A growing crowd wants Cardinal Robert Sarah’s head on a platter. Open a liberal Catholic periodical and you are likely to find a call for the dismissal of the Guinean cardinal who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship: “It’s past time for [Pope Francis] to replace Cardinal Sarah” (Maureen Fiedler, National Catholic Reporter); “New wine might be needed at the Congregation for Divine Worship” (Christopher Lamb, the Tablet); “Curia officials who refuse to get with Francis’s programme should leave. Or the Pope should send them somewhere else” (Robert Mickens, Commonweal); “Francis must put his foot down. Cardinals like Robert Sarah … may feel that with a papacy heading in the wrong direction, foot-dragging is a duty. But that does not mean Francis has to put up with them” (The Editors, the Tablet).

Sarah was not always treated as the most dangerous man in Christendom. When he was appointed to his post by Pope Francis in 2014, he enjoyed the goodwill even of those who criticise him today. Mickens described him as “unambitious, a good listener and, despite showing a clear conservative side since coming to Rome … a ‘Vatican II man’ ”. Lamb was told by his sources that Sarah was someone liberals could like, the kind of bishop who was sympathetic to “inculturation”. John Allen summed up the consensus around the Vatican: Sarah was a low-profile bishop, “warm, funny and modest”.

All that changed on October 6, 2015, the third day of the contentious synod on the family. The synod fathers were riven by the seemingly competing demands of reaching out to people who felt stigmatised by the Church’s sexual teaching and boldly proclaiming truth to a hostile world. In what has come to be known as the “apocalyptic beasts” speech, Sarah insisted that both were possible. “We are not contending against creatures of flesh and blood,” he told his brother bishops. “We need to be inclusive and welcoming to all that is human.” But the Church must still proclaim the truth in the face of two great challenges. “On the one hand, the idolatry of Western freedom; on the other, Islamic fundamentalism: atheistic secularism versus religious fanaticism.”

As a young priest, Sarah studied at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem and planned a dissertation on “Isaiah, Chapters 9-11, in Light of Northwestern Semitic Linguistics: Ugaritic, Phoenician and Punic”. So it is no surprise that he employed biblical language to make his point. Western freedom and Islamic fundamentalism, he told the assembly, were like two “apocalyptic beasts”. The image comes from the Book of Revelation, which describes how two beasts will attack the Church. The first comes out of the sea with seven heads, 10 horns, and blasphemy on its lips. The second rises out of the land performing great wonders, and persuades the world to worship the first.

This strange dynamic – one monstrous threat leading men to embrace the other – is what Sarah sees at work in our own time. Fear of religious repression induces some to worship an idolatrous freedom. (I recall the time I found myself the only man left sitting when Ayaan Hirsi Ali ended a speech by asking her audience to give an ovation “To blasphemy!”) On the other hand, attacks on human nature tempt some to embrace the false reassurance of religious fundamentalism, which has its most horrible expression under the black flag of ISIS. Each evil tempts those who fear it to succumb to its opposite. As with communism and Nazism in the 20th century, both must be resisted.

Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, head of the Polish bishops’ conference, wrote that Sarah’s intervention was made at a “very high theological and intellectual level”, but others seemed to miss its meaning altogether. Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane decried the use of “apocalyptic language”. (One wonders what he makes of the rest of John’s Revelation.) “The boys don’t like to be reminded of judgment,” quipped one cardinal after Sarah spoke.

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