A charismatic African cardinal has become a centre of opposition within the Church to both the style and content of Francis’ papacy. The Tablet’s Rome correspondent wonders what the future might hold for Robert Sarah, who will be 75 next month
Much of the opposition to Pope Francis operates behind the scenes, in private. Some of it comes from officials and bureaucrats who are sitting on their hands waiting for this pontificate to end. They may not overtly oppose Francis, but they don’t really support him either. Like the civil servants in the British television series, Yes Minister, on the surface they will agree. “Yes, of course, Holy Father, we must have a Church for the poor … Only I’m not necessarily sure you should be welcoming refugees into the Vatican.” In Italy this is termed gattopardismo, the strategy of creating an illusion of progress while leaving everything just the same.
A subtle example of this approach is seen with Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Vatican’s liturgy chief, who is one of Francis’ most effective opponents. The Guinean prelate has a loyal following in conservative circles, particularly in the United States. He is widely respected in his home continent. His supporters talk of him as a strong candidate to be the first black pope, a man with a towering spirituality who would make the Church more faithful, more pure. Critics say he is being used by those who wish to keep the old clericalist status quo.
Behind the cardinal are powerful, wealthy supporters. The Knights of Columbus, the multibillion-dollar US Catholic organisation, bought up large numbers of copies of his book, God or Nothing, for distribution in Africa. The Knights said this was “one of several initiatives” to “support members of the Curia and the Pope”, and vehemently deny being part of any opposition to Francis.