Of all the books written on the sex abuse crisis which shook the Catholic Church in America in 2002, one of the most thoroughly-researched was The Faithful Departed. Authored by the journalist and Harvard graduate Philip F. Lawler, its analysis of the crisis’s epicenter, the Archdiocese of Boston, chronicled how decades of coziness with Democratic politicians, a failure to confront widespread sexual malfeasance among priests, a forelock-tugging deference to secular psychology, the proliferation of theological dissent from Catholic sexual ethics, and that most perennial of ecclesiastical diseases—good old-fashioned clericalism—created the perfect storm from which some believe American Catholicism is still recovering.
The power of Lawler’s narrative was derived from its calm tone, a meticulous attention to facts, a refusal to overstate or downplay how bad things were, a comprehensive knowledge of Catholic teaching and history, and an obvious love for the Church. All these skills and inclinations have been brought to bear in Lawler’s latest book which addresses another Catholic crisis: one which he believes is being generated from the very top.
The title of Lawler’s analysis of Jorge Bergoglio’s pontificate Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock is slightly, well, misleading. For Lawler doesn’t believe that Francis is “lost” in the sense of not knowing where to go. Lawler’s contention is that the pope—and, even more, some of his closest advisors—wants to take the Catholic Church in a direction which looks rather like that of just another liberal Christian denomination: which is indisputably a path to irrelevance.
As in his previous work, Lawler doesn’t embellish facts. Indeed there’s nothing by way of fact in Lawler’s text which isn’t already known. Lawler’s focus is upon helping his readers understand Francis’s papacy and what it might mean for the Catholic Church in the long-term.
Lawler begins by stating that he, like millions of other Catholics, prays for the pope every day. He also mentions that, like millions of other Catholics, he was initially full of optimism about Francis’s pontificate. It was long past time for Peter’s successor to come from somewhere other than the faithless wasteland that constitutes much of the cocooned world of today’s Catholic Europe. And who better than a Vatican outsider to come in and clean out the Augean stables of the Holy See’s financial affairs?
But as time passed, Lawler relates, he became disillusioned with Francis. Like most Catholics, he wanted to attribute the best of intentions to the pope. But as strange incident piled upon strange incident and one incoherent statement followed another, Lawler found that there were aspects of Francis’s pontificate which he couldn’t dismiss as the type of mistakes any pope could make. Instead Lawler views them as symptomatic of what he portrays as a somewhat erratic and occasionally authoritarian personality: a persona that often goes hand-in-hand with the clericalist tendencies which Francis regularly and rightly denounces.
That’s just one of the contradictions which Lawler presents as characterizing Francis’s pontificate. As he sees it, Francis is full of contradictions.
In his 2015 visit to America, for example, Lawler notes that the pope spoke to America’s bishops about the importance of clergy avoiding harsh language. But according to Lawler, the pope has conspicuously failed to follow his own advice.
Francis has, Lawler writes, a habit of publically insulting unspecified groups of people who plainly annoy him: “rigid,” “real downers,” “smarmy idolater priest,” “Pharisees,” “doctors of the law” etc. The pope’s endless use of the latter two expressions, Lawler points out, eventually attracted criticism from the Holocaust survivor, the late Rabbi Giuseppe Laras. Without accusing Francis of anti-Semitism (for that would be false), Laras upbraided the pope for not grasping the historical anti-Semitic associations of these words. Most infamously, Lawler comments, Francis once “accused journalists who report on conflicts and scandals of coprophilia”. For the happily-uninformed, coprophilia denotes a sexual interest in fecal matter.
Put another way, far from speaking gently and with love, Francis regularly refers to people whom he apparently doesn’t like in a manner not unlike the late Hugo Chavez and the long-deceased Juan Peron: Latin American populists with a taste for demagoguery who not only drove their respective countries’ economies into the ground, but thoroughly corrupted their nations’ political institutions.
Francis is hardly the first “salty” pope. Lawler’s broader point is that Francis’s verbal invectives suggest that, for all his insistence upon dialogue, the pope isn’t really interested in listening to critiques and perhaps even resents them. That includes calm, measured disagreement from those who aren’t interested in confining the Church to a baroque cage and who can’t be accused of having legalistic mindsets.
Another contradiction which Lawler underscores as distinctive of this papacy concerns management. Few would question that when Francis was elected pope, part of his brief was to reform the Roman Curia. A major expectation of this pontificate was that it would terminate the rampant careerism of clerics and their lay hangers-on, the nepotism which provides otherwise-unemployable Italian relatives with undemanding jobs, and the outright financial corruption that’s produced a stream of scandals in the Holy See since the 1970s.
And yet, Lawler claims, five years after the reform process began, progress has been glacial. In fact, Lawler indicates that Benedict XVI achieved more by way of finance reform and streamlining processes for dealing with clerical sex-abuse. Moreover, Lawler demonstrates that there has been a great deal of two-steps forward, one-and-a-half steps back in the organizational changes advanced in Francis’s pontificate. By papal authority, responsibilities are given to particular bodies. Then, by papal fiat, these responsibilities are suddenly altered, scaled back, or spun off into someone else’s bailiwick.
Any management specialist will tell you that this pattern often reflects dysfunctionality at the top. Sometimes, such erratic decision-making mirrors a fitful personality, or someone who’s susceptible to manipulation by those anxious to restore the status quo, or who lacks command of details, or who doesn’t listen to those with knowledge of such things. Whatever the truth of the matter, Lawler is surely right to say that, thus far, the pope’s brief to “fix the Curia” remains sadly enough unfulfilled.
In the end, however, a pope’s primary responsibility isn’t management. Like Peter, a pope is called to go out and evangelize the world in what the Church teaches is the liberating Truth revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Another papal charge is to confirm what the Church has always believed to be that Truth’s content and meaning.
Herein we come to the nub of Lawler’s concerns. Pope Francis has not, he carefully specifies, preached heresy. But according to Lawler, the pope is trying—via his 2016 exhortation Amoris Laetitia, his telling silences, his abstruse statements, etc.—to shroud aspects of Church doctrine in ambiguity. As one of many examples of the pope’s evasiveness in this area, Lawler cites Francis’s odd protestation that he couldn’t recall the contentious footnote around which much of the Amoris Laetitia debate has centered. That, Lawler writes, “strains credulity.”
Lawler’s thesis is that the pope doesn’t want to contradict firmly settled Catholic teaching on access to the sacraments. That would, after all, compromise the integrity of magisterial teaching. He is, however, willing to permit the proliferation of pastoral practices that, Lawler states, can’t be reconciled with that same magisterial teaching.
Accompanying the pope’s apparent unwillingness to respond directly and clearly to reasonable questions about what the Church holds to be true on certain faith and morals questions, Lawler sees yet another contradiction. Francis and some of those around him, Lawler holds, don’t have any inhibitions about speaking loudly, directly and—dare one say it—even judgmentally on subjects about which, strictly-speaking, they have no particular expertise and that Catholics are generally free to disagree about within the broad parameters of the church’s teaching.
What I’ll call the “new clericalism” is illustrated by one incident detailed by Lawler. In a March 2017 address, Pope Francis effectively rebuked the executives of an Italian company which had recently announced plans to downsize and restructure its operations. “He who shuts down factories and closes companies as a result of economic operations and unclear negotiations,” the pope stated, “depriving men and women from work, commits a very grave sin.”
What the pope meant by “economic operations and unclear negotiations” is uncertain. But, Lawler comments, does Francis really think that companies should keep operations running “even when they are losing money, until the corporation runs into bankruptcy—and the employees lose their positions anyway?”
To this, one could add: how could the pope possibly know all the specific elements that factored into a particular company’s resolution to reorganize its affairs? Perhaps a refusal by unions to engage in good-faith negotiations contributed to the business’s decision? Or maybe additional regulations and corporate taxes levied by one of the left-wing coalitions which presently control most Italian regional governments made specific operations in parts of Italy economically unfeasible?
The point, of course, is that the pope had no business speaking publically about such a precise subject about which he couldn’t possibly know many, if any of the details. And even then, his responsibility—and the main calling of any bishop or priest in such situations—would be to keep reminding all participants in an enterprise (owners, managers, employees, shareholders etc.) of the principles of Catholic social teaching. It’s then primarily up to lay people—not clerics—to apply these principles in the context of a particular business or corporation.
More could be said about other contradictions which Lawler considers to pervade Francis’s pontificate. But some of the questions running through my mind while reading Lawler’s analysis were as follows.
Why—given the undeniable collapse of all those Christian confessions that have enslaved themselves to the liberal zeitgeist and morphed into mere NGOs—would anyone think there is anything to learn from, say, contemporary German Catholicism (the epitome of Catholicism-as-just-another-progressive-NGO), except what not to do if you want to spread the Gospel? Who in their right mind believes that reducing Christian morality to an “ideal” will encourage people to embrace unreservedly and with joy what Christ himself called the narrow way that leads to life? And how can anyone be unaware of these realities?
These are just some of the mysteries underlined by Lawler’s text. But one of his book’s strengths is that it tries, at every point, to give Francis the benefit of the doubt. In addition to avoiding the hyperbole, polemics, and more bizarre theories about Francis which populate some of the internet’s weirder outposts, Lawler prudently distinguishes between the pope’s words and actions, and the more flagrantly outrageous statements of some of the garrulous characters surrounding him.
This judicious approach won’t save Lawler from the barrage of insults, frenetic name-calling, splenetic tweets, conspiracy theories, and limp non sequiturs which, alas, we’re come to expect from some of Francis’s defenders. That, it seems, is how they roll. But just as Lawler’s The Faithful Departed made its case carefully and without exaggeration, so too does Lost Shepherd neatly and charitably summarize many faithful Catholics’ reservations about Francis’s pontificate.
Whether anyone in Rome will listen is a different matter altogether.
Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock
by Phil Lawler
Regnery Gateway, 2018
Hardcover, 203 pages.