Review of Robert Cardinal Sarah’s “God or Nothing”

Robert Cardinal Sarah with Nicholas Diat, God or Nothing – A Conversation on Faith, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2015.

In these times of confusion, it would be good for the faithful to mediate on the quote that opens this great book: “For nothing is impossible with God” (Lk. 1:37). This particular passage from Our Lord has always been one of the guiding lights of my life, and in today’s Church it is especially relevant for those tempted to discouragement. It is for these that Robert Cardinal Sarah of Guinea has a timely and profound message of encouragement.


The Cardinal starts by recounting his origins in the poor isolated village of Ourous, where he was born on June 15th, 1945. He tells us about the happiness of his youth in the North of Guinea and about the difficult experiences he had when the newly independent government of Guinea nationalized all education, confiscating Catholic Schools. He vividly describes how he was impressed by the prayer life of the Holy Ghost Fathers, his teachers in the minor seminary. He recounts his formation as a priest and how he was ordained by Archbishop Raymond-Marie Tchidimbo, who suffered torture and long imprisonment under the dictatorship of Sékou Touré. Commenting on his scriptural studies, he makes the pointed comment that it is important to show respect and fidelity to Word of God, “so as not to manipulate it to fit historical, political or ideological circumstances, for the purpose of pleasing men and acquiring a reputation as a scholar or avant-garde theologian.”

Describing his work as President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the pontifical institution for charitable works, he states, “I very quickly understood that the greatest misery is not necessarily material poverty. The most profound misery is the lack of God.” He makes a fundamental point that differentiates charity from philanthropy, “Charity is to serve man, but it is not possible to serve mankind without telling them about God.” He underlines that “We must reflect theologically on charity so as to prevent Catholic charitable agencies from falling into secularism.” As consequence, charity “urges us to evangelize.”

When the Cardinal speaks of the service that we owe to the poor he points out that “The real relief that we must bring to the poor and to afflicted people is not just material but spiritual. It is necessary to reveal to them the love, the compassion, and the closeness of God.” Then he expresses his very realistic concern that, “Some Catholic organizations are ashamed and refuse to manifest their faith. They no longer want to talk about God in their charitable activities; their excuse is that they do not want to proselytize.” Later in this book he underlines that, “one fatal error would be to emphasize social, economic, or, worse, political work to the detriment of evangelization.”

Speaking of the popes of his lifetime, he begins with an eloquent tribute to Pius XII. He notes that the encyclical Fidei Donum of this great pontiff was “inspired in part by the example of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, then archbishop of Dakar and apostolic delegate for French Africa, was very important for the development of evangelization.” He shows how Paul VI had to cope with upheavals. “The world was changing very quickly, and the Council did not bring the much-awaited in-depth understanding. The progressive hermeneutic was even leading the faithful into dead ends.” He praises him for his encyclical Sacerdotalis caelibatus, defending priestly celibacy and he strongly underlines that we have to preserve it. He praises Paul VI for the promulgation of Humanae vitae quoting extensively from this fundamental document. He has high praise for St. John Paul II, pointing out that since he defended human life the hidden powers unleashed torrents of hatred against him. He underlines how heroic was his last struggle with the illness that was consuming him. The pillars of the interior life of this great pope were the Cross, the Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Cardinal explains how the pontificate of Benedict XVI, was like a magnificent book open toward heaven: “Maybe some people—inside and outside the Church—never accepted the fundamental insights of Benedict XVI, the battle against the spirit of relativism, the denunciation of the possible dictatorial currents of secularism, the fight against anthropological reversals, a deeper appreciation of the liturgy.” Cardinal Sarah adds later that “we will never be able to thank Pope Benedict XVI enough for his hermeneutical work and his authentic interpretation of the will of the Council Fathers.” He notes how the main intention of the Council was to restore God’s primacy in the hearts of men and of societies, to restore “the eclipse of God” in contemporary society, and how the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was unfortunately not understood in terms of the fundamental primacy of adoration.

Cardinal Sarah underlines hoq

We have seen all sorts of ‘creative’ liturgical planners who sought to find tricks to make the liturgy attractive, more communicative, by involving more and more people, but all the while forgetting that the liturgy is made for God. If you make God the Great Absent One, then all sorts of downward spirals are possible, from the most trivial to the most contemptible… [What is] missing is this silent, contemplative, face-to-face meeting with God.

The Cardinal insists well that total priority has to be given to God and His proper place in our lives, lest we run the risk of falling into a silent apostasy. Speaking of Pope Francis, he states that he is trying to reform the Church in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi and with the missionary impulse of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He notes that for the future of the Church the most worrisome signs are the lack of priests, gaps in the formation of the clergy and erroneous ideas about the meaning of the mission. He is critical of the tendency “to emphasize socio-political involvement and economic development, while excluding evangelization.” As consequence, as he underlines, God has to be proclaimed in season and out of season, using respectful methods, but never withholding the truth.

He describes with a strong faith his experiences offering the Mass as young priest, how Divine worship should lift us out of the ordinary. With regards to the liturgical reform that was inspired by the II Vatican Council he points out:

Rather violently, we passed without any preparation from one liturgy to another. I can attest to the fact that the botched preparation for the liturgical reform had devastating effects on the Catholic population, particularly on the simpler people, who scarcely understood the swiftness of these changes or even the reason for them.

At the same time he notes that many conciliar documents are particularly edifying. Later, as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, he underlines the importance of making people understand that the liturgy is determined by God and not by men. It should be very clear that man cannot fabricate worship out of nothing. Worship on earth should prepare us for the heavenly liturgy where we would contemplate God for ever. He underlines that he personally welcomed the motu propio Summorum Pontificum with confidence, joy and thanksgiving: “Probably in the celebration of Mass according to the old missal, we understood better that the Mass is an act of Christ and not of men. Similarly, its mysterious and mystagogical character is more immediately evident.” In a very balanced way he notes that

The Motu proprio Summorum Pontificum attempts to reconcile the two forms of the Roman rite and above all seeks to help us rediscover the sacrality of Holy Mass as an actio Dei and not a human act. We are touching here on an extremely important point: the problem of the widespread lack of discipline, the lack of respect and of fidelity to the rite, which can also affect even the validity of the sacraments.

He concludes that some are right to be worried about the liturgical crisis and to fear the worst.

Reading this book we can see how Cardinal Sarah is an authentic man of prayer. “It (prayer) is the precious time in which everything is done, everything is regenerated, and God acts to configure us to himself.” In prayer we have to “be silent so as to let the Holy Spirit speak, to listen to him sighing and interceding on our behalf.” We have to allow God the freedom through our silence to express Himself. He notes how, “Our configuration to Christ is accomplished through an intense life of prayer, adoration, and silent contemplation. Without prayer, a priest runs the risk of falling into activism, superficiality, or worldliness.” As a consequence, he underlines that what matters most “is the quality of a priest’s heart, the strength of his faith, and the substance of his interior life.” Underlining the fundamental importance of prayer he stresses later that the only way to win the combat with the world is through union with God.

Christians will never succeed in overcoming the challenges of the world, according to Cardinal Sarah, by mere political and rational tools. “The only true rock for the baptized is prayer and the encounter with Jesus Christ. Men whose strength is in prayer are unsinkable.” And “Prayer is the source of our joy and serenity because it unites us to God, who is our strength.” But we also have to keep in mind that, “joy is proportionate to our self-denial and union with him.” He will insist that prayer “ultimately consists of being silent so as to listen to God, who speaks to us.” He wisely points out that, “The tumults that are most difficult to contain are still our own interior storms.”

The Cardinal strongly defends Paul VI for his courage in issuing the encyclical Humanae Vitae and points out how this document was prophetic in developing a morality that would defend human life. He shows how this document sought to protect women against contemporary sexual exploitation. He denounces how Western colonialism continues trying to impose false morality and deceitful values like gender theory, the so called “sexual and reproductive values,” and the homosexual agenda. Gender ideology conveys a crude lie denying the reality of the human being as man and woman. It deconstructs the human person and destroys the social order, with the objective of abolishing Christian civilization and constructing a new world. The Cardinal notices how the West promotes abortion with a Malthusian approach towards poor countries. Euthanasia has become a new objective, seeking to eliminate the aged and the infirm.

Regarding the heated debate in the Church about marriage, Cardinal Sarah is strongly critical of the proposals of Cardinal Richard Marx, President of the Germans Bishops’ Conference, who seeks new pastoral solutions for divorced and remarried Catholics. He points out that some Western Churches want to impose the so-called “theologically responsible and pastorally” appropriate solutions that contradict the teaching of Jesus and of the Church’s Magisterium: “The idea of putting magisterial teaching in a beautiful display case while separating it from pastoral practice, which then could evolve along with circumstances, fashions, and passions, is a sort of heresy, a dangerous schizophrenic pathology.” Speaking afterwards of the Christians who are suffering persecution and martyrdom, he makes a hard hitting statement, “While Christians are dying for their faith and their fidelity to Jesus, in the West, men of the Church are trying to reduce the requirements of the Gospel to a minimum.” Later he strongly notes that some theologians want to grant admission to Eucharistic Communion to the divorced and remarried, despite their ongoing state of adultery. “The divorced and remarried took it upon themselves to transgress Christ’s command: ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ (Mt 19:6), and consequently they are forbidden to receive sacramental communion; to abolish this prohibition would clearly mean the denial of the indissolubility of sacramental marriage.” His conclusion is that, “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.”

Considering the distorted contemporary notion of mercy, Cardinal Sarah notices that many expect “that God should pour their mercy on them while they remain in sin…,” responding that sin destroys on us the energies of divine life that cannot be grafted into nothingness. This error is based in subjectivism and he criticizes the Church of our times for not understanding this problem, emphasizing that the Church has to rediscover a vision: “This is not about relaxing the requirements of the Gospel or changing the doctrine of Jesus and the apostles to adapt to fleeting fashions but, rather, about challenging ourselves radically with regard to how we ourselves live the Gospel of Jesus and present dogma.” Later he denounces the serious failure in the understanding of mercy in the way that the Relatio post disceptationem from the last Synod on the Family in October 2014 deals with homosexuals.

Speaking of the contemporary world, the cardinal notes how “estrangement from God is not caused by reasoning but by a wish to be detached from him.” Men’s searching for an absolute independence rejects ethical rules and principles and causes a multitude of evils. “Morality, love, freedom, technology, and science are nothing without God’s presence. Man can devise the most magnificent works, but they will be mere sand castles and shifting illusions unless they are related to God.” Very wisely, the Cardinal notes how man is a relational being. “He is driven toward God and toward other men. If man loses this orientation, he has nothing left but to look at himself perpetually, and this egotism can take different forms.” Then the he adds a fundamental explanation on the tragedy of abandoning the belief in the Trinitarian God:

Without the Father, man finds himself dependent exclusively on little personal deals, which lead to great loneliness. Without Christ, man becomes a wolf to his fellowman, and he no longer can love as Jesus does. Without the Spirit, man’s intellect increasingly contemplates itself and finally goes into decline; with the Spirit, reason functions in hope and joy.

The Cardinal presents a valuable reservation regarding contemporary democracy. His starting point is that if democracy excludes religion it is no longer good for the people. He notes how true democracy cannot be the arbitrary rule of the majority: “Without a Christian reference, in ignorance of God, a democracy becomes a sort of oligarchy, an elitist, inegalitarian regime. As always, the eclipse of what is divine means the debasement of what is human.” He adds later commenting on the magnificent homily of Cardinal Ratzinger of April 18th, 2005, that today relativism “appears to be the philosophical basis for Western democracies that refuse to consider that Christian truth might be superior to any other.” Then he underlines that relativism establishes a totalitarian yoke where the teachings and the sacraments of the Church are practically prohibited and true liberty is destroyed. Liberty cannot be separated from the truth. Quoting from the declaration of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s Dominus Jesus the Cardinal shows how relativism denies the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ:

Without God, man builds his hell on earth. Amusements and pleasures can become a true scourge for the soul when it sinks into pornography, drugs, violence, and all sorts of perversions. There is great sadness in claiming to want to indulge in limitless pleasures, whereas the most beautiful joy is to remain simply with God, allowing him to clothe us in light and purity.

He shows the serious shortcomings of fanatical egalitarianism, noting that in its name dictatorships were established in the Soviet Union and under Sékou Touré in Guinea. He writes, “Today gender theory seems to be toying with this same illusory battle for equality.” He then shows that the denial of the differences between man and woman is a destructive utopia, “a deadly impulse born in a world cut off from God.” He underlines as conclusion that, “The ideological search for equality is an unreal path that fuels the worst tragedies.”

The Cardinal explains that faith is the adherence to a word that comes from God, which will gradually and definitively transform us in a radical way. He shows how the journey of faith, like the journey of Abraham, is the journey of man’s consent to do God’s will: “Faith consists of willing what God wills, loving what God loves, even if that leads us to the Cross.” To believe is to give one’s heart to God, to place oneself unconditionally in God’s hands. To believe is to obey God with a docile heart and mind, which leads to a divine hope that is grounded in faith. The Gospel not only communicates knowledge but it has the power to make things happen.

Speaking of the much debated concept of mercy he notes that God, before flooding us with His mercy, demands truth, justice and repentance.

The Cardinal makes pointed comments on the horrible sin of pedophilia by men of the Church, connecting this sin with the problem of evil. This grave sin can particularly affect the contemporary man who loses his sense of the boundaries between good and evil. He connects it with the well know statement of Paul VI on how the smoke of Satan has entered into the Temple of God. He underlines the reality of the existence of Hell and the devil, and how Satan tries to convince people that he does not exist. This activity of the enemy of man leads him to plead for the appointment well-trained priest exorcists in every diocese.

In his chapter on Evangelii Gaudium, the Cardinal makes important considerations on the missionary efforts of the Church. He gives priority to the way faith is lived by missionaries: “Attachment to and love of the truth are the most authentic, the most righteous, and the noblest attitude that a man could ever want on this earth.” The absence of truth is man’s real poverty and makes him a prisoner of his own ego. This affirmation leads him to consider the insistence of Pope Francis that realities are more important than ideas: “some worry that this concept of the pope endangers the integrity of the Magisterium. The recent debate on the problem of the divorced and remarried has often been prompted by this sort of tension.” Then he insists that, “For my part, I do not believe that the pope means to endanger the integrity of the Magisterium. Indeed, no one, not even the pope, can destroy or change Christ’s teaching. No one, not even the pope, can set pastoral ministry in opposition to doctrine.”

Cardinal Sarah then reaffirms the constant teaching of the Church on marriage, insisting that persons who have entered into a sacramental marriage, if they divorce civilly and then contract a second civil marriage,

are in a situation that is objectively contrary to God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic Communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, these men and women cannot exercise certain responsibilities in the Church. Reconciliation in the Sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented of having violated the sign of Christ’s covenant and fidelity and are committed to living in complete continence (CCC 1650).

He notices how the abundance of divorces and remarriages in contemporary society are sins that result in social situations and institutions that are contrary to God’s goodness and that induce others to commit evil. Thus, Christians have to oppose these structures of sin.

In the final chapter the Cardinal underlines how “Africa is open to transcendence, to adoration, and to the glory of God. The African peoples respect human life, but they look beyond it by seeking eternity. The soul of Africa always opens toward God.” Speaking of holiness, he underlines that we have to accept it as gift from Heaven. The way of charity leads man to perfection. We advance in faith living in charity. He notes how “holiness consists of living exactly as God wants us to live, by being conformed more and more to his Son, Jesus Christ.” He then adds, how the example of angels reminds us of the need of living a holy life, one that is honest and pure. In heaven we will be in their company, lost in the glory of God.

In conclusion we have to see how Cardinal Sarah not only reaffirms great theological insights in the midst of the contemporary crisis of the Church, in particular on life and marriage, but also gives us wise spiritual counsel. He tells us how we should allow God to direct our lives, how in silence we should be able to listen to His voice, how many contemporary forms of “entertainment” are a ways of silencing His voice. We have to allow Him to move our minds and hearts in serious prayer.

I strongly recommend that we should read and meditate upon this very valuable work.

Ordained in 1987, Msgr. Barreiro received his licentiate and doctoral degree in Systematic Theology from the University of the Holy Cross, in Rome, Italy. He also held a law degree from the Law School in Montevideo and served the Uruguayan Foreign Service and the delegation of Uruguay to the United Nations.

In 1998 Monsignor Barreiro became Executive Director of HLI's office in Rome, and was interim President of HLI from 2010 to 2011. He was appointed a Chaplain of His Holiness in 2004. In his lifetime, he published hundreds of articles on theology, life issues, and historical subjects in popular and scholarly publications in the U.S., England, Italy, France, and Spain.

Msgr. Barreiro departed this life on Holy Thursday, April 13, 2017. Requiescat in pace, amen.

Did you find this useful?


  1. George on May 27, 2017 at 2:26 AM

    Strong and decisive. Man in the west has replaced God with himself so he is in decline.

Leave a Comment