Merits of Phil Lawler’s “Lost Shepherd”: Three Common Fallacies

Merits of Phil Lawler’s “Lost Shepherd”: Three Common Fallacies March 12, 2018
I’ve noticed these motifs coming up again and again in reviews of this book and in comments opposing critiques of it (such as my own):

Fallacy #1: Lawler’s Temperament: Phil Lawler is a mid-mannered, temperate, easy-going, moderate, non-fanatical, non-extremist, measured, deliberate, objective, non-reactionary, scholarly person.

Example: Dr. Samuel Gregg (The Catholic World Report, 3-2-18):

The power of Lawler’s narrative was derived from its calm tone, a meticulous attention to facts, a refusal to overstate or downplay how bad things were, . . . 

But one of his book’s strengths is that it tries, at every point, to give Francis the benefit of the doubt. In addition to avoiding the hyperbole, polemics, and more bizarre theories about Francis which populate some of the internet’s weirder outposts, Lawler prudently distinguishes between the pope’s words and actions, and the more flagrantly outrageous statements of some of the garrulous characters surrounding him.

This judicious approach won’t save Lawler from the barrage of insults, frenetic name-calling, splenetic tweets, conspiracy theories, and limp non sequiturs which, alas, we’re come to expect from some of Francis’s defenders.

Great. Glad to hear that Lawler is calm, cool, and collected. He’s the Catholic journalist equivalent of NBA star Stephen Curry. But this has exactly zero relation to the question of whether his arguments are correct or not. A person can outwardly be as mild-mannered as Clark Kent, but still believe in false things.
All this proves is that Person A has Temperament B. It doesn’t follow that Person A’s opinion on Issue X is correct because he possesses pleasant Temperament B. It’s sort of the reverse of the “poisoning the well” fallacy (Person A is wrong on Issue X because he is a scoundrel and overall rascal). That’s not true; nor is it true that a person’s opinions are true because the person may have favorable characteristics (a variant of the genetic fallacy, which is one of the large category of ad hominem attacks).

Fallacy #2: Lawler’s Reluctance: Phil Lawler took such a long time to arrive at his negative conclusions regarding Pope Francis, and was very reluctant to adopt it; therefore, his judgment is either a) true, or 2) more likely to be true.

Example: in his glowing Facebook review of Lawler’s book (12-23-17), Karl Keating stated:

Unlike some of the most vocal critics of this pope, Lawler took his time and gave him the benefit of every doubt. The result is 256 pages that lay out recent history well, without exaggeration or histrionics and with enough to substantiate Lawler’s reluctant conclusions.
This clearly has no relation to the truth of a given opinion or proposition. One could take a long time to come to any number of conclusions, and the chance that one is wrong (broadly speaking), is just as much as the chance that one is right. Cardinal Newman took about six years to become a Catholic. We Catholics obviously agree with his final judgment on that score. But of course there are Catholics who gradually forsake the faith, taking a long time to do it, and we disagree with their conclusion. In both cases, the length of time involved doesn’t in the least prove the conclusion arrived at. All it proves is that said person was careful, deliberate, and took his or her time to change their mind. We can say that that is admirable, but in any event, it doesn’t prove the correctness of the eventual conclusion.

One could turn this around, too, and say, for example, “Dave Armstrong remains unconvinced that Pope Francis is a ‘lost shepherd’ and the new Attila the Hun. He’s been studying and defending him for almost five years, and taking a great deal of time to arrive at a negative conclusion, because he is so deliberate and non-fanatical and not given to jumping to conclusions.” Thus far I haven’t come to the conclusion that Phil Lawler has. But (like what he is presently being praised to the skies for) I’m very careful in making judgments and changing my mind. Therefore, I am very much like Phil Lawler is said to be! Ergo, I should be praised for my reluctance, not excoriated for it.

After all, I may agree with Phil’s view in a few months’s time. If I do that, people will say, “See! Dave Armstrong took a long time to agree that the pope is Vlad the Impaler; therefore, his conclusion must be profoundly true!” I haven’t so concluded, but on the same basis that Lawler is lauded, I should be, too. Both views are entirely fallacious. The truthfulness of a proposition is based on evidence, reason, logic, and persuasive argumentation, not the care we may have taken to ultimately espouse the proposition.

Fallacy #3: Popularity / Currently Fashionable: Everyone and their third cousin’s banker and lawyer and psychiatrist agree with the conclusions of Lawler’s book, and the book is ripping up the Amazon Catholic charts; therefore it must be compelling and true!

This is, of course, the ad populum fallacy, or notion that a lot of people believe X; therefore it must be true. Lots of people believe lots of things, but they can still simply be wrong. People are sheep. They love to follow and believe what their friends are following and believing, so they can be popular and fit in with the crowd. It’s tough to go against the grain and be a nonconformist. That’s why very few people are that (and why we often celebrate the ones who are: as “glorious exceptions to the rule”).

It’s quite obvious and unarguable that people can be wrong en masse.  The consensus of scientists before Copernicus was that the sun went around the earth. They were wrong. The consensus of all the “smart people” and the pundits regarding the presidential election of 2016 was that Hillary Clinton would win. They were wrong. The vast majority of Germans in 1936 thought Hitler was great and was a positive influence in the future of their country. If we had polled scientists 50 years ago as to whether we would have discovered extraterrestrial life by now, I would venture to guess that 80-90% of them would have said yes. If so, they would have been wrong.

Right now, at least in certain circles, it’s very popular and fashionable to be “anti-Francis”: even though Pew Research informed us (January 2018) that Pope Francis has an 84% favorable rating in America. Just as the pope is not proven to be good and right due to the 84% approval, likewise, he’s not proven to be wrong and heretical because Phil Lawler’s book is the most popular thing since sliced bread, and because everyone’s currently jumping on the bandwagon, slobbering all over themselves, praising it. Neither thing is true, and it’s because they are both variants of the ad populum fallacy.


The alternative to all these logical fallacies (and others in play, too, no doubt) is to judge the book by its actual arguments. Very few of the gushing reviews do that. They make general statements in agreement, while not providing many (or, usually, any) particulars or reasons. I’ve written a series of reviews in which the actual evidence that Lawler produces for his conclusion that the pope is deliberately seeking to subvert Catholic tradition and teaching, is scrutinized (and found wanting). See all my efforts in this regard, listed in the final section of my Papacy and Infallibility web page. One person so far (Stephen Phelan) has actually examined and attempted to interact with my arguments (and only very briefly at that, and with gratuitous insults). I replied to him at length yesterday.
Phil Lawler himself made it clear (personally, to me) that he was not interested in interacting with my critiques: even before I wrote them. Yesterday I had a random encounter with him on Patrick Coffin’s public Facebook page. Here it is:

Phil Lawler: I responded at length to you, privately, about your critiques. You ignored my response, and continued to mischaracterize my ideas. That’s why I see no point in continuing an exchange.

Me: Hi Phil,

All your responses (unless I am forgetting something) were posted publicly on my page, and I replied. Here is the last public exchange, originally posted on my site and Karl Keating’s. I recall you sending a short note when you sent me the book file.

I don’t recall any lengthy personal letter about my critiques. I certainly would have responded, as you see I have been doing many times (the latest, today, vs. Stephen Phelan). It may be, then, that I never received a private lengthy letter. Was that sent in email or in a PM? By all means, send it again, and I will reply point-by-point and post everything on my blog (with your permission).

[after 14 minutes pass] Is this exchange already over, too, before it begins?

[after 89 more minutes] Phil Lawler: Don’t troll, Dave; you’re better than that.

So he claims he has answered my critiques and that I ignored them and keep mischaracterizing him. I say, please send it again; I never received it, and he refuses to do so. How compelling . . . How indicative of a strong confidence in his own position . . .

Later in the day, his wife, Leila, on her public Facebook page, repeated the same “attack and avoidance” mentality:

Leila Marie Lawler: As it happens, Dave Armstrong misrepresents Phil and doesn’t hesitate to ascribe opinions to him that are not supported by the text. So if you prefer something that is about one man’s desperate attempt to avoid reality, well there is nothing I can do about that. . . . He’s a good man. But he is very wrong about Phil’s book.

Me: I’d be glad to be shown where I am wrong, and will modify portions of my reviews accordingly, if this is demonstrated. Phil just claimed earlier today that he sent me a long private letter in response to my critiques that I ignored, continuing to supposedly misrepresent him.

I never received such a letter. I asked him to send it to me so that I can hear his thoughts and interact with them. Now he appears reluctant to send it. Why?

Leila Marie Lawler: Frankly, Dave, your comments here and elsewhere are amounting to trolling — I’ve already had to delete a comment on a post that was downright sneering — perhaps you will remember it, as it was a mean-spirited response to my request that people leave reviews on Amazon, which you had already done and yet found it important to sort of gloat at your negativity. If you continue this way, I will block you.

It is clear to anyone who reads all the comments here and on Phil’s posts that we are fine with comments and even with arguing. But this is too much. In answer to the comment above I have tried to be evenhanded and give you the benefit of the doubt. Yet you come on the very page where I am basically defending you, to be on the attack. I’m done.

So much for serious adult discussion with Phil and his wife! So it seems that there is no dialogue to be had about the actual merits of the arguments contained in the book. I’m trying to address those (at least some of them), and no one (save Stephen Phelan in a very limited way) is willing to have that discussion, including the author, who wants to make charges against me while studiously avoiding any serious, normal discussion with me: between two orthodox Catholic writers.

President Trump can talk to the madman dictator of North Korea, but two orthodox Catholic writers and authors cannot constructively dialogue with each other, because one of them is utterly unwilling to do so. As they say, “you can take the horse to the stream, but you can’t make it drink.”


Photo credit:  Promotional image of Leonard Nimoy as Spock from Star Trek: The Original Series (1967) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

Browse Our Archives