The strange case of Cardinal Sarah

Analysis: Vatican news

On Saturday morning, the Holy See announced that Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of Cardinal Robert Sarah as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. 

The cardinal’s departure was announced by the Vatican Press Office without any mention of who will take his place. The unusual move has prompted competing theories among Vatican watchers and officials: Some suggest Sarah is being publicly punished, while others ask if the announcement is a sign of pending structural reform at the Vatican. Neither theory is entirely satisfying. 

In June 2020 Sarah turned 75, the age at which all curial cardinals are required to offer their resignation. Until this morning, he was one of several department heads serving past the nominal retirement age. 

In that sense, Sarah’s departure is part of the ordinary turnover in Roman life. But the timing and manner of his departure does raise questions, for which there are, as yet, no clear answers.

It is especially notable that while Sarah is 75, he’s is younger than other curial heads whom the pope has left in office, at least for the moment:

The head of the Congregation for Clergy, Cardinal Beniamino Stella, is nearly 80 and was called into an audience by the pope last week, prompting speculation he might soon be retired.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet leads the Congregation for Bishops and, at 76, is a year older than Sarah. He has been widely expected to leave office this year.

Sarah’s departure may yet prove to be just the first in a series of curial dominoes to fall in a wider Roman reshuffle by Pope Francis. This is the most likely scenario.  But the timing and manner of his departure still leave room for questions.

Sarah’s relative age to one side, the manner in which his retirement was announced is highly unusual. 

Outgoing curial heads do not usually have their resignations formally announced as was Sarah’s. Instead their replacement is announced by the Holy See press office, with their predecessor departing quietly and without fanfare.

And it is surprising that the pope would leave the congregation charged with sacramental discipline without a leader in the Lenten run up to Holy Week - especially as the coronavirus pandemic still raises liturgical problems and questions in many places.

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Among Vatican staffers and other Rome watchers, there are two main competing theories, but few firm answers, as to why Francis made this decision. 

A few observers have speculated that the pope wanted Sarah’s resignation to have its own moment of publicity: A kind of pointed humiliation for a cardinal painted as an “ultra conservative” at odds with the pope on a range of issues.

But this idea — that the pope wanted to personally shame Sarah in public over supposed ideological differences — likely says more about those promoting it than about the real differences of opinion between the pontiff and Cardinal Sarah.

This theory is most common among those who have seen Sarah as a foil to Pope Francis in debates on issues like the reservation of ordination of men alone, and on the nature of marriage as between one man and one woman, both settled matters of Catholic doctrine.

But despite frequent media characterization to the contrary, Francis has made no effort to advance a challenge to Church doctrine on either subject. And on the disciplinary issue of priestly celibacy, Sarah and the pope have been conspicuously in agreement with each other on the importance of the practice — to the frustration of many during the recent synod on the Amazon.

Further, while Sarah is a widely considered to be a liturgical traditionalist, there is little evidence in the last seven years that the liturgy is a subject which much exercises the pope, one way or another.

At the same time, there is a consultation underway on the use of the Extraordinary Form of a Mass, and Sarah’s departure, and replacement, seem sure to impact how that consultation will conclude.

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It is also worth noting that when Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Gerhard Müller as head of the CDF in 2017, at the end of a five year term of office, a successor was immediately named, and that move was still accepted as a public “sacking” by the pope. Framing both the circumstances of Sarah’s retirement and Muller’s non-renewal in office as sure signs of a firing - even while the circumstances are opposite each other - points to the danger of interpreting events through the predetermined framework of ideology or partisanship.

Another theory as to why the pope has accepted Sarah’s resignation without naming a successor is that it may telegraph a new phase in curial reform. 

A new governing constitution for the Roman Curia has been in the works for years, and is now on its third draft. Although the final document is not expected to be ready for publication for some months, it is widely expected to include the consolidation of several curial departments. 

Some in Rome have speculated that Sarah’s departure could clear the way for the Congregation for Divine Worship to be combined with another department in the shorter term, like the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, with a new prefect being confirmed at the time of that announcement.

But with all indications being that the new curial constitution is months away from being published, combining two relatively important departments ahead of a wider reform would be very unexpected, and would suggest the project has hit a major roadblock and that the pope has decided to enact his reforms piecemeal, rather than wait for a final document.

Neither theory offered to explain why, when and how Cardinal Sarah’s resignation was accepted appears convincing. And time may make the reasons, and circumstances, of Sarah’s departure, more obvious.

Many in Rome insist that, while Sarah has been loyal to the pope in public, Francis does not personally care for the Guinean cardinal and that the two do not get along well.

If that is true, and there has been no indication of any recent doctrinal or disciplinary conflict between the men to explain the pope’s decision to remove Sarah without a replacement in place, clashes of personality could certainly be a factor — and that’s an important point.

Commentators rushing to turn a personnel decision into an ideological clash over bigger issues likely overlook how much personal relationships matter as they rush to frame events as symbolic of broader, near epochal, narratives.

In the meanwhile, the most obvious answer may be that Pope Francis has a habit of acting spontaneously. There may be no better or worse explanation for the pope’s acceptance of Sarah’s resignation than that he simply made up his mind to do it.