Cardinal Robert Sarah’s new book puts the spotlight on what ails the modern world
(BOOK REVIEW) The West is in spiritual decline. The Catholic Church is besieged by scandal. Society has become more secular and less religious, a collapse that can be solved through prayer.
Those are some of the takeaways from Cardinal Robert Sarah’s new book The Day is Now Far Spent, where he pulls no punches about what he thinks currently ails Europe, the place where Christianity once prospered. Sarah’s diagnosis for what ails the world, but primarily the West, are deeply profound — controversial to some even — and his solutions are equally noteworthy.
“Christians are trembling, wavering, doubting,” Sarah says in the 349-page book. “I want this book to be for them. To tell them: do not doubt! Hold fast to doctrine! Hold fast to prayer! I want this book to strengthen Christians and priests.”
This book is a major statement by a cardinal whose work on theology and liturgy was at the heart of the Pope Benedict XVI era. His voice is hard to ignore and, for journalists, represents an orthodox critique of current trends, but one with more clout than angry voices in the latest storm in Catholic Twitter.
The book, translated from French and released by Ignatius Press, does just that. Before he can offer hope, Sarah outlines what he calls “the crisis of faith.” In a series of interviews with French journalist Nicolas Diat, Sarah discusses how seeking salvation is something that has been lost these days.
“Doctrinal and moral confusion is reaching its height,” Sarah writes. “Evil is good, good is evil. Man no longer feels any need to be saved. The loss of the sense of salvation is the consequence of the loss of the transcendence of God.”
Sarah speaks with lots of authority throughout the book. After all, he’s earned it. Born in the African nation of Guinea, Sarah was made a cardinal in 2010 by then-Pope Benedict XVI. A prominent voice within the College of Cardinals, the 74-year-old Sarah has been a staunch advocate for traditional Catholic teaching regarding sexual morality and the right to life. He has, for example, called gender ideology and ISIS “two radicalizations” that threaten the world.
In 2014, Sarah was appointed prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by Pope Francis. A possible candidate for the papacy himself, Sarah spends part of the book addressing the role of priests and what the priesthood means within a Catholic context. Sarah rejects the notion that priests are social workers. Instead, he argues that their role is the need to pray, not to “invest his time primarily in advocacy” such as human rights.
Sarah also defends the celibacy of priests — a topic of much debate in recent years — saying that this is the way a cleric “renounces the human fulfillment of his ability to be a spouse and father according to the flesh.” He backs this up by saying that church tradition is a reason why men must not take on a spouse and why women cannot be ordained.
Readers will find it increasingly striking that what ails the West comes from an African prelate. But those who know of Sarah shouldn’t be surprised. Indeed, Sarah, who serves as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, has butted heads with Francis on a series of doctrinal issues. When the pope encouraged Europe to help migrants and welcome Syrian Muslim refugees, Sarah has called for tighter border controls. Sarah, who grew up in a majority Muslim country, said he’s concerned about the danger of a “disappearance of Europe” as a result of the migratory flow. Having said that, this book is no anti-Francis manifesto. If anything, it reaffirms what Sarah sees as the basis for Catholic teachings.
Sarah has a disdain for moral and doctrinal ambiguity. It’s a big reason why Francis was recently asked about the potential for a schism within the Roman Catholic church. It was the first time Francis had spoken openly about schism and how it would impact the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics. Francis also implied that some of his critics — many of whom are conservative American Catholics — had acted as hypocrites for accusing him of being “a communist pope” even though he was saying the same things in regards to social issues as Saint Pope John Paul II.
Throughout the book (this is Sarah’s third), the cardinal sets up the argument that today’s problems are a fight between good and evil. He freely quotes Benedict XVI in many parts of the book when discussing the crisis currently gripping the priesthood, the problems of post-modern democracies and religious liberty.
Indeed, the topic of religious liberty is where Sarah makes some important points regarding Christians and the secular world.
“The most destructive persecution of Christianity is unfolding today in the Western democracies,” Sarah says. “There, they have killed God. Increasingly, Christians are marginalized, terrorized, humiliated, ridiculed. Thus we must deplore the fact that a growing number of Christians apostatize.”
Amid all this doom, Sarah spends the final chapter addressing solutions. In that chapter — entitled “What must we do?” — Sarah discusses the ability to be hopeful and urges all Christians to continue fighting for what is theologically important in the face of a world that’s growing more secular with each passing day.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He currently teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City.