The Francis Feud
Why and How Conservative Catholics Squabble About Pope Francis
Rasselas House, 2018
By Karl Keating
191 pages, $4.99 (Kindle)
To order: e-book, via amazon.com
As Karl Keating notes at the beginning of his new e-book The Francis Feud, conservative Catholics have found themselves in a position unusual for them: that of being critical of the Holy Father.
“By instinct such folks are protective of the papacy,” and thus they “will have an innate reluctance when it comes to voicing a complaint about any of Peter’s successors, even those long-dead.”
Yet that reluctance has been overcome by an increasing number of Catholics, whose criticisms of Pope Francis vary in both substance and tone.
Keating’s book examines critiques of Pope Francis from the ecclesial starboard side. It examines three recently published books that are critical of Pope Francis to varying degrees: Henry Sire’s The Dictator Pope, Philip Lawler’s Lost Shepherd, and Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church. He also takes a sounding of reactions to the books from other conservative Catholics and asks the reader to consider: Under what circumstances might it be necessary to criticize a reigning pope, and if so, who should do it and how?
These three books are taken by Keating, the founder of Catholic Answers, as representatives of the range of tones that critics of Pope Francis take.
Keating judges The Dictator Pope (written under the nom de plume “Marcantonio Colonna”) to be uneven, leaning more on unsourced claims than even substantial anecdotal evidence to create a picture of Pope Francis as “an ecclesiastical politician with a Tammany Hall flavor.”
He has more sympathy for Lost Shepherd, which portrays the Pope more as an “avuncular scold.” But Keating holds Douthat’s book in the highest regard, calling it “the most docilely written, having almost no tendentious adjectives, no obvious ‘side’ to push.”
While the critical tone of all three books vary, Keating notes a similar thread in substance: The authors’ concerns with Pope Francis are less doctrinal (though each expresses dismay over the controversy surrounding Amoris Laetitia) than over Pope Francis’s personality and governing style — particularly the dichotomy between the media’s image of Francis and the reports each author receives from sources in the Vatican of a pontiff, which range from ill-tempered autocrat to calculating punisher of disloyalty.
A significant portion of the book also examines reactions to these three books from across the spectrum of conservative Catholic thought Keating quotes these reviews at length, as well as his replies to them from social media and Amazon reviews. (This follows a growing journalistic trend of producing pieces that amount to little more than collections of Twitter posts.) The reader would have been better served with smaller bites of the back-and-forth and larger helpings of Keating’s own analysis of the texts.
Keating is concerned about tone and demeanor, but he does not hesitate to make criticisms himself. He takes others to task for labeling all criticisms of the Holy Father as “pope-bashing,” which short-circuits any further discussion. Yet he also notes that it is perfectly legitimate to assess a pontiff as a “bad pope,” as long as the assessment is performance-based rather than personal, with the caveat this is best done in retrospect.
The book ends with a few examples of web articles that Keating judges to take the right approach to criticism of Pope Francis. He borrows Father Dwight Longenecker’s list of the key ingredients to a respectful critique: avoiding personal attack and self-righteousness, focusing on larger issues, offering solid reasons for the concerns raised, and taking a positive attitude.
Perhaps as conservative-minded Catholics feel their way through this new experience of being critical of the Pope, they will take these guidelines to heart and avoid the extremes of hyper-ultramontanism and crypto-Protestantism. Keating is concerned about rhetoric, and neither of these approaches is very persuasive.
Nicholas Senz writes from Texas.