Looking to Cardinal Sarah
Recently I travelled to Phoenix in order to lead a mission. When I arrived at the airport, I was stunned to see a group of people holding signs welcoming home a child who had either just undergone a “sex change” or who was travelling to Phoenix for the procedure. A child! This sight, so public, and so deeply tragic, was just one more stark reminder of the all-out war that is being waged in the West on traditional Judeo-Christian values, not to mention basic common sense.
Everywhere we look, we see signs of a powerful movement to “redefine” God, the human person, religion, church, marriage, family, human sexuality, and biblical morality. This movement has its roots in a diseased concept of freedom that views any and all limitations as inherently stifling, and therefore as challenges to be overcome, at whatever cost.
One of the preeminent prophetic voices raising the alarm about this radical movement, and its dire physical, psychological and spiritual consequences, is His Eminence, Robert Cardinal Sarah. This remarkable Cardinal has just released a new book called The Day is Far Spent (At the moment the book is only available in French but will soon be released in English). The book, the third in a trilogy, diagnoses and describes what the Cardinal refers to as the “spiritual and religious collapse” affecting the world, but especially the West.
In a recent interview with La Nef, the Cardinal noted that this “spiritual crisis” finds its source in Europe. “People in the West are guilty of rejecting God,” said the Cardinal. “They have not only rejected God. Friedrich Nietzsche, who may be considered the spokesman of the West, has claimed: ‘God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him…’ We have murdered God. In view of God’s death among men, Nietzsche would replace him with a prophetic ‘Superman.’”
His Eminence traces this spiritual crisis to what he terms a “rejection of fatherhood.” By this, however, the Cardinal does not mean only a literal fatherhood, but a symbolic fatherhood that includes the whole framework of tradition, culture and nature that every human being receives by virtue of being born, but which modern man views as chains to be cast off. “Our contemporaries are convinced that, in order to be free, one must not depend on anybody,” says the Cardinal. “There is a tragic error in this. Western people are convinced that receiving is contrary to the dignity of human persons. But civilized man is fundamentally an heir, he receives a history, a culture, a language, a name, a family. This is what distinguishes him from the barbarian.”
The Cardinal himself highlights gender ideology as one of the starkest manifestations of this rejection of fatherhood. By rejecting the nature that God has given us, we reject God the Father Himself. Gender ideology is “a Luciferian refusal to receive a sexual nature from God,” says Cardinal Sarah. It is also a lie, since this refusal can only take the form of bodily mutilation that does not do anything to alter the fundamental “structure” of our nature. “The West refuses to receive,” laments the Cardinal, “and will accept only what it constructs for itself. Transhumanism is the ultimate avatar of this movement. Because it is a gift from God, human nature itself becomes unbearable for western man.”
The Happiness Recession
The rejection of nature and the laws that God has inscribed in it has led to a new “barbarism,” says the Cardinal, one that dehumanizes and coarsens culture:
The barbarians are all those who hate human nature, all those who trample upon the sense of the sacred, all those who do not value life, all those who rebel against God the Creator of man and nature. The West is blinded by science, technology, and the thirst for riches. The lure of riches, which liberalism spreads in hearts, has sedated the peoples. At the same time, the silent tragedy of abortion and euthanasia continue, and pornography and gender ideology destroy children and adolescents. We are accustomed to barbarism. It doesn’t even surprise us anymore!
The ultimate irony is that while the rejection of all limits and restraints is celebrated in terms of “freedom” and “happiness,” the actual result is misery. This week, two authors writing in The Atlantic drew attention to a study that powerfully confirms the Cardinal’s warnings about the limits of the modern concept of freedom. The authors noted that in 2018, the number of those young adults saying that they are “very happy” fell to 25%. This is the lowest level ever recorded by the General Social Survey, and amounts to what the authors call a “happiness recession.”
The most interesting finding of the survey, however, is that this decrease in happiness is traceable in large part to the rejection of faith and marriage. According to the survey, young adults who are married are about 75% more likely to report that they are very happy, compared to those who are not. And yet, since 1972 the percentage of young adults who are married has fallen precipitously from 59% to just 28%. Meanwhile, those young adults who regularly go to church or other religious services (more than once a month) are about 40% more likely to report that they are very happy. And yet, since 1972, the number of young adults who attend religious services regularly has fallen from 38% to 27%.
In other words, the very institutions and practices that empirical data shows are powerfully linked to increased happiness and fulfillment are precisely the institutions and practices that our culture is conscientiously rejecting. As David French notes at the National Review, for decades the cultural elites have proclaimed that “liberation from religion and liberation from marriage were prerequisites to true human flourishing.” Continued French:
If you asked an early era sexual revolutionary for his prediction for a culture with profoundly less religious practice, less marriage, and many fewer moral restraints on sexual practice, I sincerely doubt that he’d respond that he believed that culture would be less happy, with people having less sex. That’s certainly not the dominant message of Hollywood, which for years has portrayed religion as mainly negative and marriage as all too often dreary, contentious, and sexless.
Even more bleak evidence of the failure of the modern doctrine of freedom without responsibility is found in the record suicide rate in the United States, as well as the horrific opioid epidemic, which is claiming the lives of so many people.
Rather than the modern and negative concept of freedom as the anarchic absence of all restraints, Cardinal Sarah advocates in favor of a positive concept of freedom, as “a tending toward what is good and true.”
“The truth is meant to be known and freely embraced,” he says. Indeed, “A freedom that is not itself oriented and guided by truth is nonsensical. Error has no rights.” While modern man has come to view God’s law as an imposition on his freedom, the reality is far more beautiful. “Revelation is the breaking in of divine truth into our lives,” says the Cardinal. “It does not constrain us. In giving and revealing Himself, God respects the freedom that He Himself created. I believe that the opposition between truth and freedom is the fruit of a false conception of human dignity.”
Freedom exists, not so that human beings can do what they want, but so that they can freely choose to embrace the truth. “[T]o accept the truth is the most beautiful act of freedom that man can perform,” says Cardinal Sarah. “Our freedom comes to fulfillment when it says ‘yes’ to revealed truth. If freedom says ‘no’ to God, it denies itself. It asphyxiates.”
Tragically, however, not only the wider culture, but even the Church Herself has been infected by false notions of freedom, which are fatally affecting Her evangelical mission. In another recent interview with Aleteia, Cardinal Sarah pushed back against the opposition that some in the Church have expressed to “proselytism.” “Evangelizing is a duty,” he said. “Whether it is Muslims, Buddhists or animists, we must evangelize everyone by proclaiming Jesus Christ, because he is the only way to salvation.”
Even more serious is the tendency of some in the Church, including bishops, to fatally compromise on essential doctrines. Such priests and bishops “disorient the Christian faithful by their confusing and ambiguous language. They adulterate and falsify the Word of God, willing to twist and bend it to gain the world’s approval. They are the Judas Iscariots of our time.” With the horrors of the sex abuse crisis, and the preponderance of doctrinal confusion, “the Church is going through the mystery of the flagellation,” says the Cardinal. In the introduction to his new book, the Cardinal laments that the Church “is wrapped and blinded by the mystery of iniquity.”
“The crisis of the Church is above all a crisis of the faith,” proclaims Cardinal Sarah. “Some want the Church to be a human and horizontal society; they want it to speak the language of the media. They want to make it popular. They urge it not to speak about God, but to throw itself body and soul into social problems: migration, ecology, dialogue, the culture of encounter, the struggle against poverty, for justice and peace.” While these are important issues, “a Church such as this is of interest to no one,” warns the Cardinal. “The Church is only of interest because she allows us to encounter Jesus. She is only legitimate because she passes on Revelation to us.”
Although Cardinal Sarah sometimes speaks about the spiritual crisis affecting the world and the Church in stark language, his message is ultimately and fundamentally hopeful. In order to overcome this crisis, His Eminence advocates a path that is not new, but that is radical in the way that the Gospel itself is radical.
“We must not be afraid to rediscover the methods of spiritual combat,” he says, “prayer, penance, and fasting.” While some argue that what is needed is structural reform in the Church, the Cardinal says that he believes that what is most needed is saints. “I am sure that it is the saints who change history. The structures follow afterwards, and do nothing other than perpetuate what the saints brought about.” “We need saints who dare to see all things through the eyes of faith, who dare to be enlightened by the light of God.”
I believe that Cardinal Sarah is absolutely right in this. And more importantly, I believe that the saints that the Church so desperately needs are not some group of extraordinary people “out there.” They are among us. They are you and I. Rather than giving into the temptation to despair in the face of the scandals in the Church, and the increasing faithlessness of our culture, we have the power to begin the renewal within our own families, parishes, and communities.
The Cardinal concludes his interview with La Nef with these beautiful words:
We have simply to live our Faith, completely and radically. The Christian virtues are the Faith blossoming in all the human faculties. They mark the way for a happy life in harmony with God. We must create places where they can flourish. I call upon Christians to open oases of freedom in the midst of the desert created by rampant profiteering. We must create places where the air is breathable, or simply where the Christian life is possible. Our communities must put God in the center. Amidst the avalanche of lies, we must be able to find places where truth is not only explained but experienced. In a word, we must live the Gospel: not merely thinking about it as a utopia, but living it in a concrete way. The Faith is like a fire, but it has to be burning in order to be transmitted to others. Watch over this sacred fire! Let it be your warmth in the heart of this winter of the West.