YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – An African cardinal widely seen as a conservative critic of Pope Francis, and styled by some as possible candidate for the papacy himself, has warned of what he described as a “practical atheism” taking hold within the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea also repeated his criticism of Fiducia Supplicans, the recent Vatican document authorizing blessings of couples involved in same-sex unions, insisting that it’s not just traditional African culture but Catholic teaching itself which makes the document unacceptable.

Speaking to the episcopal conference of Cameroon, Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, the Vatican’s former top official for liturgy, criticized Western bishops for their reluctance to oppose secular worldly values, accusing them of a failure of nerve.

“Many Western prelates are tetanized by the idea of opposing the world. They dream of being loved by the world; they’ve lost the desire to be a sign of contradiction,” said the 78-year-old Sarah.

Sarah told the Cameroonian bishops he believes “the Church of our time is experiencing the temptation of atheism. Not intellectual atheism, but that subtle and dangerous state of mind [of] fluid and practical atheism.”

“The latter is a dangerous disease, even if its initial symptoms seem benign,” he said.

According to Sarah, practical atheism is more insidious than its intellectual counterpart, as it does not declare itself openly but seeps into every aspect of contemporary culture, including ecclesiastical discourse.

He asserted that the Church and its leadership has been guilty of “accommodating, of complicity with this major lie that is fluid and practical atheism.”

“We pretend to be Christian believers and men of faith. We celebrate religious rites, but in fact we live as pagans and unbelievers,” Sarah said.

Sarah described “fluid and practical atheism” as a treacherous and elusive force. He compared it to being caught in a spider’s web, where efforts to escape only tighten its grip. This brand of atheism, he argues, is a masterful trap set by Satan himself.

The Church leader emphasized that this form of atheism preys on human frailties and on man’s tendencies to give in to its deceptions. He urged that within the Church, there should be no factions or self-proclaimed saviors, as such divisions play into the adversary’s hands.

“We don’t have to create parties in the Church; we don’t have to proclaim ourselves the saviors of this or that institution,” he said.

“But each of us can decide today: the lie of atheism will no longer pass through me; I no longer wish to renounce the light of faith; I no longer wish, out of convenience, laziness or conformism, to allow light and darkness to cohabit within me,” Sarah said.

“To maintain the spirit of faith,” he said, “is to reject anything that undermines it and to view the world solely through the lens of faith, holding steadfastly to God’s hand,” calling that the only path to true peace and kindness.

Sarah condemned the “bitterness and partisanship” that have plagued the Church, suggesting that these issues are symptomatic of a deeper spiritual crisis. He stressed that only a spirit of faith can foster genuine brotherly love and bring peace to a world ravaged by deceit and conflict.

The cleric also exhorted the episcopate in Africa to defend what he called the “unity of faith” in the face of Western distortions.

Referring to the October 2024 session of the ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality, Sarah praised the spirited defense African Church leaders have mounted of traditional doctrine and values.

“At the last Synod, the Church in Africa forcefully defended the dignity of the man and woman created by God. Her voice was ignored and scorned by those whose sole obsession is to please Western lobbies,” Sarah said.

“The Church in Africa will soon have to defend the truth of the priesthood and the unity of the faith. The Church in Africa is the voice of the poor, the simple and the small,” he said.

The cleric noted that while the African Church today plays a critical role in upholding the word of God, Western Christians seem to be misled by their wealth into a false sense of enlightenment and modernity.

Sarah highlighted the unique position of African bishops as guardians of the faith’s universality, standing against those, he said, who fragment the truth and promote a culture of relativism. He praised their role as messengers of divine truth, suggesting that God often chooses the seemingly weak and unpopular to confound the strong and well-regarded.

Sarah also commended the bishops of Cameroon for their opposition to Fiducia Supplicans, the recent Vatican document permitting blessings for same-sex couples and others in non-traditional relationships. Sarah called the Cameroonians’ decision not to implement it as a “bold and prophetic move” that upholds the unity of the Church and the truth of its teachings.

He criticized the notion that African bishops’ resistance to Fiducia Supplicans is rooted in traditional African culture, dismissing such claims as a form of intellectual neo-colonialism.

Instead, Sarah pointed to the Symposium of Episcopal Conference of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM)’s statement, which outlined theological and doctrinal reasons for not adopting such blessings in Africa, including previous declarations on homosexuality, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Sacred Scriptures, and concerns about the language used in the Vatican document.

The President of the National Episcopal Conference of Cameroon, Archbishop Andrew Nkea Fuanya, told Crux that Sarah “is a great man of God, an icon of the Catholic Church in Africa and it’s a great opportunity that he is amongst us.”

“He has taught us to go into intimacy with God in silence, because there is so much noise in this world,” Nkea said.