This Disastrous Papacy

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 01, 2017

Something snapped last Friday, when Pope Francis used the day’s Gospel reading as one more opportunity to promote his own view on divorce and remarriage. Condemning hypocrisy and the “logic of casuistry,” the Pontiff said that Jesus rejects the approach of legal scholars.

True enough. But in his rebuke to the Pharisees, what does Jesus say about marriage?

So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”


Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.

Day after day, in his homilies at morning Mass in the Vatican’s St. Martha residence, Pope Francis denounces the “doctors of the law” and the “rigid” application of Catholic moral doctrine. Sometimes his interpretation of the day’s Scripture readings is forced; often his characterization of tradition-minded Catholics is insulting. But in this case, the Pope turned the Gospel reading completely upside-down. Reading the Vatican Radio account of that astonishing homily, 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.

For over 20 years now, writing daily about the news from the Vatican, I have tried to be honest in my assessment of papal statements and gestures. I sometimes criticized St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, when I thought that their actions were imprudent. But never did it cross my mind that either of those Popes posed any danger to the integrity of the Catholic faith. Looking back much further across Church history, I realize that there have been bad Popes: men whose personal actions were motivated by greed and jealousy and lust for power and just plain lust. But has there ever before been a Roman Pontiff who showed such disdain for what the Church has always taught and believed and practiced—on such bedrock issues as the nature of marriage and of the Eucharist?

Pope Francis has sparked controversy from the day he was elected as St. Peter’s successor. But in the past several months the controversy has become so intense, confusion among the faithful so widespread, administration at the Vatican so arbitrary—and the Pope’s diatribes against his (real or imagined) foes so manic—that today the universal Church is rushing toward a crisis.

In a large family, how should a son behave when he realizes that his father’s pathological behavior threatens the welfare of the whole household? He should certainly continue to show respect for his father, but he cannot indefinitely deny the danger. Eventually, a dysfunctional family needs an intervention.

In the worldwide family that is the Catholic Church, the best means of intervention is always prayer. Intense prayer for the Holy Father would be a particularly apt project for the season of Lent. But intervention also requires honesty: a candid recognition that we have a serious problem.

Recognizing the problem can also provide a sort of relief, a relaxation of accumulating tensions. When I tell friends that I consider this papacy a disaster, I notice that more often than not, they feel oddly reassured. They can relax a bit, knowing that their own misgivings are not irrational, that others share their fears about the future of the faith, that they need not continue a fruitless search for ways to reconcile the irreconciliable. Moreover, having given the problem a proper name, they can recognize what this crisis of Catholicism is not. Pope Francis is not an antipope, much less the Antichrist. The See of Peter is not vacant, and Benedict is not the “real” Pontiff.

Francis is our Pope, for better or worse. And if it is for worse—as I sadly conclude it is—the Church has survived bad Popes in the past. We Catholics have been spoiled for decades, enjoying a succession of outstanding Vatican leaders: Pontiffs who were gifted teachers and saintly men. We have grown accustomed to looking to Rome for guidance. Now we cannot.

(I do not mean to imply that Pope Francis has forfeited the charism of infallibility. If he issues an ex cathedra statement, in union with the world’s bishops, we can be sure that he is fulfilling his duty to pass on what the Lord gave to St. Peter: the deposit of faith. But this Pope has chosen not to speak with authority; on the contrary, he has adamantly refused to clarify his most provocative teaching document.)

But if we cannot count on clear directions from Rome, where can we turn? First, Catholics can rely on the constant teaching of the Church, the doctrines that are now too often called into question. If the Pope is confusing, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not. Second, we can and should ask our own diocesan bishops to step up and shoulder their own proper responsibilities. Bishops, too, have spent years referring the tough questions to Rome. Now, of necessity, they must provide their own clear, decisive affirmations of Catholic doctrine.

Maybe Pope Francis will prove me wrong, and emerge as a great Catholic teacher. I hope and pray he does. Maybe my entire argument is wrongheaded. I have been wrong before, and will no doubt be wrong again; one more mistaken view is of no great consequence. But if I am right, and the current Pope’s leadership has become a danger to the faith, then other Catholics, and especially ordained Church leaders, must decide how to respond. And if I am right—as I surely am—that confusion about fundamental Church teachings has become widespread, then the bishops, as primary teachers of the faith, cannot neglect their duty to intervene.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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Show 28 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Mike in Toronto - Apr. 22, 2017 6:44 AM ET USA

    Kudos to the commenters who recognize His Holiness' perfectly valid approach of pursuing a pastoral approach over a legalistic one. How does one clarify that which has been clarified over and over again? Burke and his co-dissenters (and indeed Phil Lawler!) need to pay attention to the statements of Gerhard Cdl. Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, regarding the continuity of Amoris Laetitia with constant Church teaching. Any "confusion" over it is self-willed.

  • Posted by: Biscjim - Mar. 09, 2017 7:10 PM ET USA

    You are a courageous man. Thank you for speaking what you believe is the truth. We need more people in the Church like you,

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Mar. 07, 2017 4:29 PM ET USA

    Pastoral is popular; dismissal of divine decree is delightful to those dispensed of its demands! Ours is a pastoral&delightful pope. However, there are a few kinks to work out. Jesus said obeying the Commandments is necessary for inheriting heaven (Mk 10:17-19) & conscience doesn't dictate morality (those same pesky 10 Commandments - again!). Francis needs to follow Jesus. Otherwise, "in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men" (said God thru Isaiah & Jesus; Mt 15:9).

  • Posted by: howland5905 - Mar. 07, 2017 12:25 PM ET USA

    There was a helpful piece by Fr. Matthew Schneider posted on Crux March 5, "How Pope Francis and his conservative critics may both be right." In light of your concerns, Phil, I suggest it's not that this papacy is a disaster (a bit of journalistic hyperbole) but that Pope Francis is placing more of an emphasis on pastoral issues rather than doctrinal issues.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Mar. 06, 2017 6:31 AM ET USA

    Pity the blind man who alleges that his blindness is proof that sight doesn't exist.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 05, 2017 8:43 AM ET USA

    "Moreover they lay the axe... to the very root, that is, to the faith... And having struck at this root of immortality, they proceed to disseminate poison through the whole tree,... Further, none is more skilful, none more astute than they, in the employment of a thousand noxious arts;... and this so craftily that they easily lead the unwary into error;..." Pius XII, describing the modernists, and the manner in which poison constituting a "danger to the faith" is introduced. Phil is dead on.

  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 04, 2017 10:26 PM ET USA

    @bkmajer3729's comment, quote: << Maybe all this concern is really fear of being challenged in how the Church exercises pastoral care? >> Cardinal Sarah actually wrote about this two years ago in his book 'God or Nothing': "The idea of putting magisterial teaching in a beautiful display case while separating it from pastoral practice, which then could evolve along with circumstances, fashion, and passions, is a sort of heresy, a dangerous schizophrenic pathology."

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Mar. 04, 2017 4:04 PM ET USA

    How can Catholics be divided "spiritually"? The perceived division is one of understanding not spirituality. Heresy can be easily refuted...really? I keep asking but no one has shown where the Pope has made statements contrary to Catholic teaching or doctrine. Maybe all this concern is really fear of being challenged in how we accept how the Church exercises pastoral care? All of this concern for how bad things are because of Pope Francis is truly disturbing and disappointing.

  • Posted by: howland5905 - Mar. 04, 2017 8:11 AM ET USA

    Dear Phil, I read the report on Pope Francis's homily. Frankly I don't see what made you "snap." As I see it, our Pope hasn't said or done anything to contradict Church teaching. What he has done is to urge a more pastoral approach rather than a legalistic approach. Does this make him a "disastrous" Pope? I hardly think so. With best wishes, John

  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 04, 2017 7:35 AM ET USA

    The real danger to the Church and to the Faith comes not so much from heresy, which can be easily refuted, but from the persistent lack of clarity in matters of grave importance. Lack of clarity is what divides the Church and opens wide roads to heresies. Let this be a valuable lesson for the future Papal conclaves.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 04, 2017 7:20 AM ET USA

    "Maybe my entire argument is wrongheaded. I have been wrong before, and will no doubt be wrong again; one more mistaken view is of no great consequence." Since the early Church, there's been a characteristic of Christianity that is essential. The martyrs manifested Christian confidence to a striking degree. Confidence cannot be removed from Christian life. "First, Catholics can rely on the constant teaching of the Church..." Yes. We can. For too long we've relinquished this confidence.

  • Posted by: MatJohn - Mar. 03, 2017 11:12 PM ET USA

    Catholics are now divided spiritually as much as our country is politically. But when 8 th graders are lamenting the state of the Church and the un-Catholic way our Pope speaks, that is a vigorous sign that our future Church's teachings will prevail as they have for two millennia. Thank you Phil for the difficult message and the precise reasoning that our Holy Father's needs must consist of our fervent prayers.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Mar. 03, 2017 9:46 PM ET USA

    The Pope is definitely no fluke. The Holy Spirit didn't act by accident! Although, reference to the Antichrist in the comments is a bit ...concerning. Anytime we are challenged or find ourselves frustrated/angry, look inside first before outside for the problem. This is not to suggest Pope Francis is right ...or wrong. But he challenges our ideas of how right & wrong are understood. This is very difficult for all of us but we have to trust the Holy Spirit knows what he is doing. Pray.

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Mar. 03, 2017 6:57 PM ET USA

    When Pope Francis first stepped forward on the balcony after his election and silently glared at the faithful in St. Peter's square I remember thinking, Uh-Oh. Then he collected himself and overcame a really awkward first impression. Lately, I'm back to Uh-Oh. Thank you, Phil, for validating my current impression. I pray for our pope.

  • Posted by: Erusmas - Mar. 03, 2017 5:52 PM ET USA

    "In the worldwide family that is the Catholic Church, the best means of intervention is always prayer." Yes, we must turn directly to God. We must trust in His Providence. We cannot know why He permits the troubles that afflict us. We have long known that the last days would be a terrible time, worse than any the world had ever known before. This is perhaps a good time to read The Antichrist (1981) by Fr. Vincent P. Miceli, a fine Jesuit scholar.

  • Posted by: Travelling - Mar. 03, 2017 5:11 PM ET USA

    Was it not the case that the " bad Popes" showed disdain for the Church's teaching by their i oral personal lives. In that regard at least they were consistent! I can't hope thinking of Alice von Hildebrand in all this and her search for refinement. Pope Francis lacks refinement. I think this is a common state now for most people who are products of the Western/ affluent/ pop "culture". It is rather a lack of culture. We must get it back and quickly!

  • Posted by: Terri11 - Mar. 03, 2017 5:04 PM ET USA

    Well said.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Mar. 03, 2017 10:49 AM ET USA

    It is amazing that the Papacy could be so degraded in such a short time. Popes who were gifted teachers and saintly men are all I have known in my lifetime. Now, it feels as though the father has left the house. It was a bad idea for Benedict to resign. It is true that he is not the “real” Pontiff, but the fact that he is alive forced you to address the possibility. It also tempts us. If he hadn't resigned, we would have avoided Francis and enjoyed additional years of orthodox guidance.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Mar. 03, 2017 10:48 AM ET USA

    Those accusing the current Pope of causing schism are wrong; he is only revealing what has been there since the birth of the Modernist heresy and exacerbated by Vatican II. There are a *lot* of self-identified Catholics who agree with everything Pope Francis says and does. Why is that? How can this be? Because we have had two "churches" for decades now. (Obviously there's only One Church but you get the point.)

  • Posted by: rickt26170 - Mar. 03, 2017 2:48 AM ET USA

    You are not wrong. I think we would have to go back to Leo X who was so worried about Florentine politics and his Medici family that he utterly botched Luther's challenge. Francis is not a corrupt libertine, but he has shown extraordinary interest in accommodating the secular world at the expense of the Church and appears willing to risk schism to please Euro bishops and secular progressives in the West. He is succeeding and displaying frightening hubris.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Mar. 02, 2017 3:21 PM ET USA

    Dear Mr. Lawler, I believe you are 100% right. Pope Francis is doing great damage to the Church. I also hope that I am wrong, but I believe he is a wolf in sheep's clothing. May God have mercy on his Church!

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Mar. 02, 2017 2:03 PM ET USA

    The shcism that Pope Paul VI so feared is rearing its (very) ugly head.

  • Posted by: chady - Mar. 02, 2017 11:28 AM ET USA

    It seems that Pope Francis has caused some soul searching among UK Evangelical Christians. A copy of Evangelical Times-Dec16 describes how some homilies and impromptu announcements by Pope Francis are starting to undermine traditional Protestant theological thinking. I get the feeling it not cracking up rather they are asking fundamental questions about what it is that separates us. Saying that the Catholic Church is more than one Pontiff - perhaps he has come to open a few doors? We will see!

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Mar. 02, 2017 10:01 AM ET USA

    I know that this essay was painful to write, and I have felt such pain in writing comments to complain about the deep problems presented by our current Pope. But to deny that those problems exist, and that they are exceedingly serious, is to become an accomplice. Please do not lose your courage or cool perspective on this, for the words I find here and with others of your colleagues does give a certain relief at not feeling alone. And, as you said, PRAY!

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Mar. 02, 2017 7:48 AM ET USA

    I am definitely one of those who feel "oddly reassured" when I read that Phil Lawler considers this papacy a disaster. At the same time, I feel a sense of sadness and bewilderment that such a disaster is possible. I deal with that feeling mainly by praying that God will give me the continuing certainty that He is protecting the Church as He promised to do, protecting it from people like Bergoglio and his enablers.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Mar. 02, 2017 4:08 AM ET USA

    Some say AL changes nothing. But I can't square Jesus' answer to the rich man's question re inheriting heaven with AL's thesis that some irregular unions are "not culpable, or fully such." Jesus says adultery (Mk 10:11-12) absent repentance precludes heaven (Mk 10:17-19). St. Paul is equally unyielding (1 Cor 6:9). Sadly, it seems what's next is overturning infallible teaching of a previous pope. Will Francis ignore JPII's infallible Ordinatio Sacerdotalis by opening the diaconate HO to women?

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 02, 2017 3:36 AM ET USA

    Amen. When I walk into the classroom on Sunday morning and find my 8th-grade students discussing weighty matters of faith and morals (no kidding), often they are lamenting the current state of the Church and the un-Catholic way the pope can speak. I let them talk and I sometimes ask questions to find out if they are as fully informed as they seem to be. They usually are. From time to time, when the opportunity arises, we may even spend a couple of minutes of class time discussing their concerns.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 01, 2017 8:54 PM ET USA

    Most points are well-taken. Most are intellectually honest and reflect reality; if they sound harsh so be it. The supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls, and we baptized must be invested in each other's spiritual welfare. Unfortunately, it must be honestly admitted that Pope Francis cannot-and he should not- be made a scapegoat. He is a "next step", he is a catalyst, he's part of a decades' long process. But he's not alone. Pope Francis is problematic, but he is no fluke.