After a spirited and public defense of Pope Francis, the editor of the well-regarded Catholic World News Phil Lawler pens a highly critical book about the Argentine pontiff. Here, he speaks with REGINA about why.
REGINA: You were at one time a vocal defender of Pope Francis; what inspired you to write ‘Lost Shepherd’?
LAWLER: As time passed, I found that many of the Pope’s public statements were difficult to reconcile with the established teachings of the Church. For months I did my best to reconcile them, assuming that the difficulties were due to problems of translation or interpretation— or perhaps simply bad wording. But as time passed, and the number of problematical statements increased, I found that I could no longer make a realistic claim that the Pope’s statements were consistent with what the Church has always taught. There were too many conflicts, too many points of tension.
REGINA: Yes, we had about the same experience.
LAWLER: Moreover, Pope Francis began to make very harsh statements about people who held to the old beliefs, so that it was clear to me the HE saw a conflict there.
REGINA: It became quite clear.
LAWLER: I was reluctant to criticize the Pope— any Pope— openly. But I found that when I did make some cautious criticism, many of my readers thanked me, and told me that I had helped them to understand the situation. In fact, rather than being discouraged by what I wrote, these readers reported that they actually found my criticism encouraging.
REGINA: Why was that?
LAWLER: They realized that their concerns were justified— they weren’t crazy. At the same time, they realized that we don’t have to invent wild conspiracy theories to explain what is happening. If the Pope is making imprudent statements, it’s not the first time that the Church has had problems with a Pope. We’ll survive this.
REGINA: Agreed, though this behavior does tend to panic people.
LAWLER: This to me was a very important aspect of my work on the book: I wanted to give people the proper perspective on the current crisis. Some people go overboard, suggesting that Francis is an antipope or a heretic, saying that we’re approaching the end of the world and the collapse of Catholicism. There’s no need for that sort of fear and extremism. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that there IS a crisis.
REGINA: Yes, though this does seem to confuse and alarm a lot of Catholics.
LAWLER: As Catholics, we respect the Pope— not because of the man, but because of the office. Some popes are wonderful; others aren’t very good at all. They all have the same teaching authority. (It’s significant that Pope Francis has chosen not to use his authority to make definitive teachings.) But when one Pope contradicts the teachings of previous Popes, he undermines his own authority. We should remember that it’s the OFFICE that commands our respect. So it’s the definitive teachings— not the latest public statements— that we must recognize.
REGINA: What has been the reaction from intellectuals?
LAWLER: In general, intellectuals either like or dislike the book, according to their own leanings.
REGINA: And Catholics in the pews?
LAWLER: I’ve had a stronger positive reaction from “ordinary” Catholics, who tend to welcome the book because— as I said above— it helps to explain things for them. I haven’t perceived much difference between old and young readers, except that younger people have less of a tendency to think that criticism of bishops— in this case the Pope— is always a bad idea.
REGINA: What about the clergy?
LAWLER: Priests have been more cautious about saying that they enjoyed the book, but quite a few have quietly thanked me. Priests, after all, have to cope with the results of the Pope’s statements and policies; they recognize the problems that have been generated.
REGINA: Where would you say opposition to your book come from?
LAWLER: There are two different sources of opposition: Liberal Catholics tend to dislike the book because they welcome the Pope’s statements and policies. To a remarkable extent, liberal Catholics have sought to suppress criticism. I have NOT found the same sort of hostility among secular liberals; they are more willing to acknowledge that the Pope is taking the Church in a different direction.
LAWLER: Some conservative Catholics dislike the book because they are offended by ANY criticism of the Holy Father. In many cases, critics have gone to great lengths to try to explain away the problems with papal statements.
REGINA: All of this of course begs the question of intent: does the Pope understand that his lack of clarity is a disruptive and divisive force?
LAWLER: Yes, although he would not put it in those terms. Pope Francis clearly understands that he is making waves— that he is disrupting things within the Church. He would no doubt say that a great deal of things should be disrupted (and probably most Catholics would agree, although we might disagree on which things to disrupt). I doubt very much that he would acknowledge the divisions that he has created. But they’re very hard to ignore. It’s been astonishing to see, on a day-to-day basis, how often the Pope uses harsh language to describe those within the Church who disagree with him.
REGINA: Francis was elected on promises to address the sexual abuse crisis engulfing the Church. What do you think is behind Francis’s seeming inability to take clerical sexual abuse seriously?
LAWLER: Until his trip to Chile early this year, I simply don’t think that Pope Francis had the sex-abuse issue high on his list of priorities. He issued many very good statements, but did not follow up with concrete actions. The commission that he established to handle the problem was underfunded, and other Vatican offices didn’t cooperate; Pope Francis could have solved those problems, but did not. He established a tribunal to discipline negligent bishops, then abolished it. He said that existing policies were adequate for punishing the negligent bishops, but in practice they were not punished. Still more revealing, he continued to give prominent posts to prelates who have been guilty of ignoring or soft-pedaling abuse.
REGINA: But then the Chile situation blew up in the Vatican’s face, as the mainstream media took up the cry of the victims after Francis scolded them publicly and defended his bishop, and then quickly recanted.
LAWLER: In Chile, we now have a real test case. I have no doubt that the issue has (at last) the Pope’s full attention. It’s still not clear what he intends to do.
REGINA: Some people characterize Francis as always having an ulterior motive, and never quite meaning what he says — a classical Peronist.
LAWLER: There do seem to be clear traces of the Peron style: the constant state of crisis and disruption, the invention of real or imagined enemies— and for that matter the hostility toward the US.
REGINA: But the vast majority of people seem to have no idea of this.
LAWLER: The public image of Pope Francis is of a warm and relaxed man. The reality in Rome is a good deal different. Morale in the Roman Curia is poor; staff members are afraid. The Pope is unabashed about rewarding his friends and punishing those who he sees as enemies.
REGINA: Aside from the gushing mainstream media, how do you think this pontificate is affecting the Church concretely?
LAWLER: At first there was a clear positive “Francis effect”— a surge in public interest in Catholicism— and that was one main reason for my original enthusiasm. Gradually that effect died away, and now I see a net decrease in interest. Priestly and religious vocations appear to be falling, although there are hopeful signs in some places.
One noteworthy fact: the decline is most evident in the German-speaking countries, where tens of thousands of Catholics leave the Church every year. And yet the Pope seems to be taking advice disproportionately from the German-speaking bishops.
REGINA: There’s been a kerfuffle online about young people asked their opinions by the Vatican for the upcoming youth synod, only to be ignored. What effect do you think this Pope is having on young people?
LAWLER: It’s very hard to say. I’m afraid that young people will be hurt the most by the confusion. But we’ll know more after this Synod meeting.
REGINA: How can a layperson respond to protect the Faith?
LAWLER: First and foremost, pray: for the Pope and for the Church. Next, be strong in upholding the consistent teachings of the Church. Don’t apologize for the truth. Third, ask pastors and bishops to be clear, too, in teaching the truth. Ask bishops, especially, to fulfill their teaching role by providing some clarity in a time of confusion.
FIND PHILIP LAWLER’S ‘LOST SHEPHERD’ HERE.
ABOUT PHILIP LAWLER: Philip F. Lawler is editor of Catholic World News, the first English-language Catholic news service operating on the internet, which he founded in 1995. He is also the program director of the Center for the Restoration of Christian Culture at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. A Harvard graduate, Mr. Lawler has served as Director of Studies for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank based in Washington; as founder and president of a national organization of Catholic laity; and as editor of Crisis magazine. In 1986 he became the first layman to edit The Pilot, the Boston archdiocesan newspaper. From 1993 through 2005 he was editor of the international monthly magazine Catholic World Report. His essays, book reviews, and editorial columns have appeared in over 100 newspapers around the United States and abroad, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe. He and his wife Leila have seven children and (at last count) fourteen grandchildren. The Lawlers now live in central Massachusetts.