Lost Shepherd by Philip Lawler, Regnery, 202pp, £20
The light show has perhaps been the most jarring episode of Francis’s pontificate, if of little ultimate theological significance. In 2015, in connection with the encyclical Laudato Si’, St Peter’s became the canvas for projections of various environmental scenes meant to highlight the responsibility humans have for our planet.
Laudato Si’ developed the themes of Francis’s predecessors concerning our stewardship of God’s creation. But the light show was something different. It was sponsored by secular foundations, some of which have no sympathy for the Church’s religious mission, and the ancient façade of the papal church was used as a front for the secular cause of environmentalism. (Some have made similar claims about Vatican approval of this year’s Met Gala, devoted to the “Catholic imagination”.)
Lawler, a veteran Catholic journalist with extensive sources, cites this example as a sign of the confused messages coming from Pope Francis. Many Catholics looked at this pontificate with large reserves of hope for its success, and were willing to accept the expected adjustments in papal style or emphasis.
Francis had sparked controversy from the day he was elected St Peter’s successor. But, Lawler argues, the debate eventually became so intense, confusion among the faithful so widespread, administration at the Vatican so arbitrary and the Pope’s diatribes against his (real or imagined) foes so manic, that today the universal Church is rushing towards a crisis.
The contentious climate in the Church may simply be the result of our current media climate. There have been terribly corrupt popes, some of whose deeds we know, but where much has doubtless been lost or forgotten through the passage of time. The constant media coverage and endless commentary magnify every move the Pope makes. As the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has argued, conservative opponents of Francis bear some of the blame for this magnification of the papacy, and now Francis is experiencing some of the negative effects.
Lawler for his part reminds us that in Catholic teaching the Pope is not an absolute monarch or personification of the Church but rather the leader of a group of successors to the Apostles bound to maintain the sacramental tradition. But too often, he asserts, Francis is confusing where he should be clear. If he were simply a bishop, this just might work, since there can be more contact with priests and individual parishes, and a “messy” pastoral approach can meet people where they are. But Lawler thinks that to speak in such a way to the whole Church, especially with a secular media anxious to jump on every word in the most divisive way possible, is misguided at best.
As Lawler notes and documents in detail, Francis, contrary to his image as a collegial reformer, has in fact concentrated power within the Vatican. And as the light show indicates, while trying to appear open to the world, Francis has sometimes let the world dictate the message.
Lawler argues that, while speaking for transparency in the Church, Francis has derailed reforms dealing with Vatican finances and the sex abuse crisis. Condemning “rigid” Catholics with large families and devotion to the Latin Mass, his media presence and his willingness to reconsider settled teaching has failed to bring Catholics, especially younger Catholics, back to the Church. His treatment of Cardinal Raymond Burke and the Knights of Malta, among others, speaks more to score-settling rather than truth-telling, Lawler argues. And “the magisterial confusion of this papacy has, strangely enough, expanded the claims of papal infallibility … while weakening its foundations”, because now every offhand comment by Francis must be debated as if it were infallible teaching.
That said, there are times when the Pope’s message is absolutely clear, for example during the recent Alfie Evans affair. He also preaches with deep conviction about the reality of Satan in our lives.
During the acrimonious family synod in Rome, I told a wise friend that I was concerned about the Church’s direction under Pope Francis. He said he tried to stay out of such controversies because there was ultimately little reason to worry. Popes could not change doctrine. If they could, he said, we would have much more to worry about than the controversies of a synod or the murmurings of German bishops – the faith itself would be in jeopardy.
Reading Lost Shepherd with this advice in mind provides some necessary ballast, because otherwise the story appears very grim indeed.
Gerald Russello is an author and editor. He recently edited a new edition of Like a Roaring Lion by Orestes Brownson (Cluny Media)