In a new open letter rebutting points made by Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments (CDW), pope Francis has made clear that he is not in agreement with the African cardinal’s commentary on his recent liturgical moto proprio, Magnum Principium. This public “calling out” of the cardinal responsible for overseeing the Church’s liturgy is being celebrated by some progressive elements in the Church as a “rebuke”, leading to calls for Sarah’s resignation.
In my own analysis of Magnum Principium, I argued that its delegation of liturgical translations to episcopal conferences was the “antithesis of authentic liturgical development” that represented an “intentional balkanization of the Church’s ‘ordinary form’ of the liturgy” which would “undoubtedly only weaken it further”. In essence, whereas Quo Primum united and standardized the liturgy in the Latin Rite, Magnum Principium represented a liturgical Tower of Babel moment. I also speculated on the lack of Cardinal Sarah’s signature on the document, which instead bore that of the Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, Archbishop Arthur Roche:
I don’t know if it’s standard practice for the secretary of the CDW to add the explanatory note on a papal motu proprio on liturgy, but the prefect of that congregation’s name — Cardinal Robert Sarah — was conspicuous by its absence. And it is hard not to wonder if it is because he wanted nothing to do with its contents.
An Associated Press story on the Summorum Pontificum Congress — published just a week after the release of the motu proprio — suggested an alternative reason for his missing signature, claiming that Cardinal Sarah had been “effectively sidelined by his deputy”, Archbishop Roche, who “signed the explanatory note to Francis’ new law allowing bishops conferences, rather than Sarah’s office, to have final say on Mass translations.”
In a commentary published earlier this month on several websites in various languages (viewable here in English), Cardinal Sarah appeared to assert his authority while pushing back against interpretations of Magnum Principium as an unfettered opportunity to decentralize the Mass with varying regional texts. The National Catholic Register‘s Edward Pentin wrote that Sarah’s commentary had the effect of “reassuring the faithful that the Vatican will continue to safeguard any changes or new liturgical translations to ensure they remain faithful to the original Latin.” Pentin also noted that Cardinal Sarah reasserted “that the ‘authoritative text’ concerning liturgical translations remains Liturgiam Authenticam“, an instruction issued in 2001 by Congregation for Divine worship “that aimed to ensure ‘insofar as possible’ that texts must be translated from the original Latin ‘integrally and in the most exact manner.'”
Now, Pope Francis’ October 22 open letter to Cardinal Sarah has refuted several key points of Sarah’s commentary, including the idea that the Vatican would have the final say on liturgical translations proposed by bishops’ conferences. The pope also said that a number of websites had “erroneously” published the commentary in his name, and requested that Sarah take responsibility for contacting those websites — as well as “all episcopal conferences, and … the members and the consulters of the Dicastery — to see that they receive his own clarification. It is unclear who the commentary is believed by the pope to have been written by, since it appears under Sarah’s signature.
Veteran Vatican watcher Marco Tosatti says the pope’s response is being “celebrated as a just humiliation of the cardinal” and has been “accompanied by calls for his resignation.” Though some, like priest blogger Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, have proposed a less inflammatory interpretation of events, Tosatti sees this not merely as an isolated incident, but part of a larger pattern:
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.
But that’s not all. Tosatti reports that he has sources confirming a rumor that has been circulating for months now pertaining to a proposed interfaith liturgy:
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.
In commentary on the matter at his website Crux, John L. Allen, Jr. suggests that the reason the pope moved so quickly to address Sarah’s “interpretation” of Magnum Principium when he has avoided answering other public criticisms such as the dubia is because of Sarah’s standing as “the Vatican’s top liturgical official” who is in charge of “the department charged with putting the document into action.”
“This is a pope, after all,” Allen writes, “who said in a 2016 interview that he ‘doesn’t lose any sleep’ over critics of his decisions, and has made not engaging those criticisms almost a principle of governance.” Nevertheless, Allen concedes that “this is hardly the first perceived gap between Francis and Sarah, and likely will reinforce the longstanding question in some quarters of why the pope doesn’t simply make a change.”
It seems fair to question, too, why Cardinal Sarah himself doesn’t make that change. Like Cardinal Müller before him, Sarah has been sidestepped and isolated as pertains to matters within his competence. Like Müller, he has had changes made to the dicastery he heads up without his consent. And like Müller, it seems likely that eventually, he’ll be phased out entirely. It appears that he has already been rendered irrelevant — a strategy Allen previously reported the pope has admitted to using when it comes to dealing with “difficult personnel choices.”
Perhaps it’s time for the forthright African cardinal to do what Müller failed to before it is too late: take a stand and resign in protest rather than allowing himself to be further co-opted by an agenda not of his making.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.