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Cardinal Sarah's retirement not adversarial, but perhaps political

For most Vatican observers, it was nearly a foregone conclusion that Cardinal Robert Sarah would not remain in the Vatican much beyond reaching retirement age. Therefore it was hardly a surprise that Pope Francis accepted the cardinal’s resignation from Vatican service on Saturday.

Cardinal Robert Sarah. Credit: Lawrence, OP via flickr. CC BY SA 2.0

Nor was it especially surprising that the cardinal’s retirement has become an occasion for journalists to trot out well-used narratives about Sarah and Francis: That they are ideological foes, that Francis wanted to stall a bid for Sarah to be elected pope, that Sarah has used his post to undermine the ministry of the pontiff.

Those narratives are the typical media framing for the relationship between Sarah and Pope Francis. But the reality is less sensational, and worth understanding.   

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It is probably most helpful to see Francis and Sarah as men with some points of serious disagreement, set against different personal styles, different theological starting points, different emphases, and different areas of interest. Cumulatively, those things add up to two men who come from fundamentally different cultures within the Church’s hierarchy; not adversaries, but not wholly aligned on method and direction either.

That framework helps make sense of Sarah’s abrupt departure from the Vatican’s liturgy office on Saturday. The pope’s acceptance of Sarah’s resignation was probably not adversarial, but it likely was political, in an ecclesiastical sense.

For better or worse, the Church is a human community with the same tendencies as any other. The Church’s hierarchy is not a meritocracy, nor do oracles divine mystically the candidates to be chosen for ecclesiastical leadership. Instead, filling postings in the Church is often about who you know, or who knows you, and who is encouraging or discouraging your appointment to various positions. 

Sarah is from a different ecclesiastical crowd than Pope Francis. The cardinal’s friends do not hold positions of influence. Sarah has few advocates, if any, in the pope’s inner circle, and none likely to encourage keeping Sarah in place much past his resignation.

In fact, it would have been more surprising if Sarah remained in post than it is that he is out.

But none of that seems to make the case, repeated frequently in coverage of the cardinal, that Sarah is a foe of the pope. In fact, the theological gap between pope and cardinal is not as wide as it’s usually portrayed.


Cardinal Sarah was appointed by Pope Francis in 2014 the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Disciple of the Sacraments. The appointment itself came as a surprise: Sarah was not especially well known in liturgy circles ahead of his appointment, nor was he known to be especially close to Pope Francis. 

He had been head of the Vatican’s charities, and before that the second-ranking official at the Propaganda Fide, the Vatican department charged with overseeing dioceses in parts of the world regarded as mission territory by the Church. He was widely known to be close to Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. 

During the course of his pontificate, Pope Francis has not shown himself to be especially interested in the minutiae of liturgical theology. 

The pope does not seem to share all of Sarah’s views on the subject, and the cardinals he has appointed members of the liturgy office evidence that. At the same time, however, the pope has afforded Sarah a fair degree of latitude on some liturgical questions. 

Sarah is an advocate of the liturgical sensibility usually referred to as the “reform of the reform,” which emphasizes reading contemporary liturgical rubrics through the lens of long-standing customs. Sarah spoke and wrote during his tenure on the importance of reverence in the Mass, on sacred music, clerical liturgical postures, and other aspects of his vision for reform of the liturgy. The cardinal’s magnum opus is a book on silence in prayer — indeed much of his work focuses on the correspondence between interior life and external Christian acts.

But Sarah has not been unaware of the importance of building some semblance of unity in a Church that has spent decades developing parallel, and mostly mutually exclusive, interpretations of the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical approach. In several instances, the cardinal has made efforts to distinguish between his own liturgical preferences and the requirements set by the congregation. 

Even while Pope Francis has made decisions not encouraged by Sarah, he has never seemed to object to the cardinal’s habit of publishing academic work and giving speeches on liturgy. 

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Sarah is certainly among the most conservative of Francis’ Vatican appointments: the cardinal objected to changes to the Church’s sacramental discipline during the 2015 Synod on the Family, has spoken frankly about same-sex marriage and gender ideology as “ideological colonization,” and has emphasized the importance of priestly celibacy. While Sarah and Francis disagreed on Holy Communion at the family synod, their rhetoric on the rest is strikingly similar. 

The cardinal has also spoken more frequently than most Vatican cardinals about Satan, demons, and spiritual warfare— a habit which puts him in the company of Pope Francis, whose homilies are usually punctuated with references to the same. And, like Pope Francis, Sarah has a history of speaking against exploitative business practices, forced migration, and western cultural imperialism.

It would be naive to suggest they march in lockstep, but it would take an act of the will to ignore their common ground. While Sarah probably did not vote for Pope Francis in the 2013 conclave that elected him, the cardinal has made it a point to emphasize his fidelity to the papacy, and to the pope himself. 

“The church is represented on earth by the vicar of Christ, that is by the pope. And whoever is against the pope is, ipso facto, outside the church,” Sarah told journalists in 2019.

Critics have pointed to 2016 remarks Sarah made in support of the ad orientem position for celebrating Mass — remarks a papal spokesman later toned down — as evidence of some resistance to the pope. They’ve also suggested that a dust-up over a 2020 book on priestly celibacy suggests the cardinal is not supportive of Pope Francis, even while the pope later affirmed most of the book’s principles.

It seems reductive to use those two events, or versions of them anyway, to frame a seven year working relationship. Even if it makes for easy copy.

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Incidentally, there are two other points about Sarah’s role in the Vatican that are either underappreciated by most analysts, or misunderstood. 

The first pertains to the pandemic. 

When the pandemic began, Sarah was tasked with providing guidance on how to adapt the liturgy to the unique circumstances of the coronavirus. By disposition Sarah tends to emphasize fidelity to liturgical rubrics and custom, but for the most part, he has emphasized the freedom of diocesan bishops to make the temporary changes they think are most necessary, even while holding the line on matters pertaining to the validity of sacramental ministry.

While his theological opinions draw the fire of the theological left, his pandemic decisions have prompted critiques from the right.

Sarah has long been beloved by liturgical traditionalists, especially because of his obvious appreciation for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, sometimes called the Tridentine, or Traditional Latin, Mass. But the cardinal’s pandemic guidance, which has signalled approval for suspension of distributing communion on the tongue, and shifted other customary liturgical practices, has been criticized by some of his liturgical supporters as an abandonment of sacred principles.

Because of the pandemic, Sarah probably had more critics, coming from more directions, at the moment the pope accepted his resignation than at any other time in his Vatican ministry.


The second point pertains to the frequently floated idea that Sarah might succeed Francis as pope.

That idea has never been an especially plausible notion. Sarah is discussed as a papal candidate because the idea is provocative. It represents for one end of the Church a kind of redemption fantasy, and for the other a doomsday scenario. But the cardinal is at best a stalking horse for a conservative-leaning consensus candidate. He is in fact far too outspoken, and a few years too old, to be an especially viable candidate.

Regardless of the realities, headlines in the days to come will continue to frame Sarah’s retirement last week as the consequence of the perceived animus between him and the pope. 

Sarah, for his part, likely won’t notice. 

The cardinal spent the early years of his episcopal ministry on the death list of a Guinean dictator against whom he spoke out. After an experience like that, the cross-hairs of the press are likely neither impressive nor important to him. 

By most accounts, Sarah’s priorities are further afield, towards eternity, and well past the headlines.

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