Cardinal Sarah: Only the Church Can Open the Door to the Sacraments

(photo: Bohumil Petrik/CNA)

To allow someone to receive the Eucharist when he lives in “manifest contradiction” with Jesus’ words “signifies opening a door which does not lead to Christ,” Cardinal Robert Sarah has said.

In a new, wide-ranging interview (see below for full text) for, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments said the door for such people is “always open, in as much as God continues to call to conversion”.

But opening a door to the sacraments for those who are not properly disposed to receive them means “actually to close the true door of life,” he said. 

The Guinean cardinal, interviewed by Armin Schwibach, professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Athanaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, was responding to a question about a recent article in the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica in which its editor, Father Antonio Spadaro S.J., claimed the recent Synod on the Family opened a door for remarried divorcees to receive holy Communion. 

Cardinal Sarah reminded that only the Church can open this door, and quoted John 10, 1-2,7: “Who does not enter into the sheep fence through the door, but enters through somewhere else, is a thief and a brigand. He who enters by the door however, is the shepherd of the sheep […] Truly, truly I say to you: I am the door of the sheep”.

The cardinal made many other salient points including warning that “many priests, bishops and cardinals” believe that in order to “meet the problems of the world one has to adapt to it”, ignoring Jesus’ clear teachings on the indissolubility of marriage and separating pastoral care from doctrine. He urged reading Grahame Greene’s ‘The Power and the Glory’ to help understand the dangers of worldliness in the Church.

He also said he was confident Pope Francis would interpret the synod’s final report as being in “perfect continuity with and fidelity to his predecessors.”

Elsewhere, the cardinal, reflecting on the Paris attacks, called on Europe to return to prayer and place God at the center of life as a remedy to the continent’s “silent apostasy”. He also urged "a clear Eucharistic ecclesiology and a Christology centered on the Holy Mass" in the liturgy, warned that a “humanism without God” leads to a “contagion of sentimentalism”, and spoke of the dangers of eurocentrism.


Interview with Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments

by Professor Armin Schwibach

Some years ago – not least in relation to the motu proprio “Summorum Pontificium” of Pope Benedict XVI (2007) with regard to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite which is one – there was a heated debate about the necessity of a “reform of the reform” starting with a new approach to “Sacrosanctum Concilium”. It should have become clear that the liturgy is the source, end and summit of the Christian life. In 2011, your predecessor as prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments underlined: “The liturgy places us before God Himself, before the action of God, before his love. We will promote an urgent, necessary new evangelization only if the liturgy will once again occupy that place which is proper to it in the life of all Christians”.

What new forms of catechesis would be necessary to make it such that the liturgy become once again the true source of the life of the Church? What can or ought the faithful do when they are confronted with situations of liturgical abuse? What do you recognize to be at the root of the irregularity which is, at times even grave, in the sphere of the liturgy?

The liturgy is in itself the source and summit of the Christian life and this above and beyond any catechesis. Of course, however, a liturgical formation which has as its purpose the deepest comprehension of the sacraments is urgent. It is vital and urgent for man, to reconnect personal and interior relationships with God through a true and intense liturgical and sacramental life. Today more than ever the Christian has a profound need to rediscover the inestimable value of his baptism, of the Eucharist, of the humble confession of his sins. For this reason a Christian initiation for the baptized is necessary which helps them to live the beauty of the personal encounter with God in prayer and adoration as the ultimate meaning of their existence. We were created to love, pray and adore God. When man kneels down before God he reaches the highest level of existence. The liturgy lived in piety and sacredness, with faith and love, allows us to reach our fullness in God. Where man no longer perceives God, life becomes empty. One can refill it with material wealth: money, entertainment, sex, but all this is insufficient. 

The root of the irregularity in the liturgical sphere, as Pope emeritus Benedict XVI affirmed, is due to a problem of faith. Without a clear Eucharistic ecclesiology and a Christology centered on the Holy Mass it is useless to speak about the “reform of the reform”. The true liturgical reform will only be made tangible through a serious liturgical education which, as we already affirmed, looks to the rediscovery of that which the Council has consigned to us. An example of this would be the respect for “Sacred Silence” in the liturgy. There are many moments of silence foreseen by the liturgy which become the privileged place for prayer and for experiencing the presence of the Lord however, many times, not comprehending the value of this, one risks neglecting them and in this way of losing the orientation towards heaven which is a fundamental part of the liturgy of the Church.

With regard to abuses, Christians are called first of all to seek a meeting with their pastor, praying also for him. Then, if the former insists on repeating such liturgical abuse, the faithful together with other witnesses are invited to meet with their Bishop. The Ordinary, once the abuse has been verified, is called to correct the accused person, reminding him firmly that “to regulate the holy liturgy belongs only to the authority of the Church, which resides in the Holy See and, within the norms of the law, in the bishop… As a result no one else, absolutely, even if a priest, dares, on his own initiative, to add, subtract or change in any way in liturgical matters” (Sc n° 22).

All this however one must do looking always to the purpose of the liturgy and the Church itself: love and unity.

The recent events and the terrorist attacks in Paris on the 13th of November, 2015, have once again left Europe and the whole world dismayed. Do you see in this also a spiritual danger for our European society, for its community of values? Do you think this spiritual danger graver than the dissolution of the faith and of the eclipse of God in Europe? Based on your experience: do you see a way for peaceful coexistence with other religions to be realized? Before the advance of a “hot religion” like that of Islam, what ought to be the response of a European and western Christianity now become “cold”, considering the environment always more secularized, indifferent or aggressively atheist?

Europe is in danger because it has forgotten God, and, as a result its culture, its history, its roots, its identity. The phenomenon of Islamic terrorism might even be a temporary phenomenon, we all hope, but the problem of the West which does not know itself anymore will remain even afterwards. The only way that a path of coexistence between the religions will be realized is that a human dialogue is begun with regard to the human and ethical values which unite us, like the eminent dignity of the human person, life and the family. A theological dialogue seems to me objectively difficult. If we look at the brutal attacks in Paris we see that the jihadists have hit precisely the places which we hold to be the expression of today’s “life”: liberty, which often flows into anarchy; fun; lightheartedness. Now I ask myself: is the West only this? Is it only being able to enjoy an unbounded liberty? Is it for this that everyone says “Je suis Paris”, without understanding what it truly means? I do not think so at all. And it is this which the degeneration of a part of Islam, which is made tangible in a false way in the terroristic spirit, strikes: these terrorists find a soft underbelly to strike, in which the absence of God and of identity has made us weak and defenseless, and therefore not even capable of advancing a positive view of life if it is not the assumed “I live as I want”.

In “God or nothing” you write: “The distance from God is not the fruit of reasoning, but of a desire to separate oneself from Him. The atheist orientation of a life is almost always a choice of the will. Man does not want any more to reflect on his relationship with God, because he wants to become God Himself” (p. 220).

What, in your opinion, is the greatest weakness of Christians in Europe, in that part of the world which was once “the Christian West”?

The greatest weakness, which I would call mortal sin, of Europe is the silent apostasy of which St. John Paul II had spoken. Or indeed the will to construct a “humanism without God”. Europe and the society of the West in general have distanced themselves from God, not anymore and not only on the basis of a refutation of His existence, but also, in its extreme consequences, on indifference with regard to the religious sense. Thus the affirmation typical of post-modernity, which was born with the revolution in customs of the 1960’s, for which God does not exist, today has become “whether there is or not, does not matter: everyone is free to believe whatever they want, but only in private”. This means denying everything, to deny that man is able to seek the Truth (as far as this would be useless): in fact, insofar as everything is equal, nothing counts anymore. But this relativism is much worse than nihilism. The West therefore today wants to live excluding the possibility of responding to the great “why’s” of life, without having reference to the whole good, and to the values of charity and of justice. Pope Benedict has always said that “only where God is seen, does life truly begin, only when we meet in Christ the living God, do we know what life is”.

There, the West, not only Europe, is in danger because in this process of forgetfulness of God it has destroyed the highest and most beautiful things which Christianity has given: respect for life, of the dignity of man created in the image and likeness of God. And there is a final aspect, even worse: is the intention, often violent, of the West to “export” this, its decadence, even to that which is not Western. But I ask myself: if life does not have its purpose in the Truth, does living have meaning? Therefore I believe that we can start again only by allowing God to come back into our lives. We must be able to place God again at the center of our thoughts, at the center of our actions, at the center of our lives, in the only place that he ought to occupy, until our journey as Christians gravitates around this rock which is God, this solid certitude of our Christian faith. I will make a proposal: let us return to praying, which is the path of dialogue with God: only improving our relationship with God, does he improve that among men, without this we will always have wars, hate and wounds. We have to give time to God.

In “God or nothing” you affirm: “Divorce is a grave offence against the natural law and an injuring of the salvific covenant of which marriage is the sign” (p. 326). One of the themes which in the years 2014 and 1015 has occupied some Catholics and much of the secular media were the two synods on the family during which, in public opinion, was presented above all the problem of “sacraments for the divorced and remarried”.

According to you, why was a theme which puts in danger the foundation of all Catholic doctrine given such accentuated prominence, while this, according to the statistics, regards only a small minority of the faithful?

Because, unfortunately, today even in the Church and among many priests, bishops and cardinals, it is held that to meet the problems of the world one has to adapt to it, ignoring the clear word of Jesus on the indissolubility of marriage and splitting apart, because of mercy, pastoral care and doctrine. And this is done for comfort, in order not to risk, in order not to appear politically incorrect. This is called worldliness, which is all the worse in that it can strike Christians, lay or consecrated, and is the danger about which Pope Francis is always reminding us. I recommend to all the beautiful book – the novel “The Power and the Glory” of Graham Greene – to verify what I am saying. Even Jesus himself asked us to be “in” the world, not “of” the world (Jn 15, 18-21). Today instead of affirming the beauty of a sacrament like marriage, its openness to life, being the basis of tomorrow’s society, we wrap ourselves in things which do not work.

It is as if I said that it is better not build a house out of fear of an earthquake, although having the tools to prepare for it and to render that house more solid. It is the same with marriage, which Jesus has given as a gift to man and to the woman as an indissoluble union with Himself. We are thus terrorized by having God in our lives, that we prefer “to kill him” in order to be in control of everything ourselves, with disturbing results, as we see. Unfortunately the positivist culture has habituated us only to the criteria of opportunity and efficiency, for this reason something is done only if and for as long as it is useful, and this utility is applied even to human relationships and to the sacraments. On the other hand, the widespread “humanism without God” of which I spoke before has contaminated us with the contagion of sentimentalism, so that anything goes ahead only as long as it is supportable and as long as we are filled with the inspiration of emotion and passion. When these circumstances have passed the covenant may be broken: and it does not mean that breaking it we put God out of our house. But it is a scandal that we reason in this way! The Christian has as his point of reference the Cross, which does not only mean suffering, but just the opposite: the loving gift of self even to the very end, because this alone saves. It is clear that the Gospel is demanding: Jesus demands our all, but at the same time he offers us all. Can anything be more beautiful than this?

However today we are persuaded of the fact that men do not aim anymore at things high and lasting: and therefore, even in the Church, for the sake of comfort and because of fear, we prefer to educate them in the contingent. And here we come to the other key point: education. The Church has to educate in the beauty and for the discovery of one’s own baptismal journey, not for the accepting of evil and of sin. This does not mean underestimating the current anthropological crisis. Just the opposite, indeed I say: what if this desert should be a grace to take advantage of for returning to the proclamation of God and the Gospel?

In an article of the journal n°3970 (11/28/2015) of “La Civiltà Cattolica” the rough draft of which was examined by the Secretary of State of the Holy See with definitive approval, its director, Antonio Spadaro SJ speaks explicitly of an “open door” to the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried. The Jesuit writes: “It will always be the duty of the pastor to find a path which corresponds to the truth and the life of the persons which he accompanies, without being able perhaps to explain to all why they take one decision rather than another. The Church is the sacrament of salvation. There are many paths and many dimensions to explore for the sake of the ‘salus animarum’. With regard to access to the sacraments, the ordinary synod has therefore effectively created the basis for it, opening a door which however in the previous synod remained closed”.

As a synodal father who knows the controversial paragraphs n°84-86 of the “Relatio synodi”: how do you judge these affirmations of another member of the synod who thus interprets its results? Is not the talk of “opening a door” equivalent to an always denied “change” of the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage, which is impossible? Do affirmations of this kind increase the uncertainty and perplexity of the faithful, as has been seen in a particularly sensible manner during these two years?

The Synod wanted to aid and accompany these baptized who find themselves in a situation of life contrary to the words of Jesus. And has proclaimed that the door for them is always open, in as much as God continues to call to conversion and to act in their hearts to regenerate their desire for the full life which Jesus has proclaimed to us.

Certainly, to propose those roads which do not lead to this full life is not opening doors. The door which God opens leads us always to him, to his dwelling in which we may live his life. Sin closes the door of life. To admit a person to Eucharistic communion when he lives in manifest contradiction with the words of Jesus signifies opening a door which does not lead to Christ, or actually to close the true door of life. Let us remember: the door is Jesus, the Church can only open this door; the pastor who does not want to enter through this door, Jesus himself said, is not a true pastor. Because “who does not enter into the sheep fence through the door, but enters through somewhere else, is a thief and a brigand. He who enters by the door however, is the shepherd of the sheep […] Truly, truly I say to you: I am the door of the sheep” (Jn 10, 1-2. 7).

The document of the synod (nn. 84-86) does not say anything else, and the written text is the only sure one for rightly interpreting that which the Synod wanted to say. The document speaks of the duty of the pastor to accompany persons under the guidance of the bishop, but also adds, and this is very important, that the accompaniment has to happen “according to the teaching of the Church”. This teaching includes without a doubt the unadulterated reading, complete and faithful, of Familiaris Consortio 84 and Sacramentum Caritatis 29, together with the Catechism of the Catholic Church: the accompaniment, which will take account of the concrete circumstances, has a common goal: to lead the person toward a life in accord with the life and words of Jesus; at the end of the journey the decision to abandon the new union or of live in absolute continence within it will have matured. To renounce this goal is to renounce even the journey.

It is true that the text does not repeat explicitly this teaching, and in this way it is interpreted in many different ways by the press. But it is an abusive, even deceitful, interpretation, which deforms its meaning. The text never speaks of giving the Eucharist to those who continue to live in a way manifestly contrary to it. If there are silences, these must be interpreted in accord with the Catholic hermeneutic, which means, in the light of the prior, constant magisterium, a magisterium which the text never denies. In other words, to the divorced and civilly remarried the door to Eucharistic communion remains closed because Jesus himself has said: “Whoever repudiates his wife, if not in case of fornication, and marries another, commits adultery. Thus let no man sunder what God has bound together” (Mt 19, 6. 9). It is closed by Familiaris Consortio 84, by Sacramentum Caritatis 29 and by the Catechism of the Catholic Church. To kick in this door or climb in some other place means to write another gospel and to oppose Jesus Christ Our Lord. I am quite sure that Pope Francis interprets numbers 84-86 of the “Relatio synodi” in perfect continuity with and fidelity to his predecessors. In fact in an interview with the Argentinian daily “La Nacion” he affirmed: “What do we do with them, what door may be opened? There is a pastoral disquietude: ought we to give them communion? It is not a solution to give them communion. This is just not a solution, the solution is integration”.

It is true that there are “many paths and dimensions to explore”, as indicated by Fr. Spadaro; still, I would just like to add that these are paths toward a goal, and this goal for the Church can only be one: to bring the person to Jesus, to put his life in harmony with Jesus and with his teaching on human and conjugal love. Access to the Eucharist, which is communion with the body of Jesus, is opened to all those who are ready to live in the body in accord with the word of Jesus. If the Church opens the door to another goal, to another place, then this is not the door of mercy. Then it would mean a true change of doctrine, because every doctrine (like that of the indissolubility of marriage) is confessed firstly in the place where the Eucharist is celebrated. When a Christian says “Amen” when receiving the Eucharist, he affirms not only that the Eucharist is the body of Jesus, but also that he wishes to conform his life to the body, his relationships, conformed to Jesus, because he believes that the word of Jesus is the word of true life.

This means that there is a journey, that there is a hope even for those who live far away, and this Synod wanted to reconfirm that. If these persons do not feel themselves ready to live in accord with the word Jesus, then it is the task of the Church to remind them, with patience, delicacy, that they belong to the Church, that they are children of God; it is the task of the Church to accompany them so that they may come near to Jesus in many ways, participating in the Eucharistic celebration, helping in the works of charity and mercy, in the mission of the Church… Once they are near to Jesus, they may understand better his words, they may be convinced of the strength of God in their lives which makes conversion possible, the abandonment of and complete break with sin.

Of course, the accompanying of the divorced and remarried is done case by case, as also preparation for marriage is done case by case. But this does not mean that to those who are preparing for marriage the Church offers different kinds of marriage, of various lengths according to the individual case. The marriage for which they are prepared is ever the same, just as the goal for the divorced and remarried is always the same. And this is because we live in community, we are not monads, we share the same call to Holiness and the vocation in love, that precisely which is contained in monogamous, stable, and indissoluble marriage.

In your opinion, at least in how it was presented by the media, was the synod too much determined by European and German themes? How did you perceive the points of view in part very Eurocentric and how do you see the possibility of avoiding a unilateral reduction of the discussion?  

Without wanting to offend anyone, one might speak of a Eurocentric presentation on the part of the Instrumentum Laboris and of some of the media, not only because determinate themes were chosen which more preoccupy the West (as communion for the divorced in new civil unions), but above all for an excessive insistence on the individual and the subjective conscience. The danger of eurocentrism, in this sense, means the danger of adapting oneself excessively to perspective of modernity or of godless postmodernity, which is now globalized and which in so many ways, as Pope Francis denounced on his trip in the Philippines, means for other countries an “ideological colonialism”.    

According to this “Eurocentric” perspective the family is seen as a privatized reality, measured only according to the desire of the individualistic subject, which reduces love to an emotion. To give a response to the problems of the family from this point of view would consist, as is done, in underlining the primacy of an autonomous conscience, of a subjectivism of the conscience, which decides for itself.  This is why a too Eurocentric point of view wants at any cost to justify situations which are contrary to the truth of marriage, like fornication or cohabitation or civil marriage, and to see them as a path toward fullness, instead of recognizing the harm which they do to the person, because they possess a logic contrary to true love. Moreover, this point of view tends to oppose love and truth, doctrine and pastoral care, according to a dualist point of view which is also just that of postmodern thought.

I think that the Synod wanted to abandon precisely this point of view. It is just from other cultures, which are on the periphery, that new light is shed upon the family, a vision of the family at the center of the society and the Church. The society and the Church are not formed by individuals, but by families, by cells of living communion. This corresponds with a vision, so to speak, “familiar” of man, which is not an isolated conscience but lives receiving everything from others and called to give itself to others. A greater trust is thus born in the love of God to regenerate the heart of persons. It is understood even better that the light of doctrine is united to vital practice and the liturgical rite: it is not only a theoretical light, as a certain modern dualism has conceived it. But this, in reality corresponds with the true European thought, which has Christian roots that Europe is called to recover if it wants to survive.

Translated from the Italian for the Register by Evan Simpkins