New book chronicles opposition to Francis papacy

Reviewed By Christopher White
Wednesday, April 22, 2020

When British journalist and papal biographer Austen Ivereigh published a wide-ranging interview with Pope Francis at the start of Holy Week, the conversation attracted more media attention than any interview the pope has given since the early days of his papacy in 2013.

The interview was picked up by most major television outlets and newspapers around the globe — with two exceptions: Catholic News Agency and the National Catholic Register, both owned by EWTN, the world’s largest Catholic media conglomerate.

This oversight is just one recent example that could be included in the series of lapses chronicled by another British journalist, and Chicago Catholic contributor, Christopher Lamb in his new book, “The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church.”

For Lamb, the first pope from the global south has been met with resistance throughout his papacy, primarily from the English-speaking Catholic world. In particular, Lamb argues, the majority of these critics have strenuously resisted Francis’ emphasis on issues such as caring for the environment, welcoming migrants and approaching challenging issues of family life with mercy.

“My book seeks to tell the big story of this pontificate,” Lamb writes in its opening pages. “It is one that examines why a prophetic and bold pope, widely considered to be the Catholic Church’s best asset in helping repair its battered credibility, has been the subject of vicious and sustained opposition.”

“The Outsider” is not a comprehensive biography of Francis (see Ivereigh’s 2014 “The Great Reformer” for that), nor does it offer a soup-to-nuts analysis of the pope’s push for a more collegial approach to church governance. Instead, Lamb takes on the role of prosecutor — presenting his case that the chief person tasked with preserving the unity of the church has been subjected to ongoing “guerilla warfare,” and that the same people who have spent a lifetime (and sometimes millions of dollars) to promote papal authority, are suddenly singing a different tune. 

Rather than asserting the existence of a grand scheme, Lamb itemizes patchwork efforts, including: the repeated “testimonies” of the former papal ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who infamously, and without evidence, claimed Francis should resign over his alleged handling abuse cases; a series of fringe Catholic media outlets propagating highly questionable claims about Francis and his close collaborators; and efforts by mainstream groups, such as EWTN affiliates that have promoted views hostile to Francis.

While the entirety of Lamb’s book is well written, perhaps most useful is his “Timeline of Opposition” to Francis, where he catalogues more than 100 incidents that seemed designed to undermine the reforms of the Francis era. Here Lamb gets at the heart of the debates surrounding what those reforms were supposed to accomplish and how.

“Francis was not elected, as some have erroneously argued, to reform the Roman Curia — the church’s civil service — but with a much broader mission, and his efforts must be read against the horizon of reforms of the Second Vatican Council … that set out the mission for the contemporary church,” he writes.

Lamb is right to argue that Francis’ idea of reform is rooted in his commitment to missionary conversion, a church that looks outside itself to those on the margins, a church whose center is shaped by those on the peripheries.

Yet Francis, who took his name from the 13th-century saint who, tradition holds, heard God ask him to “rebuild my church,” was also elected on a reform mandate that recognized the need for curial reform.

The two go hand in hand, and Lamb’s book would be stronger if it sought to explore that connection further, particularly as it pertains to the ongoing task of accountability for clergy abuse, especially among bishops, and the challenges of ensuring that the Vatican’s financial dealings are more transparent.

After all, as Lamb writes, when it comes to Francis’ opposition, “the pope has threatened [their] interests and is being attacked in return.” For years, some of them considered themselves papal influencers, arrogating to themselves the role of orthodoxy police. Now, rather than engaging in an examination of conscience, as Lamb concludes, some seem bent on undermining the man elected to be their shepherd, an undeterred outsider pope.