Two cardinals point the same way forward to recover faith within the Church

The interventions of two high-ranking prelates must not be ignored: one by Robert Cardinal Sarah, who addressed the bishops of Cameroon on 9 April; the other by Walter Cardinal Brandmüller, who wrote to his fellow Germans via kath.net on 30 March. Whilst different in their content, tone and manner, they strike the same chord: animated by true love for the Bride of Christ, these successors of the apostles appeal to their flock to recover the faith within the Church — each fulfilling his distinctive duties according to his state — as bishops, priests or laypeople. The cardinals’ heartfelt pleas come at the midpoint of the ongoing Synod on Synodality.

Cardinal Sarah, at the start of his stirring speech in Cameroon, commended his brother bishops for their “courageous and prophetic” response to Fiducia supplicans, in which they rejected the possibility of the blessing of same-sex couples authorised by the Vatican document. “Recalling Catholic doctrine on this subject,” the Cardinal said, “you greatly and profoundly served the unity of the Church. You have carried out a work of pastoral charity by remembering the truth.”

The African bishops in particular are widely expected, if needs be, to take a strong stand on sexual morality in the upcoming second session of the Synod on Synodality in October, and Cardinal Sarah insisted that it is “essential” that they do so “in the name of the unity of the faith and not in the name of particular cultures”. 

Their unequivocal resistance to Fiducia Supplicans had been dismissed by Vatican authorities as “a special case” of Africa. This dismissal echoed the infamous comments of Walter Cardinal Kasper, who, when speaking of the African bishops’ opposition to the homosexualist agenda during the Family Synod in 2014, went on record as saying that they “should not tell us too much what we have to do”.

Cardinal Sarah, in sharp contrast, denounced the idea that African bishops reject the blessing of same-sex couples on the grounds of certain cultural conditions specific to Africa, and he urged the bishops to guard against this point “with great vigilance” ahead of the next session of the Synod. The Guinean Cardinal explained:

“Some in the West have wanted us to believe that you have acted in the name of African cultural particularism. It is false and ridiculous to ascribe such purposes to it! Some have claimed, in a logic of intellectual neo-colonialism, that Africans were not ‘yet’ ready to bless same-sex couples for cultural reasons. As if the West were ahead of the backward Africans. No! You have spoken for the whole Church ‘in the name of the truth of the Gospel and for the human dignity and salvation of all humanity in Jesus Christ’. You have spoken in the name of the one Lord, of the one faith of the Church. When should the truth of the faith, the teaching of the Gospel, ever be subjected to particular cultures? This vision of a faith adapted to cultures reveals the extent to which relativism divides and corrupts the unity of the Church.”

Cardinal Sarah went on to condemn the “dictatorship of relativism” by describing it as allowing “violations of doctrine and morality in certain places under the pretext of cultural adaptation”. He said:

“And they will tell you with false politeness: ‘Rest assured, in Africa, we are not going to impose this kind of innovation on you. You are not culturally ready.’

“But we successors of the Apostles have been ordained not to promote and defend our cultures but the universal unity of the faith! We act, in your words, the bishops of Cameroon, ‘in the name of the truth of the Gospel and for the human dignity and salvation of all humanity in Jesus Christ’. This truth is the same everywhere, in Europe as it is in Africa and the United States.”

It was of course the European missionaries who once evangelised Africa and, recognising the “mysterious design of Providence”, Cardinal Sarah suggested that “it is now precisely the African episcopates that are the defenders of the universality of the faith against the proponents of a fragmented truth; the defenders of the unity of the faith against the proponents of cultural relativism” of the West.

He considered it not surprising that “the bishops of Africa in their poverty are today the heralds of this divine truth in the face of the power and wealth of certain episcopates of the West”, because “what is foolish for the world, God has chosen to confound the wise; what is weak for the world, God has chosen to confound the strong; what is vile and despised to the world, what is nothing, God chose to bring to nothing the things that are.” (1 Cor 1:28)

Reflecting on the reasons for this relativistic fragmentation of the truth, Cardinal Sarah identified “a kind of psychological fear” that has spread in the West: “the fear of being in contradiction with the world”. Speaking more particularly of many Western prelates, who “are paralysed by the idea of opposing the world”, who “dream of being loved” by the world, and have, in fact, “lost the will to be a sign of contradiction”, the Cardinal drew the connection to practical atheism inflicting the Church today:

“I believe that the Church of our time is tempted by atheism. Not intellectual atheism, but this subtle and dangerous state of mind: fluid and practical atheism. The latter is a dangerous disease even if its first symptoms seem benign. …

“We must become aware of this: this fluid atheism runs through the veins of contemporary culture. It is never named but it infiltrates everywhere, even in ecclesiastical discourse. Its first effect is a form of drowsiness of faith. It anaesthetises our ability to react, to recognise error and danger. It has spread throughout the Church.”

As a way forward Cardinal Sarah invited his brother bishops to “think differently”. He pleaded:

“We must not give in to lies! The essence of fluid atheism is the promise of an accommodation between truth and falsehood. It is the greatest temptation of our time! We are all guilty of accommodations, of complicity with this great lie that is fluid atheism! We pretend to be Christian believers and men of faith, we celebrate religious rites, but in reality we live as pagans and non-believers.”

The Cardinal ended his great call to find a different course in the Church with all spiritual power given to him:

“With all my heart as a pastor, I want to invite you today to make this decision. We must not create parties in the Church. We must not proclaim ourselves the saviours of this or that institution. All of this would contribute to the opponent’s play. But each of us can decide today: the lie of atheism will no longer find a place in me. I no longer want to renounce the light of faith, I no longer want, out of convenience, laziness or conformism, to let light and darkness cohabit in me. It is a very simple decision, at the same time inner and concrete. … When you can’t change the world, you can change yourself. If everyone humbly decided to do so, the system of lies would collapse on its own, because its only strength is the place we make in it within us. …

“Dear brother bishops, by offering us faith, God opens his hand so that we may put ours there and allow ourselves to be led by him. What will we be afraid of? The essential thing is to hold our hand firmly in his! … To preserve the spirit of faith is to renounce all compromise, it is to refuse to see things in any other way than through faith. It means holding our hand in God’s hand. …

“Faith generates strength and joy at the same time. ‘The Lord is my stronghold, whom shall I be afraid of?’ (Ps 27:1) The Church is dying, infested with bitterness and partisanship, and only the spirit of faith can establish authentic fraternal benevolence. The world is dying, devoured by lies and rivalry, and only the spirit of faith can bring it peace.”

Walter Cardinal Brandmüller, who celebrated his ninety-fifth birthday at the beginning of this year, wrote of the same problem — the loss of faith within the Church — but addressing his fellow Germans. He began by noting that, as was expected, the “Synodal Way” has “long since lost its way”. He deplored the “careless waste” of millions in church tax money and, which is “much worse”, disagreement on “central questions of faith and morals”, even within the episcopate, causing “serious damage to unity” with the entire Church and leading to talk of “heresy and schism”. The Cardinal added to this “mass apostasy”, highlighting the fact that, of the Catholics who have been baptised, around five per cent still take part in the religious, sacramental life of the Church. 

“How much longer?” the Cardinal asks, will the apparatus continue its functions, ignoring the fact that millions are leaving the Church, as long as the donation box is full. He reflects on “the success of the German economic miracle” in the aftermath of the Second World War, which brought an “increasingly thick cloud of the materialistic zeitgeist” and began “to block the view of the sky”. The result of the flood of material goods is “a post-Christian, atheistic society in which Christianity — the Church — only has a niche existence”, whilst being ignored, despised and fought against.

The Cardinal further reflects that “a sober assessment quickly reveals that attempts to revive the former partnership between state, society and Church has long since become hopeless”. 

“The most recent legislation,” he notes, “has also set standards in the area of marriage, family and healthcare policy that make a mockery of Christian moral and social teachings, and indeed of anthropology developed since classical antiquity.” He concludes that “hardly any perversion conceivable — from in-vitro fertilisation to euthanasia and assisted suicide — is excluded.” 

As a result, a Christian, a Catholic, has “to find and create oases in this human, cultural desert in which he can still breathe freely and survive”. The Cardinal explains the only way forward he sees possible:

“So now, depending on the given circumstances, the transition from the national church to the community church must be initiated as far as possible without painful disruptions … 

“Hand in hand with this should also be a more decisive emphasis on the self-image of priests.”

Here the Cardinal points to the old rite of ordination, where the duties of the priest were listed: to offer the holy sacrifice, to bless, to lead the congregation, to preach and to baptise.

“Significantly,” Cardinal Brandmüller points out, “there is no mention of parish administration, committees or asset management and management of social institutions or other works.” Rather, just as in the Middle Ages, also today, the list of duties set out in the traditional rite of ordination is the work which the priest is ordained to do.

Furthermore, “this distinction, which reserves to the priest only the praeesse — the “presiding over” or leadership of the congregation — should be made in order to enable the priest the freedom to fulfil his actual mission: preaching, liturgy, administration of the sacraments and pastoral care” that cannot be fulfilled by others.

Turning his focus to the “lay people”, Cardinal Brandmüller urges them also to follow their own calling: “Their area of responsibility is not the pulpit and the altar, but, as Vatican II emphasises, ‘the world’ in which the Church has to fulfil its mission.”

“Such division of labour,” the Cardinal argues, “as long as collaborators are chosen wisely and mutual trust reigns, allows the priest to gain the time necessary for conscientious preparation for sermons, catechesis, pastoral discussions, as well as for his own spiritual life.”

The Cardinal emphasises that “experience shows that laypeople and priests should not exceed the limits of their competence”. The priests should “resist the temptation to make a name for themselves as builders, asset managers or in other worldly areas”, while the lay people “should not consider the pulpit and altar as their ‘workplace’”.

He concludes by expressing a hope for a true complementarity, which respects the roles of clergy and laity alike, demonstrating also its missionary impact today: 

“The more the godless zeitgeist blows in the Church’s face, the more necessary close solidarity between believers and priests becomes. Perhaps then, as they once did, ‘heathens’ of today will also say with regard to Christians: ‘Look how they love one another.’”

“In fact,” he says, “lively communities, like islands in the sea, could offer a safe haven to people drifting aimlessly in the waves of the zeitgeist.”

May the truth of the remarks of Cardinal Sarah and Cardinal Brandmüller resound around the world, reaching bishops, priests and lay people beyond Cameroon and Germany. Theirs is the voice of the successors of the apostles, which speaks to their flocks, giving each their due — strengthening the righteous, encouraging the disheartened and calling the lost to recover their way. May there be more such voices!