Pope Benedict and Cardinal Sarah provide leadership in the age of Francis

(COMMENTARY) The events of the past few days have truly been monumental for the Roman Catholic church. You may not have noticed — unless you’ve bothered to read the ever-growing list of Catholic news websites on both the right and left.

While liberals and conservatives within the church continue to wage a very public war over everything from the future of Christendom in the West to the ongoing clerical abuse crisis, two prominent voices have led the charge when it comes to these two issues. Again, it was conservative Catholic media that proved to be the preferred mouthpiece for Cardinal Robert Sarah and Pope Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. Both men — with help from right-leaning news organizations — have been very vocal about the problems plaguing the modern church in our ever-secular world.

It is fitting that these two men — one considered a potential future pope, the other already a pope — are the ones leading the charge as the church continues to become polarized. Under Francis’ papacy, the ideological split has become more pronounced. As the curia continues to polarize itself in public on issues like immigration and homosexuality, church leaders like Sarah and Benedict refuse to be silenced. Once again, it’s those Catholic media voices on the right that are helping to spread their message.

Case in point: this past week. At a time when Christians around the world continue on their Lenten journey, Sarah and Benedict are making a statement about the direction of Catholicism, the legacy of Vatican II and where the church is going. Sarah, who hails from the majority-Muslim nation of Guinea in Africa, contrasted Pope Francis’ statements in telling Christian nations they should open their borders to Islamic refugees.

The 73-year-old cardinal, in his new book Evening Draws Near and the Day is Nearly Over, argues that it’s wrong to “use the Word of God to promote migration.” Sarah laments the “collapse of the West” and what he calls “migratory processes” that threatens Europe’s Christian identity. As birthrates continue to drop across Europe, and workers from other continents are needed to take jobs, the culture of the continent is changing.

“If Europe disappears, and with it the priceless values of the Old Continent, Islam will invade the world and we will completely change culture, anthropology and moral vision,” he wrote.

The excerpt was largely ignored by mainstream news outlets. Instead, it made headlines on sites such as LifeSiteNews, a conservative Catholic news portal that ran several stories stemming from Sarah’s book.


It’s worth noting that Sarah has been at odds with Pope Francis and his allies over an array of issues, including liturgical matters and translations of Latin texts.

The ideological divide within the Vatican was highlighted last summer when disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a key Francis ally, was revealed to be a serial abuser. Who knew what and when about McCarrick remains an unanswered question and, some argue, has tarnished Francis’ papacy. The leaks from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, soon after the McCarrick scandal broke, catapulted conservative Catholic media to the forefront and made these various websites and blogs major players in the internet news age.

Like Sarah, Benedict made headlines for an essay (you can read the full text here) he wrote regarding the clergy sex abuse crisis. In the essay made public on Wednesday, Benedict argued that the sexual revolution of the 1960s and theology stemming from Vatican II are to blame for the effects it had on priests from that generation. Indeed, many of the accusations of sex abuse of minors and young men in seminaries span from that era and through to the early 2000s.

“This was in many ways a very difficult time… the extensive collapse of the next generation of priests in those years and the very high number of laicizations were a consequence of all these developments,” he wrote.  

Benedict’s essay was published simultaneously in English by Catholic News Agency and the National Catholic Register, in German at Klerusblatt and in Italian at Corriere della Sera. Excerpts were also made available to the New York Post.

At the same time, the National Catholic Reporter, a leading voice of the Catholic left, didn’t even feature a story on Benedict’s essay on its homepage. Instead, the website was leading with a story on a panel of experts discussing climate change. They also had a column about EWTN host Raymond Arroyo, accusing him of “anti-Francis, pro-Trump propaganda.” EWTN, which also owns Catholic News Agency, is religious-themed cable TV channel.

The coordinated leak of Benedict’s piece, again most of these news organizations lean right, allowed him to get his message out to those likely to be simpatico with him. Benedict served as pope starting in 2005, following the death of Saint Pope John Paul II, until his resignation in 2013. He inherited the church sex scandals that stemmed from the reporting of The Boston Globe in 2002. He had sanctioned McCarrick, although Vigano claimed Francis had loosened those restrictions in recent years.


“A paramount task, which must result from the moral upheavals of our time, is that we ourselves once again begin to live by God and unto Him. Above all, we ourselves must learn again to recognize God as the foundation of our life instead of leaving Him aside,” Benedict wrote.

What else did the 91-year-old former pontiff say in his bombshell essay (almost an encyclical if you will) that has excited many Catholics? For starters, he wasn’t afraid, like Sarah, to exert church teachings in the face of a politically correct world. It is also a time when politics and faith make strange bedfellows. Sarah and Benedict, however, aren’t being political. Rather, they are fulfilling what they consider their moral obligation.

“Since I myself had served in a position of responsibility as shepherd of the church at the time of the public outbreak of the crisis, and during the run-up to it, I had to ask myself — even though, as emeritus, I am no longer directly responsible — what I could contribute to a new beginning,” Benedict wrote.  

In a single, 6,000-word essay, Benedict did more to properly address the crisis (and its roots) if compared to Francis’ largely ceremonial summit that was held this past February at the Vatican. It was criticized by victims’ groups and did little to address the problem.

“The extent and gravity of the reported incidents has deeply distressed priests as well as laity, and has caused more than a few to call into question the very faith of the church,” Benedict said. “It was necessary to send out a strong message, and seek out a new beginning, so to make the church again truly credible as a light among peoples and as a force in service against the powers of destruction.”

The same day Benedict’s essay was released, Francis made headlines for his Wednesday audience, where he said all Christians are sinners. While it was the boilerplate pope speech typically given near Easter, Benedict clearly won the news cycle. It was just the latest example of the power struggle and leadership vacuum inside Catholicism. The church’s conservative voices should not be underestimated; neither should news outlets more than happy to spread this message.