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Presidential Lessons from Cardinal Sarah

Our reformer president must move forward without bending.

Thanksgiving Mass For the Beatification of Pope John Paul II In Tokyo
(Photo by Jun Sato/Getty Images)

After the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, conservatives saw a glimmer of hope that something might actually change in the established order. Suddenly, we had a leader willing to challenge the globalist status quo on free trade, our marauding foreign wars, and our unchecked immigration. Yet the Trump presidency seemed bogged down by bureaucracy, by agencies filled with Bush- and Obama-era middlemen who could not be wielded to pursue a Trump agenda. By the time Trump and his supporters realized the necessity of “an entire cadre of young Americans motivated by the same values he represented to rise to the occasion and lead,” his first term was coming to an end. 

Likewise, in the Catholic Church, we saw Pope Benedict XVI, one of the greatest orthodox theological minds of the 20th century, elected pope in 2005. We heard him ask the people immediately upon his elevation to the papacy to “pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.” The pope struggled for eight years with bureaucratic obstruction, internal rivalries, and a seeming inability to make meaningful reform to the institution of which he was the visible head. Pope Benedict resigned in 2013; he left the Church an impressive theological and liturgical legacy but was apparently unable to dislodge the bureaucratic dysfunction. 


The sober realist may doubt that meaningful reform of these seemingly unreformable bureaucratic behemoths is possible. After all, we have seen great reformers rise to authority and yet we see no reform. In such times of doubt, I often turn my thoughts to one particular anecdote from a recent book, which gives me hope that the right man with the right attributes can indeed reform a bureaucracy.

In 2015, Cardinal Robert Sarah released the book, “God or Nothing.” Commenting on his time as rector of the seminary in Conakry, Guinea, Cardinal Sarah describes inheriting a culture where “[a] sort of moral disintegration prevailed” among the seminarians. Cardinal Sarah was shocked by the lack of spiritual formation and order, and made changes to establish discipline. He faced a rebellion, which quickly culminated in a group of students setting fire to the seminary chapel.

Cardinal Sarah first asked the guilty party to come forward, then put pressure on those who knew the culprits to accuse them. Nobody came forward. Cardinal Sarah stated that he would have preferred if they set fire to his own room in protest, but was deeply troubled that men training to become priests would set fire to the house of the Lord. He threatened that if nobody would come forward, he would dismiss every seminarian and shut down the seminary for the year. Nobody came forward, and he was true to his word.

Cardinal Sarah faced pressures from authorities of both Church and state, urging him to reverse his decision, but he would not yield. He insisted that he could not allow men who would set fire to a chapel to become priests, and his decision stood. The following year, new seminarians were required to have a certificate of good conduct from their priest before entering. The result was a class half the size of the previous year, but these were now seminarians whom the good rector was more confident he could trust.

In both church and state, conservative realists look at the size and the moral state of bloated, corrupt bureaucracies and wonder how things can possibly change. The anecdote of Cardinal Sarah’s time as rector in Conakry offers both hope that true reform is possible, as well as an example of the drastic measures it will likely take.


This level of bureaucratic reform requires a vision, an iron will, and massive personnel changes. Looking back to the example of the Trump presidency, Trump definitely had a vision at odds with the Washington establishment. His willingness to take on all critics seems to suggest he also had the will for reform. But he was not able to make the staffing changes required to “drain the swamp.” Unfortunately, even a president really doesn’t have the ability to simply clean house, even within the branch of government of which he is ostensibly the head; there is enough red tape to make it rather difficult and time-consuming to actually fire federal employees. That’s a problem. The Trump administration attempted reform on this issue, but it proved too little, too late.

Bureaucratic red tape aside, there was also an issue of sheer quantity: Trump was an outsider who was at odds with the thinking of many typical Republican staffer types in D.C. Without thousands of his own people ready to go on day one, Trump was never going to be able to fire and replace all the people who make the executive branch run. There were several personnel shake-ups late in Trump’s term, as Trump got a clearer view of who was like-minded, who was loyal, and who was sabotaging him from within. But again, these came near the end of his term. Too little, too late.

What could a conservative president intent on draining the swamp do next time? If we look to the bold example of Cardinal Sarah and learn lessons from the Trump White House, a blueprint begins to emerge. 

The next conservative president needs to be aware of the challenges: From the White House to the EPA, the federal government is filled with careerists and with ideologues of both parties who are (for various reasons) hostile to a reform of the way things are run in Washington. 

Since this president will be aware of the problem in advance, he must come ready with both the legal strategy and the personnel to begin a reform effort immediately. Legal strategists will make every effort to work around the civil service protections afforded to careerists and remove as many obstructionists from the executive branch as possible. And the president must be friendly with the right organizations, groups that have identified the Trump personnel problem and have started to vet and assemble aligned young people to staff the next administration. 

Awareness of the problem and a strategy to address it are not enough, however. This is where the steely character exemplified by Cardinal Sarah is indispensable. This reformer president will come in with the intent and strategy to drain the swamp. People from both parties, even from his own inner circle, will tell him that he has to be realistic. “You can’t actually fire everyone in the executive branch and start over. It would be a disaster; the government would lack experience and would come to a grinding halt.” Etc., etc. Voices all around him will say that this is overly idealistic, or just plain crazy. Our reformer president must move forward without bending.

Just as Cardinal Sarah knew there would be serious consequences to dismissing an entire class of seminarians, our future president must understand that there will indeed be serious consequences and difficulties. The cleansing will mean a lot of newer, greener people staffing the executive branch. And it may very well mean functioning with fewer numbers for a time. This is easy to shrug off in an essay, but incredibly hard to pull off in reality. 

But Cardinal Sarah knew that he could not risk having poisonous men ordained as priests, men willing to burn down the chapel, the very place they were supposed to love and serve. So too this reforming president (and God-willing he will come) must also realize how high the stakes are. He cannot risk having poisonous men, who are supposed to love and serve this country, effectively sabotaging the agenda of the president and of the people. He cannot allow public servants to prevent the republic from functioning as the Constitution requires. He must accept that the remedy is drastic, but that it will remove a toxic and prevailing force that has plagued America for decades.