“But they should not tell us too much what we have to do.” Such were the words used by the German theologian Cardinal Walter Kasper to describe what he thought of African contributions during the 2014 Synod on the Family as Catholic bishops and laity gathered to discuss challenges facing the family in the modern world.
It was hard not to recall that sentence while recently reading a book requiring translation into English as soon as possible. For in his best-selling 424 page Dieu ou Rien [God or Nothing] (Fayard, 2015), Cardinal Robert Sarah, the newly-appointed Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, illustrates in conversations with the French journalist Nicolas Diat (author of a revealing book on Benedict XVI’s pontificate) precisely why the universal Church should be listening more to Catholics who come from cultures where the faith is flourishing, and much less to those preoccupied with the concerns of particular Western European churches: churches that are fabulously wealthy in material terms but spiritually-moribund by any standard.
The book’s title underscores Sarah’s central theme: societies that lose a sense of God—and not just any god, but the God who is simultaneously Caritas, Logos, Misericordia, and Veritas—and opt for nothingness cannot help but experience profound decline. This death of God/death of man theme is hardly new. It’s implied in Plato’s discussion of the three versions of atheism, and was spelt out centuries later by Nietzsche. What, however, makes Sarah’s contribution different is the sophistication with which he makes his argument. This is a man equally at home discussing the finer points of animist religions as he is with explaining the Galileo case’s more obscure dimensions.
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“Man’s greatest difficulty is not,” Sarah writes, “what the Church teaches on morality; the hardest thing for the post-modern world is to believe in God” [my translation]. Drawing on sources ranging from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, Greek philosophers, the Church Fathers, Jewish references, Russian literature to modern French thinkers, Sarah outlines a powerful case to suggest that choices against the God who reveals Himself in the Bible are laying waste to much of the world, especially the West and even more specifically Western Europe. And in doing so—for, as anyone who has met Sarah will attest, he’s a genuinely humble man—the Cardinal born in the obscure African village of Ourous inadvertently reveals a formidable intellect that’s matched by years of pastoral experience and a profound knowledge of, and direct personal contact with, the many different challenges confronting the Catholic Church throughout the world.
For Sarah, it matters little whether the nothingness is expressed via militant atheism, Marxist materialism, secular liberalism, or the politically correct non-entity worshiped by what another Cardinal, Blessed John Henry Newman, famously condemned as “the spirit of Liberalism in religion.” The denial of God, Sarah maintains, can only lead to one thing: an enormous void that’s invariably filled in destructive ways. These include self-absorption, hedonism, and techno-utopianism. Sarah isn’t afraid to draw an analogy between these trends in the West and the ways that he believes animist African religions fabricated false gods to help people divert themselves from the fear that grips man when he thinks he’s truly alone in the universe.
Significantly, Sarah suggests that another way of filling the emptiness is through the relentless embrace of egalitarianism, whether in the economy or through promoting gender theory. Making such an argument is unlikely to win Sarah many friends in our equality-obsessed world: a fixation that includes more-than-a few Catholics. Given, however, that Sarah spent much of his life as an archbishop in the former French colony of Guinea facing down one of the worst post-colonial Marxist despots ever to inflict himself on Africa, Ahmed Sékou Touré (who placed Sarah on a death-list just prior to the dictator’s death in 1984), Sarah’s unlikely to be especially worried by the fulminations of Western liberals.
Sarah’s faith-journey exemplifies in many ways African Catholicism’s twentieth-century odyssey. Born in 1945, Sarah is a beneficiary of the dynamic missionary impulse that characterized French Catholicism between the nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. An only child whose animist parents converted to Catholicism, Sarah speaks movingly and affectionately of the Spiritain Fathers who left France, in many cases forever, to live in some of Africa’s most desolate regions. Baptized by a Spiritain priest in 1947, Sarah makes a point of mentioning that he was ordained as a priest by a Spiritain bishop in 1969.
Reflecting upon Catholicism’s impact upon the Africans he knew as a boy and young man, Sarah notes that it was a liberating force inasmuch as Catholicism de-divinized the natural world, thereby freeing people from fear and superstition. To Sarah’s mind, this is a practical illustration of how the Church’s dogmas and doctrines are not in fact oppressive but rather free people by revealing to them the truth about ultimate realities. That’s not only an important message to those who imagine that turning Catholicism into something as doctrinally incoherent as, say, today’s Church of England represents progress. It also helps explain why Sarah is so insistent that pastoral practice must conform to doctrine—not the other way around.
Sarah’s vocation to the priesthood came at an early age. Embracing it involved significant hardships that would try the most fervent of believers. Apart from having to journey hundreds of miles by foot, road, and boat just to attend seminary, Sarah had to overcome illnesses that almost resulted in his dismissal from the seminary. Nor can it have been easy for a young Guinean to be sent to Sénégal, France, Rome and Jerusalem for higher studies, not knowing if he would see his father and mother again: parents who, Sarah stresses, put the security of their old age at risk by supporting their only child’s path to priesthood.
Sarah, it seems, intellectually absorbed a great deal of theology, philosophy, and scriptural exegesis during his studies in Europe and Israel. He wasn’t, however, so absorbed that he didn’t see the chaos that engulfed Western life from the mid-1960s onwards. Sarah isn’t at all shy about highlighting what he regards as the deeply negative effects of May 1968 upon the West and the Church more generally, including, he observes, in his native Guinea.
It was quite a shift for Sarah to return from some of the Church’s best educational institutions and be sent by his bishop to serve as a parish priest in one of Guinea’s most inaccessible areas. Sarah also found himself in a society whose economy was being destroyed by socialist policies and living under a government that was ruthless in its efforts to terminate any sign of opposition. At one point, Sarah was sent to reform a seminary that he describes as totally lacking in spiritual formation and in which the regime, in an effort to undermine the Church, took the rebellious seminarians’ side. When Sarah was confirmed as archbishop of Conakry in 1979 at the incredibly young age of 34, his predecessor Raymond-Marie Tchidimbo had just been released from eight years in what was effectively a concentration camp: an experience that included regular torture.
Sarah served as Conakry’s archbishop until 2001. His twenty-two years of pastoral work involved navigating not just Sékou Touré’s Marxist regime and the only marginally better governments that followed, but also the fact that he lived in a majority-Muslim country. Here Sarah stresses his good personal relations with Muslims and mentions that Muslims in Guinea viewed the Catholic Church as the one institution that enjoyed some independence during Sékou Touré’s dictatorship.
But Sarah isn’t naïve about Islam. He doesn’t hesitate, for instance, to use the expression “Islamic terrorism” when reflecting upon the turmoil plaguing today’s Middle East. Sarah underscores that Catholicism and Islam operate from largely incompatible premises. This, he claims, limits opportunities for meaningful dialogue at the level of ideas. Instead, Sarah suggests, practical cooperation in the face of common problems—one of which he singles out as the neo-Malthusian population-control programs promoted by Western NGOs and governments—is perhaps the best way forward.
In 2001, John Paul II called Sarah to service in Rome as Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. It’s evident from the book that Sarah wasn’t especially happy about this move. What, however, the change did do—as did Sarah’s subsequent transfer in 2010 to become President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, which oversees the Church’s charitable work throughout the world—was to place Sarah in a position whereby he could deepen his knowledge of the life of the universal Church. Thus his analysis of the different streams of liberation theology is nuanced, and separates out the Marxist clap-trap from genuinely sound theology. Sarah’s criticisms of Western European Catholicism—the deep crisis of faith, the endless bureaucratization, the sentimental humanitarianism/NGO-ism that substitutes for religious belief—are clear, direct, and, it must be said, hard to refute.
Nor does Sarah hold back when describing the difficulties facing African Catholicism. He highlights not just external threats, such as the increasingly-violent forms taken by Islam, but also internal problems. The latter include liturgical-styles that occasionally degenerate into self-worship, and priests abandoning their vocation to enter esoteric semi-animist sects.
Then there is what Sarah poignantly calls “the heresy of activism” that afflicts many priests around the world. They have forgotten, he says, that the heart of life is only found in God. Above all, Sarah is alive to the presence of evil in the world. He singles out the Holocaust (for which, revealingly, he uses the word preferred by many religious Jews—“Shoah”) as perhaps the worst iniquity of modern times.
When it comes, however, to addressing these problems, Sarah returns again and again to people’s primordial need for the one true God. Meeting people’s material requirements, Sarah argues, is good but it’s simply not enough. To illustrate his point, Sarah tells of meeting a young Muslim boy in a Jordanian refugee camp. The boy, Sarah said, had all his material needs provided for by the camp. Yet, Sarah stresses, all the material assistance in the world couldn’t answer the boy’s doubting of God’s existence: a crisis brought on by the fact that the boy’s father had been slaughtered by Islamic terrorists.
This leads Sarah to critique those Christians who would reduce evangelization to political engagement or the promotion of socio-economic development. At one point, Sarah strongly criticizes those Westerners and international organizations that use expressions such as “eliminating poverty.” The Christian understanding of poverty, Sarah points out, differs radically from that of the secular mind. There are types of poverty, he specifies, that all Christians are actually supposed to embrace, such as detachment from material possessions. For Christians, Sarah says, it is better to speak of fighting against misery, lest one risk buying into secular conceptions of progress or pursuing utopian schemes, such as Sékou Touré’s unapologetically socialist programs which laid waste to Guinea’s economy and brought misery and death in their wake.
Much more could be said about this remarkable book. Though surely not intended as a reply to Cardinal Kasper’s now-infamous comment about Africans, Dieu ou Rien illustrates that African Catholicism has more than come of age and has profound things to say to the universal church. This especially matters in light of projections, such as suggested by the recent Pew-Templeton study, that four out of every 10 Christians in the world will live in sub-Saharan Africa by 2050. As world Catholicism’s gravity shifts away from Western Europe and towards the developing world, listening to Africans like Cardinal Robert Sarah may be something that even the most hidebound of liberal German theologians won’t be able to avoid in the future.
(Photo credit: CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)