A Papacy of Contradictions

Veteran journalist Phil Lawler asks hard questions in Lost Shepherd about where Pope Francis is—or isn’t—leading the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis gestures as he delivers his talk during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Feb. 28. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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.

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About Dr. Samuel Gregg 39 Articles
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. The author of many books—including the prize-winning The Commercial Society (Rowman & Littlefield), Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy (Edward Elgar), Becoming Europe (Encounter), the prize-winning Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization (Regnery), and over 400 articles and opinion-pieces—he writes regularly on political economy, finance, American conservatism, Western civilization, and natural law theory. He can be followed on Twitter @drsamuelgregg


  1. Hopefully the book will be a wake-up call to Latin Catholics who still do not think the Patriarchate of Rome is in trouble.

  2. Pope Francis needs to go.

    He has no claim on the trust and confidence of Catholic people. He is the hand picked candidate of sex abuse coverup Cardinals like Danneels.

    He is openly trying to destroy the teaching of Popes be fore 2013. He is deliberately undermining the teaching of Popes JP2 and B16, who were under assault by F’s sex abuse coverup friends in Danneels mafia for 30+ years.

    Pope F is incapable of Evangelization, because his Cardinal friends like Kasper deny the evangelists.

    He is strangely attached to aberro-sexual clericalists like Danneels and Fernandez and Martin. He cannot be trusted with teaching children and young people about the creation of Man and Woman in God’s image.

  3. Since Dr Gregg used up all the interesting metaphors I’ll just target his intent. Not the conscientious good or bad but the effect. His intent is to reform the Church and complete Vat II, to loosen restriction and open the Church to the reality of the marginalized, allow the “Power” to sort things out. Maintaining Christian identity is already doubtful. P Lawler is convinced the ambiguity is purposeful. Insight is given by a Sandro Magister reader, “I believe that Bergoglio’s disorderly and sloppy improvisation is intentional. His jumping from tangent to tangent makes it difficult for the interlocutor to come to grips with anything. For example the inflight interviews, which he constructs and measures with undoubted political and manipulative skill. A skill that however turns out to be short-lived, when the journalist presses him. In his recent autobiography he describes as an age of ‘omnipotence’ the period in which he was a superior makes one think. It reveals an affective approach to power that turns out problematic. The periods that he calls ‘dark’ are those in which he has no authority” (anonymous Italian lady). If it’s “affective” it’s certainly effective in advancing his agenda leaving most off balance. Affectation real or pretentious must favor salvation not power. That’s where acquiescence ends because many perceive in his agenda Cardinal Ladaria’s neo Gnosticism, “A model of salvation that is merely interior, closed off in its own subjectivism” (Placuit Deo).

  4. Loved his interview on Raymond Arroyo’s show last night, especially when asked about the Vatican’s new postage stamp of a buff Christ exciting the ladies. He said something like ‘probably not just the ladies at the Vatican’. That was my thought when I first saw it.

  5. Francis reminds me of Obama’s former pastor, only steeped in some Catholic magical realism and confused Evangelical
    moralizing. He strikes me as caring zero about First Worlders. Nice.

  6. Have any of you read MITRE AND CROOK, by Bryan Houghton?

    I am thinking of this part:

    “Disloyalty to the Pope is a more serious consideration. Although I have been a bishop for practically twelve years, I have only seen him thrice and then in a gaggle with other bishops. He did not impress me as being a particularly congenial type: intelligent enough, but weak and consequently devious. He knows his mind all right, but he struck me as the sort of fellow who would get his way by hook or crook because he is incapable of getting it straight. But that is scarcely the point, is it? We are not talking about the Pope as a person but about the divine institution of the Papacy. It is abundantly clear that loyalty to the divine institution is quite distinct from loyalty to its temporary incumbent. Indeed, the two can run clean contrary to each other as history illustrates on almost every page from St Paul onwards. My favorite example is the Blessed Colomba of Retie. You certainly do not know the story since your reading is confined to watching television. (You see, I can be as rude as you if I like.)

    “Anyway, Colomba was a Dominican nun who lived in Perugia. She suffered from almost every type of mystical phenomenon—ecstasy, inedible, levitation and the rest. The Master of the Dominicans felt uncertain whether her spirit was from God or from the Devil. This was about 1490, when people still believed in both. In consequence he would have the girl examined by the Holy Father himself who was on a visit to his favorite son, Cesare. This was duly arranged. In the great hall at Perugia, which you have doubtless visited, there sat enthroned the Sovereign Pontiff, Alexander VI, with Cesare on his right, Lucretia on his left and the Papal Court around. Colomba was introduced. Upon sight of the Vicar of Christ she immediately went into ecstasy, as should all good nuns. I seem to remember that she levitated and railed at the Pope from somewhere near the ceiling. “You who are the Vicar of Christ and act as the vicar of Satan! You who hold the Keys of the Kingdom but only unlock the doors of brothels! You who are captain of the Ark of Salvation and have a girl in every port! You who. . . .” After twenty minutes of this sort of stuff, the Papal Court felt rather anxious for poor Colomba’s safety. How do you get girls out of ecstasy? However, Alexander Borgia turned to the Master of the Dominicans: “Have no fear, my son; her spirit is certainly from God since everything she says is true.”

    “I sometimes wish that I were an ecstatic Dominican nun. I could keep going for well over twenty minutes. What I doubt whether the sixth Paul has the humility of the sixth Alexander. Admittedly, it is far more difficult to be humble if one sins between the ears than if one sins between the sheets. Anyway, the point is perfectly clear: Colomba was in opposition to the person of the Pope precisely out of loyalty to the institution of the Papacy.””


    (Here’s information about Father Houghton: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-fr-bryan-houghton-1562266.html )

  7. Also saw Mr. Lawler on the World Over last night. It’s obvious that he is pained and troubled by the state of the Catholic Church under Pope Francis, and that he really didn’t want to have to write this book, as he said in interview, but that he eventually felt as if he had no choice. I’m about half way through the book, and more than anything it’s just plain sad that our beloved Catholic Church is being taken in the direction that it is under Francis and his like minded ilk within and outside the Vatican. And look what happens when a good man like Cardinal Pell tries to do what he was assigned to do and clean up Vatican finances, including the notorious Vatican bank, he is run out of town to answer false charges leveled against him in his home country of Australia. Things really are out of control in the Vatican, but as Lawler points out, this pope has a definite plan and direction he wants to take the Catholic Church and is doing so. Our worst fears are coming true, Francis is a far left radical in the vein of the ultra-leftist, the notorious late Cardinal Martini who essentially favored wrecking the Catholic Church as we know it with women “priests,” married priests and acceptance of contraception and even abortion, and he probably favored at least the approval of same sex unions. Have little doubt that Pope Francis wants to at least de-emphasize Humanae Vitae and bring about married priests. I hear the October synod is going to be a nightmare.
    Thanks for letting us know about Mr.Lawler’s book on the fall of the Catholic Church in Boston. No doubt a microcosm of the Church in many places. Now plan to read it too.
    As another post mentioned, The World Over segment with Mr. Lawler ended with Raymond showing the new Vatican stamp with a muscular Jesus to Mr. Lawler who had seen it. He pointed out that many “men” in the Vatican would be thrilled by it. What has become of our Church, at least at the highest levels? As Mr. Lawler pointed out, we must pray, but we must also speak out to our bishops and others when we see wrong in the Church. As others have said, it’s the lay members of the Catholic Church who are going to have to get it back on track. Nearly all of the hierarchy seems incapable or even desirous to do so, especially in the Vatican, in fact they want to drive the Church more off track.

  8. Phil Lawler is a middle of the road kind of conservative and gave a middle of the road critique of Pope Francis. It is if a biography was written about Al Capone saying he had a tendency to misappropriate things and was somewhat harsh in how he treated others. Al Capone was thief and stone cold killer of men while Pope Francis is a heretic and a stone cold killer of faith.

  9. Could it be any more self evident that the Church is run by a Modernist and was brought forward by an episcopal establishment that is Modernist? Does he care about the eternal destiny of humanity? No. He cares about the environment, migration, and the distribution of wealth. The mainstream priests and bishops of the Church are unable to offer any compelling reasons to give up everything and follow Him. Instead the constantly counsel the faithful on the importance of being “nice”. In the movie or Mass, instead of offering the holy Sacrifice, they instead gather the community for a meal. Its no surprise that those sorts of priests and bishops would elevate this sort of Pope. Francis personifies the Second Vatican Counsel. If you have a problem with Francis then maybe its time to start having a problem with the 2VC.

  10. The big question. Is the tide finally turning? Lay authors can write, but until bishops stop cooperating I see no way to derail the Pope’s agenda for the Church.

  11. Phil Lawler has written many fine articles, but this book seems to show a lack of proper research into the actual positions of Pope Francis on topics such as the indissolubility of marriage, homosexuality, and the existence of hell. The Catholic writer, Dave Armstrong, received an advanced copy of “The Lost Shepherd” and has exposed the many inaccuracies in Lawler’s book: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2018/02/phil-lawlers-lost-shepherd-amazon-review.html

    • Well, most reviewers, including the Acton Institute’s Dr Gregg (who really is in a different intellectual plane than the home grown savants referred to by Mr Faggioli) have lauded Dr Lawler’s book. Apologists for the present Holy Father Bergoglio perhaps aren’t the most impartial reviewers, eh?

    • Mr. Armstrong’s article fails for precisely the same reasons that he says Lawler’s book fails. In citing articles that “prove” Pope Francis’s intent in Amoris Laetitia, Armstrong ignores the many, many claims from Francis’ allies that the Church’s teaching (no longer just “pastoral practice) have undergone a “paradigm shift” or “revolution”.

      Then Armstrong accuses Lawler of taking Pope Francis’s (Who am I to judge) statement out of context, and Armstrong does this by deliberately taking Lawler out of context, and dismissing his qualifications as if he hadn’t said them.

      Same with his weird claim in which he quotes Lawler, including his qualification of Scalfari’s method and translation, when Lawler (rightly) says that Scalfari’s quote of Pope Francis “appeared to cast doubt on the existence of hell.” Of course the quote did, and the fact that Pope Francis has many times spoken of hell does not change the fact of the Scalfari quote in question. So why attribute to Lawler the false claim (or implication) that he thinks the pope doesn’t believe in hell, other than his obvious point that the pope often speaks carelessly about important things, or, in the case of Scalfari, keeps giving him interviews in which he is misquoted, but does not demand a correction.

      If this is a “defense” of Pope Francis, then let us pray he gains more able defenders, and advisors. As a critique of Lawler’s book, it fails miserably.

    • Surely one can find many statements of Pope Francis expressing the Catholic position on those things. but the problem is that a mixed message in given via the wink-wink, nod-nod things the pope does that would undermine the teaching. AL is the best example; the ambiguity of that document, the great confusion that has followed it, and the erosion of Catholic teaching on marriage is in full swing.

  12. My comment regarding the closing down of factories. The Pope says it is a grave sin for them to close down, and yet, if these same factory owners do not give in to the demands of their workers of higher wages, this and that benefit, the Pope also complains.

    What does he want then? Close the business, a sin. Continue running the business, also a sin. He does not make any sense.

  13. “Perhaps a refusal by unions to engage in good-faith negotiations contributed to the business’s decision?” And perhaps werewolves were stealing equipment from the business every full moon. Perhaps also accusations with no ground beyond pure speculation should not be tossed around lightly. The pope’s general comment is, indeed, pretty useless, but if you have to just speculate whether he did or did not know the relevant details for this particular circumstance, what motivates you to assume he did not? Is the pope worthy of the benefit of the doubt, or not, and if not, why not?

  14. Michael Dowd, Amen, Brother. I feel the same way about Phil Lawler. Also from the Boston area, I see many Catholics here as the same middle-of-the-road mindset. Most that I have spoken with have accused me of being anti papal, and that it is only the media misinterpreting what Francis says. If Bergoglio has been misquoted, where are his corrections, his clarifications? Even after a full year he has neglected to answer pointed questions about his teachings posed to him by the Dubia. God help him, and may God bless the one holy Catholic and apostolic Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  15. A belated comment. Sorry I missed this article earlier.
    Re the plant closure/restructuring point, having spent over four decades in the corporate sector, I would emphasize that there are many reasons for the painful decision to close a plant: changes in customer requirements materially reducing the plant’s output, lack of the needed profitability to justify neede capital improvements for long term survival, militant union opposition to drastically needed working practice changes and improvements, et al. Likewise to downside and restructure an entire organization is a painful decision. Every executive would rather announce new plants and adding employees. But the plant closure and downsizing/restructuring decisions are frequently and absolutely necessary for the continued existence of the enterprise and the continued employment of its remaining employees. If done in the most equitable manner possible, it can be and usually is the right action to take from a fiduciary and moral perspective.

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