Reply to Stephen Phelan Re Phil Lawler’s “Lost Shepherd”

Stephen Phelan is vice president of family initiatives for the St. John Paul II Foundation, based in Houston, Texas. He has produced three documentaries that have been broadcast on EWTN, and his articles have been published in First ThingsLay Witness Magazine, and other publications. He was replying to my Amazon review of Lost Shepherd, on a thread at The Catholic World Report, where my review was linked. His words (reproduced in their entirety) will be in blue.

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Mr. Armstrong’s article fails for precisely the same reasons that he says Lawler’s book fails. In citing articles that “prove” Pope Francis’s intent in Amoris Laetitia, Armstrong ignores the many, many claims from Francis’ allies that the Church’s teaching (no longer just “pastoral practice) have undergone a “paradigm shift” or “revolution”.

The first rule of logic is a=a. A book review is a book review. I was reviewing a book written by Phil Lawler: a credentialed Catholic journalist and author. Thus, I was reviewing his thoughts and particular arguments: not the opinions of who knows how many “allies” of the pope. They may or may not have false views. These would have to be examined one-by-one. But it was simply not within the purview of a book review.

I’m not a [muckraking] journalist (as I alluded to in my review). I don’t get into “who said what?” and “who did what?” and “palace intrigue”-type speculation. That’s the “stuff” and domain of journalists and/or gossips, not theologians and professional apologists like myself: who prefer to stick to theology and ascertained facts. Now, Mr. Lawler claims in the book that the pope is actively seeking to subvert Catholic teachings and traditions.

My reviews (I’ve written five; summarized or condensed in the Amazon review to which Mr. Phelan was responding) specifically dealt with the grandiose claims made by Mr. Lawler in his Introduction. Accordingly, I was looking for some serious and compelling proofs of the claims made, and I never found them. I saw no proofs documented from the pope himself; nothing remotely compelling at all.

Instead I discovered arguments from silence, conclusions based on false premises from remarks taken wildly out of context (“Who am I to judge?”), “arguments” based on paraphrases from memory of the pope’s statements, as well as flat-out absurd and unsubstantiated or fallaciously argued assertions (my favorite of those was: “[Francis] appeared to suggest that . . . St. James and . . . even St. Peter himself—were not believers”).

And now, defenders of Mr. Lawler like Mr. Phelan want me to also deal with “allies” of the pope (these include, for example, Cardinal Müller, who thinks the pope is perfectly orthodox), in a book review of a book that directly accuses Pope Francis of very grave errors. Sorry. I’m a big believer in dealing with one major issue at a time. It’s not my burden — in this context — to deal with every Tom, Dick, and Harry having to do with Pope Francis (he is, after all, supposedly the “lost shepherd”). It’s Mr. Lawler’s intellectual burden to substantiate his extraordinary accusations. I believe I have demonstrated some serious weaknesses in his attempt to do that.

Then Armstrong accuses Lawler of taking Pope Francis’s (Who am I to judge) statement out of context, and Armstrong does this by deliberately taking Lawler out of context, and dismissing his qualifications as if he hadn’t said them.

I did no such thing. I cited Mr. Lawler’s own words: “the pope’s statement seemed to suggest that the Church should move away from its clear and constant teaching that homosexual acts are gravely immoral.” I provided a link to the actual statement in context, that he or anyone else can read for themselves. Then I chided him for overlooking context (as a veteran journalist), gave examples of three concrete actions or statements, which reveal that the pope is not soft on the issue at all, and cited Jewish New York Times columnist Laurie Goodstein, who “gets” this, while Mr. Lawler doesn’t. Now I’m accused of taking Mr. Lawler out of context (an alleged instance of projection, I guess). Okay, let’s examine that.

Mr. Lawler devoted two-and-a-half pages to the question. First of all, I can hardly cite all of that. It would have taken up half of my review. So I can’t give the reader all of that context, whereas I can link to the context of the pope’s remarks. Lawler obviously set the stage for the insinuation that Pope Francis was a “liberal”; hence, soft on homosexuality as both theological and political liberals notoriously are. He wrote:

At first, Francis seemed to defy easy classification as a “liberal” or “conservative,” but as the months passed, a pattern emerged of support for causes usually associated with the political Left—environmentalism, disarmament, unrestricted immigration, income redistribution.

He qualifies a bit (but it itself is qualified by “at least initially”):

After all, on other hot-button political issues, Francis seemed to have taken a conservative position—at least initially. During his tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires he had denounced a proposal for acceptance of same-sex marriage as the work of the devil. More recently, he had admitted that he was concerned about the possible influence of a “gay lobby” within the Vatican.

So there is a qualification (granted). But Mr. Lawler immediately “takes it back” in the next paragraph:

But if orthodox Catholics had concluded that Francis would stand firm against homosexual influence within the Church, their confidence was shattered by his remarks to reporters on a trip to Brazil in July 2013. Asked about homosexual priests, he replied, “If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them?”

After that, Mr. Lawler descends to “palace intrigue” elements (as he often does in the book) and what he thinks the pope should have addressed in that interview but didn’t. Then he chided the pope for his lack of care. That’s all well and good, and reasonable people can possibly take such a stand in good faith. But in the final analysis, the impression is still undeniably left that the pope is personally soft on the issue: not just guilty of imprecise, irresponsible statements regarding it.

And Lawler still has not examined the five infamous words in their proper context: which is always a primary responsibility in dealing with others and a matter of fundamental journalistic ethics.

The book makes many such mere insinuations, yet without anything near compelling proof; whereas in my critiques I provided actual concrete examples of the pope’s stand on the issue:

  • Pope Francis opposed so-called “gay marriage” in a Slovakian referendum in February 2015.
  • He did the same in December 2015 as regards Slovenia.
  • In January 2015, the pope visited the Philippines and stated: “The family is also threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life.”

I went much more in-depth in my earlier review on this issue alone. I wrote there:

[Lawler] Why were the most famous words of his pontificate uttered in an informal question-and-answer session on an airplane ride?

To answer the last question first: obviously it was because the media / reporters from the session wanted the words taken out of context to be spread far and wide. I don’t see how the pope is to blame for that. Everyone knows that words are often taken out of context in order to suit some particular agenda of the one citing them. And everyone knows that the secular media very often does that. I need not waste any time arguing this. It’s perfectly self-evident.

The relevant question is, then (as in our previous installment): what is the pope’s true view, and what did he express in this interview, in context?

Same with his weird claim in which he quotes Lawler, including his qualification of Scalfari’s method and translation, when Lawler (rightly) says that Scalfari’s quote of Pope Francis “appeared to cast doubt on the existence of hell.” Of course the quote did, and the fact that Pope Francis has many times spoken of hell does not change the fact of the Scalfari quote in question.

The claim is that my counter-argument was “weird”? I submit that it was nowhere near as weird as Mr. Lawler’s joke-of-a-pseudo-“argument” based on paraphrases of the pope’s words from memory from a 92-year-old atheist, who also recently claimed that the pope denies the existence of heaven and purgatory too (!!!). No one could make that up in imagining a novel. And to top it off, Mr. Lawler again refused to do the research himself as to what Pope Francis actually believes; so I had to do it for him, and he comes off looking quite reckless and feckless indeed: to make such charges.

So why attribute to Lawler the false claim (or implication) that he thinks the pope doesn’t believe in hell, other than his obvious point that the pope often speaks carelessly about important things, 

Again, Mr. Lawler somewhat subtly insinuates this. But that’s all he needs to do, in the present toxic, gossipy environment where many millions will eagerly eat up any suggestion (subtle and/or qualified or not) that the pope is “again” heterodox or out of line or “scandalous.” All Lawler had to (and did) say was, “This time Francis—at least as interpreted by his favorite interviewer—appeared to cast doubt on the existence of hell”. Then he quoted the words (which again, are not the pope’s own) and left them hanging (like a bitter aftertaste or a frightening image in a nightmare).

He certainly must know that the typical reader of a book of this nature will interpret that as “the pope denies hell!” So why would he present this  as he did, with no effort to document what the pope actually believes (as I have done): if indeed he doesn’t think the pope actually denies it? It’s scurrilous, muckraking journalism. We expect that of Big Liberal Media. But it’s a disgrace, coming from a reputable Catholic journalist, regarding the Holy Father.

or, in the case of Scalfari, keeps giving him interviews in which he is misquoted, but does not demand a correction.

I think it’s legitimate to question the prudence and wisdom of the pope continuing to utilize Scalfari (I do, myself), but that’s a different question from whether he actually denies hell (not to mention purgatory and heaven) or not.

If this is a “defense” of Pope Francis, then let us pray he gains more able defenders, and advisors. As a critique of Lawler’s book, it fails miserably.

Mr. Phelan is entitled to his opinion. He also can choose to ignore this  critique of mine, just as all my critiques of Mr. Lawler’s books have been utterly ignored by the legions of Francis bashers, as to their substance: not touched with a ten-foot pole by anyone (including by Mr. Lawler, who informed me when he gave me a copy of his book that he had no interest in further dialogue).

As always, I am quite happy to let my readers judge the merits of my arguments. And (as above) I allow those I am critiquing to have their say in their own words, so my readers can read the arguments of both sides of a difference of opinion, expressed by both proponents, and then determine where the truth more plausibly lies.

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Photo credit: Image by geralt (12-8-15) [Pixabay / CC0 Creative Commons license]

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