Top Cardinal: Transgender Rights Are ‘Demonic’; Marriage Equality Is ‘Poison’


Cardinal Robert Sarah speaking at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast

A top cardinal at the Vatican attacked transgender civil rights as “demonic” and compared marriage equality to “poison” during a speech before high-profile U.S. Catholics.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, keynoted the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast yesterday morning in Washington, D.C. His address about family and religious freedom in the contemporary world narrowed into particularly harsh LGBT condemnations. Sarah attacked transgender equality in his speech, saying family is threatened:

“[T]hrough a demonic ‘gender ideology,’ a deadly impulse that is being experienced in a world increasingly cut off from God through ideological colonialism.”

Sarah said efforts towards “tolerance” were really religious persecution, part of an “insidious war” in the U.S. and worldwide to dismantle Catholic teaching. He criticized transgender non-discrimination legislation being debated in many states by his denial of trans identities altogether. He said “nothing could be simpler” than people assigned male at birth using a men’s restroom.

Sarah used portions of his address to attack marriage equality, too. He said the devil is “intent on destroying the family” through “distorted impositions of the family,” including same-gender relationships. The cardinal said non-traditional family arrangements “cause damage to little children” such that children experience “a deep existential doubt about love.” Marriage equality and other legal recognition of non-traditional arrangements is comparable to “putting bandages on an infected wound” while the wound “continues to poison the body.”

In addition to Cardinal Sarah, the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast featured Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, and Fr. Paul Scalia, a priest of the Arlington diocese who is son of late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Pope Francis appointed Sarah as the Vatican’s top liturgist in 2014. These are not the cardinal’s first or even worst negative words in relation to LGBT people. During the 2015 Synod on the Family, Sarah said the LGBT rights movement had “demonic origins” and compared it to Nazism and fascism.  Bondings 2.0‘s Francis DeBernardo, who covered the meeting from Rome, deemed Sarah’s comments the Synod’s “most homophobic remark”. The cardinal previously said marriage equality supporters sought to “destroy the family in Africa.

Is there a rational response to such repeated and irrational comments by Cardinal Sarah? I offer two thoughts.

First, contextual differences may account for a certain, limited amount of his remarks’ intensity. Speaking about spiritual warfare, including the demonic, is far more normative in Guinea, where he was archbishop, and other African contexts. Referencing the demonic is absolutely jarring in a U.S. Catholic context. Cultural differences, Guinean and Roman alike, may also account for the ways in which he misconstrues religious liberty in the U.S. and feeds a narrative of persecution proposed by this nation’s bishops. Sarah should have avoided partisan politics and spoken in a pastorally-sensitive manner during his address.

What is truly inexcusable are Cardinal Sarah’s metaphors about LGBT people and their relationships as a “deadly impulse” and “poison,” as well as his failure to engage contemporary understandings of gender and sexuality before issuing such harsh condemnations. His address shows almost no attention to pastoral realities, nor even the realities of public policy in the U.S. about which he ostensibly is commenting. Cardinal Sarah’s remarks about LGBT people and their civil rights are inconsistent with Pope Francis’ desire for a church of mercy. Rather, his remarks are dangerous words which he should retract and for which he should apologize.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

31 replies
  1. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    He seems nice…..

    Reminds me of a trip I took to Africa in about 1980. I was helping give some seminars at a convent. The sister who had asked me to go on the trip kept railing against powders and potions, and how demonic they were. Then she went on to tell a story about a priest who was consulted by a parishioner about arguments he was having with his wife. The priest gave him some blessed salt and said to put it in the salt shaker on the dinner table. A few weeks later the man told the priest he and his wife were getting along well again. The sister extolled the power and goodness of such sacramentals. I could not help thinking that the powders and potions were no more superstitious than the blessed salt, and that they were no more demonic.

  2. Brian Kneeland
    Brian Kneeland says:

    Why would the head of Divine Worship have anything to say about sexual ethics? And – the did not say anything about civil unions in Italy which just legalized civil unions!

  3. Richard R.
    Richard R. says:

    During the beautiful month of May I shall retain my composure and recite an Ave for the intentions of
    this homophobic cleric, Cardinal Sarah of Guinea. May God in His Infinite Mercy descend upon him
    in the form of a tongue of fire..

  4. Friends
    Friends says:

    Absolutely horrifying. I checked out their website. While claiming to be “non-partisan”, they appear to be a wholly-owned — (but clearly not “holy-owned”) — ideological mouthpiece for the Republican far-right-wing. How do we, as progressive Catholics, even begin to respond to such a hateful and malicious atrocity that’s being perpetrated in the name of the Roman Catholic Church?

  5. paularuddy
    paularuddy says:

    I am sorry that there is a church official speaking like this, and speaking in the U.S. Thank you for standing strong against that kind of attack.

  6. Don Siegal
    Don Siegal says:

    “Is there a rational response to such repeated and irrational comments by Cardinal Sarah?”

    Frank, as a U.S Catholic who’s spirituality has been nurtured by the Portuguese culture of the San Joaquin Valley (Portuguese is our third language), I do not find the demonic jarring. Rather, I realize that the evil one is real and present in our every day lives.

    As such, the extension of civil rights and liberties to the marginalized LGBT community by means of Catholic social and economic teaching is contrary to the design of the evil one. I see Cardinal Sarah as having allowed himself to have been deceived by satin disguised in the garment of orthodoxy without the compassion required by the gospel and orthopraxis.

    Clearly, there is nothing demonic or venomous about transgender civil rights or marriage equality. What is demonic and venomous here are the words spoken by a high ranking Vatican cardinal, and they are morally and ethically inexcusable and unacceptable at a celebration of National Catholic Prayer Breakfast.

    Cardinal Sarah is a person in need of prayer, conversion, and reconciliation.

  7. laurainsupport
    laurainsupport says:

    Thank you, Bob Shine, for helping to put the Cardinal’s frightening and disturbing remarks in perspective by providing cultural context while also stating forthrightly how and why his comments are nonetheless socially destructive and theologically mistaken. Your thoughtful response is a model for civil discourse on this issue.

  8. amagjuka
    amagjuka says:

    I just came back from NYC where I saw the revival of “The Crucible.” Those calling “Satan! and Witch!” were ignored at first, and fair-minded people thought reason would prevail. Reason did not prevail. The problem is that Cardinal Sarah was appointed by Pope Francis to a high post at the Vatican. This lends credibility to his “message.” As long as he is endorsed by the Pope in this way, he speaks for the church. Is this OK with us? It shouldn’t be. Doesn’t a love of justice require that we speak up immediately and forcefully, not just to one another, but to the hierarchy? How can this man speak for Catholics? I do not buy the “cultural difference” argument that allows vitriolic comments and actions from Catholic leaders in Africa and other places. The injustice is wrong everywhere it occurs. It must be called out and stopped. Is this the Catholic church now? We must accept these “cultural differences?!” No. I cannot. This rhetoric is being used by the far-right in the United States in horrific, political ways. We must recognize this witch hunt for what it is.

  9. Thomas
    Thomas says:

    You could expect the same language from the USCCB, Cardinal Sarah ‘s remarks can be partly attributed to cultural differences and choice of words, but the underlying message from the Church is very clear. It is also not at all what Jesus would have said. By November, the USCCB will probably be quietly siding with the GOP candidate, a paragon of virtue and reason.

  10. Paul M.
    Paul M. says:

    Thank you, Bob Shine, for your restrained and nonviolent way of criticizing Cardinal Sarah’s frightful words. I believe we should turn the “ideological colonization” phrase back on the Church. LGBT people have been “colonized” by the Church’s ideology about sexuality for centuries, and only in the past fifty years able to come out from under this oppressive dynamic and breathe free. For Bondings and New Ways Ministry’s leadership in this journey, I say Hallelujah!

  11. Thomas Bower
    Thomas Bower says:

    Who is surprised? The homophobia of JPII, BV!, and now Francis continues as a single thread. Looking for context based on country of origin is no excuse for a Cardinal. He is not a country priest who has never seen beyond the horizon, he is a recently selected Prince of the Church who was selected to speak with the similarly small minded Speaker of the US House of Representatives, and the anti-LGBT leader of Courage (a scourge on our community and son of the late homophobic Supreme Court Justice). That they all want to make basic United States/human civil rights a matter of subservience to Vatican dictates is a very scary threat to our existence. That there is not great outrage to this statement at a Catholic Prayer breakfast is a shame.

  12. Larry
    Larry says:

    And about this abominable cleric and his hate speech, Pope Francis has said…………………………..Nothing.

  13. Will
    Will says:

    These are not some off the cuff remarks from a Cardinal caught on the hop by an interviewer or overheard in a discussion after a conference. They are the carefully planned and fully considered words of a very senior prelate, in a significant speech. They are deliberate and intended to be heard widely.

    There will be obedient Catholics who when they hear this will consider it right and dutiful to drive out the “demonic” and defend against the “death of God”. And how might this translate into actions towards transgender people or people in same-sex marriages? Hopefully not violence but more probably disdain, discrimination, increased hate, bullying and denial of service. How is this Christian? And the Cardinal will be directly responsible for the suffering and hurt that grows by planting these seeds in the hearts of good people.

    Many more lay Catholics will just shake their heads and despair at one more unkind cleric with no idea of the real world.

  14. ermadurk
    ermadurk says:

    I am finding it difficult to select the proper words to describe the quality of the “teaching” this “top Vatican Cardinal” delivered to the people attending the National Prayer Breakfast, and to the people who learned about his speech through social media. I would wish to address Cardinal Sarah with the respect due his office in the Church, however, the only way I can manage to quell the anger welling up within me is to say, God forgive him for the hurt, despair, and hatred of religions he has caused by his teaching. Clearly he does not know what he is talking about.

  15. Vernon Smith
    Vernon Smith says:

    I echo previous remarks complimenting you, Bob, for taking the high road in acknowledging the potential for cultural differences to affect the harshness of the tone that this prelate’s remarks may have as received by Americans. It is a generous attempt not to treat the cardinal as demonic himself, while simultaneously rebuking him for what is clearly wrong and terribly hurtful. Very classy and humane.

    However, as a person who values and respects the richness of worldwide cultural differences as central to the wonderful diversity of the human condition, I wish to add a slightly different take on this. This prelate is in a unique position of power. He is one of the Church’s elite. He was attending and speaking at an American Catholic and political event, with numerous people of power in attendance. As a clear representative of the Vatican, he bears significant responsibility to understand both his own cultural lense, and well as that of the Americans to whom he spoke. He should have known how harshly his words would be interpreted in the U.S. There is no excuse for a person in such a position of power not to know the potential impacts of such negative statements. It is insensitivity taken to an extreme level. The outcry against such vitriole must be directed to Pope Francis, so that he is aware of how terribly violent these words were to his celebrated Year of Mercy.

    The cardinal is not a demon. But his actions are terribly misguided and harmful. I thank you for taking the high road. And justice calls us to expect that he should be held accountable for his actions by Pope Francis.

  16. Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM
    Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM says:

    But think of the children……I tracked stories in the media about the perpetrators of abuse and murder on children in the US for about six months. I couldn’t continue. It was so depressing. Without exception the accused were the parents of the child. Mother and/ or father or stepparent or lover in heterosexual relationships. I didn’t read about any instances in LGBTQI families. I did read a few where the children would never have been adopted and are now living beneficial lives in these LGBTQI families. But think of the children, I don’t believe for a minute that Cardinal Sarah knows what he’s talking about. Shame.

  17. Terence Weldon
    Terence Weldon says:

    Quite apart from his lamentable failure to comply with the basic Church teaching on respect, compassion and sensitivity, these remarks show an appalling ignorance of both colonial history and of basic biology.

    It’s now widely recognised that the Western colonial administrators and missionaries imported homophobia into their colonies – not homosexuality itself, which has been part of every society in every region throughout history. In Africa, that is particularly true of gender issues, where gender fluid shamans were and are a feature of many traditional societies across the continent, where biological females with enough wealth could take on male roles and become “female husbands”, and where “male wives” were also a feature in some places. In importing their European ideas of a rigid gender and sexual binary to Africa to Asia and the Americas. In some places, this was enforced with the most horrendous penalties, comparable to the burning of alleged sodomites by the Inquisition back in Europe.

    In insisting that people should keep to their biological sex at birth, he and the supporters of the bathroom bill, fail to understand that “biological sex” is not always as simple as they blithely assume. Catholic teaching tells us to respect the findings of science – from which we know that biological sex is much more than a simple matter of external genitals (which for some people, are in any case indeterminate at birth). There’s also the matter of internal genitals, chromosomal patters, hormones, and brain physiology. These do not always coincide. When they do not, it’s simplistic and cruel to insist that only the external genitalia should determine gender identity and expression.

    (I have expanded on these notes, with references, at Queering the Church – )

  18. John Prior
    John Prior says:

    The principle of parsimony suggests that we humans are sufficient all by ourselves to account for the moral evil in the world without recourse to demons or any other excuses. Current example: Cardinal Sarah. No devil made him say these ugly things. He freely chose to day them.

  19. washington
    washington says:

    this is a late comment, but this just depresses me to my very core. as a transgender christian, it’s when i see things like this that i’m reminded, just because someone calls themself “holy” or “godly”… that does not always make them so.

    i see nothing godly in what this man says. i see nothing that i can admire. with the entirety of the church even.

    God made me the way he did, because of the same reason he gave me every obstacle and test that i have ever been given. because this is a physical and mental journey that i must take, that i must learn from. that these “holy men” can’t understand that, i only wonder how they could draw this hate from the teachings that God has given us…

    i hope and pray that one day, the church will learn to love.


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