Christopher Lamb R'01 launches his new book on Pope Francis
Chris Lamb is frequently on the Papal Flight
Christopher Lamb R'01 has been the Vatican Correspondent for The Tablet for the last 5 years and in that time has got to know Pope Francis rather well. Well enough in fact to write a book about the Holy Father and his struggles to change the Catholic Church. Here follows the review that appeared in The Tablet last week to mark its launch:
It’s very clear, within a few sentences of this lively book, that Christopher Lamb is a Franciscophile. And he makes it equally clear that what he’s writing is not a biography but an attempt to understand this extraordinary pontificate that began on the papal balcony on the evening of 13 March 2013 with an old man saying “Buona sera”.
Christopher Lamb has observed this man close-up, at home and abroad, since he became The Tablet’s permanently accredited Vatican correspondent in 2015. He’s watched Francis’ human touch and his political savvy; he’s seen him in good times and bad; he’s spoken to his friends and enemies; he’s witnessed the plots against him and the near adulation he can get from parts of the Catholic world often forgotten by the Vatican powerhouse; and, above all, he notes Francis’ impatience with the conservative mantra, so often used to oppose reform: “It has always been done like this.”
This is a book written from the heart. In a way, it reads like a speech from the counsel for the defence. There are no grey areas. Pope Francis stands for the light. The conservatives, traditionalists and church lawyers, backed by their secular supporters, right-wing politicians and business bosses, stand for the dark: an obsession with – as Lamb puts it – “maintaining a museum edifice of doctrine” as opposed to Francis’ “desire to connect people with faith in Christ”. So it’s a book that will be hated by his opponents. For his supporters, it will lay out and clarify an extraordinarily dramatic seven years.
The cardinals knew what they were getting. Even before his election, Francis was talking about the need to get rid of a “self-referential Church” which, unless she “comes out of
herself”, becomes sick. His papacy, as Christopher Lamb sees it, has been a continuous throwing open of windows, letting in fresh air and reaching out to the faithful – particularly the poor: making the Church a listener rather than a lecturer, and reconnecting with the reforming spirit of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council.
Pope Francis certainly makes the faithful sit up and listen: on the Sacraments – “not end-goal prizes” for the well behaved, but “vehicles of grace” for the transforming power of the Holy Spirit; on paying attention to the needs of ordinary Catholics – “a Church that doesn’t listen shows itself closed to God’s surprises and cannot be credible”; to a Catholic who felt himself discriminated against as a gay man, “It’s the noun, not the adjective, that matters”; to the press, after the murder of Fr Jacques Hamel by Muslim extremists – “I refuse to use the term ‘Islamic terrorism’, there are violent people in all religions”; on unregulated capitalism – “the culture of prosperity deadens us”.
Pronouncements like these have provided the Pope’s enemies with plenty of ammunition, and the subtitle to Christopher Lamb’s book, “Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church”, promises conflict. In Lamb’s estimation, there’s never been a papacy so plotted against – he lists the plots chronologically at the end of the book. “Horror!” exclaimed the traditionalist Catholic website Rorate Caeli within hours of the election, “Of all the unthinkable candidates, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is perhaps the worst.”
And from the Left, particularly in Argentina, where questions have always been asked about the part Jorge/Francis played during the rule of the Argentine military junta, there were accusations of collaboration with the dictators (most of these later discredited, by the way). But the scene was set for the plotters and their accusations: that Francis covered up sexual abuse – in particular the August 2018 Archbishop Viganò so-called “revelations” – that he interfered in the internal affairs of the Knights of Malta; that he allowed financial scandals in the Vatican to go unchecked; that his relaxation of the law forbidding divorced and remarried Catholics to take Communion was a scandalous break with tradition; that he allowed pagan symbols into St Peter’s; and – in the words of H.J.A. Sire’s 2017 book The Dictator Pope – that he is “an authoritarian, manipulative and partisan pontiff”.
Of course this Pope is not perfect. It’s certainly true that he’s been slow to recognise the scale of clerical abuse, and his stand on married priests and the role of women in the Church has been conservative. But, as Christopher Lamb points out in his last chapter, this is an “unfinished journey”. And, given the younger and more ethnically diverse cardinals he’s been appointing, one that’s likely to be irreversible. “We are in a boat,” said the Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Barreto at the October 2019 Amazon Synod, “and we are moving; those who criticise are on the shore, they are not in the boat.”
The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church
by CHRISTOPHER LAMB
(ORBIS BOOKS, 200 PP, £19.99)