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Two conservative authors have assessed Pope Francis’ pontificate with devastating results…

Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock by Philip Lawler (256 pages, Gateway Editions, 2018)

To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism by Ross Douthat (256 pages, Simon & Schuster, 2018)

Five years into his papacy and poor Pope Francis is under fire. For a long time he has been given the benefit of the doubt, but now there is little benefit and plenty of doubt.

In Pope Francis and the Caring Society world-class economists took apart his encyclical Laudato Si, revealing it to be a naive and often shallow analysis. The tabloid titled Dictator Pope is apparently a Vatican insider’s gossip rag portraying the pope as a petulant tyrant. Added to these books are the increasing number of websites, journals, and blogs that are taking an openly critical stance against Pope Francis, his policies, and his puppets. Some are analytical and intellectual, others sarcastic, some cynical, still others angry and bitter in tone.

In the meantime, two conservative authors have assessed Pope Francis’ pontificate with devastating results. Philip Lawler’s Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading his Flock, and Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism do not make for comfortable reading.

Mr. Lawler introduces his critique by expressing what many Catholics felt about Pope Francis—at first an enthusiasm for the fresh vision, then an increasing bewilderment, and finally disenchantment and dismay. After the pope’s more unsettling off-the-cuff remarks, explanations were found and journalists like Mr. Lawler made efforts to clarify the pope’s words—placing them in the larger context of Church teaching and tradition.

However, as events unfolded, the enthusiasm to defend the pope began to wither. Explaining and making excuses became an increasing burden. Mr. Lawler describes the straw that broke his back. In a homily on February 24, 2017, Pope Francis seemed to contradict Jesus’ clear teaching on marriage. Suddenly, Mr. Lawler felt that the pope was not simply being pastoral and merciful, but that he was also intent on altering the timeless teaching of Christ.

Mr. Lawler then does a flashback to chronicle the resignation of Benedict XVI and the election of Jorge Bergolgio. He recalls the initial “Francis Effect” and the gradually developing controversies: the pope’s ambiguous comments and actions about homosexuality and gender ideology, the flawed and off-target environmentalist agenda, the missed opportunities while speaking at the U.N. and the American Congress, the rogue phone calls, heterodox opinions about hell, and the disastrous interviews with atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari.

All of this was unsettling, but Mr. Lawler then goes on to chronicle Francis’ stalled attempts at reform in the Vatican. Like some Medici papacy, sexual scandals persist, financial skulduggery continues, cronyism, backroom deals, and whisperings of a “gay mafia” in the Vatican won’t go away. Mr. Lawler details it all before going on to discuss the Machiavellian manipulations of the Synod on the Family. From there, he accuses the Pope of stacking the college of cardinals with liberal allies while bullying, marginalizing, firing, and excluding conservatives.

Mr. Lawler’s book is well documented and difficult to put down. It must be admitted that there is an air of despair about his tone. He has presented the facts to support his proposal that Pope Francis is misleading his flock, and it is hard to dispute his opinion that the pope has brought division and confusion to Catholics. In his conclusion, Mr. Lawler calls for the bishops to support orthodox Catholic teaching, but he doesn’t hold out much hope. Instead, he calls for the laity to continue to hold fast to the faith once delivered to the saints.

Mr. Lawler details the problems with Francis’ papacy, but he doesn’t spend much time putting the problems in the larger context of history and the global Church. Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church is much better in this area. Mr. Douthat covers much of the same territory as Mr. Lawler, with the same critical attitude. However, Mr. Douthat considers some of the wider divisions in the Church, beginning with three different narratives about the Second Vatican Council—the liberal, the conservative, and what might be called the realistic.

Mr. Douthat places Francis’ papacy firmly within the liberal-conservative divide in the Church, showing how the liberals who were in retreat during the John Paul and Benedict papacies staged a turnaround in Bergoglio’s election. For Mr. Douthat, the ecclesial civil war explains all the tensions within not only the present papacy, but within the Church for the last sixty years and beyond. Furthermore, Mr. Douthat does us a great service is showing how the same trends existed in the Arian controversies in the fourth century and in the conflict between Jansenists and Jesuits in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

I found this section of the book to be the most valuable. Mr. Douthat’s comparison of the present conflict to the Arian controversy was especially illuminating. Quoting Cardinal Newman, he shows how the Arians appealed to reason, took a “sensible” view of the faith, and continually expressed themselves in ambiguities and subtle half-truths. His discussion with Jesuit Fr. James Martin about situation ethics in complex cases is also illuminating, showing the sincerity of the liberals, but also revealing how the complexity of situations leads to what seems like deception and doublethink.

Mr. Douthat is at his best showing that the superficial controversies are symptoms of a much deeper divide within Christianity. The real divide is between those who believe the Christian faith is a religion revealed by God whose basic tenets cannot be changed by human initiative, and those who believe Christianity is a human construct originating in a particular historical context, which must be adapted to the changing times and cultures in which it finds itself. This is the true divide, and while it may not seem very wide, it is certainly very deep.

Mr. Douthat also spends more time attempting to predict possible futures for the Church. While liberalism seems to be in the ascendant under Francis, Mr. Douthat points out that, on the ground, liberalism tends to empty churches, convents, and seminaries. He sees that the younger priests and religious are conservative and notes the conservatism of the rising, young, and energetic Catholics in Africa. Mr. Douthat agrees that Francis is stacking the college of cardinals so that the changes cannot be rolled back, but he remembers that everyone thought John Paul II and Benedict had successfully done the same, precluding the election of a liberal like Bergoglio.

Both authors might have done well to put their subject in perspective by visiting their local parishes and speaking to some of their pastors who are on the front line, asking them how much the intrigues in Rome affect them. Mr. Douthat touches on this somewhat—suggesting that the “Francis Effect” was only a media headline—not for nefarious reasons, but for down-to-earth ones. The only thing Francis has done that affects me as a parish priest is to tinker with the annulment process.

What is it like in the front line? I am blessed to work in South Carolina where the Catholic Church is growing. I struggle, as every priest does, with how to help my people deal with broken marriages and broken families. Our parish is in the poor part of town, and we work every day with the homeless, the unemployed, the prostitutes, and their pimps. At the same time we struggle to maintain and improve our parish school, and we work hard and sacrifice much to build a beautiful new church, improve our liturgy, and offer the sacrifice of praise.

I see at the grassroots level an enormous amount of hard work, simple faith, and joyful Catholicism. Some of my people and colleagues are more inclined towards liberalism, others towards conservatism, but they don’t quarrel. In their own way, they want to be faithful Catholics, believing and living the historic faith. To be honest, they are not much interested or concerned by rich, liberal bishops in Germany or corrupt left-wing bishops in Honduras. Most of them regard the pope the way English people regard the queen—a necessary figurehead and symbol. They’re happy that he kisses babies and is nice to poor people. They pay little attention to synodical struggles in Rome.

They have their catechism, their Bible, their devotions, and their liturgy. They have their daily work to do and their daily prayers to say. They’re Catholics. The Church will go on. When I asked one of my young fathers what he thought of the present situation in the Church he shrugged and said bluntly, “We have had some good popes. Now I think we have one who is not so good. Later we will have another pope.”

It is tempting to play the ostrich and simply mind my own business and put my head in my own sand; but then I read Mr. Douthat’s warning about how insidious the liberal agenda is. They say they do not wish to make any radical changes, but only to adjust the pastoral method about divorce and remarriage. Then they slip in a paragraph about being open to same-sex marriage. They say they are only adapting to real pastoral needs in a few complex cases, but then they come up with a formula for a service of repentance which, in effect, normalizes the irregular marriages. They say they are not changing anything, then they announce that the crucial footnote provides a new paradigm to reassess everything. Mr. Douthat paints a chilling future scenario in which nothing is changed formally, but the liberal agenda progresses step by step—never changing the words but always changing the interpretation. Never changing the principles, but always changing their application. Never changing the doctrines, but always changing their meaning.

Mr. Lawler and Mr. Douthat have both provided excellent critiques of the present papacy, but I felt both authors lacked a certain fire in the belly—an underlying faith that God really is with His Church. The adventure of faith is to be always on the lookout for how God is going to redeem the very worst and bring out of it the very best.

While Mr. Douthat suggests various possible future scenarios, there is one possibility he does not consider. Church history shows that periods of complacency, confusion and corruption are followed by revival and renewal. This is not the “reform” engineered by clergy with five-year plans, draconian decrees or long, drawn-out synods. Instead, true revival and reform starts at the grassroots level and grows among the people.

This was the way of the Benedictine movement, the Franciscan movement, the Dominican movement, the Methodists, the Great Awakening, the Anglo-Catholic Revival, and the Charismatic movement.

Such revivals and renewals, like Pentecost itself, are invariably unpredictable, powerful and unstoppable.

This is the way true renewal happens. Who says it cannot happen again?

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7 replies to this post
  1. If it is possible for the laity to stick to the faith once for all delivered to the saints, what is the point of having a Pope at all? I thought he was there partly to clear up disputes and misunderstandings.

  2. Amen, Amen, Amen.
    I’ve thought and been saying the same thing. Out of confusion God often raises up great saints and they don’t wear mitres. We need to be faithful and pray.

  3. Here in the Rockies our springtime often includes blizzards, but they provide the soaking moisture needed for the new growth. Thank you Father for confirming us in our hope for the Springtime of the Church in the midst of a seemingly devastating storm!

  4. I’m curious if you intentionally left out the Reformation in your list of Holy Spirit driven revivals and if so why?

  5. Mae, I think the Counter Reformation would qualify. The Protestant Revolution, while understandable in many ways was destructive in many more.

  6. It looks like Catholics are in a similar situation to some biblically sound Methodists and Presbyterians I knew years ago in college. How could they remain true in a church whose upper administration had gone sour while their local church remained sound?

    One solution they adopted was to carefully control their giving, only allocating money to specific purposes they could support. Catholics might want to do the same.

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