ROME— Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Robert Sarah as head of the Vatican’s office for liturgy, removing an outspoken conservative and possible future pope from the ranks of Vatican leadership.
The Holy See Press Office announced Saturday that Cardinal Sarah had stepped down. No successor has been named.
The cardinal submitted his resignation as required by church law when he turned 75 on June 15 of last year. But the pope frequently lets cardinals serve two or three years past that age, though not past 80. Last June, the cardinal wrote on Twitter: “For my part, I am happy to continue my work” at the Vatican.
In accepting Cardinal Sarah’s resignation, the pope has removed a subordinate out of step with his approach to liturgy, homosexuality and relations with the Muslim world. The cardinal is a hero to many conservative Catholics, some of whom see him as a future pontiff. He will still be able to vote in a conclave to elect a pope until he turns 80.
Last year, the cardinal raised controversy with a book widely interpreted as an attempt to influence Pope Francis’ decision on whether to allow the ordination of married men as priests. The episode led to embarrassment for the cardinal when retired Pope Benedict XVI asked to have his name removed as the book’s co-author.
The Guinean cardinal’s retirement leaves only one African as the head of a Vatican department: Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, which focuses on issues of social justice.
Cardinal Sarah didn’t reply to a request for comment on Saturday. Shortly after the announcement, he tweeted: “I am in God’s hands. The only rock is Christ. We will meet again very soon in Rome and elsewhere.”
The cardinal was born in the small village of Ourous, Guinea, in West Africa, where his father was a farmer and a convert to Catholicism. At the age of 11 he was sent to a seminary in Ivory Coast. Pope John Paul II made him archbishop of the Guinean capital of Conakry at the age of 34, and he was the youngest archbishop in the world at the time.
In 2010, Pope Benedict made him a cardinal and named him to head the Vatican office that coordinates the church’s global charitable activities. Pope Francis appointed him to head the liturgy office in 2014.
The contrast between the cardinal and the new pope was soon clear.
Pope Francis had signaled a new openness to gay people, played down teachings on sexual and medical ethics and made high-profile overtures to Muslim leaders. But Cardinal Sarah told a Vatican meeting of bishops on family issues in 2015 that the modern family faced “two unexpected threats, almost like two apocalyptic beasts, located on opposite poles: on the one hand, the idolatry of Western freedom; on the other, Islamic fundamentalism.”
“What Nazi-fascism and communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion ideologies and Islamic fanaticism are today,” he said.
Cardinal Sarah has been a prominent spokesman on such issues for Africa’s bishops, who have emerged as a major conservative bloc in the current pontificate.
During his tenure at the liturgy office, the cardinal openly clashed with the pope on questions of worship, twice drawing extraordinary public rebukes.
In 2016, Cardinal Sarah gave a speech encouraging priests to celebrate Mass facing the altar rather than the congregation in the pews, the standard practice until the late 1960s and still the preference of devotees of the traditional Latin Mass. The Vatican issued a statement negating the cardinal’s instruction.
Pope Francis then reduced the cardinal’s influence over his own office, appointing the cardinal’s deputy, British Archbishop Arthur Roche, to lead a review of the norms governing translations of the Mass.
Following the review, the pope decided in 2017 to give national bishops conferences authority over Mass translations, a move opposed by conservatives. That led to more friction with Cardinal Sarah, who said publicly that his office remained the final arbiter of translations, until the Vatican released a letter from the pope ordering the cardinal to retract the claim.
In January of last year, Cardinal Sarah was involved in controversy touching on papal authority when he released a book defending the traditional practice of priestly celibacy, just as Pope Francis was considering relaxing the millennium-old rule to relieve a priest shortage in Latin America’s Amazon region.
“It is urgent, necessary, that everyone, bishops, priests and laypeople, not allow themselves to be impressed by the special pleading, the theatrics, the diabolical lies, the fashionable errors that would devalue priestly celibacy,” the cardinal wrote.
The book initially listed Pope Benedict as co-author, intensifying a debate over the historically unique situation of having two popes living in the Vatican. Some commentators accused the cardinal of exaggerating the role of the retired pope, whom many conservatives see as a champion of tradition under his more liberal successor. Shortly after the news broke, Pope Benedict asked not to be listed as co-author and to be credited only with the contribution of a single chapter.
Pope Francis finally decided against relaxing the rule on priestly celibacy, omitting the topic from a long-awaited document on the Amazon last February.
Write to Francis X. Rocca at email@example.com