Book review of
Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church
Of all the books I’ve read about the Francis pontificate — for, against or neutral — Christopher Lamb’s latest contribution was certainly the most accessible and easiest to read. In The Outsider, Lamb provides necessary details and commentary when needed to enhance the reader’s understanding of the facts, but he did not lose sight of his mission to present the big picture, the general trajectory of Francis’ papacy, or the main events that have marked his time as Supreme Pontiff. Rather than taking a side, The Outsider rises above the fray and confrontation, of which there has doubtlessly been more than enough, to explain this papacy of firsts in a way that will be beneficial to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Relatedly, I am encouraged by Lamb’s comments in a recent podcast for Peter’s Field Hospital, the podcast for Where Peter Is. During that interview, in response to a question about the challenges of being a Catholic journalist, Lamb said that in his work he is a “journalist first and a Catholic second.” I do not believe that Lamb prejudges Francis or lionizes him in this book. Rather, Lamb has effectively captured the main thread of a story about a man on a mission and those who oppose him.
It’s important to be clear about what The Outsider is and is not.
This book is not a book of “bothsidesisms.” Lamb begins the book — rightly in my opinion — from the perspective of seeking to understand the pope on his own terms and what he set out to do. This is a Francis-positive, though not uncritical, portrait of the papacy. For example, Lamb states in the introduction that the pope is widely seen as the Church’s “best asset in helping repair its battered credibility.” This a rather remarkable statement given the intense animosity towards Francis he details in the rest of his book, and one which many consumers of Catholic media in the United States would probably take issue with. But by presenting this idea early in his book, Lamb makes clear that he intends to show how the Catholic Church has benefitted from Francis’s reforms and how under Francis the Church has taken crucial steps to “reject ideologies,” “evangelize,” and “remain open to God’s surprises.”
Arguably, the facts, when accurately interpreted, lend themselves to this positive view of Francis’ papacy. To interpret the facts accurately, one must assess Francis’ papacy not on the basis of some preconceived notion of what a pope ought to do (or not do) but on the basis of what Francis himself set out to do: “implement Vatican II fully,” according to Lamb. In practice, this entails “mov[ing] the Church away from a fortress mentality, instead calling forth missionary disciples, ready to evangelize the world and enter[ing] into dialogue with contemporary culture.” Lamb’s book effectively makes the case that, judged by this standard, Francis has made progress even if he has not been entirely successful.
To be clear, this book is critical of those who are opposed to Francis, insofar as they have made it difficult for Francis to “implement Vatican II fully.” As in the last chapter that chronicles over a 100 times public figures have criticized the pope, the book is laced with details involving persons as diverse as Cardinals Sarah and Burke, Steve Bannon, and Tim Busch. Importantly, the opposition is not presented to the reader as in the disgraceful manner of a rumor or hearsay. Rather, these fact-based episodes are included to help to make clear where Francis’s attempts at reform have run up against those with entrenched interests, who for a variety of reasons — theological, political, or economical — have publicly castigated the leader of the Catholic Church or have expressed their disapproval of his teachings and changes in other ways. This helps the reader to understand Francis’s priorities, as Francis has continued plodding away, even in the face of intense opposition, which is something that he would likely not do if he was only playing at reform.
One standard I use in my own writing is, “Would my enemies object to the way I have presented their position and interpreted their actions?” I believe that, in general, Lamb has presented the case fairly to both sides, though on political matters involving the United States President and his supporters, some bias was apparent. In most of his examples, however, the facts themselves present an unavoidably damning case against the opposition. This applies to the story detailing the relationship between the Knights of Malta and Cardinal Burke, as well as to a constellation of tales involving the EWTN Catholic media conglomerate.
I applaud Lamb for his diligence, accessible writing style, and propensity to avoid muckraking. This is a book I will be keeping on the shelf, and I expect I will be turning to it often to remind myself of the details of some of the most decisive and revealing episodes of Francis’s papacy.
The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church by Christopher Lamb was released on April 15, 2020 by Orbis Books. Order from Amazon in paperback or for Kindle format by clicking here.
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