CARDINAL ROBERT SARAH (pronounced Sar-AH, with the accent on the last syllable) has never been afraid to speak out. Such was his defiance of his native Guinea’s dictator, Ahmed Sékou Touré, that he was at the top of a list of candidates for assassination found when the strongman died in 1984. Since coming to Rome in 2001 he has emerged as standard-bearer-in-chief of the traditionalists: Roman Catholics who prize doctrinal certainty over adapting to changing times. Many in the church’s higher reaches would like to reverse some of the innovations that followed the Second Vatican Council, which closed in 1965 (indeed, they often claim its intentions were misinterpreted).
As the head of the department overseeing the church’s charitable activities, Cardinal Sarah brought Caritas, its main development agency, under tighter Vatican control and in 2011 jettisoned its liberal-minded director, Lesley-Anne Knight. At a recent synod, or meeting of bishops, called by the pope to discuss issues that split liberals and traditionalists relating to the family and sexual orientation, he vigorously opposed change. On July 5th he went further, openly defying Pope Francis. The issue was one of immense symbolic importance for Catholics. At a conference in London Cardinal Sarah, who now heads the Vatican’s liturgy department, asked priests to resume celebrating mass facing east, with their backs to the congregation, as they had done before the Second Vatican Council.
Seldom do Catholic leaders clash so publicly. The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, wrote to the priests of his diocese reminding them that an instruction “approved by the highest authority in the church” told them to face the congregation whenever possible. The pope saw Cardinal Sarah on July 9th, after which the Holy See said the cardinal’s words, which went against that settled position and the pope’s known wishes, had been wrongly interpreted.