God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith
by robert cardinal sarah
interviewed by nicolas diat
ignatius, 285 pages, $17.95
On the night of April 18, 1978, a visitor brought an unexpected message to a young priest named Robert Sarah: Pope Paul VI had appointed him archbishop of Conakry and expected a response as soon as possible. When Sarah began to protest, the messenger replied, “I will be back for your written response in three days. In any case, if you refuse, Archbishop Raymond-Marie Tchidimbo will remain in prison.” Sékou Touré, the dictator of Guinea, had made it clear that the sitting archbishop would not be released until he had been replaced. The messenger added: “You cannot refuse to obey the pope, who trusts in you.”
Sarah immediately left for a hermitage, where he fasted, alone with the Eucharist and the Word of God. After prostrating himself before the Lord for three days, he wrote a letter to the pope, saying that while he was unworthy, he would accept. “As if in a strange dream,” Sarah was named archbishop at the age of thirty-four.
Sarah is now touted as a possible successor to Pope Francis. We do not know where he will end up, but Nicolas Diat’s book-length interview tells us where he comes from. It was in his childhood years, spent in Ourous, one of the smallest and most neglected villages in the mountainous heartlands of Guinea, that Sarah first learned to pray. He was certainly influenced by the ancient religious rites of his ancestors, the Coniagui people, but it was the Holy Ghost Fathers, French missionaries, who stood at the center of his childhood. Every evening, they would gather the children of the village near a large cross set up in the mission courtyard; “It was around this cross that we received our cultural and spiritual education.” As the sun set, the Fathers taught the catechism of Pius X, first in the Coniagui language, then in French. (At school they followed the same curriculum as little French children, and were taught that their ancestors were Gauls.) The children asked questions; the Holy Ghost Fathers talked about their assignments in other countries. Then they would sing evening prayer and return to their huts.
His mother did not know what seminary was, and his father insisted that “a black man could not become a priest of the Catholic Church,” but Sarah never questioned his vocation. On the day of his ordination in 1969, he stood alone. All of his fellow seminarians from Guinea had gradually left the seminary. While he decided that he would be of greatest service to his country as a secular priest, Sarah never lost his attraction to contemplative life. Prayer is his “heartbeat,” he says, the “precious time in which everything is done, everything is regenerated, and God acts to configure us to Himself.”
Nearly every one of Sarah’s answers to Diat centers on prayer. When asked about “the most worrisome signs for the future of the Church,” he replies that “seminarians and priests are not doing enough to nourish their interior life.” When asked about how to understand “reform,” the cardinal explains that reform is, of course, an ongoing necessity, but it is not just a matter of reorganizing structures. “The Church,” he says, “is reformed when the baptized march more resolutely toward holiness, allowing themselves to be recreated in the likeness of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Only the contagion of sanctity can transform the Church from within.” In short, “Prayer is the greatest need of the contemporary world.”
These are not pious evasions. Sarah speaks frankly on public issues such as gender theory, abortion, and euthanasia. He sees them as stemming from a Western culture that has chosen to “live as though God did not exist,” exporting its ideas even as it has turned from Christianity to decadence and “intellectual cynicism.” He has no patience for “ideological colonization” (a term also favored by Francis): “Western colonialism continues today, in Africa and Asia, more vigorously and perversely through the imposition of a false morality and deceitful values.”
Sarah calls for Africa and Asia to protect their cultures and governments from the political, financial, and moral future proposed by the West: “Mankind would lose much if these continents were to fall into the huge, formless magma of globalization, which is directed toward an inhumane ideal that is in fact hideous, barbaric oligarchy.”
But isn’t Sarah himself the product of “Western colonialism”? It was, after all, European missionaries—the French Holy Ghost Fathers—who brought the Catholic faith to his village. What difference is there, then, between Christian evangelization and colonization? Sarah does not say, but we can assume it lies in the distinction any Christian must see between Christian faith and modern ideologies. While Christianity accords with human nature and permits a perfected diversity, secular liberalism levels and destroys. Sarah sees gender theory, for example, as denying a divine element in us. Divorced from his identity in God, man finds his gender to be merely performative, a result of oppressive norms and social constructs that must be undone. The idea of a constructed identity “denies in an unrealistic way the importance of the sexed body. A man will never become a woman, and she will never become a man, no matter what mutilations one or the other agrees to undergo.”
Sarah’s abiding concern is for the poor and weak that gender ideology will injure. If scholars want to talk this way among themselves, he says, that is their prerogative, but we must fight their efforts to impose these theories on entire populations. “How do you expect a little child or a young adolescent from the remote African countryside to be able to defend himself against such deceitful speculations?”
Sarah returns repeatedly to the fact that feelings, experience, and personal desire—rather than moral principles and revealed truths—rule the day. “There is a sort of rejection of the dogmas of the Church or a growing distance between people, the faithful, and the dogmas.” On the issue of marriage, for instance, should the world change its attitude, or should the Church change her fidelity to God? Sarah maintains that the Church cannot go on as though this confusion does not exist. “What good is it to know that the pope’s Twitter account is followed by thousands if people do not change their lives concretely?” If her teaching is not understood, she must “go back to the drawing board a hundred times,” but she must not allow revelation to be adapted to the world.
Archbishop Georg Gänswein has called this book “radical” in the sense of the word’s Latin origin—radix meaning “root”—because Cardinal Sarah takes us back to the root of the faith, to the intrinsic radicality of the Gospel. He is, as Gänswein says, a “solitary, frank, intrepid” voice proclaiming the Gospel in its fullness and resisting the zeitgeist. A bulwark for orthodoxy, this man of “angelic stubbornness” is both a timely and prophetic figure. We will hear his voice for a long time yet.
Bianca Czaderna is assistant editor at First Things.