MUST READ: Robert Royal’s stunning review of books about Francis and of his pontificate

My good friend Prof. Robert Royal has a highly useful essay at Claremont Review of Books, Winter – 2019 – entitled “Is The Pope Catholic?”  [UPDATE: Prof. Royal wrote this during during the Synod of October 2018!  It is still fresh.]

This is one that you should both download and print.  There are options for both on that site!  You will want to read it more than once.

The books he writes about.

  • Royal reviews books about Francis.  In doing so, he also reviews Francis’s pontificate.
  • Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope
  • Henry Sire’s The Dictator Pope: The Inside Story of the Francis Papacy
  • George Neumayr’s The Political Pope: How Pope Francis is Delighting the Liberal Left and Abandoning Conservatives
  • John Gehring’s The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church
  • Philip Lawler’s Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis Is Misleading His Flock
  • Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism

In addition to being a good overview of books in English about Francis, this essay is also a status quaestionis piece.

Royal is fair to the books.  For example, about Ivereigh’s work: “It would be wrong to say that the book is pure hagiography” and about Neumayr’s, “relentlessly ideological reading”. He points to what is factual, underscores what is just rumor or unsubstantiated, and gently calls out prevarication.

Royal is also fair to the pontificate.  Hence, his review is unvarnished.  Therefore, it is neither simple nor is it a pretty picture, because this pontificate is manifestly anything but.

I suspect that the Papalatrous Left and the New catholic Red Guards, when they find this essay and grumble their way through it, will set out for Royal in a spittle-flecked nutty of verbal tar and feathers.

Here are some snips from Royals piece…


In one of the early, defining moments of his papacy, Francis told the 3 million young people assembled in Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day 2013, “hagan lío,” a phrase from his native Argentina that means “raise a ruckus” or, more literally, “make a mess.” He presumably wanted them to bring fresh energy into the daily life of the Church and the world. The prudence of asking young people to do what they are already inclined to do anyway—knowing little, as they do, of the Church or the world—is debatable.


The great disadvantage of Ivereigh’s work, however, is already clear from the title. It would be wrong to say that the book is pure hagiography; it admits Bergoglio made mistakes. But even the most admiring biographer cannot make much of a case that the future pope was highly successful—as a reformer or anything else—in Argentina.


When the Vatican was considering making Bergoglio a cardinal in 2001, then Jesuit Superior General Peter Hans Kolvenbach wrote a letter to John Paul II advising against it because of the controversies Bergoglio had provoked over many years and, it is said, because of psychological instability. (The letter, it is also said, has disappeared from the archives.) The basic facts here are not in dispute. Francis has admitted that he saw a psychiatrist during a troubled period in his life, and he did not really repair his relationship with his religious order—which remained broken for 37 years—until he became pope.


Whatever his track record in Argentina, Francis was elected to be a reformer, yet in the six years since he became pope, the rot in the Church has only become worse. Vatican finances, despite promises and early steps to make them more transparent, are still a murky—sometimes criminal—mess. The Roman curia (the Vatican offices charged with running a church of 1.2 billion people all over the globe) tell any visitor willing to listen these days that they are confused about their mission. The pope has shown himself quite willing to blur several Catholic teachings in order to meet halfway some of the worst developments in modern culture—a popular move with liberals and non-Catholics, but a betrayal for serious Catholics.


Like Perón, he boldly tells different groups what they want to hear, even if he often contradicts himself.


In politics a certain amount of studied ambiguity can be a useful tool. But in religion—especially when it comes to some of the most burning current issues—ambiguity can look like confusion, or even surrender.


His many colorful insults (“fomentor of coprophagia,” “museum mummy,” “creed-reciting, parrot Christian,” “sourpuss,” etc.)—so many, in fact, that a “Pope Francis Little Book of Insults” has been compiled online—are amusing in a way, if you aren’t Catholic or don’t think they ill befit the vicar of Christ. But they also contradict the much celebrated softer, gentler side of the pope: he frequently preaches that to insult a person violates his or her dignity.


The emphasis here has to be on the spirit of renewal because the expected bump in the number of people participating in Church, the sacraments, and religious activities of all kinds has not happened: in fact, the numbers continue to worsen. Part of the “Francis effect” is to have exacerbated existing divisions and tensions within the Church, sometimes producing strong opposition to the Holy Father among Catholics themselves. Attendance at the pope’s Wednesday audiences in Saint Peter’s Square and visitors to the Vatican more generally are at record lows compared to his two predecessors’.


The “change” that Francis is pursuing necessarily involves dismantling the work of his two great predecessors, especially their efforts to restore an emphasis on truth and natural-law thinking.


I could pull so much more.  Again, read it, download it, print it.  You should even distribute it to friends.

At Claremont Review of Books, Rombert Royal’s “Is The Pope Catholic?”

Fr. Z kudos.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. samwise says:

    Thanks Fr Z for this resource! Helpful to put into perspective. I have increasing recourse to the Regensburg address & Fides et Ratio to see how reason is being stripped away from the faith. This Dr Echeverria piece closely aligns with Dr Royal:

    It’s disturbing because Bergoglio blames a “Greek way of thinking” for doctrinal propositions. Up to this point, I thought Francis was unconsciously watering down doctrinal arguments…

  2. Kevin says:

    Thank you. A great read. Yes, what a mess. After reading what Dr. Royal wrote I can’t help to ask how did this man get chosen to be Pope? Even the Jesuits didn’t want him…what a mess.

  3. Geoffrey says:

    Thank you, Father, for pointing out this article. An excellent summation of the past few years. Very sad to see all of this mess, particularly after the pontificates of St John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI.

  4. Grabski says:

    Pope St JPII, like POTUS, was not strong on personnel, but policy is personnel

  5. Kathleen10 says:

    Mr. Royal is far too generous.
    Once you start looking, you realize that Pope Francis is only a more extreme example of the papal problems that started with Vatican II (yes, I hate Vatican II). Things were starting to loosen and unravel then, and have now completely fallen apart. Things in past decades were not even what we once thought. And it all resulted in Francis.

  6. Semper Gumby says:

    Fair and clear-eyed reviews by Robert Royal.

    “Soon after his election, Francis remarked, “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.” Sure, these are problems, especially in the developed world, but even there can they be the “most serious of the evils”?”

    “From the very beginning, Francis spoke about globalized capitalism as an “economy that kills”—not noticing that it has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.”

    “Francis’s positions are unfailingly couched in terms of “mercy”—a slippery word often invoked in this pontificate that has taken on ideological as well as traditional meanings.”

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