#66: Making Sense of Pope Francis—Philip Lawler

#66: Making Sense of Pope Francis—Philip Lawler

I keep having the same exchange with my seriously Catholic friends whenever Pope Francis comes up in conversation. It goes something like this: we were enthused about the initial days of the election (he was saying things about evangelization that needed saying, he encouraged us to get out of “mindset ruts” and bring the gospel to the peripheries since the periphery dwellers aren’t knocking on the church door) and then….something happened to the enthusiasm.

Troubling things were said during airplane interviews (which have become more frequent), homilies began to sound more and more political, then official documents began to contain ambiguities and it became increasingly hard to domesticate the problem by blaming “the media” for “misquoting the Pope again.”

Enter Philip Lawler. Lawler is known for his incisive, non-nonsense journalism. But Lawler is no muck-raking, axe-grinding ideologue. His work epitomizes the term, “seasoned veteran.” He was the first layman to edit The Pilot, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston; he’s a Harvard alumnus, and has covered Catholic affairs for 30 years. The year Pope Francis was elected, Lawler co-wrote a warm tribute book to the new Pontiff, A Call to Serve: Pope Francis and the Catholic Future 

That was five years back.

A number of years ago, he wrote a book about a difficult topic—what happened to the Catholic Church in Boston before and after the 2002 scandals exploded—titled The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture. 

He has a new book on an even more difficult topic: an extended attempt at contextualizing and understanding the doctrinal confusions have seeped into the way in which the Holy Father leads, teaches, promotes, and demotes. How to discuss them without disrespecting the person and the office of the Sovereign Pontiff? Of course, there are plenty of “rad Trads” who despise Pope Francis and have devoted themselves to attacking him since his election on March 13, 2013. That’s both unfortunate and predictable, since Pope Francis’s three predecessors didn’t pass muster with the (mercifully small) clique of anti-Vatican II activists, either.

Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis Is Misleading His Flock , despite its provocative title, is a well-researched account of a papacy that, five years after it began, has untold numbers of orthodox Catholics scratching their heads.

In case you’re wondering, no, Lawler is not accusing the Pope of heresy nor does he think the Holy Father is an anti-pope. Like all serious Catholics, he prays daily for the pope and earnestly wants him to succeed as a teacher and spiritual leader. It’s not a book Lawler even wanted to write.

A recent Pew Center poll reflect a troubling drop in favorability among Catholics polled since he was first elected. Not that the barque of Peter is sinking, at least not yet, but the winds have gotten stiffer and the waves bigger. Seems to be more like rudder damage.  

In the past few months, there has been a sea change in Catholic media regarding coverage of the Pope’s personnel decisions and the ambiguities within certain documents such as, perhaps the highest-profile example, the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, (“The Joy of Love”) the fruit of a seemingly rigged Synod.

The sense of unease is growing, and despite the lingering fear to even bring it up, mainstream outlets in the Catholic media world, from EWTN to the UK’s Catholic Herald, Catholic World Report, The Catholic Thing, and others have begun to speak up about this with greater boldness. As long as the tone and content is respectful, Catholics have the right and duty under Canon 212.3 to speak honestly about matters of leadership involving the good of the Church.

Interestingly, Catholics almost relish castigating popes of the past (start the list with the Borgia and Medici Popes) as “scoundrels” or worse. This is done to emphasize that the Holy Spirit protects the universal Church in a particular way through the office of the Successor of Peter, who is protected against teaching something contrary to faith and morals.

Today, there is an unhealthy papalolatry in the air that takes the form of taboo against saying even mildly critical things about what a modern pope has said or done, things, of course, that don’t rise to the level of infallibility. A kind of ultramontane loyalty is attached to everything a pope does no matter how troublesome or controversial.

It’s not helpful. Neither is staying silent.

You don’t have to agree with all of Lawler’s interpretations or conclusions to see that there is a massive amount of discord in the Church today and that her visible head on earth is not doing much to “confirm the faith of the brethren” as the invisible Head said to His first Vicar in Luke 22:32.

In this week’s interview—in a spirit of genuine concern for clarity and filial respect for the person and the office of the Pontiff, who is ever in our prayers—we “go there.”


In this episode, you will learn

  • How to understand that the human side of the papacy does not invalidate it
  • A sense of balance and historical proportion when assessing Pope Francis’ leadership style
  • Why comparing one pope with another is not a helpful exercise
  • The major “upside” to the current papacy—and the opportunity it provides Catholics
  • How Jesus is still faithful to His bride, the Church in the midst of every crisis
  • Many examples of documented statements, pastoral priorities, and political biases that have characterized the management of the Holy See since 2013


Resources mentioned in this episode:


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