WASHINGTON — Cardinal Robert Sarah delivered a stirring defense of the beauty of the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and the family and warned 1,300 Washington-area Catholics, “Today we are witnessing the next stage of the effort to build a utopia without God.”
Cardinal Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, was the keynote speaker at the 12th annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington. He said that when societies try to create utopias without God, “Good becomes evil, beauty is ugly, love becomes the satisfaction of sexual primal instincts, and truths are all relative.”
The Guinean cardinal’s remarks were frequently interrupted by applause. The program also featured Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Little Sister of the Poor Constance Veit, who gave a meditation, and Father Paul Scalia of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., leading a recitation of the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington gave the invocation and blessing at the breakfast.
Cardinal Sarah stressed that cultural developments in the United States have a profound effect on the rest of the world. “Whatever happens in the United States,” the cardinal said, “has repercussions everywhere.”
The cardinal cited the legalization of same-sex “marriage” and the current movement to allow men and women who identify as a member of the opposite sex to change their gender identities as signs that “God is being eroded, eclipsed, liquidated” in the United States, and he urged U.S. citizens to make use of the freedom “bequeathed by your Founding Fathers, lest you lose it.”
But the cardinal, who quoted George Washington, along with Pope St. John Paul II, Pope St. John XXIII and Pope Francis, as well as St. Catherine of Siena, did not mince words about what he sees as the state of advanced societies such as the United States.
“Advanced societies, including, I regret, this nation,” Cardinal Sarah said, “have done and continue to do everything possible to legalize such situations [as cohabitation and same-sex relationships]. But this can never be a truthful solution. It is like putting bandages on the infected wound. It will continue to poison the body until antibiotics are taken.”
“All manner of immorality is not only accepted and tolerated today in advanced societies, but even promoted as a social good,” he continued. “The result is hostility to Christians, and, increasingly, religious persecution. Nowhere is [this] clearer than in the threat that societies are visiting on the family through a demonic ‘gender ideology,’ a deadly impulse that is being experienced in a world increasingly cut off from God through ideological colonialism.”
“This is not an ideological war between competing ideas,” Cardinal Sarah said. “This is about defending ourselves, children and future generations from the demonic idolatry that says children do not need mothers and fathers. It denies human nature and wants to cut off an entire generation from God.”
The Centrality of Marriage
The overriding theme of the cardinal’s address was the centrality of marriage in Christian life. “Every human being, like the Persons of the Trinity, has the capacity to be united with other persons in communion through the … bond of charity of the Holy Spirit,” said Cardinal Sarah. “The family is a natural preparation and anticipation of the communion that is possible when we are united with God. … This is why the devil is so intent on destroying the family. If the family is destroyed, we lose our God-given anthropological foundations and so find it more difficult to welcome the saving good news of Jesus Christ: self-giving, fruitful love.”
He added, “The rupture of the foundational relationships of someone’s life — through separation, divorce or distorted impositions of the family, such as cohabitation or same-sex unions — is a deep wound that closes the heart to self-giving love [unto] death, and even leads to cynicism and despair.”
“These situations cause damage to little children through inflicting upon them a deep existential doubt about love. They are a scandal — a stumbling block — that prevents the most vulnerable from believing in such love, and a crushing burden that can prevent them from opening to the healing power of the Gospel.”
The cardinal characterized the family as “a natural preparation and anticipation of the communion that is possible when we are united with God.”
The cardinal said that there is a move to “neutralize and depersonalize Christian conscience” and seemed almost perplexed that today in the U.S. some believe that people who are biologically one sex must have the right to use the restrooms of the opposite sex. The cardinal said that people should use the restrooms of their correct sex. “How [much] simpler can that concept be?” he asked as the remark was greeted with applause.
While the cardinal painted a picture of perilous times, he also sounded a note of Christian hope. “Perhaps only the beauty of the family can re-awaken the longing for God … and heal the wounds inflicted on our humanity by sin.”
To combat the attacks on the family and Christianity, Cardinal Sarah offered “three humble suggestions” — he urged Catholics to “be prophetic,” “be faithful” and “pray.” “Do not be afraid to proclaim the truth with love, especially about marriage according to God’s plan,” Cardinal Sarah said. “In the words of St. Catherine of Siena, ‘Proclaim the truth, and do not be silent through fear.’”
The day before the breakfast, Cardinal Sarah preached at a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. A few present were able to witness the cardinal’s personality when, just before the end of the procession, he stopped and gave a special blessing to a small child in the congregation.
For the prayer breakfast, the ballroom at the Marriott Marquis was packed, and the mood was upbeat because, despite the sobriety of his talk, the gathered Catholics seemed eager to hear the charismatic cardinal with their own ears.
Speaker Paul Ryan
Speaker Ryan, for his part, presented an engaging talk that was by turns serious and witty and also interrupted by frequent applause. The speaker joked that when he was preparing his remarks, he had an idea. “What if I gave an extended meditation on Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on the sentences of Peter Lombard?”
Ryan said his staff thought that was “heavy stuff” for a 7am breakfast, and he had given serious thought to their objections. “I said to them, ‘I guess you’re right’ … went home … thought it over.”
“And then I proceeded ... to completely ignore their advice,” he continued.
“So Aquinas it is. But, if you will forgive the pun, I will try to put it in layman’s terms.”
Ryan continued, “Aquinas once wrote, ‘It should be known that all right-thinking men’ — clearly, he never ran for office — ‘make contemplation of God the end of human life’ — that is, the purpose of human life.
“In other words, our purpose is to know God, period — whatever your circumstances in life — rich or poor, strong or weak, famous or obscure. It is not that faith inspires you to work hard or raise a family or achieve your goals — though it very well might. Instead, faith is its own reward.”
“A lot of people think faith is just an odd, colorful mask for the ugly face of intolerance,” Ryan said. “I am not saying we should feel put upon. I mean, saints were thrown to the lions. By that standard, we have it easy. What I am saying is, we have to advocate for our faith. And we should defend religious liberty not just on material grounds — that is, because people of faith do good things, like give to charity or volunteer. We should also defend it on spiritual grounds — that is, because living out our faith gives us joy.”
Ryan said that he had chosen his topic for the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast because it is important to recognize that religious liberty is under attack in the United States today.
“If you need an example, look no further than the Little Sisters of the Poor,” he said. “I think we can all agree they are doing some of the noblest work out there. And yet the administration has been trying to force them to offer benefits that violate their beliefs. The sisters have tried to negotiate with the administration, and, frankly, its response has shown a total misunderstanding of faith.”
“On their website, the sisters have a cartoon strip that illustrates the disagreement perfectly,” the speaker said. “A sister and a bureaucrat are debating the issue. The bureaucrat says, ‘You offer the stuff you object to in your plan and, we’ll pay for it.’
“The sister replies, ‘Our concern isn’t the cost, but the morality.’
“The bureaucrat says, ‘No, we’re offering to pay for it, so your conscience is clear.’
“The sister responds — in big, bold letters — ‘That’s not the way it works.’ They should not have to participate in any way — even if it seems like a formality. But that’s the problem: The administration seems to believe only in a material world, where the only stuff that matters is dollars and cents. But that’s a cold, unfeeling world to live in. And that’s not the kind of country that our Constitution envisions.”
Little Sisters’ Ruling
The day before the prayer breakfast, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that did not take a position on the merits of the Little Sisters of the Poor’s lawsuit against the Obama administration, but it did return the matter back to the lower courts and ask them to work out a compromise solution.
Thank God that has happened, Ryan said. “Clearly, the court does not believe that the government has done a good enough job protecting religious liberty. And that’s why I’m calling on the administration to eliminate this burden once and for all.”
“This seems so obvious to all of us that you might start to get discouraged. Why is this even an issue? But I actually think religious liberty is going to make a comeback — because there is a growing need for faith. Let me give you one example,” Ryan said. “Today, all across America, there is an opioid epidemic. And over the past four years, I’ve met with a lot of people struggling with addiction. Not everyone is the same, but what a lot of them will tell you is, they feel a deep, gnawing pain inside. And the reason they turn to drugs is to escape it.”
“Eventually,” he added, “they realize the only way to escape the pain is to turn to God. So when I see people struggling with addiction, do they need the best medical care? Absolutely, yes. But a lot of them need something more,” noting that most recovering addicts say God’s grace helped them beat their addictions. “We all need God.”
Ryan acknowledged Sister Constance Veit, communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor, who attended President Barack Obama’s last State of the Union address. (The speaker evoked giggles with his emphasis on the word “last.”)
In Sister Constance’s meditation, she noted the need for Christian joy: “I believe our contemporaries will listen to us only if we can show them by the way we live that the Gospel brings us lasting joy and happiness.”
She also noted that many people ask her what the Little Sisters will do if the court case ultimately goes against them. She said she always replies the same way: “We have no contingency plan because we believe that God will never abandon us.”
Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.