As the Francis papacy wanes, it has become fashionable — especially among well-to-do Catholics — to express discontent at even the thought of the current pope futzing around in the Vatican.
What began in 2013 as a revolution of love within the Roman Catholic Church (dubbed by the media as “The Francis Effect”) has now soured as the pope keeps speaking on controversial topics, much to the consternation of conservative Catholics. In many of these Catholics’ minds, Francis’ anti-traditional papacy could undo the Church itself.
This is the tone of “Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis Is Misleading His Flock,” Catholic World News editor Philip Lawler’s jeremiad published by Regnery Gateway in late February. Lawler writes that Francis’ confusing statements on divorce and homosexuality (as well as his South American style of governance) pose an entirely new problem for the Church’s integrity — and no one is prepared to stop his madness. “Lost Shepherd” is intended to sound the alarm for Lawler’s fellow Catholics: Beware! You cannot trust your pope.
Except hardly anyone is paying attention to this book. Thank God. Lawler’s account of the inner workings of Francis’ Vatican reads like a toothless version of “Fire and Fury,” Michael Wolff’s poorly researched schlock storm about the Trump White House. Although Lawler does touch on some of the major issues (like what the hell was “Amoris Laetitia” all about?), he bases the bulk of his narrative on trivialities such as Francis’ unrecorded interviews with Communist newspapers and snide comments Lawler has overheard from Vatican reporters over the years.
“Lost Shepherd” came out several weeks before a better-received book on the same subject, “To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism” by the Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Douthat regards Francis’ treatment of divorce and homosexuality as the ultimate extension of western liberal democratic ideology and warns that Francis’ departure from Catholic tradition is a gamble that could betray the Church to the usual faceless specters of modernity.
A bold claim, to which Francis could reply with the aid of over 2000 years of Church tradition and the inexhaustible words of Hispanic aspirant Pusha T: “We’re still here. I don’t even know why you doing this, loco, yo ni se pa’ que, but we’re always still right here.” His point being, of course, that no matter how bad a job he does as pope, the Holy Spirit will still guide the Catholic Church into eternity.
Belief in the unfailing guidance of the Holy Spirit is the answer to Catholic doubts about the papacy. Since, for Catholics, the pope is the vicar of Christ on Earth, they must piously follow his lead. But Catholics also understand that the pope is only the vicar of Christ on Earth, and know that at the end of the day — at the end of all days — God himself is guiding the Church.
The appearance of these books raises a question other doom ‘n’ gloom Catholic writers should be asking themselves before dropping 200+ pages of papal criticism: Is this a pious project?
Both Lawler and Douthat are actually knowledgeable and concerned Catholics. But they do their readers a disservice by selling a narrative of decline about an institution which they must believe to be ineffable to be fully in communion with their faith. It’s in the Catechism: The doctrine of ineffability is the belief that no matter what trials the church faces, it will endure until the end of time. That includes the maneuvers of addled popes — and Catholics have had many.
The Church has never had perfect leaders. In fact, here’s a short list of my favorite Wicked Popes:
1. Benedict IX: The only man to be pope three non-consecutive times, Benedict was a profligate in every sense of the word. He also has the distinction of being the only man ever to sell the papacy.
2. Stephen VI: Of “cadaver trial” fame. Stephen exhumed his predecessor’s body, put it on trial, and had it dragged through the streets of the Eternal City. An unpopular move; Stephen’s enemies strangled him before he had even been pope for a year.
3. Leo X: The pope who encouraged the sale of indulgences to build St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s a beautiful church, but Leo’s abuse of power widened the division that erupted into the Protestant Reformation.
So it’s been pretty bad. But it’s also been pretty good. In the past half-century, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have laid the groundwork for the cooperative renewal of the face of the modern world. Francis is just trying — in his sometimes meandering way — to bring that project to as many people as he can.
Let’s leave aside Lawler and Douthat and give Francis a chance; he’s got God on his side.