Book Review: Phil Lawler on the Pope as The Lost Shepherd

Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock
Philip Lawler
Gateway Editions
256 pages
$25.79 Hardcover; $14.99 Kindle

A book that is already drawing the attention of international media despite a publication date nearly two months out (at the end of February) is Phil Lawler’s upcoming work, The Lost Shepherd. How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock.

The Lost Shepherd  (disclosure: I received a free advance copy in order to prepare this review) is yet another book offering a critical look at Pope Francis and his current reign over the Catholic Church. Previously, two other books have taken a similar approach: first, George Neumayr’s The Political Pope. How Pope Francis is Delighting the Left and Abandoning Conservatives; and second, the pseudonymous writer Marcantonio Colonna’s recent book The Dictator Pope. (Another big book in the same vein will arrive in March of 2018, with New York Times’ columnist Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism.)

Sandro Magister, the Italian Vatican specialist, recently discussed Lawler’s forthcoming book. As he puts it, Lawler is

one of the most authoritative and balanced Catholic writers in the United States. He was editor of “Catholic World Report,” the news magazine of Ignatius Press, the publishing house founded by the Jesuit Joseph Fessio, a disciple of Joseph Ratzinger. And today he directs “Catholic World News.” He was born and raised in Boston. He is married and the father of seven children.

Before we look at Lawler’s criticisms of Pope Francis in more detail, therefore, it should be stated that arguably the greatest importance of Lawler’s book does not lie in its newness of approach or in its originality of argument; rather, it is significant because Lawler is a prominent and well-respected Catholic conservative – that is to say, a Catholic who is not known as a stringent traditionalist, and thus, not an obvious or easily-dismissed papal critic. Lawler makes clear in the book that he identifies with the teaching of the two previous popes, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and that he considers them still to serve as a bulwark against some of the devious and specious developments in our times. It is, for example, Lawler’s view that one should approach the Second Vatican Council through Benedict’s “Hermeneutic of Continuity,” which implies that all of the 1962-1965 Council’s teachings can and should somehow be reconciled with the 2,000 year-old traditional teaching of the Catholic Church.

Such a perspective should stand as a counter-argument against those who claim that resistance to the “reforms” of Pope Francis is mainly “Lefebvrist” or “traditionalist” in origin. Andrea Tornelli, a confidant of the pope and journalist for La Stampa’s Vatican Insider, recently put it this way:

Philosopher Rocco Buttiglione had said this, commenting on the “correctio filialis” which accused Pope Francis of propagating heretical teachings: “at the origin of many doctrinal criticisms against the current Pontiff there is also the opposition to his predecessors and ultimately to the Council”. And now this observation finds further confirmation in a book signed by Enrico Maria Radaelli, who critiques Joseph Ratzinger’s theological thought and his fundamental work “Introduction to Christianity”, and has been endorsement [sic – endorsed] by theologian Antonio Livi, former professor of Lateran and signatory of the “correctio”. I don’t know all the other signatories of the correctio – Buttiglione said last October – Of those I know, some are Lefebvrians. They were against the Council, against Paul VI, against John Paul II, against Benedict XVI and now they are against Pope Francis. [emphasis added]

On the contrary, what may become the most prominent book taking a critical look at Pope Francis has now been written by a non-traditionalist Catholic, as it were! My own husband, Dr. Robert Hickson, as a matter of fact, first memorably encountered and debated Mr. Lawler in 1985 when the latter had come to Christendom College to deliver a laudatory talk about Pope John Paul II and the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops’ 1985 Relatio Finalis (20 Years after Vatican II),  which was an encomium of the Second Vatican Council itself, as well as of its twenty-year aftermath. (Of some significance is that that document was drafted by now-Cardinal Godfried Danneels.) My husband – then a Professor and Head of the Literature Department at Christendom College – challenged Mr. Lawler (as well as Christendom Philosophy Professor Russell Hittinger) – and with it the Council – concerning some of its problematic aspects. He then questioned whether the College effectively wished to “preserve the revolution of the Second Vatican Council,” and he added that he believed that parts of the teaching of the Council cannot be reconciled with the Church’s tradition, especially about religious liberty, syncretism, and indifferentism, and about grace, a sincere but erroneous conscience, and about the very nature of the Church (de Ecclesia).

We hope that this debate will be continued in good Faith with Mr. Lawler at some point in the future. Having taken the opposite position in that earlier debate, let us now honor him for his courage in taking such a stance on the current crisis in the Church.

For many readers of OnePeterFive, Lawler’s book will serve mostly as a review of what we have also reported closely over the course of this papacy, and it moves step by step. Lawler’s book is organized along a chronology – starting with the election of Pope Francis and his first programmatic writing —Evangelii Gaudium — and later describing the two Synods of Bishops on the Family and  the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia. It also deals with different problematic themes of this papacy, such as Pope Francis’ reform of the curia, his statements about contraception, the gender issue (the famous “she who is a he” statement!), Islam, environmentalism, and more. He ends the book with the discussion of whether a pope can be wrong and what the response of the clergy and laity could now be.

In the following, we shall not recapitulate Lawler’s — in many ways very painful — depiction of the trajectory of revolutionary papal steps, but we shall concentrate on the assessments and the criticisms that Mr. Lawler presents along the way. As he puts it at the beginning of his book:

I did my best to provide assurance—for my readers and sometimes for myself—that, despite his sometimes alarming remarks, Francis was not a radical, was not leading the Church away from the ancient sources of the Faith. But gradually, reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that he was.[….] I found I could no longer pretend that Francis was merely offering a novel interpretation of Catholic doctrine. No, it was more than that. He was engaged in a deliberate effort to change what the Church teaches. [emphasis added]

As many of us then reported, Francis’ own theological adviser, Archbishop Victor Fernández, had made it clear already in 2015 that the pope was aiming at an “irreversible reform.” Here is how Lawler comments on this matter. After talking about how loyal Catholics, trying to maintain their Faith, had under the previous popes the further “support of the Vatican,” he continues, saying:

No longer. Francis has reopened the debate about the continuity of Catholic teaching. His supporters see him as the liberator of the spirit of Vatican II, bringing permanent change to the Church, while his critics protest that the Church cannot alter its fundamental doctrine.

And further:

The pope’s closest advisers have stated on several occasions, Francis intends not only to change the Church but to lock in the changes. Archbishop Victor Fernández, a fellow Argentine who helped the pontiff draft his first encyclical, remarked in 2015, “You have to realize that he is aiming at reform that is irreversible.”

Comments Lawler:

For Catholics who have weathered two generations of confusion and conflict, clinging to beliefs they hold precious, the prospect of ‘irreversible change’ along the lines suggested by Fernández is horrifying.

When dealing with Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s removal from his position as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in July of 2017 – as an example of how the pope is dealing with those who stand in the way of his intended “irreversible reform” – Lawler sees a “striking reversal of roles.” He says: “It was not the stern German ‘inquisitor general’ but the smiling Argentine pope – supposedly the embodiment of mercy and compassion – who demanded unquestioning acquiescence to his authority.” These words make it clear that Phil Lawler is past the point of trying to attenuate or mince words. He comes back to the pope’s manner of dealing with critics within the Vatican when saying:

From early in his pontificate, Francis showed no patience with officials of the Roman Curia who questioned his policies. As tensions heightened, morale plummeted in Vatican offices. Reports circulated in the Italian media – too many to be ignored – of staff members called before the pope for reprimands because of unguarded remarks in private conversations. The pope demanded immediate dismissal of three clerics on the staff of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, angrily refusing to give an explanation and insisting that he had the authority to insist on obedience.

With regard to some of the close advisers of the pope, Mr. Lawler also has some strong words to say. The record of the new President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, is “troubling.” He is responsible “for a shocking sex-education guide that featured explicit images, instructed children in sexual techniques, and encouraged discussion of sexuality without reference to the Church’s moral teaching.” One other adviser, Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras, “has not been a conspicuously successful pastor at home.” While the number of Catholics in his diocese were plummeting, Maradiaga was “the epitome of the ‘airport bishop’ that Francis denounces, jetting around the world to deliver speeches rather than tending his flock.” The German Cardinal Reinhard Marx “has, like Maradiaga, presided over the collapse of the Church in his own diocese.” Pope Francis, says Lawler, “longs for ‘a Church that is poor, for the poor.’” But: “He would not find that Church in Germany.” Lawler proceeds to show the immense material wealth of the German Catholic Church — a wealth amassed amidst a “mass exodus from the pews.”

Lawler also speaks about the pope’s constant denigration of loyal Catholics. This seems to be one of the aspects of this papacy that is most offensive to Lawler. As he puts it at the beginning of his book: “Every day I pray for Pope Francis. And every day (I am exaggerating, but only slightly), the pope issues another reminder that he does not approve of Catholics like me.” Lawler describes the pope’s speech at another place as follows:

[E]ven a cursory reading of the pope’s daily homilies reveals harsh rhetoric, stinging rebukes, and angry denunciations such as we have not heard from a Roman pontiff for generations.

Additionally, Lawler touches upon the matter of the “Sankt Gallen Mafia” (the title of a sub-chapter of his book), although he does not come to a clear conclusion himself as to whether it unduly influenced the election of Pope Francis or not. As the author puts it:

Maybe there was no active conspiracy or illicit campaign for the election of Bergoglio. Maybe three different cardinals – Danneels, Murphy-O’Connor, and McCarrick – exaggerated their own roles in the process for the sake of a good story. But there can be little doubt that a group of liberal prelates saw the Argentine cardinal as their best hope for changes in the Church.

Lawler shows there to be a certain lack of seriousness in the pope when he asked Cardinal Christoph Schönborn after promulgating his post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia as to whether it was “orthodox”, and for showing himself “comforted” after a positive response from the Austrian cardinal. Lawler comments:

It is to be expected that Francis consults  Schönborn, one of his close advisers and a respected theologian. But he apparently sought assurance of his writing’s orthodoxy after the document had been issued. Publishing the document first and soliciting opinions about its doctrinal soundness later bespeaks a dangerously insouciant approach to the integrity of the Faith. [emphasis added]

Finally, let us turn to Lawler’s more fundamental discussion on the “Limits of Papal Authority,” the title of one of his other sub-chapters. Lawler makes it clear that “when he [the pope] speaks on questions of faith and morals, there are some things the pope cannot [may not] say.” The author gives an example:

The Pope cannot say that 2+2=5. Nor can he repeal the laws of logic. So if the pope makes two contradictory statements, they cannot both be right. And since every pontiff enjoys the same teaching authority, if one pope contradicts another pope, something is wrong.

Applying this principle of non-contradiction, Lawler himself concludes, as follows:

Thus if Amoris Laetitia contradicts Veritatis Splendor and Casti Connubii – earlier papal encyclicals, which carry a higher level of teaching authority – the faithful cannot be obliged to swallow the contradiction. [emphasis added]

In the context of some statements issued by Rocco Buttiglione, the Catholic philosopher and defender of Amoris Laetitia, Lawler makes this principle of non-contradiction clear when he states:

Thus, Buttiglione assumes that a couple should remain together, even in an illicit marriage, for the sake of their children. But that assumption contradicts the understanding of marriage set forth by a previous pontiff. In his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii, Pius XI, quoting St. Augustine, wrote that the marriage bond is so sacred that “a husband or wife, if separated, should not be joined to another even for the sake of offspring.”

It is our hope that the excerpts presented here give our readers enough of a sense to see that the Catholic Church has in Phil Lawler a loyal and morally earnest Catholic layman willing to take a lucid stance in confronting an all-too-insouciant (and often abrupt) pope for his being a “lost shepherd” and for “leading the sheep astray.” May Lawler’s book help to open the eyes of many well-meaning Catholics who still have illusions about this pope, especially for the sake of their salvation and the salvation of their children.

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