of the marital union, an effort on behalf of which “a true epiphany of the Family” will result, revealing the true miracle of family life, “this prodigy of harmony, love of life and hope in Eternity, this cradle of faith and school of charity.”

Ah, the irony, how exquisite it is! That in the Providence of God it should fall to the very race our forbears carried unwillingly across the sea as slaves, to help free a decadent West from a slavery yet worse. To the ironic God of history, we give thanks for the brave and prophetic voice of an African bishop.

(Photo credit: Bohumil Petrik /CNA)

Regis Martin

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Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

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