Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading the Flock

Phil Lawler has written a helpful book, but not a pleasant one. Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis Is Misleading His Flock is a telling of a tale that the author himself hopes is wrong. But he doesn’t think that it is.

A veteran Catholic journalist of impeccable credentials, Lawler felt moved to write this book about the ambiguities and errors of Pope Francis after his initial enthusiasm for the pontificate collapsed, as he writes, under the weight of accumulating adverse evidence. The key issue was the integrity of the Church’s doctrine on marriage and the family.  Lawler doesn’t mince his words.  

Book Review by Fr. Raymond J. de Souza

 Father Raymond J. de Souza is a columnist for the National Post newspaper, the Editor-in-chief of Convivium Magazine, and the parish priest of Sacred Heart of Mary Parish on Wolfe Island, Ontario, Canada. He is the current Roman Catholic chaplain at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and is also chaplain of the Queen’s football team the Golden Gaels. He teaches at Queen’s in the Department of Economics and the Queen’s Faculty of Education.

“This Disastrous Papacy,” is how he entitled a column in March 2017. He professed there his astonishment and dismay at the preaching of Pope Francis in a daily homily on Mark 10:1-12, the teaching of Jesus on marriage and divorce.

“[Pope Francis] turned the Gospel reading completely upside-down,” Lawler wrote. “I could no longer pretend that Pope Francis is merely offering a novel interpretation of Catholic doctrine. No; it is more than that. He is engaged in a deliberate effort to change what the Church teaches.”

Lawler repeats that in the introduction to Lost Shepherd, which presents the accumulated evidence that convinced Lawler that there is danger afoot and that an alarm needs to be sounded.

Reading Lost Shepherd, I couldn’t help but think of it in light of a book by the Register’s former editor, Thomas Hoopes. Entitled What Pope Francis Really Said, it was intended as a defense of the Holy Father, but in actuality was one of the first serious book-length criticisms of him.

The premise of Hoopes’ book was that the Pope was either cavalier or maladroit, and consequently was repeatedly misunderstood. Hoopes therefore provided the auxiliary explanation and context to demonstrate that Pope Francis did not really mean what many, if not most, people heard him say.

Lawler holds that such an approach, even if plausible at one time, is no longer tenable. Indeed, Lost Shepherd could have been subtitled, “Pope Francis Really Meant What He Said.”

And so, Lawler chronicles, page after page, the various missteps. Hoopes preferred to think that they were mistakes. Lawler concludes that they are deliberately misleading. If the adjudicating standard is that the simpler and more straightforward explanation is true, a reasonable person could conclude that Lawler has a more convincing case.

Take a recent example. Not long after Lawler’s book was published in February, an “interview” appeared in the Italian press in which it was claimed that Pope Francis said that hell did not exist. The Vatican Press Office clarified quickly that the interview could not be treated as reliable, though it did not clarify what the Pope actually said.

Sound familiar? Lawler has the details about the same claim, made by the same interviewer, Eugenio Scalfari, three years ago. It’s there on page 19. That’s why the Hoopes approach — regrettable, as he is a friend of mine — is no longer tenable. Once could be a mistake; twice seems deliberate.

One of the distinctive characteristics of the pontificate of Pope Francis is its staggering news-making volume.

Weekly, and sometimes daily, there is a torrent of news out of Rome of Pope Francis. Even the recent pastoral visit to a Roman parish, about as routine an event as ever appears on the papal calendar, generated international headlines — on the question of heaven and hell again.

So Lawler’s book, published to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the pontificate, provides a useful reminding function, to simply record what otherwise would easily be forgotten — like that earlier “interview” with Scalfari about hell, which I myself had forgotten.

That “reminding” function, though, is hampered by a serious oversight in the book, which is the lack of citations or notes. Lawler has manifold references to what Pope Francis has said or done; his research is admirable. Yet the lack of citations means that readers — and other writers — are not able to authoritatively follow up to the original sources.

In a book that is about accumulating evidence, it is a serious weakness not to have that evidence properly documented.

One section of the book, albeit brief, raises the question about the Holy Father’s personality, trying to reconcile his pastoral calls for tenderness with the harshness of his own language and the stinging criticisms he levels at the many with which he finds fault. This is one section that would have benefited from citations of other observers and analysts; without that, it remains just Lawler’s speculation.

Is the picture Lawler paints too bleak? Partly it depends on how much weight is given the Holy Father’s daily homilies at the St. Martha residence. Lawler follows them daily, even after five years, which is unusual. It is more common to find those who used to follow them daily at the beginning of this papacy but subsequently gave up doing so.

At his daily Mass, Pope Francis is often at his most harsh and inexact in his language; focusing on these homilies does present a darker picture of the pontificate. Most commentators, including those very enthusiastic about the Holy Father, don’t give them much attention anymore.

Should Lawler’s book be faulted for that? Perhaps, but on the other hand, it is what the Pope did say. And Lawler does the Holy Father the credit of treating what he says as what he means.