“During the early days of his pontificate I was fascinated, and supportive. Like many others I was caught up in the Francis effect.” – Author Philip Lawyer talks about ‘Lost Shepherd’

“If I were selecting bishops, I’d look to priests who had seen a healthy growth in the activities of their parishes.”

WHAT: “Faithful Catholics are beginning to realize it’s not their imagination. Pope Francis has led them on a journey from joy to unease to alarm and even a sense of betrayal. They can no longer pretend that he represents merely a change of emphasis in papal teaching. Assessing the confusion sown by this pontificate, Lost Shepherd explains what’s at stake, what’s not at stake, and how loyal believers should respond.”

WHO: “Phil Lawler is the editor of Catholic World News (CWN), the first English-language Catholic news service operating on the internet, which he founded in 1995. CWN provides daily headline news coverage for the Catholic Culture site, where Phil Lawler also offers regular analysis and commentary.

Born and raised in the Boston area, Phil attended Harvard College and did graduate work in political philosophy at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism. He has previously served as Director of Studies for the Heritage Foundation, as editor of Crisis magazine, and as editor of the international monthly magazine Catholic World Report.

Phil Lawler is the author or editor of ten books on political and religious topics. His essays, book reviews, and editorial columns have appeared in over 100 newspapers around the United States and abroadA pro-life activist and veteran of many political campaigns, Phil was himself a candidate for the US Senate in 2000, running against the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.”

MORE? Here!

Why Pope Francis?

Well, any Pope is always going to be a figure of special interest: to Catholics, to anyone interested in the Catholic Church, and certainly to a Catholic journalist like myself. But Pope Francis was particularly interesting because he has set out along a route so markedly different from that of his immediate predecessors.

During the early days of his pontificate I was fascinated, and supportive. Like many others I was caught up in the “Francis effect”— the excitement over his informal style and his willingness to engage in new and different ways. But as I explain in Lost Shepherd, as time passed I saw the dangers created by his approach.

The Catholic Church ascribes a great deal of authority to the Bishop of Rome. But that authority is strictly limited in scope: the Pope has the power commensurate with his duty, and his duty is to preserve and defend the truths of the faith. If he questions those truths, he subverts his own authority. That is the danger that I saw developing, more and more clearly, in this pontificate.

What is Francis doing right?

He has— belatedly, and after several false steps— begun holding bishops to account for their own stewardship, particularly in their responses to sexual abuse. He has continued the work begun by Pope Benedict in cleaning up Vatican finances. But in both areas he has unfortunately sent some mixed signals, so that the final results of his reforms are not yet clear.

The media initially ran with a narrative of Francis as an kindly outsider, an innocent abroad in murky realms of skullduggery and intrigue. How true to life is that portrait of the man who became (and who is) Pope Francis?

Not very. He came to Rome as an outsider, but now he’s been in power for long enough to assemble his own “team,” and the net result has been an increase in the power of the Vatican insiders. He has shown his own willingness to reward his allies and punish his critics within the hierarchy and at the Vatican. Staff morale is not good; there is an atmosphere of tension that I did not notice in previous papal administrations.

Could The Francis Effect have been sustained after the initial honeymoon?

Good question; it’s hard to say. As I see it, one reason the “Francis effect” wore off is the gradual realization that the public image didn’t match the man. (By the way that was also true, in a very different way, of Pope Benedict XVI. The public image of him as a stern authoritarian was completely upside-down; he was and is a very meek and gentle man who goes out of his way to be fair to those who disagree with him.)

Non-Catholics might look at this institution, perhaps even at this whole way of thought, and seeing Borgia Popes, the suppression of Galileo, systemic child rape by priests, et al., and find themselves wondering what (if any) moral authority such a Church retains. How should an effective Pope respond?

There have been plenty of bad popes, bad prelates, bad priests. It does the Catholic Church no good to try to suppress that unhappy fact. As St. Augustine said, “God does not need my lie.” The Church should never be afraid of the truth, on the contrary, should always encourage people to see the whole truth. Toward that end, the Pope should:

  • Encourage bishops to acknowledge problems before they hit the press, and urge them to stop stonewalling.
  • Change the way the Vatican releases information. On sensitive issues, the Vatican operates on a “need to know” basis. Change that; be open. For example, when a bishop is forced to resign because he’s been found grossly negligent, say that; don’t have him step down quietly.
  • Welcome capable outsiders to explore the facts, and cooperate with them in their research.
    Conduct and publish an outside audit of Vatican finances.

Things that like will change public perceptions and restore trust.

Ultimately the moral authority of the Church rests on the belief that the Church can provide the truth. If the Church is providing the truth only part of the time, or only on some subjects, obviously that harms public confidence.

Why shouldn’t two consenting gay adults build a life of love together and enjoy the same civil protections afforded to every other couple? How should a compassionate Pope respond?

Same-sex couples already have the same civil protections afforded to other couples. The question is whether their relationships can be recognized as marriages. They can’t, because marriage is an institution established by God and by nature— not by the state— and we’re not at liberty to re-define it.

How is artificial contraception as bad as abortion? Wouldn’t more of the former result in less of the latter? How should an informed and informative Pope respond?

The acceptance of contraception hasn’t reduced the demand for abortions; quite the contrary. And that shouldn’t be surprising, because abortion is seen as a back-up plan for when contraception fails (which it inevitably does in some cases). The fundamental problem here is that the link between sexual activity and reproduction has been broken, and the result has been a devaluation of both marital sex and the dignity of life. Pope John Paul II offered the world an alternative view of sexuality as the “theology of the body.” That was a model of papal teaching. It’s terribly unfortunate that Pope Francis has downplayed that line of teaching, and gutted the Vatican institutions (the Pontifical Academy for Life, the John Paul II Institute) that were set up to promote the teaching.

Why are the views and careers of bishops whose flocks are dwindling so often promoted over those to whom the faithful gather in great number?

Another very good question. Fundraising is obviously at least a part of the answer, I’m sorry to say. The Catholic Church in Germany has been losing tens of thousands of faithful every year, but due to the “church tax” (which is an arrangement the Church should never have encouraged), the Church in Germany is extremely wealthy, and that wealth brings undue influence.

If I were selecting bishops, I’d look to priests who had seen a healthy growth in the activities of their parishes. (I’d set the same standard for choosing a pope.) But often the best pastors aren’t particularly interested in climbing up the ecclesiastical ladder; they’re too busy with their parishes. The Church is an institution made up of ordinary humans, after all, and as in most institutions, the ambitious people are most likely to get ahead. “Ambitious” isn’t a word you’d ordinarily associate with a good shepherd of souls.

Pope Francis calls you up and asks you to suggest the names of three worthy individuals for a Cardinal’s hat. Who are you suggesting and why?

Hmmm. I’m tempted to name a few bishops I heartily dislike— confident that my recommendation would scuttle their chances for advancement. On the other hand I’m also pretty confident that no one in Rome will pay much attention if I play it straight, so:

Bishop Athanasius Schneider, because he has been among the most persistent critics of Pope Francis– but always thoughtful and respectful in his criticisms— and a good leader should surround himself with thoughtful people who will not be afraid to question his judgment.

Archbishop José Gomez, because he leads the largest archdiocese in the US (Los Angeles) and is now president of the US bishops’ conference, and the Vatican badly needs a counterweight to offset the influence of the liberal Americans (Cupich, Tobin) most recently added to the College of Cardinals.

Father Jacques Philippe, because when you hear him speak, you feel the peace that comes with the embrace of truth.

What are you currently working on?

My latest book is Contagious Faith: a study of how the Church responded to the Covid epidemic— not very well, I’m afraid. I’m mulling another new book, about the prediction of Pope Benedict that the Church in the near future will be much smaller yet paradoxically much more influential. I think that’s right, and I’d like to explain why.