A Book Review . . . In Search Of The Lost Shepherd

A Book Review . . . In Search Of The Lost Shepherd

April 22, 2018

By CHRISTOPHER MANION

Lawler, Philip F. Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis Is Misleading His Flock. Washington, D.C. Regnery, 2018. 

At times it appears difficult to keep up with Pope Francis. His words and his actions, both symbolic and sacramental, resemble the unpredictable trajectories of those steel balls on an old pinball machine — only there are no sides to make the ball stay in the playing field.
Pope Francis has made it clear he doesn’t want to be pinned down. The Holy Father’s forays offer springboards of imagination to secular savants who welcome the collapse of the Church, but his rambling ruminations provide a veritable obstacle course to those faithful trying to live out the faith in tumultuous times.

 

While apostles of the Culture of Death have found holes in the Pope’s views about doctrine big enough to drive a truck through, the number of faithful chroniclers is smaller, and their voices do not find resonance in the noise of the decadent intellectual marketplace. Only with prayer and patience do they persevere.


Among the most able observers of the Argentine Pope is Phil Lawler, host of the always worthwhile catholicculture.org website and widely known as the author of The Faithful Departed, the 2010 blockbuster that recounted the rise of the American Church in the 19th century through its collapse since the 1960s, all through the lens of the Boston Archdiocese.
Lawler’s latest work is required reading. It rises above the Vatican’s day-to-day cacophony to render a thoughtful, honest, and faithful analysis of the papacy of Pope Francis. Lost Shepherd follows this historic papacy from its first day, careful, attentive to detail, but never plodding along. In fact, it provides a running catechetical commentary as it builds a useful lexicon of what can only be called a series of disasters that have left the Church resembling a war zone, with no armistice in sight.

Some of the events Lawler covers are familiar; the secular headlines ferret out the most self-serving moments, callous journalists salivating at the ample opportunities to savage the Church in a tawdry charade of faux journalism.

Unfair? Sure. But there’s no denying the Pope’s bewildering, non-stop invitations to outrage and confusion. In fact, Lawler could easily have merely catalogued them and called it a book. And while he does indeed tend to follow the chronological roadmap — the notorious “Who am I to judge,” the squalid Vatican light show, the sly slap at Donald Trump’s wall, the speech to Congress barely mentioning Jesus — he does not scurry about grabbing the low-hanging fruit to level a brash broadside at the Pope.

Rather, he surprises the reader by addressing the events and discourses of the reign of Pope Francis in a calm and introspective conversation. He slowly and painstakingly combines reporting, reflection, and more than occasional regret as the Francis papacy proceeds in its careening course of noise and confusion.

While the Pope’s dazzling circus parades by at warp speed, Lawler slows down to focus on the most central — and the most troubling — contribution of Francis’ papacy. Having painstakingly and limpidly laid the groundwork as no other writer has, he addresses that famous and fatuous footnote N. 351 in Chapter Eight of the Pope’s apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.

That footnote, regarding the pastoral care administered to adulterous couples, says that, “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments.” It was a bombshell masquerading as a casual aside that invites the collapse of several sacraments at once, if not properly and forcefully clarified.

But why bother with clarity, when all those “peripheries” are blurred and buried in fog and ignorance? Won’t clarity repel the lost sheep out there with its legalism and rigidity?
Well, consider: T.S. Eliot’s epigraph in his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture reminds us that the fundamental definition of “to define” is “to set limits.” And Lawler’s account carefully reviews every step in the campaign of the dissidents who infest the Vatican. They are waging a war to destroy definitions — the definitions of marriage, of the sacraments, and ultimately of the body of the faithful and Holy Mother Church herself by defying the fundamental limits — also known as truths — set down by Church teaching and tradition.
“Who do you say that I am?”

“Well, Lord, that depends. . . .”

Lawler describes each painful step of the way: the assiduous ascent of Cardinal Kasper, representative of the rich and collapsing German Church, demanding that the spirit of the age prevail over the legalistic, rigid, and backward tradition of the Church; the rigging of the synods on the family — both of them — and the outright lies and scandals that seemed to be indispensable to the success of the Prelate’s Putsch, even as it “struck at the heart” of Catholic teaching.

“Today the burning issue is the utter breakdown in the public understanding of what constitutes marriage,” he writes. “Without that understanding, healthy family life becomes the exception rather than the rule. Without healthy families, our civilization is doomed. And today the only institution that can lead our society to recover a proper understanding of marriage and family life is the Church.”

Lawler worries, citing Cardinal Newman: “We have no means of knowing how far a small mistake in the faith may carry us astray.” And he identifies countless “small mistakes.” Instead of preaching the fullness of Catholic teaching on marriage, the synod fathers obsessed on a small corner of the problem: the plight of the divorced and remarried. And they never even resolved that.

And what about the “fullness”? Asked about the Pope’s commission to reconsider Humanae Vitae in its fiftieth year, Lawler tells The Wanderer, “My guess is that there will be lots of ambiguous statements about Humanae Vitae, some issued with tacit approval from the Pope, with the net effect of calling the teaching into question, but no frontal assault. I anticipate lots of discussion of ‘lived experience’ and ‘pastoral solutions’ combined with assurances that the teaching will not change.”

And what is to be done? “Pope Francis could answer the dubia,” he continues, “and affirm that Church teaching on those crucial issues cannot change. However, that would clearly require a change of heart and mind on his part. Even then, there would be an enormous clean-up operation needed to eliminate the errors that have already spread around the world. The latter — the clean-up operation — will be necessary in any case, under this Pope or the next.”
In his final chapter, Lawler writes that, if the Pope won’t do it, the bishops have the moral duty to do so. “If the Pope is spreading unrest and confusion, local bishops must outline the fears of the faithful and restore clarity.”

In The Faithful Departed, Lawler wrote of a Church so corrupt that it had “lost the capacity” to mend itself on its own initiative. Clearly things haven’t improved. Few bishops have the mettle to speak out.

And the laity? Lawler urges us to pray — for this Pope and for the next, because if a future Pope tries to bail out the floundering Barque of Peter, he will be opposed by all the elites who have cheered Francis on.

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