The Smoke of Satan provides clear, concise analysis of the episcopal crisis

Philip Lawler ably depicts the tumult that has brought us to this point and he provides a larger context for the collapse of episcopal authority.

“Through some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.” — Pope St. Paul VI in 1972

The sex-abuse crisis, now in its episcopal phase, is certainly the worst crisis the Church has faced in American history. Internationally, it is probably the worst crisis since the Reformation. Watching bishops in this country attempt to work through the extraordinary mess created by the revelation of the moral squalor that failed to impede Archbishop McCarrick’s rise to the very top of the American hierarchy is as discouraging a spectacle as most Catholics alive today have witnessed regarding episcopal leadership. (The picture of a lecherous, beaming McCarrick in a bathing suit with his arm draped around the waist of his teenage victim is fixed in the mind as the perfect image of the rot.) As Philip Lawler observes in his aptly titled The Smoke of Satan, Catholics in America have no confidence in the bishops – and with very good reason: “The bishops lost our confidence because, as a group, they were – and were shown to be – dishonest.”

A veteran and well-respected journalist, Lawler has for years provided valuable commentary on Catholic matters. He is, moreover, the author of the excellent study The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture (2008), a recent critique of Pope Francis’ papacy in Lost Shepherd, and reliable coverage of the current troubles. In this new book, which is designed to address the current moment, Lawler advances, on the one hand, a penetrating critique and, on the other, a hopeful exhortation. The two sides are summarized at the outset of the book:

To advance through the ranks of the hierarchy in the late twentieth century, clerics were expected to suppress problems rather than confront them, to soothe the faithful rather than rouse them, to conceal problems rather than admit them. In that atmosphere, when bishops learned that priests molested young men, they did their best to “manage” the issue, to keep things running smoothly, above all to avoid calling public attention to the problem. So the abuse continued – just as the theological dissent and the liturgical abuse continued. But finally, as almost always happens, the cover-up failed; the truth of the abuse scandal emerged. Now that the evidence that was suppressed for decades has exploded into public view, the bishops’ neglect – likely too benign a word – is unmistakable.

If the fundamental problem facing the Church is dishonesty – a habit of deliberate ambiguity, a failure to grapple with hard truths – then the solution must be a candid, unapologetic return to the truth: not only in addressing and dealing with the shocking details of clerical abuse, but also in the proclamation of the truths of the Catholic faith. And if the bishops have lost their instinct for that forthright evangelical approach, then it falls upon lay Catholics – in this era, proclaimed by Vatican II as “the age of the laity” – to demand the truth and reclaim the Catholic tradition.

The gross malpractice of the American episcopate identified by Lawler, coupled now with aggressive — and incomprehensible — stonewalling by Pope Francis, means that the current crisis will most likely end in disaster for the hierarchy. As things stand right now, it is hard to see any real reform coming. While Rome takes it nice and easy, however, American prosecutors march ahead. The U.S. Justice Department has commenced a RICO investigation of the Church and a host of state investigations have opened as well. These developments will not go away; in fact, we can expect a steady flow of Pennsylvania-like grand-jury reports detailing clerical corruption in revolting detail and criminal indictments, all of which will continue the destruction of what little remains of the moral authority of the bishops in this country.

Lawler ably depicts the tumult that has brought us to this point. His book provides a larger context for the collapse of episcopal authority. Lawler adverts to the breakdown in sexual morality, in liturgical discipline, and in theological orthodoxy since the Second Vatican Council, all without serious, effective opposition from the hierarchy. (His chapter “A Patrimony Squandered” is a striking overview of this process.) The chaos is all around us, and this unraveling of authority involves more than the failure to confront the clerical penchant for buggery.

And yet for the laity the evangelical mission arising out of the Great Commission continues. This point goes to the second part of Lawler’s book, where he provides a truly indispensable insight:

In more than thirty years as a journalist covering Catholicism, I have found that the most exciting signs of vigorous life in the Church often (I am tempted to say always) come from unexpected directions. Official renewal programs, launched by diocesan committees under the guidance of expensive consultants, begin with great fanfare but end with meager results. Meanwhile, far from the limelight, prayerful Catholic individuals, without formal credentials and without financial support, working alone or in small groups, quietly work wonders.

Lawler’s emphasis on Catholicism’s little platoons of (primarily) laity, is indeed the way forward. The work of restoration on the ground, especially in parishes, is in the hands of committed lay Catholics. Tired of heterodox pabulum being offered in the parish RCIA program? Volunteer to take the program over and teach those eager to enter the Church the fullness of the faith. Complaining about what Bishop Robert Barron calls the “banners and balloons” Catholicism that dominates the parish CCD program? Volunteer to teach in the program and make your teaching Christo-centric. Concerned that the parish marriage preparation program is little more than a secular lifestyle seminar? Volunteer to teach couples seeking to be married in the Church the truth about marriage as the Church teaches. Disheartened by the ignorance of the faith demonstrated by fellow Catholics? Volunteer to start a reading group and read through the Catechism of the Catholic Church. These are concrete means to reach people directly, face to face, about establishing friendship with Christ. This is the “vigorous life” that Lawler has observed with such hope over recent decades.

Lawler concludes his briskly paced and concise book with specific pieces of advice that he directs to lay Catholics. He advises, in list form, of what to do (e.g., “Pray for Catholics who are no longer practicing their faith, for the disaffected, the alienated, the dissidents. Pray for their return.”) and not do (e.g., “Give priests (or anyone else) new tasks without offering to help. Good priests are already busy; lazy priests are . . . well, lazy. Make it easy for the priest to say yes.”). This is prudent advice at any time but especially our time, when wave after wave of scandal threatens to keep us from our mission of sanctification and evangelization. As Lawler enjoins the laity: Demand the truth and reclaim the Catholic tradition.

The Smoke of Satan: How Corrupt and Cowardly Bishops Betrayed Christ, His Church, and the Faithful . . . and What Can Be Done About It
by Philip F. Lawler
Tan Books, 2018
Paperback, 202 pages

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About Gregory J. Sullivan 17 Articles
Gregory J. Sullivan is a lawyer in New Jersey and a part-time lecturer in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. He has written for First Things and The Weekly Standard.


  1. One aspect no published author will add to this mix is the WHY. Not the decadence, which is only a manifestation of a darker base thing, but WHY the campaign among some elements of the Church to clearly destroy all for which it has stood.

    Is it ONLY idiology, or has their weakness, lust for money, sex, and power left them compromised to outside influences pushing them while gratifying them?

    It takes more than idiology to control the Vatican, it takes money, and lots of it, to keep folk toeing a line….and one thing the Vatican is quite competent at, is shady movements of huge amounts of money.

    All money scrutiny is now gone with this regime, and already vast sums have been spotted attempting to disappear in its labyrinth, ranging from the Papal Foundation to the 10s of millions mysteriously moved through the Knights of Malta, which money discovered, required the destruction of the Knights as we knew them.

    Is all of Germany’s wealth coming to the Vatican only from a state tax, or is more being funneled through them in countless shady sources such as was discovered with the Knights? What other sources, and from whom?

    Already, absolutely incomprehensible deals have been made over the Crimean situation, the Chinese Church, and others…not to mention doctrinal and moral issue positively steamrollered through, regardless of protests and even stupidity on the parts of the pushers.

    They act not as befuddled tone deaf incompetents, but as under orders agents of destruction, moving in almost desperate haste, while blocking any move into investigations which might uncover moral AND financial compromise.

    I have no idea who or how many financial players there are in this attempt to destroy the Church, but Soros, Putin and China certainly come to mind.

    It seems many leaders are bought and paid for, and wielding tremendous financial clout within the Vatican among the weak and degenerate.

    And nobody ever broaches even the idea, instead, asing me to believe in totally unbelievable incompetence, bungling, and weak theology, which I think is a misdirect from some quite canny players in this game to destroy the Church.

    • I wanted to add that this is a very old problem, previous papacies have fought, the Soviets bragged of seminarians they placed, and this rot goes back very far indeed.

      However, the sex, power, money, Triumvirate is always at play…

      And no disrespect to the reviewed author, but volunteering at the parish is not the answer when they have their own way of doing things, which ranges between absolutely ineffective to totally heretical, many positions filled by long term school system employees….trying to make any change at that level is absolutely doomed, and results swiftly in being eased or thrown out. Priests are generally powerless, even if they wanted change, as priests come and go, but the old guard remains.

      What the average person CAN do is direct money to where it deserves to go, rather than it be directed by parish, diocese or national conference after those organizations helping themsleves to fund their totally moribund self-replicating selves.

      The US faithful provide nearly as much as Germany to the Vatican, and keeping the US Bishops frozen while money still flows is key to current regime plans.

      Cut out the skimmers from the top. Donate directly, earmark funds for only explicit uses, and PLEASE stop funding our own enemies, PLEASE. Find your worthy causes and donate, whether parish or diocese or charity, but make sure none of those funds are automatically sent under obligation or even simply misused (ie Papal Foundation) for other untraceable purposes.

      We CAN make a difference, but is will NOT be in trying to buck the system locally, where all you can actually do is go somewhere better…

      • I agree with Bob, speaking as someone who has worked in CCD and has started a Reading Group. I was monitored. The old guard (red guard?) at a parish doesn’t want orthodoxy.

      • The big bucks are in the estates and they need to be protected, sad to say, from any clergy, bishops or hierarchy here or in Rome from touching them–hence a parallel financial charity etc must be established and run by lay people.

  2. Bob:

    You are right. The “post-Catholic” establishment has taken over the Catholic Church, and engineered the fraudulent election of their own post-Catholic agent to the papacy.

    BIG MONEY is the king of their cult, and political influence is their goal. Money is flowing from China (that is how and why McCarrick did the China deal for Francis), and certainly from Islam to “post-Catholic SJ universities,” etc etc.

    The “ex-Archbishop of Washington” Donald Wuerl is an arch-lying criminal fraud, a clone of his mentor McCarrick, and as such he is pleasing to the post-Catholic pontiff Francis.

    I can only conclude that these men all are either astonished that (or have utter contempt for) Catholics who believe that Jesus is the Son of the Living God, that he came down to us to teach the truth, that he gave us his sacraments to sanctify us, and died to liberate us from our slavery to sin, and rose from the dead to lead us, sanctified, to the The Father of Lights.

  3. And interestingly this Sunday’s Gospel announces End Times. We don’t know when though the times make us wonder. One consoling aspect of Mk 13 is eschatological chronology. Christ warns “this generation” will experience the end though the apocalyptic event referred to was Rome’s cataclysmic destruction of the Jewish nation. The Apostles were convinced [as many are today] that End Times was imminent. Vespasian and son ruthlessly inflicted virtual end times fulfilling Where the Eagles gather there lies the Corpse. Christ’s words frequently have dual meaning the real Apocalypse reserved for a future time. Similar conditions exist today. Flynn quotes Lawler counseling us to pray for the misled. That is a must particularly for those misled who are misleading from the Pontiff to Spadaro to Parolin to Cupich to the pastor preaching heresy. Insofar as “lazy priests” true though underlying the languor is faithlessness. We are all called to pray, sacrifice, even suffer where practicable. The Smoke of Satan is what it is. Evil moral and putrid. Clericalism, sentimentalism are bywords for the entrenched evil within our Church a long time marinating. So we can’t fault the Pontiff for everything yet we can fault him for most. The Church has acquired the pallidness of impending death for which he is responsible. No need recounting the misdeeds we all, that is those who are not snoring know them. A dear friend is suffering depression as many of the faithful show in the pews and on the Internet. My friend believes with the dearth of hierarchy leadership only an Act of God will bring Justice. Faith is confidence in the One we love who will strengthen the beleaguered faithful and see us thru. Faith is an act of love for the Crucified that assures an abundance of good in return. If End Times were at hand this time around it will not be eagles gathered around the Corpse rather vultures. Vultures who have spent a lifetime feeding on the souls they were ordained to feed.

  4. “Lawler’s emphasis on Catholicism’s little platoons of (primarily) laity, is indeed the way forward. The work of restoration on the ground, especially in parishes, is in the hands of committed lay Catholics. Tired of heterodox pabulum being offered in the parish RCIA program? Volunteer to take the program over and teach those eager to enter the Church the fullness of the faith.”

    And if the orthodox faithful are shut out of such positions by those who have power in the parish (or the chancery)? What, then, are the faithful to do? What should be done when true reform is stonewalled by those holding authority in the institutional church?

    • Mary, you are correct. God will use the grassroots, the least influential of all to accomplish His will. But be prepared for and assume pushback. A new pastor and baby-priest associate pastor were just installed in my geographic/childhood parish. When I asked for the Extraordinary Form I was met with a host (pun intended) of reasons why it couldn’t be done. Imagine two priests arguing against the establishment of the EF and with the lamest of excuses. And I even offered to produce a priest who will celebrate the EF. As a retired Marine Corps officer and student of leadership it grieves me to witness the lack of courage. They are afraid to upset the Archbishop. A commanding officer tends to his unit, not his higher up. A C.O. does what’s best for his unit and with courage and conviction. It’s called leadership. Alas I fear we have a pastor whose allegiance and priority are misplaced. This fight for the EF is not over. But it will take us, the rank and file parishioner led by the Holy Spirit to correct what needs correcting.

  5. From “The Vatican Intervention in Baltimore”, by Philip Lawler:

    By quashing the American Catholic bishops’ bid for an independent investigation into the burgeoning sex-abuse scandal, the Vatican has left the US hierarchy in an impossible position. The bishops cannot ease the anger of an enraged laity without appearing disloyal to Rome; they cannot maintain unity among themselves without further alienating their flocks; they cannot restore their own credibility without damaging the credibility of the Holy See.

    • A cleric’s first loyalty is to Christ, not to any religious superior even if that be the pope. A shepherd’s first responsibility is to do whatever is necessary to protect his flock, not wonder what might please or displease the Vatican. A pope loses his authority to demand obedience once he ignores the cries of the faithful and sends wolves in sheep’s clothing to
      devour them.

      That only about 40% of the American bishops dared to vote in favor of a proposal to respectfully request Rome to release all relevant documentation on the McCarrick case for the sake of transparency and to better understand what went wrong shows that we have more bureaucratic climbers and scared sycophants in the episcopacy than men of faith with a modicum of courage and focus on true pastoral priorities.

      Pope Francis’ much-touted “revolution of mercy” is doomed to fail because #1 it is not fully founded on the truth and because #2 he has entrusted to spiritually corrupt and morally compromised men.

  6. The Church will survive this crisis. We survived the similar sodomy crisis in the Middle Ages that was condemned by St Peter Damian. We survived the Arian heresy. We survived the Reformation (which culminated in Rome getting sacked and burned by the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V). We survived the various invasions of Europe by the Ottoman Empire. We survived both National Socialism and Communism, two anti-religious totalitarian ideologies that tried to destroyed the Church. Remeber Matthew 16:18.

    Still, the cost of the current scandal will be great, and we will likely be left with a smaller and poorer Church, as Pope Benedict XVI predicted.

  7. “Faithful Catholics are beginning to realize Pope Francis no longer represents merely a change of emphasis in papal teaching” (Phillip Lawyer Lost Shepherd). Misunderstanding the limits of papal teaching is dividing the Church. I wish to comment here on what those limits are. There is clarification in the Doctrinal Commentary to Ad Tuendam Fidem. The Doctrinal Commentary [written by then CDF Prefect Cardinal Ratzinger and ratified by John Paul II] states in Prop 1 The Deposit of the Faith is inviolable. Any doctrine related to Prop 1 is covered in Prop 2. Such binding doctrine must be solemnly pronounced by the Pontiff to the Universal Church. Or it may be proposed as binding apart from solemn pronouncement in the form of Sententia Definitive Tenenda, a definitively held statement. That complies with this passage from a Robert Siscoe article in The Remnant: “Msgr. Van Noort defines infallibility as ‘the privilege by which the teaching office of the Church, through the assistance of the Holy Ghost, is preserved immune from error when it defines a doctrine of faith or morals.’ Note the word define. Infallibility only applies in the case of doctrines that have been defined, or definitive proposed by the Church, either by a solemn decree, or by the force of the ordinary and universal Magisterium” (Siscoe). The salient point is that the errors attributed to Amoris Laetitia and other remarks, statements by Pope Francis, the two letters pertaining to the Maltese Bishops’ request for affirmation on communion for D&R included in the Acta Apostolica Sedis are not infallible nor binding despite the proposal by Vatican Secretary of State Parolin that they are. The reason is that nothing in the letters is presented as Sententia Definitive Tenenda. They are simply oblique references open to opinion. The mistake of many laity, clergy is that they consider these errors binding. Insofar as their being owed a form of religious assent they do not comply with Lumen Gentium 25 [ A Judgment that manifests his mind and will by his manner of speaking, character of the documents, frequent repetition of the doctrine ]. Finally a word on an increasingly mistaken opinion that fault lies with Vat I and papal infallibility. The limits of authentic papal teaching shows the problem is not the Chair of Peter. Rather the Occupant.

  8. Our Lady of La Salette, France in 1846 has warned of and predicted this sexual abuse crisis that we are now in. Our Lady states: “Priests, my Son’s ministers, priests, by their evil life, by their irreverence’s and their impiety in celebrating the holy mysteries, love of money, love of honor and pleasures, priests have become sewers of impurity. Yes, priests call forth vengeance, and vengeance is suspended over their heads. Woe to priests, and to persons consecrated to God, who by their infidelities and their evil life are crucifying my son anew! The sins of persons consecrated to God cry to heaven and call for vengeance, and now here is vengeance at their very doors, for no longer is anyone found to beg mercy and pardon for the people; there are no more generous souls, there is now no one worthy of offering the spotless Victim to the Eternal on the world’s behalf.”
    “The chiefs, the leaders of the people of God have neglected prayer and penance, and the devil has bedimmed their intelligence. They have become wandering stars which the old devil will drag along with his tail to make them perish. God will allow the old serpent to cause divisions among those who reign, in every society and in every family. Physical and moral agonies will be suffered. God will abandon mankind to itself and will send punishments which will follow one after the other for more than thirty-five years. “ (starting in the year 2000?)
    Sister Agnes Sasagawa at Japan, in 1973 claimed that Mary said to her: “The work of the devil will infiltrate even into the Church in such a way that one will see cardinals opposing cardinals, bishops against bishops. The priests who venerate me will be scorned and opposed by their confreres… the Church will be full of those who accept compromises and the demon will press many priests and consecrated souls to leave the service of the Lord. The demon will be especially implacable against souls consecrated to God…”
    A spiritual storm is growing with intensity. Pope John Paul II had visions of the future while convalescing after an attempt on his life and was aware of a great storm on the horizon. He stated: “Precisely at the end of the second millennium, there accumulates on the horizon of all mankind enormously threatening clouds, and darkness falls upon mankind.” An awakening is coming!! Pope John Paul talked about the Lamb (Jesus Christ), who is the only one able to open up the seven seals: “That scroll contains the whole series of divine decrees that must be accomplished in human history to make perfect justice prevail. If the scroll remains sealed, these decrees can be neither known nor implemented, and wickedness will continue to spread and oppress believers. Hence, the need for authoritative intervention: it would be made by the slain and risen Lamb…to take the scroll and to open its seals.”
    According to prophecies, this age is “coming to a close”, after 10 events unfold that Mary, Mother of Jesus has predicted, at some major apparition sites throughout the world. This information also comes from canonized saint’s prophecies. A book and web site called, “After The Warning To 2038”, has many prophecies from credible, Catholic sources that are predicting many more future events. This is not the end. There is a 6th Church age of peace to unfold after this chaotic time. There are 7 ages for the Church.

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