The Problem Of Cardinal Sarah

I’m never quite sure what to make of Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the curia’s CDWDS. Something never seems quite right when I read his musings. It also doesn’t seem right that so many people think of Third World Christians as “children” when they and their culture have been Christian as long as Saint Gregory the Great’s or Saint Athanasius’s Church and culture were

People pull out a quote from the media-present prelate, and the same citation elicits grinning praise or criticism, depending on one’s worldview. Like this one:

The Church is not made to listen, she is made to teach: she is Mater and Magistra, ‘mother’ and ‘educator.’ While the mother listens to her child, she is first present to teach, guide and direct, because she knows better than her children the direction to take.

Anthony Ruff cited this on social media, but I’m not sure from where it’s taken. In his social media post, many commentators there wring hands over the “not made to listen,” and the assumption for many persons that teachers and mothers must listen.

Seemingly, there’s a premise on the cardinal’s part that the Church need not listen. That doesn’t seem to fit the imitation of the Lord, who actively engaged people like Cleopas and his companion (Luke 24:15-24) or Nicodemus (John 3:1-21) or those numerous healings where he asked, what do you want me to do for you? Was Jesus just a radical? Think about Abraham bartering for the virtuous in Sodom (Genesis 18:22-33). Or much of the book of Job. If God welcomes the queries of the just, but the Church cannot be questioned, what does it say about our hubris?

I did look for the above quote in the cardinal’s latest NCReg interview. But I found another quote that gets the situation about half-right, but misses an even bigger indictment of the institution:

On the other hand, as Pope Francis pointed out at the end of the synod, the real problem in the Amazon is not the ordination of married deacons. The real issue is that of evangelization. We have renounced proclaiming the faith, salvation in Jesus Christ. Too often we have become humanitarian assistants or social workers.

Evangelization is certainly an issue. It could be that “mother and teacher” have been more concerned with education or indoctrination. I’ll continue on my theme comparing the Church in the Americas with the Church of the Roman world.

After five centuries, the Church produced great teachers, eight of whom were elevated to the rank of doctor. And not for nothing.

In comparison, the 16th century certainly produced evangelizers like those of the apostolic age. To name a few, Francis Xavier, Juan Diego, and other missionaries who were up to tasks that eclipsed in numbers what Paul tackled in the ancient world. Five-hundred years later, where is the Jerome of Brazil, the Basil of Mexico, the Ambrose of the Philippines, the John Chrystostom of Colombia? If Augustine could write so eloquently of God in Latin, where is the written theological tradition in Tagalog, or Portuguese, or Spanish language?

My hypothesis is that the Tridentine cooperation with colonialism and infantilizing the believers outside of Europe somehow short-circuited a healthy and organic development of the Church around the world. The institution oversaw evangelization, sure. But why are so many churches, including those of the Amazon, still thought of being in a stage of theological toddler-hood, where a mother is needed to do most everything?

My friend Sherry Weddell has written eloquently of the “doctors” of evangelization, clergy and laity, men and women alike, who rescued the faith at a very dark time in the decades after the Council of Trent. And I’ve been taken to task here for my criticism of the
Tridentine Era. But I can’t escape the sadness that something is missing, that something great and wonderful has been carved out of the possible Church that was emerging from the Renaissance Era.

Instead of a delicious deli sandwich, we have ketchup on bread. Instead of a concert grand, we have a toy piano. Instead of a city on a hill, we have shacks in the shadows of mountains. To be sure, one can avoid starvation on bread alone. One can play musical themes on toy instruments. Shacks shelter from the rain as effectively as a house, as long as they are kept in good repair.

The question I ask: are we satisfied with mere survival? I think the Church could be aiming much higher.

In the title, I reference Cardinal Sarah’s “problem.” But it is really the problem of all Christians. I doubt he has much to teach us, at least on the issue of why we seem to be falling so far short of the ideals of previous ages. Jesus seems so far away at times, and not just two millennia. God help us if we find ourselves in the same boat in another twenty centuries.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to The Problem Of Cardinal Sarah

  1. Liam says:

    To balance my earlier criticism referenced obliquely here: this is much better offered than the offhand glibness that triggered my criticism.

    One thing that I’d caution: how widely and deeply have we and the writers we tend to read surveyed the mystical and theological writings of the New World and Oceania of the last 500 years?

    Also, consider that there is a primacy bias built into the nature of Revelation in Christianity – and the post-Toleration era involved basis theological controversies that were hammered out in a series of public ecumenical and regional councils (the pre-Toleration councils were riskier for obvious reasons), and they wound down as the Church faced new external pressures (in peoples, new religions, and climate) from north, south and east in the seventh century (as Late Antiquity may be said finally to have ended) and thereafter that may have helped put theological development on the back burner in a way that made it harder to pick up in later eras. I can’t speak to the theological developments in the Church of the East and the Oriental Churches thereafter, but the theological developments in the Latin and Greek-derived churches of the early parts of the Second Millennium were different in character than those of Late Antiquity.

    I don’t think the Latin Church that emerged from the wake of the Italian Renaissance was as interesting in possible developments as the Church that emerged from the Renaissance of the 12th century (when the New World saw its first Christian presence), which was made possible in part by the proto-renaissances of the Carolingian and Ottonian eras – but the dislocating traumas of the 14th century largely cut us off from those. And evidence that our current church is more fruitful in this regard than the wake of the Tridentine era remains to be determined – Bad Old Dayz and Good Old Dayz frames of reference are too facile to be fruitful when once considers how enduring the human condition has been over all these eras. Epistemic humility and all that.

    So what about the challenges of the Amazon that are relevant to us but that we can’t rightly instrumentalize for our ongoing debates stuck in the 1980s? I confess I’ve only read the document once, and not comfortably with any answers in mind.

    • Liam says:

      A metathought in the background: I knew there was a reason I was drawn to yet again mention the nearly forgotten Church of the East. It’s because it’s possibly the sole significant historical example in the post-Apostolic Age of a long-distance Christian evangelisation that was not yoked with an imperial effort but instead (like the Apostolic Age) opportunistically relied on transportation and communication opportunities afforded by semi-hostile imperial civilizations (in that case, Persian, Indian and Chinese). Otherwise, what we might see as religious evanglisation in the human context has normally been yoked to power (even Buddhist at various times, and certainly including imperial powers in the pre-Columbian New World).

      And the Church of the East, which has been estimated to have comprised at least a quarter of global Christianity at the end of the First Millennium, was one of the chief victims of the traumas of the 14th century (in that case, the Timurids…). While a remnant yet lives, it’s so out of sight and mind for Western Christians that it’s essentially erased from consideration of the treasury of living Christian memory. The funniest thing about that is the chief theological issues once thought to have triggered separation turned out to have been determined in recent decades not to have been so big, as it were. And another odd thing about the Church of the East is that it’s hierarchical separation from the rest of Christianity *preceded* theological separation, for reasons of state that the rest of Christendom did not object to at the time. Another lacuna of memory among many.

      When American Catholics get stuck on story lines largely still ruddered by so-called Whig historians in the Anglosphere – which is, sad to say, almost all the time – we’re remaining blind to a much richer tapestry of lived Christianity. We tend to treat everything outside of those story lines as trivia or technicalities, but less real. (A good part of that dynamic is that the historical record isn’t as readily pre-digested for us, and also the primacy bias that the historiography dominant in the popular culture of our youth and young adulthood has much more inertia in our minds than we tend to imagine – it takes much more active work to dislodge its power, work most people won’t devote the energy to in midlife and late life.)

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