Now that Cardinal Gerhard Müller has been removed from his post at the Vatican, the main target of the circle around Pope Francis is Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. Their latest coup is the release of a letter of “correction” aimed at Cardinal Sarah and signed by Francis. Published on Sunday, the letter was celebrated as a just humiliation of the cardinal and accompanied by calls for his resignation.

Earlier this fall, Pope Francis issued Magnum Principium, a document granting bishops’ conferences greater latitude to make their own translations of sacred texts and liturgy. Cardinal Sarah replied with a letter that offered a narrow reading of the document, preserving as much as possible the power of Rome to guard against mistranslations (such as the desire of German bishops to translate pro multis as “for all,” rather than as the correct “for many”). Pope Francis has now publicly declared that Sarah is wrong, and that Magnum Principium has indeed reduced Rome’s power of oversight.

This is a calculated humiliation of Cardinal Sarah—and not only of him. Of Pope Benedict XVI, too, since he is the great champion of the “reform of the reform,” an attempt to correct the liturgical innovations that followed the Second Vatican Council. And of St. John Paul II, who in 2001 issued the document Liturgiam Authenticam, which Francis has sought to gut with Magnum Principium.

Cardinal Sarah suffered a similar humiliation a little over a year ago, after he urged bishops and priests to celebrate the Mass ad orientem, facing east, according to the ancient practice of the Church. This was another effort to advance “reform the reform.” The cardinal stated that he had talked with the pope about the topic, and that the pope had given his assent to the proposal. If so, the Vatican made no acknowledgment of this fact in its note of blunt denial.

Another humiliation occurred when the pope eliminated most of the existing members from the Congregation for Divine Worship and replaced them with people who are more hostile to Sarah and his liturgical views. And there is the matter of the “Ecumenical Mass,” a liturgy designed to unite Catholics and Protestants around the Holy Table. Though never officially announced, a committee reporting directly to Pope Francis has been working on this liturgy for some time. Certainly this topic is within the jurisdiction of the Congregation for Divine Worship, but Cardinal Sarah has not officially been informed of the committee’s existence. According to good sources, Sarah’s secretary, Arthur Roche—who holds positions opposite to those of Benedict XVI and Sarah—is involved, as is Piero Marini, the right-hand man of Monsignor Bugnini, author of such noted works as La Chiesa in Iran and Novus Ordo Missae.*

To those names, add the Undersecretary of Divine Worship, Corrado Maggioni, and a layman, the extremely “progressive” liturgist Andrea Grillo. Recently, Grillo harshly attacked Benedict XVI after the pope emeritus wrote in the preface to one of Sarah’s books that with Sarah, “the liturgy is in good hands.” And Grillo attacked Sarah himself, calling him “incompetent and inadequate.” If Grillo behaves so uncouthly, it must be because he is sure of being protected by friends in high places . . .

Now, we know that the pope is not greatly concerned with liturgy, and he probably doesn’t care much about this paticular issue. But his general ideological orientation is nontraditional, and he tends to side with the part of the Church that calls itself progressive while seeking a return to the 1970s: the bishops of Germany, Belgium, and England.

Some of these figures are now asking for the head of Cardinal Sarah. But this is unlikely to happen. It was Francis who appointed Sarah Prefect of Divine Worship in November 2014. If he wants to replace him, he must wait at least two years, when Sarah’s five-year term will come to an end. So the self-styled reformers who make up the “magic circle” for the liturgy must patiently endure the presence and activity of the cardinal, who is not afraid to fight, even alone.

Of course, the progressive party in the Vatican has another motive to attack Cardinal Sarah. In December, Pope Francis will reach age eighty-one. Cardinals are already thinking of a future conclave. One of the men viewed as most popable is Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, who seems to be distancing himself from some of the more questionable aspects of Pope Francis’s reign. And another is Cardinal Robert Sarah, who is known for his holiness of life and lack of interest in any form of power or coercion, even in the Church. Moreover, Africa is the continent where the Church is growing most dramatically, and where faith is often practiced to the point of martyrdom. Nothing could be more fitting than for the next pope to come from that continent. And so we come to the great irony of the campaign to discredit this quiet and long-suffering churchman. Cardinal Sarah is attacked precisely because he is seen as having the makings of a pope.

* Editor’s Note: The Vatican denies the existence of a committee on the Ecumenical Mass.

Marco Tosatti is a Vaticanist who writes from Rome.

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