A School of Conjugal Life

Senior Editor’s note: In my column below, I write about a great man’s contribution to a great book about the very topics the 2015 Synod is discussing. Cardinal Robert Sarah is one of the leading traditionalists working in Rome, and we can only hope his view of things prevails as the Synod finishes its work. TCT‘s editor-in-chief, Robert Royal (@RobertSRoyal), reports today from Rome that hopeful signs (the Kasper proposal is dead!) are mitigated somewhat by rumors about the possibility that a Commission could be established to further study what it seems the Synod Fathers will not approve. Don’t miss this latest of Bob’s essential dispatches. Click here to read “Damage Limited, Outcome Unknown.”   – Brad Miner (@ABradfordMiner)

This is a review – of a sort – of Eleven Cardinals Speak: On Marriage and the Family. For the record, the eleven cardinals are: Robert Sarah of Guinea, Carlo Caffarra and Camillo Ruini of Italy, Baselios Cleemis of India, Paul Cordes and Joachim Meisner of Germany, Dominik Duka of the Czech Republic, Antonio Varela of Spain, Willem Eijk of the Netherlands, John Onaiyekan of Nigeria, and Jorge Urosa of Venezuela. (The book is edited by Fr. Winfried Aymans, a German canonist.)

Although Eleven Cardinals Speak is a short book – just 128 pages – it is, in my opinion, impossible to deal with each of the cardinals’ contributions in a review of under 1,000 words, so I’ll focus on just one: “Marriage Preparation in a Secularized World” by Robert Sarah. I do this for two reasons: first, because Cardinal Sarah has emerged as among the most important figures in the Church – especially so at the 2015 Synod – and, second, because his essay defines superbly what has arisen as a key point in discussion at the Synod – one that will surely find its way into whatever final instructions emerge at the end of the month: better marriage preparation.

Sarah’s importance (and the power of his prose) derives partly from his personality and partly from his position as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the dicastery devoted to overseeing Catholic practice with regard to just about everything the Synod is considering. As the leading Catholic figure from an African nation that is 85 percent Muslim, Sarah has shown remarkable courage in speaking forthrightly in defense of Catholicism and religious liberty. He is one of those individuals who does not suffer fools gladly, as, for instance, when Ban Ki-moon called upon African nations to repeal all discriminatory laws pertaining to homosexuality. Cardinal Sarah called the U.N. Secretary General’s comments “stupid,” and sounded a theme important to him and all of Africa’s Christians: so-called “progressive” values are pressed upon Africa by coercive Western elites who think nothing of using aid money as extortion.


Sarah’s essay in Eleven Cardinals Speak begins with a quote from Chesterton: “Take away the supernatural, and what remains is the unnatural.” In Sarah’s amplification: “If Christ alone reveals the truth about man, then in rejecting him we lose the meaning of human nature.”

Some writing by those in the hierarchy can seem like the homilies of pastors who, on principle, refuse to plan their words in advance, then get lost in thought while speaking, and fall back on shibboleths. Sarah’s work, however, is almost shocking in its bluntness and clarity. He acknowledges that in every nation existential difficulties affect engaged couples, but he has special disdain for the libertinism of the West, where most young people “no longer know at all what conjugal life is.”

To deal with this, marriage preparation has to begin at the beginning. The prospective bride and groom must undergo a sanatio, an inside out cleansing of their approach to commitment. The process is nothing less than the restoration of “the nature of man and woman.”

It’s an unpleasant fact of life that the defense of Christian marriage is often portrayed as blind bigotry. Some of the blame for this arises from media distortion, but some blame derives from the foxholes of Christian bigots. Robert Sarah is not a bigot. He is an anti-bigot, and this causes no end of frustration in progressive circles. Just ask Cardinal Walter Kasper.

Sarah would have the catechists of marriage start on the firm ground of natural law: male and female complementarity, the telos of humanity. Modern couples approaching marriage often bring with them attitudes that, in effect, must be . . . exorcised. Attention must thus be brought to bear on things alien to popular culture: renunciation for one; self-sacrifice for another. Any unwillingness to face squarely the hard truths at the start will lead to later disaster.

I doubt many people believe marriage preparation should be an uncomfortable experience, but perhaps it must be. The time for pampering is past. I doubt many people believe marriage preparation should focus on conversion, but it should. Faithlessness must end. Authentic marriage preparation, Sarah writes,

must therefore go through all the steps: the healing of human love, conversion to authentic conjugal love, openness to prayer and to God’s grace, the intention to receive a sacrament that will be a true means of salvation and sanctity. It must strive to obtain the best possible dispositions in the future spouses and not be content with the minimum required for validity. [emphasis added]

This is not a priest who wants to see more annulments, let alone divorces. Let’s hope that, in whatever practical disciplines emerge from the Synod, there will be priests and marriage counselors, guided by the Spirit, capable of deploying the tough love Sarah recommends.


Cardinal Sarah’s essay concludes with his thoughts on the themes of marital life and the essentially sacramental character of marriage.

In the first instance, he is blunt about the interaction of spouses with their respective parents, which the cardinal encourages, but concerning which he offers caution about intrusiveness. Robert Sarah puts the lie to any claim that a celibate man cannot truly understand the dynamics of married life. Throughout, the most quoted expert is St. John Paul II.

All this leads one to just one small doubt. It’s not that young engaged couples cannot grasp the true meaning or embrace the actual challenges of marriage. They can, and this should be a message to the Synod fathers. But how many priests have the wisdom of Robert Sarah and his ability to offer sound counsel? Who knows? If priests will read his testimony – and that of his ten brothers – in Eleven Cardinals Speak, they’ll be much better able to guide couples in embracing the joys of married life.

NOTE: For a small taste of two additional contributors to Eleven Cardinals Speak, take a look at the two most recent NOTABLE items posted here at TCT (found on the left side of every TCT page): Does Matthew 9:19 really allow for divorce? from Cardinal Willem J. Eijk’s “Can Divorced and Civilly Remarried Persons Receive Communion?” and On spiritual communion from Cardinal Paul Cordes’ “Without Rupture or Discontinuity”.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.